When I received my acceptance letter from NAMATI, the organization I was to intern with during the summer, it was an exciting moment for me, not only because I had succeeded in getting an internship, but because this would take me back to a country (Liberia) that I was already familiar with. A country I regard as my second home because of the hospitality I and many other Sierra Leoneans, that sought refuge, received while the civil war was raging back home during the nineties. For me, it was like coming back home to meet old friends and make new ones. Indeed, in the last two weeks since my arrival, I have met some good old friends, and made a couple of new ones as well.
My first week was filled with anxiety and curiosity. Anxiety, because I’ve heard so much about how Liberia has been transformed since the end of the civil war and I wanted to see that transformation now that I was there in flesh and blood. But I was also very curious to learn some of the strategies that brought about those changes. I’ve been asking a lot of questions both at work and at home. Interestingly, the organization that I’m interning with has a local partner organization, called Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). SDI is staffed with very knowledgeable young men and women who have provided answers to questions I have raised on land tenure systems in Liberia, extractives industries and local communities, the environment, post war reconciliation, and reconstruction and strategies for building peace in communities.
The answer to some of these questions could either be positive or not so positive depending on who is asked. There are those who are proud of Liberia’s post war reconstruction efforts so far, but there are also those who remain less enthusiastic. The not so positive ones believe that more could have been done than what is currently being achieved. These opinions are heard daily via radio talk shows on many FM stations in the country. Local tabloids publish these as they are discussed at entertainments centers around Monrovia. While I am not disputing any of the arguments, I must confess that Monrovia has left some impressions on me during this particular visit.
I’ve seen some improvements in the areas of infrastructure, security, and sanitation. The electricity situation is relatively stable. New and modern buildings have sprouted in several neighborhoods. The roads have been resurfaced and the transportation system seems to be working relatively well amidst the chaotic traffic jams in a city that appears more congested than I left it 12 years ago. I’ve also devoted time to drawing comparisons between Monrovia and Freetown, the capital of my own country. Like many Liberians who think their country has not achieved much in terms of reconstruction, I also have a lot of reservations about the pace of development back home.
One Saturday evening I was tempted into a debate with a group of Liberians who thought Sierra Leone has fared better than Liberia in terms of post war reconstruction. Some of their claims about Sierra Leone’s development were so inaccurately exaggerated that on more than one occasion I felt like interjecting to set the record straight. But, any counter argument would have taken the steam out of them and undermined the entire discussion. So I held back my opinion, because I was more interested in hearing what they had to say about Liberia.
In spite of the flaws in their information about Sierra Leone, we had a very wonderful conversation. We talked about a number of other issues that were of interest to me, such as mining. In particular, they were quick to discuss Sime Derby, a controversial but very powerful company that acquired thousands of hectares of land from the government for the production of biofuel. We also talked about ArcelorMittal, the global steel giant that is mining iron-ore in Gbarpa, Nimba County.
In all the debates I’ve listened to so far about whether or not Liberia is doing better than Sierra Leone or vice versa, the commonality in both countries is that neither has done enough in protecting the socio-economic rights of communities, especially where multinational companies are engaged in economic activities.
On my first trip to NAMATI-SDI operational communities in Nimba County, I visited villages in ArcelorMittal’s iron-ore mining concession area. I came across villagers with all kinds of stories about the method of land acquisition used by the company, which the locals say did not conform to the free, prior and informed consent of the communities who own the land. In one version, two landowning elders told me how powerless they are to do anything to get their land back because the company has the full backing of the government and state security forces.
Stories like these are commonplace in communities in Sierra Leone. One of the village elders talked about how villagers have held demonstrations against companies in Liberia. This also reminded me of the many demonstrations staged by communities affected by mining in Sierra Leone, which resulted in the loss of life and property. The villagers in Liberia lamented similar ordeals at the hands of their government and the state security outfits. I was told that in one incident in Grand Gedeh County, villagers became so frustrated with the wanton disregard for their rights, that they were forced to take the law into their own hands. They attacked a foreign expatriate miner and shot him to death. They said security forces raided the entire village in brute force.
Stories like this reinforce the views held by those who think that Liberia still has a lot to do for its people, because a nation is only better if the mass of people are accorded the basic rights necessary for all humans to live a decent life. When such rights are not guaranteed by the state, clearly, there cannot be any boast of a good development.