Sinoe: A “Leaderless” County?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

First, let me say that I condemn any violent act in whatever form or manner. Second, I always feel that there is no problem or grievances that warrant any violent act. This is why I joined many persons recently to denounce the violent act at the Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) in Butaw, Sinoe County that resulted to some destructions at the plantation. Initially, the Liberian government said it would use the County Development Funds to repair damaged facilities during the violence. Unprecedentedly, the company at a press conference last week said that it would bear full responsibility for the damage done to the company, thereby, avoiding the use of the county funds as planned by the government.

Indisputably, much have been said about this violence, therefore, this article would take a different trend as to why this many between the citizens and the company has taken so long to be resolved. This matter about existing land dispute between the citizens and the company. Towards this, several meeting have been held between the two on the matter, long with the county officials, yet there have been no resolution.

With this, one many wonder vas to why really is the problem that led to this unwarranted violence. This company signed a legitimate concession with the Liberian government for that area. The citizens have accused the company of extending beyond its legitimate areas to land belonging to them. For this, the citizens and the company have been at loggerheads for about three years now.

However in February this year, it was reported in a press release that the “ Butaw community citizens and Golden Veroleum Liberia recently came to an agreement on a way forward to maximize development and increase employment in the area, after nearly three years of ongoing negotiations.

The release said: “The agreement, brokered by, community groups Abloteh and the Butaw Youth Association sets out a new timeline for specific activities to be conducted by Golden Veroleum, the Butaw citizens and non-governmental organizations. Under the terms of the agreement Butaw land will survey tentatively scheduled for the later part of March 2015, along with a review of The Forest Trust assessment report, conducting a Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) process in targeted communities, a withdrawal of the 2012 complaint against GVL by the community and the drafting and signing of a new memorandum of understanding between the community and GVL, to take place later in the year.

“Representing the community during the Feb25th meeting, were Abloteh Chairman, Benedict Manewah, Abloteh Secretary, Calvin Bloh, Butaw Youth Association President, Gary Doegmah and BYA Secretary-General CheaBlamoh. GVL was represented by its Senior Vice President for Operations, ViganeswaranPonnudurai, Sustainability General Manager, FlomoMolubah and Human Resources General Manager. Eric Goll.   Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Varney Sirleaf led the delegation representing the Liberian Government, which included Assistant Minister Paul Jallah of the Ministry of Agriculture, and Assistant Minister Prince Korvah of the Ministry of Labor.

The press release said, “We certainly welcome this reaffirmation and commitment from the Butaw people and we are also fully committed to working with them and doing our part to bring in additional development, to include hiring more people in the area as we grow,” said GVL Communications Head. “This has been a long process for us, as well as Butaw, but we have a clear way forward now and we are looking forward to its implementation, ”the release stated.

“During the meeting Abloteh Chairman Menewah asked the group their opinions on signing the agreement, to which he received a resounding yes. “You are right my people; there is an end to every long journey, but this is a new beginning. I hereby sign on your behalf with the power you the people of Butaw have placed in me,” said Manewah. Currently GVL employs approximately 1,800 in Sinoe County, and approximately 2,500 country-wide, with plans to increase its workforce over the long-term to nearly 40,000, “the release concluded.

The preamble of the agreement, which also carries a time frame of many activities were set to begin February 26, 2015 up to September 16. The preamble read: “whereas, we the members of the Butaw communities represented by and through the Abloteh committee, Butaw Youth Association and GVL having met on 25th February 2015 through the facilitation of the government of Liberia in an effort to resolve the existing land dispute between GVL and the Butaw communities as a result of a complaint filed to the RSPO by aggrieved citizens of Butaw, hereto agreed to the appended time table to enable GVL commence the process of land development initiatives.

Intuitively, with this agreement, it was certain that both parties were now on a smooth path to finding a solution to what has been termed as an existing land dispute between GVL and the Butaw communities. Regrettably and seemingly, this smooth relation turned sour last month when the group requested a meeting with the management to meet the CEO who was then visiting the plantation at the time. But the management called on the group to reschedule the meeting, something the group rejected, thus prompting the protest action.

As I said earlier, much has been said about this violence; therefore, I do not intend to dwell on this matter. My concern today relates to the leadership of the county. For too long this matter has been dragging on. What has been the role of the leadership of the county? What has been the role of the representatives of that area? Is it that the county leadership has not taken the concerns of this group of people seriously or that they have been playing “games?” What are these issues in this matter? I ask these questions because local leaders have a responsibility to look into issues or qualms raised by their people to find an amicable solution.

Again, let me say that I denounce any violent act in any form or manner. But this is prolonged. This is my concern. Frankly speaking, the dispute between the company and the citizens makes one to have the impression that the county is “leaderless.” This may sound, stupid, outrageous or illogical, but this is the best conclusion any logical person can deduce or derive at because not much has been done by leaders of that county to put this matter to rest.

I may refer to the issue of leadership because for too long instead of leaders of that county doing the people’s business, some of them have been busy in unnecessary wranglings. This, many believed led to the county’s failure to host last year’s Independence Day program owing to lack of cohesiveness, cooperation, collaboration among some of the leaders of the county, who many times traded in allegations and counter-allegations, thereby undermining development and progress in that county. Obviously, this cat-and-mouse relationship might have also contributed to handling the issue between the Butaw citizens and the company.

I take interest in this because I see the presence of this company as a great opportunity for the people of that county. As such, such a matter about conflict over land should have been resolved. I gathered that the company currently employs approximately 1,800 in Sinoe County, and approximately 2,500 country-wide, with plans to increase its workforce over the long-term to nearly 40,000. Considering the dependency ratio, should the company continue to exist; it would benefit many Liberians, especially those within its propinquity, like the Butaw people. This is why such a conflict should not drag too long.

My next interest in this matter is because of the location of the company.

I am indebted to the Butaw people because the man who taught me rudiments of journalism, the late T-max Teah, hailed from that area and my aunt who reared me, a retired police officer hails from Sinoe. Besides, the former Superintendent and now Senator of the County J. Milton Teahjay, a former student from D. Twe High in New Kru Town, is one of those alumni I admire.

On a softer note, prior to the coming of GVL, I admire the people of that area for producing “Gari.” I do not know whether or not they are still producing “Gari,” sometimes referred to as “Farina”

Let me conclude by saying that the leadership of the county has not done justice to this matter. Until they can realize that there is an urgent need to resolve whatever problem between the company and the citizens, I Rest My Case, as delays are dangerous.

NB: The word, “Leaderless” is the creation of the writer to point out a situation tantamount to “no-leader or lack of leaders” by the use of the suffix, “less” in the county over the GVL:-Butaw Citizens” fracas.