By Kayce Brown
The idea that Sierra Leone or any country for that matter can only be developed through foreign investment is an absurd fallacy. Sadly, this is what seems to be the bedrock of all development blueprints across the continent of Africa these days. Such is how ingrained this perception is that we see and treat potential investors as though they are doing us favour.
Very well aware of this, these so-called investors dictate the terms of negotiations, thereby displaying no sense of regard for our national interests. This is exactly what we are seeing in the controversial plan by the Chinese to construction a fish processing facility.
While the Sierra Leone government says it is a fish harbour, campaigners calling for a halt in the plan say it is a fish mill. Whether it is a fish mill or not, the way the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) has handled the whole thing has revealed the catastrophe that awaits this country if the plan goes ahead.
According to the MFMR, handing over the 252 acres of rainforest that include the famous Black Johnson Beach will provide the magic answer to the country’s decades long desire of exploiting its marine resources.
“The government of Sierra Leone has been yearning for a fish harbor since the early 1970s, but could not actualize it due to the huge amount of money that is required,” the Ministry said in a statement justifying the increasingly unpopular plan that has already sparked an online petition and attracted global media coverage.
Minister Emma Kowa-Jalloh has a lot of questions to answer for this project which clearly amounts to a betrayal of Sierra Leone as a nation – an unpatriotic deal.
Firstly, why was the negotiation of something that was clearly bound to be controversial shrouded secrecy?
While environmentalists opposed to the deal say it is bad, the ministry insists that it is not, yet it has refused to make public the result of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS). Why would the ministry be reluctant to publish the report?
An EIS is a legal requirement for any large-scale activity with potential environment implications. Failure to go by this law is a violation of the environmental laws of the country, which is a crime. Why risk violating the law to realize a project that is supposed to be for the benefit of the country?
By now Sierra Leone should have learnt enough from its past experience, which is littered with stories in the mining sector that serve as constant reminder; stories of land-grabbing, dangerously negotiated deals, some of which have exposed generations of Sierra Leoneans to lifelong devastating health implications.
We shouldn’t also forget about the outstanding issue caused by the SOCFIN agrobusiness plantation deal in Sahn Malen in Pujehun, where many lives have been lost and properties destroyed over the years as a result of protests by citizens who felt disadvantaged by that deal.
Sierra Leoneans in Pujehun, one of the most forested parts of the country, are forced to buy firewood, for instance, expensively, to cook. This is because most of their land has been forcefully handed over to the company which exploits them and take away to Europe all what they get from them. And all of that for chicken change the government receives at the end of the day. Foreign investment, they say.
President Julius Maada Bio campaigned on the promise of protecting the environment. And his administration has over the last three years in office taken commendable actions geared towards fulfilling his promises. The establishment of a standalone ministry of Environment says it all.
The President never misses a chance to talk about this, including as recent as two days ago during his State of the Nation Address in parliament.
“Addressing environmental issues is critical for sustainable development. To improve environmental outcomes, Government is reviewing and updating various legislation, promoting sustainable environmental protection including national reforestation and timber management initiatives, managing and conserving wetlands, and furthering community-based environmental education,” Bio said in his State of the Nation address to Parliament on Tuesday, May 18.
“We have an opportunity to invest in a green economy that minimises the environmental impacts of biodiversity loss, waste management, and plastics pollution. We will therefore associate closely with all international action on a green recovery,” he added.
Unfortunately, all of these efforts will go to waste – useless – if you have a member of the President’s team, who think that development is only attainable with foreign money which come at the cost of environmental degradation and disregarding the environmental laws of the country just to fulfil a 50-year long desire to build a fish harbour.
Does this government, or Emma Kowa-Jalloh, wants Sierra Leoneans to believe that this country cannot have a fish harbour constructed without foreign investment?
Sierra Leone last month celebrated 60 years of independence. There was a lot of public debate on whether there was anything to celebrate. I understand the point of those who say there is nothing to celebrate, even if I do not entirely agree with them.
Sixty years is a pretty long time for a country like Sierra Leone to put its acts together. But instead, all we have seen is a country unable to provide the basic needs of its people. Less than 20 percent of the population have electricity. Remember that this is just to be connected to the national grid. The reliability of power supply is an altogether different issue. I need not go into detail, given that we are currently in one of the endless spates of recurrent outages consumers have become accustomed to in this country.
Look at our healthcare system, same old story. People are dying at an unacceptable rate to preventable diseases, especially children and women.
I think the saddest and most ludicrous thing about our strive for self-reliance is our inability to feed ourselves. And it becomes an abomination when we go with this idea that development cannot be possible without the involvement of foreign money.
If you asked me, I would say governments are just not interest in projects that are locally driven, only because there is zero chance of corrupt officials to make extra money. With these so-called foreign investments, a lot of cash go around to secure signatures for approval. This is the very reason why quality is not the priority.
Like those behind the ‘Save Black Johnson Beach’ petition are saying, President Bio is not only expected to discard this dangerous Chinese funded fish habour deal, he is also expected to sanction an investigation into how it was negotiated and what it entails. Any wrongdoing found must be dealt with in accordance with the law.
In case he has forgotten, Mr Ppresident must be reminded that Sierra Leoneans still recall that he campaigned to introduce a New Direction: a new direction to development, a new direction to how we approach the fight against corruption.