Sierra Rutile’s Excellent & Dangerous Public Relations (Published in 2013)
THE OSWALD HANCILES COLUMN
(First published in at least ten of Sierra Leone’s leading newspapers in 2013, including the May 6, 2013 edition of Independent Observer newspaper)
Sierra Rutile – the company in Sierra Leone that mines 25% of global rutile (titanium) which is the best in the world – is a paradox. It has won international laurels for its mineral mining last year. It boasts of significantly improving profits for its shareholders. And spiked revenues to government. That is the gloss. Beneath the PR veneer is the sordid reality of appalling environmental degradation that has almost permanently impoverished the people in the nine chiefdoms in Moyamba District and Bonthe District that Sierra Rutile rake away its wealth from – kindling anger among volatile youth being suffocated by the dust of trucks that trundle through their towns, while the majority of youth wallow in unemployment, with teenage girls preyed on by dollar-heavy pockets of miners. All of the alleged sheer insensitivity of Sierra Rutile has always been given a sheen by local and international media reports of its corporate successes.
SIERRA RUTILE WINS “AIM” INTERNATIONAL COMPANY OF THE YEAR AWARD
One of the most objective newspapers in Sierra Leone, AWOKO, recently published this glowing report on Sierra Rutile: “Following a record-breaking 2012 performance in which Sierra Rutile won the “AIM International Company of the Year Award”, completed a new dry mining expansion project and increased their rutile production by 39% on 2011, CEO John Bono Sisay continues his winning streak by becoming the first Sierra Leonean to be shortlisted in the prestigious “Grant Thornton Quoted Company Awards”… Sisay, who is in line for the “Emerging Markets CEO of the Year Award”, said: “To be recognized in this way is a great honor and I am delighted that positive international attention is being directed towards Sierra Leone. Of course, it goes without saying that Sierra Rutile’s achievements are due to hardwork and dedication of the extraordinary group of people with whom I am privileged to work with”.
The newspaper report, written by Poindexter Sama, continues: “The Emerging CEO of the Year rewards the CEO or entrepreneur who has created the most value for shareholders from the world’s emerging markets, or most astutely positioning his or her business from long-term growth derived from the globe’s developing economies…”.
“WE ARE SLAVES ON OUR OWN LAND”
About 8:00 a.m. last week Thursday, inside the Karen Baird orphanage in Moriba Town, Imperri Chiefdom, Moyamba District, I spoke with the visibly angry indigene – born in Moriba Town on January 6, 1971 – Pastor Francis Rogers. He accused the government of “cheating us”. He said they have been treated by Sierra Rutile “like slaves on our own land”. He said that after about fifty years of Sierra Rutile’s mining in their district (spasmodically operating under different company names to escape social responsibility, he derided) all the locals have gotten from it are huge man-made lakes, their farmlands ravaged, and irreversibly damaged, a huge army of unemployed youth that have veered into petty criminal activities, and even burglary. The Bo Government School-educated belligerent youth said the youth in the area are mobilizing to meet government to ask about the the “agreement between government and the mining companies” in the area.
CHIEF JIBOA RUSSEL: “I HAVE NEVER SEEN THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN RUTILE AND GOVERNMENT”
In my office two days ago (my capacious office at State House as former media adviser to former President Ernest Bai Koroma), the Paramount Chief of my maternal homeland, Lower Banta Chiefdom, in the Moyamba District, Chief Jibao Russel, told me (sitting opposite the youthful Paramount Chief of Sitia Chiefdom in the Bonthe District, Chief Lahai Koroma) that he has “never seen the agreement between Rutile and government” since he was crowned Paramount Chief on January 10, 2010. (PC Russel had for the first time replaced the almost-century hold of the Margai Family of Charles Margai on the chieftaincy of the Lower Banta Chiefdom). Chief Russel underlined the tales of woe of the people in the mining area of Sierra Rutile which had been articulated to me by ordinary citizenry in the area. He said the mining companies should have built a quality hospital in the area, but they haven’t, and they only have a medical doctor in their concession site for their company staff – and most often than not, when there would be a medical emergency, patients would die as they would be rushed to Serabu hospital.
PICTURESQUE AND BACKWARD SCHOOL IN SIERRA RUTILE ‘MINING TOWN’
Close to Moriba Town, at a place called Mor Senesie, I went to the primary school of Sylvester Bob Katta, with my two video cameramen, and my iPad. It was one of those picturesque sites that Western tourists love to photograph – to show how backward Africa still is. Teacher Katta was garbed in tattered short jeans trousers, with a badly faded polo shirt, wearing a crepe that was almost threadbare. He was teaching his pupils from a blackboard under a tree. The pupils were seated on what looked like imported hard rubber chairs with silver-looking legs; and they were crouched forward on low rough-wood benches, which they were using like desks. There were two other similar classes close to Teacher Bob Kattta’s. Inside a mud house (a poor looking one, even by the standards of rural Sierra Leone), were three other classes in which pupils between 4 years and 8 years of age were crammed together, bring taught by haggard and emaciated teachers. The school typified the educational malnutrition in the lands that enormous wealth is being (has been) generated for distant shareholders in Europe/America. Teacher Bob Katta, also an indigene of the area, said that the mining companies for decades have not supplied them with pipe-borne water, or electricity; their schools have no libraries and laboratories… Not even sporting facilities. He said he has never known a single indigene that has been made rich by the activities of both mining companies in the Moyamba and Bonthe districts. He was contemptuous of the Land Owners Federation that is supposed to agitate for the rights of locals with the mining companies. (Chief Russel told me that this Federation had been “hijacked” by one Saaba Thomas over the past thirteen years); and Bob Katta spoke of a youth-oriented organization being mobilized to take up a radical position against the injustice of the mining companies.
“SIERRA RUTILE EVEN IMPORTS COOKS AND PAINTERS”
At the okada parking station in Moriba Town at about 10:00 p.m. last week, I spoke with a crowd of okada riders – including one Mamba Sesay, born on November 17, 1985; educated at the Independence Secondary School in Freetown; who had moved back to his land of birth in the mining area in 2010 – who were all vehement in their denunciations of the companies mining titanium (rutile) and bauxite in their traditional lands. The youth complained that the companies would not employ indigenes, spitting out, “They even bring in painters and cooks from out of Sierra Leone”. The chronicle of the perceived injustice by Sierra Rutile burst out like a torrent talking to ordinary youth. There are almost no indigene in the senior staff level of Sierra Rutile, I was told. Contracts for goods and services would not be awarded to companies owned by indigenes. Even Chief Jibao Russel said he was oblivious of the “Local Content Policy” of the APC government – a policy which mandates big mining companies to source about 20% of materials they use for their processes, or services they use, from local companies.
CRUEL ECOLOGICAL MINING AND SEXUAL PREDATION
Mining of rutile (titanium, which is partly used for manufacturing of paint for especially airplanes) is an ecologically cruel process. Before mining can take place, the area must be deforested and flooded, using nearby rivers, or previously dredged out areas which have become huge man-made lakes. The process devastates the habitats of hundreds, if not, thousands, of rare species in the tropical rainforests of the area; and the indigenes would be forced to move from traditional lands they had lived in for centuries. I asked around for traditional herbalists who would get their raw ingredients from the tropical rainforests. I wasn’t shown any. And one youth said sadly, “How can there be any herbalist, when they have chopped down all the forests?”. The consensus among males on one of the worst ‘crimes’ of the mining companies is the sexual predation of their staff on the girls and young women in the area. (“If you don’t have a beautiful sister, you would not even have a cleaner’s job in ‘Rutile'”: that was repeatedly shouted out as I took notes amidst the youth); they also complained bitterly over the the dust raised as the mining trucks drive through towns and villages. Dust!! Some of the okada riders had face masks on. Chief Russel said that the inconvenience to the indigenes caused by the trucks of the mining companies would worsen during the Rainy Season – as the unpaved roads would become muddy, and impassable to ordinary vehicles. He said that a couple of months ago several people died as the man-made lakes of Sierra Rutile swelled over their banks.
SIERRA RUTILE: PARADIGM SHIFT IN PUBLIC RELATIONS AND COMMUNITY RELATIONS
The Manager for Environment and Community Relations of Sierra Rutile, Ansu Jabati, was instantaneously defensive when I hinted to him the horrible perception the locals have of their company. He promised me that this week he would arrange a
one-on-one meeting between myself and the CEO of Sierra Rutile, John Sisay. Several years ago, I was one of those who started doing public relations for Sierra Rutile – based on the fact that they were absolutely the first big mining company to have confidence in post-war Sierra Leone to invest millions of dollars to resurrect the mines that had been devastated when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels had attacked and sacked the mining concession in 1995. No doubt, given the ‘old global computations’ of dollars and cents, Sierra Rutile would come out shining. But, given the new ‘green realities as mankind is enmeshed in Climate Change convulsions’ today, what Sierra Rutile has done in the area they have been mining in over the past fifty years is equivalent to genocidal Crimes Against Humanity. There must be a paradigm shift in how Sierra Rutile relates to the communities they are mining in (have mined in), so that when they leave, there would be, at worst, quality education for today’s children and youth, and some signs of sustainable generation of wealth for the locals. For now, the excellent public relations of Sierra Rutile which mask the harsh realities of worsening the impoverishment of the local people is dangerous, are as counter-productive for Sierra Leone as it is for the state of Sierra Leone.
A note about the article above
The article in THE OSWALD HANCILES COLUMN was published in May, 2013. It was when I was into my 18th month in my well-paid job as media adviser to former President Ernest Bai Koroma at State House.
After I had written promotional articles on Jean Raymond-Boule for financing the resurrection of Sierra Rutile in 2002, I met John Sisay, a Sierra Leonean with heavy
British-accented English language, who was the CEO of Sierra Rutile, at the company’s tiny headquarters office then, on the ground floor of Guma Building, almost opposite the central law courts of Sierra Leone in Freetown. John Sisay had told me himself that he was (is) a cousin to Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma, then Leader of the APC, and Minority Leader in Parliament. So, when I wrote that article in 2013, I knew I was treading on the toes of not only one of the richest men in Sierra Leone, but also the cousin of my boss, the President – and risking my enviable job in a country where nearly all the best jobs are in the public sector. For me, my choice was easy: I always would stand on the side of truth in my writings, no matter whose ox would be gored. That’s why I have the distinction of being the ONLY senior government official at State House since the 19th century to sustain an independent newspaper column that would sometimes publish criticisms and critiques the government, and President, I served.
In November, 2020, that former President Ernest Bai Koroma is being vilified by about half of the country for alleged corruption, I would boldly write this one noble thing about him: when he held the highest and most powerful office in Sierra Leone as President he had an extremely rare tolerance for criticisms. He never once told me, or, even hinted to me, what to write in THE OSWALD HANCILES COLUMN. He NEVER once complained about what I would write in THE OSWALD HANCILES COLUMN – not even obliquely through his closest aides. I doubt whether in the about 240 years history of Sierra Leone there has been any Governor-General (during British colonial rule), Prime Minister, or President, that would have a senior staff at State House sustaining an independent newspaper column that would dare to publish criticisms and critiques of government; I doubt whether such a situation has ever existed in all of Africa.
The expose on Sierra Rutile is emblematic of all mining in Sierra Leone since the 1930s – diamond mining in the Kono and Kenema districts; iron ore mining in the Port Loko district. They would mine. Give as royalties crumbs to central government. Successive governments would not invest mining revenues in sustainable development. The mining communities would enjoy ephemeral boom; and their invaluable tropical rainforests would be destroyed, leaving their peoples with the worst forms of poverty, Environmental Poverty.
Whilst the educated elites of Sierra Leone over a sixty years period have trapped the masses into a poisoned and polarized political environment – chanting “SLPP” or “APC” in schizophrenic-like delirium – Sierra Leone has remained one of the worst epitomes of a disgraceful paradox: mineral-rich country burdened with some of the ten poorest people on planet earth. This must change!
My mantra-like message within the auspices of the SLAVE SHIP-FREEDOM SHIP Movement I founded in Nigeria in 1992 has been this: “$2trillion annually for
man-made Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation measures in Africa from the richest nations of the world to Africa” – that would include Reparations for the Protracted Holocaust of the Atlantic Slave Trade; and also restitution for the irreparable loss done to tropical rainforests by the mining activities of companies with stocks traded in the cities of the richest nations of the world.
I PLEAD with the enlightened and patriotic leadership in Sierra Leone, in Africa (there are much worse environmental degradation in the petroleum-rich South-South region of Nigeria), to join me to stimulate the trillions of dollars yearly that Africa must have to prevent Armageddon-like scenarios as man-made Climate Change gains momentum. There must also be a radical overhaul of the governance systems in Africa, especially the annihilation of Grand Corruption by the bureacratic elite and political elite. We don’t have time to waste. Credible scientists and scientific institutions globally predict that humanity is careening towards a tipping point. In about 20 years.
Oswald Hanciles, The Guru.
Founder and CEO of the SLAVE SHIP-FREEDOM SHIP Movement
November 22, 2020