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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 17:21 GMT
Liberia's foreign investment challenge
By Bill Law
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

For years Liberia has traded its natural resources in return for services such as health and education from foreign corporations but have Liberians paid too high a price?

Olu Menjay on the grounds of the Ricks Institute
Olu Menjay and his students reclaimed the school after the war

"These buildings were destroyed on the premise that they belonged to somebody else and that is the story all across Liberia," said Olu Menjay.

"Somebody else built it and so somebody else will come and fix it."

We were standing on the grounds of Ricks Institute about 16 miles outside the capital city of Monrovia.

Before the civil war that began in 1989 and ended 14 terrible years later this school was one of the best in the country.

If you look at its trim lawns and freshly painted buildings, it is hard to imagine that it was occupied by rebel soldiers, and that after the soldiers left, some 35,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) camped on its grounds.

When they left, they stripped the place bare.

Olu Menjay, a charismatic young Baptist minister, returned in 2005 to a ruined shell.

Classroom by classroom, building by building, Mr Menjay and his students have reclaimed the school.

"It's about taking responsibility," Mr Menjay said, "It's about ownership."

Lengthy deals

For decades, the ownership of Liberia's natural resources has been turned over to foreign corporations.

They were granted huge concession areas and ready access to cheap labour.

In return they were supposed to look after people in their concessions providing services like schools and health facilities.

A culture of dependency developed allowing a succession of corrupt administrations to shirk their responsibilities.

Liberians who signed those agreements and participated in this travesty should be ashamed of themselves
Agriculture Minister Christopher Toe

Last year a transitional government steered the country towards democratic elections. It also signed lengthy deals with corporations like the steel giant Mittal and tyre manufacturers Firestone.

The deals have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Liberians.

"I do not believe personally that the interim government had the authority, legal or moral to get into such long-term deals," argued the current Agriculture Minister Christopher Toe.

"Those Liberians who signed the agreements and participated in this travesty should be ashamed of themselves."

The deals are being reviewed by the new government headed by Africa's first female President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

'Socially responsible'

Mittal Liberia chief executive Joseph Mathews insisted the deal his company signed was legal.

Making steel
Human rights groups have expressed concern about the deal

"We went ahead according to whatever the rules were on the ground at that time," he said.

And he added that the company was socially responsible and committed to providing health and education facilities, as well as suitable housing, to the people in their concession area.

"We will operate to the standards the global community expects us to," he said.

There is no question the deal is important to Liberia. An iron ore mining operation in the Nimba Mountain range will create 3,000 jobs.

And Mittal has already refurbished a school and reopened the hospital in the company town of Yekepa.

But critics point to extremely generous tax and royalty benefits and loose language that gives the company virtual carte blanche, arguably creating a state within a state.

This deal has now been renegotiated.

Firestone rubber

Mittal is the country's new corporate kid on the block. But the granddaddy of them all is Firestone Rubber.

Firestone sign
Rubber is Liberia's biggest export and Firestone the biggest producer
The company proudly boasts an 80 year partnership with Liberia.

And in the summer of 2005 the transitional government extended the concession with generous tax breaks for another 30 years.

But what kind of a partnership is it?

In May of this year a joint United Nations and Government of Liberia task force slated Firestone for its treatment of employees, citing low pay, unsafe working conditions, and very poor living and sanitation provisions on its giant Harbel plantation - 118,000 acres of rubber trees Liberians have dubbed the United Republic of Firestone.

Firestone Plantations company spokesman Rufus Karmorh takes issue with the report and cited work the company has undertaken on schools and hospitals as proof of their good corporate citizenship.

"Many out there can testify that Firestone has done a great job in this country," he said.

But the workers I spoke to told a different story.

Deplorable conditions

Families living on the Firestone plantation
Labourers live in ramshackle huts without electricity and running water
Rubber tapper Moses Kole took me to a squalid tenement where more than 200 people were crammed into appallingly cramped quarters.

He showed me where he, his wife and eight children live, a tiny room without electricity or running water.

He took me to pit latrines that were in a deplorable condition.

And then he introduced me to Emmet Musa.

Emmet lost one eye while tapping in 2002.

On the recommendation of the company doctor he was assigned light duties as a security guard.

In 2004 he was attacked while on duty. His remaining eye was seriously damaged.

Broken man

Emit Musa
They do not want to know whether we suffer
Emmet Musa, former Firestone employee
Last year Firestone terminated Emmet's employment and in August 2006 it evicted him and his family from their home.

Emmet is a broken man.

"They do not want to know whether we suffer, we die," he told me, "They do not have time for us."

When asked about the Musa case, Firestone issued the following statement from its headquarters in Akron, Ohio: "The safety and well being of our employees is vital to our operations. While we empathize with Mr Musa, our actions are in keeping with the labour practices law of Liberia and the union and management collective bargaining agreement."

The Liberian people have long been prisoners of a plantation mentality.

Those who have benefited have been a corrupt Liberian elite, and foreign multinationals.

But for generations, a subservient majority have paid a high price.

The new government is reviewing both the Mittal and the Firestone agreements.

Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 9 November, at 1102 GMT
But the pressure to encourage foreign investment and create jobs means that the mentality underlying both these agreements is unlikely to change.

As long as the government continues to franchise out responsibility for key areas like health, education and the well being of its people, it will be seen not as an equal player but as little more than a spectator.

Olu Menjay of the Ricks Institute wants Liberians to take responsibility for their own futures.

That is the message he delivers day-in, day-out at Ricks Institute.

"I am a prisoner too," he said, "but a prisoner of hope, and I love to be one until the day I die because without hope there is no way you can make it."

Crossing Continents


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