By: Winstanley.R.Bankole Johnson

Within five working days of public outrage against construction of a proposed Fish Habour or Fish Mill Project to be fully funded by the Chinese under a US$55Mio Sino-Sierra Leone Development Grant, the entire Chinese Embassy in Sierra Leone (spearheaded by as low in rank as their Commercial Officer Mr. Du Zijun) was on the defensive, perhaps compulsively driven by astute diplomacy, corporate social responsibility and sheer patriotism all rolled into one to protect the integrity of the Grant Agreement between Sierra Leone and their country China – hence their seven-paragraph Presser in various local tabloids.

The local outrage was/is not against the setting up of the project per se’, rather it is against the unprecedural approach and seeming habitual insensitivities of this government not to have followed due processes such as holding due and transparent consultations with community stakeholders and the wider citizenry and being compliant with basic Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) guidelines as required by law.
Those campaigning for attention and observance of EPA ethics include inter-alia the community the Landowners, a renowned Conservationist in the person of “The Puawi” Dr. Sama Banya through the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and two other renowned Land rights Groups T/A NAMATI and ILRAJ.

Let us observe few lessons here: We did not vote for the Chinese so as a matter of fact they owed us no explanation. Their Presser was therefore issued to underscore how seriously they have advanced in diplomacy and the seriousness they attach to protecting and preserving both the integrity of their sovereignty and their global leadership role in commerce.

A clear eight (8) days after that Chinese Presser however, those whom we voted for have yet to commit themselves to an official Presser by way of explaining their own side to the story. And that is what is creating much misgivings and speculations about the project concepts and scope, especially as in attempting to defend China, Du ZiJun did so with condescendingly audacious temerity.

For a diplomat he discarded prudence (audacity) and was reckless about the possible dangers that might arise for from his words and actions (temerity), considering that fact bona-fide Sierra Leoneans have every constitutional right to question every government on any decision that they consider inimical to their welfare.

Incidentally any Sierra Leone living in China that would dare challenge any Chinese citizen against expressing his/her constitutional rights in China like Du Zijun did here would instantly be declared persona non-grata. But this is Sierra Leone!!

Three Mice
What citizens rather saw on social media as government reaction was an entourage of three Government Cabinet Ministers (Fisheries and Marine Resources, Environment and Water Resources) trooping into the environs of the proposed 250-Acre land site at Black Johnson to be sequestered for the purpose. In their company were a motley collection of “area people” (obviously hoping to be prioritized for recruitment and possibly also for warding off potential “obstructionists”) and who on arrival they spoke to and amongst themselves.

By my analysis of that 5:08 seconds video clip they arrived on the scene like “Three Musketeers”, and departed it like “Three Mice” because it was a huge PR disaster.

Their explanations did not seem to have resonated with the community which gave them a wide berth – hence their continued dogged protestations for fair hearings. They failed to assuage community concerns that the Chinese have described as “completely unsubstantiated and hypothetical”. It was clear the Minister of Fisheries almost lost her script (and composure) as for almost three seconds she dithered, stuttered, and flustered, all of which speaks to either an insincerity of purpose or ignorance of the correct project scope. She ultimately goofed by a reference to Docking Facilities for mending vessels as a component of the proposed project, which further left me musing why she didn’t think it necessary to have taken the Ministers of Transport along.

Yet another area of more serious concern was why instead of dispatching a Surveyor Alhaji Mohamed Nabieu, the current Lands Minister under whose jurisdiction lands allocation and acquisition rests (and who in fact should have led it) wasn’t also a part of that delegation. So there are gaps, and insofar as government continues to be opaque about the project, the community people should not be blamed for entertaining what Du Zijun misguidedly called “unsubstantiated and hypothetical” narratives because wherever there is an information draught there are bound to be much unwarranted public speculations, misgivings and mistrusts unless and until (in this case) answers are provided to the following:

  1. Why did the government have to wait until long after the signing of the Grant Agreement with China before engaging the land owners for an area long identified to be ceded off as the Project Site?
  2. Why was it necessary for former abrasive Lands Minister Dr. Denis Sandy to have gone to the site to forcefully survey, and accosted the community people with pose of heavily armed escorts if indeed his mission was transparently to initiate a capital intensive project of national import and benefit to the entire country?
  3. And why is it that despite several attempts by the community Land Owners to meet and discuss with government via the Lands and Fisheries Ministries (with their title deeds) they have continued to be rebuffed?
  4. Why is it that despite several attempts by Land Rights groups, CSSL, NAMATI and ILRAJ to engage government to ensure adherence to EPA ethics, no Environmental and Social Health Impact Assessment Report, no Feasibility Study or Survey Reports, no evidence of the Chinese Grants Agreements to be tabled in Parliament or not even an architectural drawings of the completed project have been documented to date and thrown open as Public Disclosure to elicit public debates?
  5. If according to the Surveyor 10 Acres of the 255 Acres of the land to be sequestered and comprising a Beach Head will actually be used as The Habour, what in the name of tarnation do they (Government/Chinese) need or intend to do with the remaining 245 Acres residual lands? And how can government/the Chinese explicably manage those residual 245 Acres of lands lying farther away from the Beach Head “without” invading and depleting the Rain Forests?
  6. If a standard Fishing Trawler is below 500 Metric Tonnage capacity, why the need for another NEW Marine Slip Way at the proposed Black Johnson Habour for mending vessels, when it was less than five years ago that the Ports Authority Slip Way at Cline Town (that to date is operating below capacity) was refurbished, upgraded and fully capacitated to accommodate vessels of up to 550Metric Tonnage capacity, without a need for them going to Senegal, Ivory Coast or Ghana as in the past?
  7. Why the need for an outright sale of the entire 255 Acre land site? Or is it that the Chinese want to create a “Colony” for themselves in which the Flag of China will be flying full mast and that they will be operating not only above our local laws and regulations but away from the prying eyes of citizens as they have done in the Gambia? A 255 Acre land is a huge swathe – the size of 255 soccer pitches or 4,080 Tennis Courts – but small enough to be ultimately fenced off completely to keep all of us Sierra Leoneans at bay.

Sierra Leoneans think!!!

What makes this particular episode of Western Areas lands acquisitions by governments for Chinese development purposes questionable further to me is that whereas Traditional Land Rights and Customs are highly regarded and respected in our mineral rich hinterlands, and the landowners guaranteed leaseholds that entitles even their generations yet unborn to ground and surface rent yields in perpetuity, land owners rights in the Western Areas (particularly Krios) are treated with outright contempt by their either being coerced into agreeing to outright sale of their inheritances or face dispossessions perforce through compulsory acquisition. The fact that this government had concluded the Grant Agreement with the Chinese government long before any public disclosures or civil preliminary discussions with the bona-fide land owners at Black Johnson smirks of dishonesty on their part, especially when it comes to sequestering particularly Western Area Lands. And citizens can be excused for thinking like that having due regard for a recent past experience with the Gloucester Saddle.

On assumption of office the former irascible Lands Minister Dr. Denis Sandy vowed upon sequestering that land area that his government’s intention was to create a secluded enclave for all Diplomatic Missions (as in New Delhi) which will also include provision for a new State House. Three years on we have yet to see the proposed lay out what was contemplated, amidst rumours that the 90% of land owners at Gloucester Saddle are from the South East.

With respect to Black Johnson and as the Community Land owners have themselves reiterated, they are not against any development drive that will add value to the country’s economy and ecosystems and they do not intend to challenge the government in any regard. Their preference would however be for long term leases between them and the government/Investors that will put them at par with their provincial land owning counterparts in our mineral rich hinterlands, so that instead of outright dispossessions of their inheritances, they (like their Traditional Land-owning counterparts in our mineral-rich hinterlands of Kono, Port Loko, Mobimbi and Mokanji and Tonkolili etc. and their own generations yet unborn) will also continue to be reaping ground/surface rents yields in perpetuity, which will definitely be a “win-win” situation for the country.

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