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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 2) Beny Steinmetz

This, the third in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone profiles another one of  five billionaires,  Frank Timis and his investment in the country’s extractive sector.

King of Iron Ore

Another Ultra High Net Worth Individual — or Ultra HNWI in the curious shorthand of the wealth management industry — working in Sierra Leone’s extractive sector is Frank Timis, originally from Romania and now based in London, UK. In 2011, Timis made his debut on the Forbes List of billionaires.[i] He is said to be the richest Romanian, with a personal fortune in 2012 estimated at over 1.7 billion Euros or about US $ 2.2 billion.[ii] He’s also the owner of two Bombardier Challenger jets.

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Wet ore – or soil containing ore – is loaded into train cars and untold tonnes of it taken directly to port for export to China. Photo credit: Joan Baxter

Timis is a controversial figure, with two convictions for possession of heroin in Australia.[iii] In 2007, the Toronto Stock Exchange declared him an ”unsuitable” person to act as director or major shareholder of any companies listed on the TSX.[iv] In 2009 while he headed the UK-listed Regal Petroleum, the UK authorities fined the company close to US $1 million for issuing misleading statements about its oil reserves.[v] Today he is Chairman of the Timis Corporation, “a portfolio of businesses in the mining, oil and gas, life sciences and agricultural industries”.[vi] It is registered in Bermuda, which appears on the Forbes list of the world’s “top ten tax havens”. Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 3): Frank Timis

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 1): Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

This, the second  in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone profiles Beny Steinmetz, one of five billionaire investors in the country and his investment portfolio in Africa.

Part 2. King of Diamonds in Sierra Leone

It’s December 2012 and workers at the Octéa diamond mine in the town of Koidu in Sierra Leone are on strike, complaining of poor wages, “appalling” working conditions and ”racism”. [i]  When the Minister of Mines and Mineral Resources travels to Koidu to deal with the crisis, protestors allegedly throw stones. Armed Sierra Leone police claim to be overwhelmed and open fire. Two people are killed, one a passing motorcycle taxi or “okada” driver. The population is furious and riots erupt. The military are called in.

When the Sierra Leonean Vice President visits the district, ostensibly to mediate, he meets with aggrieved workers and community members.[ii] Instead of listening to their complaints, he adds insult to their injuries, telling them to sit on the ground in front of him as punishment for disrupting the operations of the company. He threatens to ”smash” anyone who fails to heed his word.[iii]

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This is not the first time that police protecting the Koidu diamond mine have shot and killed unarmed civilians. Five years earlier, two Koidu youths were gunned down during a protest against the delay in relocating people whose homes lay within range of fallout from the explosions to unearth the diamond-bearing kimberlite. After those deaths, the government of Sierra Leone, under newly elected President Ernest Bai Koroma, suspended the operations of the mine and launched an official inquiry into the event. A few months later the man behind the Koidu mine, Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz, jetted in to the capital Freetown and met with President Koroma.[iv] Without further ado, or action on the recommendations of the inquiry and the Government’s own White Paper that had been drawn up to implement them, the mine was suddenly re-opened without any explanation. Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 2): Beny Steinmetz

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There is a great deal of buzz about Africa’s economic awakening, with some countries experiencing double-digit growth in gross domestic product that is being driven by waves of foreign capital, as investors from Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East and also Latin America descend on the continent. Many of the investors are after natural resources, mineral and oil riches and also farmland. This raises the question: is the foreign investment benefitting the continent or is it just another scramble for Africa, the last stage of colonialism? This, the first in series of six articles, Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor, investigates how foreign investment is playing out in one small African country. It looks at five billionaire investors, their big investments and at what’s in it all for Sierra Leone.

Part 1. Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

Africans and their leaders have every reason to be fed up with the negative way their continent has been portrayed and viewed by the outside world. It is definitely time that they tried to undo the damage by painting pictures that highlight the continent’s many strengths and riches.

PVB-GN_06-002-300x225So it was that in late 2009, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma took the podium at the Sierra Leone Trade and Investment Forum at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, England. The country was still better known internationally for “blood diamonds” and a brutal civil war they fuelled, than for its impressive peace-building efforts in the ten years since the war ended. President Koroma wanted to change that.

“Our soils are fertile and our land under-cultivated, offering ideal investments in rice, oil palm, cocoa, coffee and sugar,” he declared.  “Our ground is rich in minerals: iron ore – the third largest deposit in the world; bauxite, rutile, gold and yes, diamonds. Our shores boast 400 kilometres of white sandy beaches, just waiting to be developed for tourism . . . Our seas are some of the most well-stocked and under-fished in the world”. Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 1): Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

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Food aid as big business

For more than half a century, the American government has operated something called “Food For Peace”. A 2004 booklet from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the program, proclaims that it is a “unique combination of American compassion together with the unmatched efficiency of our nation’s farmers . . . an unbroken chain of humanity stretching from this country’s fertile fields to hungry families half a world away. In the end, hope is what America has promised, and hope is what Food for Peace delivers around the world every day.”

Or so they say.

It is absolutely true that in emergency situations food aid saves lives. It can also be an important tool in development projects that involve providing food for work on labour-intensive community works or to encourage school attendance among vulnerable groups. If food aid is purchased locally or regionally, it can also help spur local agricultural production and improve rural livelihoods.

But food aid is also very, very big business and it’s also a foreign policy tool. Continue reading SNAP! The sound of American food aid to Sierra Leone helping corporate America?

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Half of the population of Sierra Leone was displaced by the brutal and senseless civil war that raged in the country from 1991 until 2002. During that time, more than two million people fled their villages and farms as rebels terrorized them and others joined the fray. Because of this and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, by the end of the war, Sierra Leonean farmers were producing just over half of the staple rice consumed in the country. By 2007, they had upped their output and were producing nearly three-quarters of its rice needs. And that, thanks mostly to small-scale farmers toiling in rice swamps and mixed upland farms. They did so without much support from anyone; at that time family farming just wasn’t a priority with major donors and governments.

Then in 2008, in the wake of the global financial meltdown and fuel and food crises, some new and powerful players suddenly turned their attention to farms, or rather, to land as an asset in their portfolios. Foreign investors suddenly saw farmland as the new “gold, only more profitable” and set about acquiring enormous tracts of arable land in Africa, some just speculating on the new asset and some because they planned to turn the land into giant offshore farms that would turn Africans into lowly wage labourers (if they were lucky) or landless peasants on their own land in their own countries. Foreign donors and African governments alike began to clamour for the transformation of the family farm from a way of life into agribusiness, and large mechanized farms that would conform to economies of scale.

Jusu-Kamara-close-V-225x300The experts drawing up the blueprints for millions of lives in Africa almost invariably repeated the assumption that young people prefer city life and that they don’t want to work the land the way their parents and their forefathers did. Sierra Leone’s national rice development strategy was developed jointly by Japanese International Cooperation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, that like AGRA was funded by the Rockefeller and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations. Neither of these have much in common with the very people they claim to be trying to help, namely the unemployed Sierra Leonean youth or the hard-working Sierra Leonean farming families.

This doesn’t prevent them from speaking on behalf of the youths and farmers. In a blueprint for a rice strategy in the country, the Coalition for African Rice Development make this statement: “The existing labour intensive farming is no longer attractive to the youths who are drawn to urban areas for easier jobs.”

Easier jobs? Doing what? Working as a watchman for a foreign-owned security company twelve hours a day, six days a week, for just over one dollar a day? Peddling on the streets a backpack of pirated DVD collections from Asia? Making a few cents a day selling top-up credit for mobile phones? Or worse, begging? Stealing to feed themselves? Continue reading Diamonds are not for dinner

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This post was first published on Thursday, 23 May 2013 09:57 by Truthout

For their secret meeting, they’ve chosen a very small village surrounded by forest in Kpaka Chiefdom in southern Sierra Leone. About one hundred men – chiefs, elders and youth leaders from all over the chiefdom – have gathered in the shade of a very large tree. Conspicuously absent is their Paramount Chief, the supreme traditional authority in the chiefdom, without whose approval they should not even be here. But this is no ordinary meeting; its purpose is to contest the Paramount Chief’s authority to sign away their land. Also absent are women, but in neighbouring villages they express support for the men meeting here and for their cause.

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One after another, the men stand up to complain. They say the Paramount Chief leased their land to a foreign company without consulting them, without the consent of the family heads who are the customary landowners. They have never even laid eyes on the lease agreement, which was signed in January 2011 by the Paramount Chief. It gives an Indian company, Biopalm Energy, control of nearly 20,000 hectares (close to 50,000 acres) of land in Kpaka Chiefdom for 50 years, with a possible extension of 21 years.

Tempers flare in the afternoon heat. Some at the meeting want to write a letter of protest right now to the government authorities in Pujehun, the headquarters town of Pujehun District, which includes Kpaka Chiefdom. Others say that they want the company representatives to come and negotiate directly with them. Meanwhile, they say if anyone enters their “bush” – their land – without their permission, there will be big, big problems. The threats of violence do not bode well for peace in the chiefdom. Continue reading Farmland – the new “Blood Diamonds” in Sierra Leone?

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photo credit: CBC

photo credit: CBC

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in on the tragic story of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Nova Scotian who was driven to hang herself in April 2013 after months of bullying following an alleged sexual assault, he echoed the national revulsion at the event, saying he was “sickened” by the story. He also said he thought that it was time to stop using the term “bullying” for some of these things because that connoted “kids misbehaving”, when some of these circumstances were “simply criminal activity”. That they may be. But no one can deny that it is the bullying itself that in recent years has been driving so many young Canadians to depression, despair and suicide.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Mr. Harper wants to downplay the term “bullying” by suggesting it’s just the kind of shenanigans that children get up to in a sandbox. If he were to admit that bullying was morally wrong and deeply dangerous, a pervasive social ill that has become common in all walks of modern life and among all ages, he might have to change the way his Party does politics and fights elections. Bullying, which has become such a scourge in our schools, workplaces, social media and arenas, is now also a political tool in this country. Continue reading Conservative attack ads are bullying

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The AP headline read “Thousands of caterpillars seized at UK airport”. Under it was the story that UK Border agents had seized several bags of dried caterpillars that they found in the luggage of a 22-year-old man from Burkina Faso when he landed at Gatwick Airport. Countless media outlets picked up the report and ran with it, from the Washington Post to the Jordan Times, from Fox News to the Winnipeg Free Press. The Independent in the UK produced its own version of the story and gave it a catchy headline that set a jocular tone, “Monkeys in my pants? No, just 94 kg of caterpillars in my luggage.” It cited an insect expert from the Natural History Museum who said that the caterpillars were likely mopane worms, the larvae of emperor moths, species name Gonimbrasia belina.

The British Government deemed the story so important that it ran a version on its official Home Office page and earnestly reported that the discovery of the dried caterpillars at Gatwick was “among the largest of its kind at the airport”. This struck me as curious — were smuggled caterpillars a common occurrence at Gatwick then? Continue reading Saved from those dangerous dried caterpillars

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In 2002, even if Mali wasn’t literally my home, my native land it sure felt it was. At that point my family and I had been living in Bamako, the Malian capital, for five years. On summer visits back to Canada to visit with family and friends, my son usually gave it two or three weeks before he started telling me that it had been a “nice holiday” but now he thought it was really time we went “home” to Bamako. He missed the group of friends with whom he played soccer on the narrow dusty roads near our house, dodging vehicles and regularly retrieving wayward soccer balls from fetid gutters. My daughter greatly missed her friends, who hailed from all over West Africa, and the weekends when they all headed off to explore the crazy markets or just to make the rounds of each others’ homes sampling wonderful African dishes and trying out new dances they were learning in a Senegalese dance troupe.

I had no interest in ever leaving Mali. I was working as a journalist, reporting for the BBC World Service and any other international media that showed an interest in the country, its fabulous history, culture, music, or its politics and the already worrisome meddling in its internal affairs of foreign powers, particularly American, French, Algerian, Libyan and Saudi.

But — barring the BBC World Service that broadcast to Africa and enjoyed its largest audience growth on the continent — few international media outlets seemed very interested in Mali. At that point, the country was not generating the kinds of stories that editors in distant newsrooms seemed to expect from Africa. These tended to star bloodthirsty youths in rebel garb hacking off limbs of innocent civilians, white saviours trying to stem the outbreak of some new and awful disease, or perhaps a Western celebrity cuddling a starving child. Continue reading Grieving for Mali

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Abdelkader Haidara inspects ancient manuscripts in his Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu

Abdelkader Haidara inspects ancient manuscripts in his Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu

First published 18 December 2005, Toronto Star

Time has not been kind to this once-great centre of civilization, which in the early 1500s inspired the Spanish explorer Leo Africanus to paint a picture of a learned, cultured and peaceful place where books were the main industry, where one literally walked on “gold.” Lured by this promise of riches, European explorers tried for centuries to find Timbuktu. By the time the first ones finally arrived in the 1800s, they found a desolate desert outpost not all that different from the sand-swept town of today, with no evidence of all the fabled wealth. Hence, the Western myth about a never-never place with little to offer the world — a myth that is about to be exploded.

Today, treasures are being unearthed here that are radically changing the way the world views Timbuktu, Africa and her history. They’re called the “Timbuktu manuscripts” and they disprove the myth that Africa had no written history. While many thousands have been recovered, there are still hundreds of thousands of manuscripts hidden away in wells and mud-walled storerooms in northern Mali. Huge collections have been passed down in families over many centuries, kept out of sight for fear that European explorers, and then French colonists, would abscond with them.

“Before, all the manuscripts were kept in our homes,” says Abdelkader Haidara, who has inherited his family’s collection of 9,000 written works dating back to the 16th century. “Then, in 1993, I had an idea to open a private and modern library that would be open to everyone.” Thanks to funding from an American foundation, Haidara has been able to open his Mamma Haidara library and catalogue 3,000 of the manuscripts, some of which date back to the 1100s. None of this would have been possible had not Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard University’s African and African-American studies department, visited Haidara and realized the importance of preserving these documents.

“When Professor Gates came here and saw the storeroom full of these manuscripts written by African scholars centuries ago, he started to cry,” says Haidara. “He wept like a child, and when I asked him why, he said he had been taught at school that Africa had only oral culture and that he had been teaching the same thing at Harvard for years and now he knew all that was wrong.” Continue reading The treasures of Timbuktu

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