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  By: Joan Baxter

(adapted from Chapter 5: Dust from our eyes: an unblinkered look at Africa, Wolsak & Wynn 2010, Fahamu Books 2011)

Author’s note: Thomas Sankara was one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head. For four years he ruled Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest and least-known countries. Its capital, Ouagadougou, is fodder in the West for quizzes and other trivial pursuits. Even when it makes headlines in global media, as it did in the dying days of October 2014 when the people of Burkina Faso brought down a president, many news readers cannot get their tongues around the unfamiliar name. To add some context for the recent events in Burkina Faso, I’ve decided to post this extract from a chapter of my book, Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa, which provides some detail (collected when I was reporting from Burkina Faso for the BBC from 1986 until 1988) about the late and great Thomas Sankara, about the country he loved and died for and about the ousted president, Blaise Compaoré, the man that stole it all.

 

The land of upright men and women is born

"There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas."

“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”

From the start, Thomas Sankara made it clear that he was not going to be another corrupt, luxury-loving African president dancing to the tune of foreign masters. On the anniversary of his first year in power, on 4 August 1984, Sankara changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. This combined two indigenous languages to describe his small, landlocked country as the “land of upright men” or “land of people with integrity.” Continue reading Burying Africa’s hopes: remembering Thomas Sankara, the revolution and how Blaise Compaoré stole it all

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By: Joan Baxter

11 October 2014. Nairobi, Kenya. As the fatality statistics pile up and the gruesome awfulness of the Ebola catastrophe in West Africa unfolds, I’ve been seeking escape and solace from the grim present by spending time in the past, in the company of thousands and thousands of photos collected in the past eight years in Sierra Leone. They’re a tangible part of the immense wealth of the bank of memories that the people of “Swit Salone” – as it’s known affectionately in the country’s lingua franca, Krio – bequeathed me.

Many of thP1019115-300x225e memories that the photographs evoke involve Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues sharing their food, fun and laughter with me, the stranger in their land. The more I read about the ravages of Ebola in Sierra Leone, the more those wonderful memories come back to me, riding violent waves of nostalgia so powerful and deep that it aches like a migraine of the heart.

What is striking in the photos is the preponderance of high wattage smiles on peoples’ faces. People sharing, playing, working, partying and living – together. Loneliness is not a social ill people endemic to this part of the world. The shots capture village chiefs in consultations with their elders, groups of young men at work in their oil palm stands, family members ecstatically greeting each other – falling into each others’ arms – after long absences, groups of women weeding rice fields or parboiling rice or chopping green leaves for the wonderful sauces known as plassas, entire communities processing rich, red palm oil, groups of teenage girls selling hot peppers or peanuts, lean and exuberant footballers chasing after balls in the waves breaking on Freetown’s magnificent Lumley Beach. Continue reading Ebola: How an awful disease is shredding the social fabric in West Africa

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2009-11-09-ROAD-to-KONO-Addax-village-001-300x225We were meeting under a thatch roof at the makeshift headquarters of Addax Bioenergy in northern Sierra Leone. Aminata Koroma, Social Liaison Officer for the company, was extolling for me the virtues of the project that was transforming great swaths of farmland, grassland and woodland around us into massive sugarcane plantations. Addax Bioenergy, part of the Addax & Oryx Group headed by Swiss billionaire Jean-Claude Gandur, had recently leased more than 50,000 hectares in the area, with the intention of processing the sugarcane to produce ethanol for export to Europe, where it would be used to fuel vehicles. Koroma was more than enthusiastic about the project, despite a good deal of local opposition among farming communities.

I was challenging her about the wisdom of transforming the diverse countryside, much of it used for farming, into monocultural plantations of sugarcane. She responded that there would be “environmental corridors”, and that they were going to have a “tree-planting day”.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

I countered that I had seen the bulldozers taking down valuable indigenous leguminous trees that did not lend themselves well to planting, such as the locust bean tree, or Parkia biglobosa. This tree is cherished through West and Central Africa because of its many medicinal properties, the sweet edible yellow powder that is harvested from its pods, and its seeds that are fermented and prepared to produce an extremely nutritious and tasty condiment that has long been a mainstay in local cuisines. In Sierra Leone it’s known as kenda.

“Nobody’s planting those trees, the ones that produce kenda,” I said to Koroma. “They grow naturally, they’re not cultivated.”

“Why are you thinking about producing kenda?” she retorted. “ I mean, we call it the poorest man’s food. There is even a song that says, ‘kenda and dry rice, na poor man’s choice’.” She said that the only people in Sierra Leone who ate kenda were people who could not afford the modern alternative, the chemical-ridden Maggi cubes from Nestlé. For her, traditional foods such as kenda had no place in a modern diet. She seemed to think my defence of the condiment and the diverse local farms that produced traditional crops meant I was backward. Against progress and development. Continue reading Poor man’s food? Saving Africa’s foods, ferments and farms from the “saviours”

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 5) Chinnakannan Sivasankaran

There is a great deal of buzz about Africa’s economic awakening, with some countries experiencing substantial 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? In this, the last of six articles on the issue, Joan Baxter profiles another of five billionaire investors in Sierra Leone, French national Vincent Bolloré and his complex investment portfolio in Africa. The article concludes the series by looking at how even if the wave of foreign investment in Sierra Leone benefits the country.

 Billionaire investors and prosperity for whom?

P1011484-300x225Not even 50 kilometres from the disputed land lease taken out by the Siva Group  in Kpaka Chiefdom in Sierra Leone’s Pujehun District, where angry youth leaders and local chiefs are denouncing their Paramount Chief for signing away their precious farmland, there is similar discontent and dis-accord over a land deal in the Malen Chiefdom. There, Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd, or SAC, has leased 6,575 hectares and converted more than half of that into monoculture oil palm plantation. It is now seeking to lease and plant an additional 5,500 hectares, for a total of 12,000.[i]

SAC is 85 percent owned by Socfinaf,[ii] part of the extremely complex Socfin [Société Financière des Caoutchoucs] Group, with its contact address[iii] in Luxembourg, a ”major” secrecy jurisdiction at the ”dirty” end of the spectrum. [iv] Thirty-nine percent of the shares of Socfin are held by the Bolloré Group,[v] of which the prominent French billionaire Vincent Bolloré is Chair and Chief Executive Officer. Although the Group is listed on the Paris stock exchange, the Bolloré family holds ”majority control of the company through a complex and indirect holding structure”.[vi] The major shareholders of SOCFIN SA are all very much associated with the Bolloré Group, as they are controlled by the Fabri or de Ribes families, who are intertwined in the various interconnected companies.

Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 6): prosperity for whom?

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 4): Jean Claude Gandur

In this, the fifth in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone’s natural resources and farmland, Joan Baxter profiles another of five billionaire investors in the country, Indian national Chinnakannan Sivasankaran and his quest to make his Siva Group into the largest player in the production of  palm oil by leasing land and establishing oil palm plantations from Papua New Guinea to Sierra Leone to South America.

 King of Oil Palm

The magnitude of the ambitions of other investors working to get their hands on Sierra Leonean real estate in the form of farmland pales next to those of the Siva Group. Siva is an Indian conglomerate with offices in Singapore, ”a big, dirty Asian tax haven”. [i] The Siva Group is working to become ”the largest global player in the production of sustainable palm oil”. [ii] According to its country representative in Sierra Leone, it is acquiring more than 200,000 hectares of arable land for oil palm plantations in the country,[iii] with agreements that will give Siva control of the land for 50 years with possible extensions up to 99. This is part of the Group’s quest to plant one million hectares of oil palm in Africa and Asia.[iv]

P1012091-300x225Atop the Siva Group is another reputed billionaire, the enigmatic Indian entrepreneur Chinnakannan Sivasankaran. [v] A former employee of the Group says that Sivasankaran does all he can to avoid appearing on the Forbes List. [vi] He is one of the largest landowners in The Seychelles,[vii] and the owner of three private jets. He was the first to join Dragon Blaze, an exclusive ultra-luxurious lifestyle company based in Malaysia, which gives its members, limited to a maximum of 50, the right to use their fleet of private jets and yachts.[viii] Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 5): Chinnakannan Sivasankaran

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Previously Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 3) Frank Timis

In this, the fourth in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone, Joan Baxter profiles another of five billionaire investors, Swiss national Jean Claude Gandur and his investment in Sierra Leonean farmland to produce ethanol for export to Europe.

King of Sugar and Bioenergy

While some foreign investors focus on underground riches in Sierra Leone, other moneyed foreign investors are seeking to further their fortunes by acquiring large tracts of arable and well-watered land for industrial agriculture in the country. They’re part of what has been called a global land grab that began after the combined financial and food crises of 2007 and 2008, when investors sought safe and profitable places to park their wealth. The land rush is also being driven by and capitalizes on the increased production of agrofuels or biofuels, as well as fears of future food and water shortages caused by climate change, environmental degradation and population growth.

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 Land- and water-hungry investors have found welcoming arms with the Government of Sierra Leone [pdf], which has resulted in a spate of large land deals in the country. Despite a great lack of transparency in many of the deals, it can be estimated using actual leases and investor fliers that in the past few years, foreign investors — primarily from Europe, the UK, China, India — have taken out leases of 50 years, some with possible extensions up to 99, on more than 1.2 million hectares of land, nearly a quarter of all the arable land in Sierra Leone. [i] Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 4): Jean Claude Gandur

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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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