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SIERRA LEONE: Mining Bill Queried

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Dec 23 2009 (IPS) - Sierra Leone’s parliament has come under serious scrutiny by opposition legislators, civil society and members of the public for ‘breaching procedures’ and ‘undermining the constitution’.

Washing diamonds in the Sandoh chiefdom in Kono district, Sierra Leone.  Credit: Anna Jefferys/IRIN

Washing diamonds in the Sandoh chiefdom in Kono district, Sierra Leone. Credit: Anna Jefferys/IRIN

It follows the passing of a Bill in parliament titled the Mines and Minerals Act 2009, which seeks to overturn some of the bad mining laws inherited by the government, such as giving unbridled concessions to foreign companies, and ignoring the concerns of people living in devastated mining communities.

It also aims to introduce mining reforms. But the opposition, as well as democracy-watchers, say the Bill was not gazetted and adequately publicised before being tabled in the House.

It was at first thrown out by the Speaker, upon objections from members of the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) that the Bill was not properly tabled in parliament, and because of the lack of public consultation. It was re-introduced only days later by the minister of Mines and Mineral Resources, Alpha Kanu, despite the fact that it still had not been gazetted.

The 44-member SLPP contingent in parliament boycotted the debate on the Bill. The 59 members of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC), assisted by some members of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), their smaller coalition partner, nevertheless went ahead and hastily got the Bill passed.

This has divided the House further and put its integrity under test. “Bills must not be rushed through parliament for the sake of political expediency. If the public shows interest in any Bill it must be publicly and widely debated,” commented Emmanuel Tommy, the minority SLPP’s leader in parliament.

“This is a test for our fledgling democracy. Procedures were flouted in the way the Bill was tabled, and that is why we as a party decided to walk out of the House and refused to take part in the debate.”

Another opposition MP from the PMDC, Sheka Samai, took a swipe at provisions of the Act, especially the one giving legal protection to government officials who control and regulate the mining industry.

“The section that says the minister, director and other officials of the ministry cannot be prosecuted in the line of their duties, as long as they act in good faith, is unacceptable. This concentrates power in the hands of the officials, and leads corruption and abuse of office.”

The MP added that the 0.1 percent of gross revenue given to the mining communities “is grossly inadequate and ridiculous”. The land belonged to the people, and they must benefit from the mines that destroyed their lands, and forced them out of traditional farming.

Political watchers here believe the Bill was rushed through parliament in time for the Donors’ Conference on Sierra Leone, held in London, from Nov 1 to Nov 20.

Commented Desmond Cole, an analyst: “The government had to present a comprehensive mining policy document, since it was trying to attract foreign investors. It had to do this, though it was clearly wrong in law. It simply did not have much time on its hands.”

Civil society, too, has been up in arms against the Act. Leslie Mboka, of the Coalition of Activists on Just Mining, told IPS: “The Act is faulty, and needs to be withdrawn and re-written. It simply gave excess powers to the minister and his officials, giving them immunity from prosecution.

“The so-called Minerals Advisory Board has no oversight functions, and the minister is not obliged to listen to it. This will lead to unbridled corruption.”

Mboka also wants the people in mining communities to have a greater say in policy, as well as benefit from infrastructural and social development.

“Their lands are been destroyed with no reclamation done. They are paid a pittance as royalties, and their agricultural activities have been overrun by big mining corporations, which have no regard for the welfare of the people whose lands they exploit,” Mboka fumed.

Like other civil society activists, Mboka argues that the Act is not in the best interest of the country and must be withdrawn. But this is hardly feasible, since it has been passed by the House of Parliament and is awaiting presidential assent. Yet this is expected to cause a drawn-out debate.

Many believe parliament is rushing laws that could be detrimental to the country, as long as they are in the interests of the ruling party. This is not the first time that parliamentary majority has been used to rush through Bills.

During the administration of the previous SLPP government, that lost elections to the APC in 2007, Bills were pushed through as and when the governing party wanted. The then opposition APC at least once staged a similar walk-out of parliament.

The country was governed under a single-party dictatorship from 1978 to 1996, with the APC in power. Some fear that the indiscriminate pushing through of Bills, as was done in the past, may scupper the nurturing of democracy and stall development.

Michael Conteh, a rights activist, says: “Democracy entails mass participation. But if a whole opposition party walks out of parliament, then their voices as well as the aspirations of millions of their constituents will not be heard in decision-making.”

The furore over the Mines and Minerals Act has also alerted ordinary members of the public to their rights as the governed. The debate has hit the airwaves and made headlines. Talk shows are being organised on the vibrant community radios, and people are discussing the Act in public places and on public transport.

One angry father of seven, who lives in the rich diamond-producing district of Kono in the east, told IPS: “This is ridiculous. How can they be making laws for our region without involving us, the locals? We see diamonds carted away from here daily, but remain impoverished.

“Our children don’t go to school, our roads are bad, and we don’t even have pipe-borne water. It is really unfair.”

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