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Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Oct 24 2008 (IPS) - The Economic Community of West African States has taken the unprecedented step of inviting Oxfam America to coordinate the drawing up of a mining code for the region. The decision has infuriated some civil society organisations.

Defining the code that will guide resource extraction in West Africa is vital.  Credit:  Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Defining the code that will guide resource extraction in West Africa is vital. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Speaking after the April signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with ECOWAS to develop the code, Mamadou Bitèye, regional director for Oxfam America in West Africa said, "In its current form, mining activity has not made the lives of West Africans significantly better.

"Even though gold mining has surpassed cotton and cocoa farming, Mali and Ghana still rank 173 and 135 respectively out of 177 countries, according to the UNDP Human Development Index."

Resource extraction in West Africa has been linked to civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and environmental degradation and displacement of local people in Ghana and Nigeria, to choose just a few examples. Inhabitants of oil- or gold-rich areas are often paradoxically among the poorest in each of these countries.

Bitèye told IPS that collaboration with ECOWAS began in March 2007 when the president of the ECOWAS invited the group to engage in a process to develop mining standards that benefit the poor, respect the environment and human rights, and keep governments and mining companies accountable through improved governance practice.

"Oxfam America agreed to facilitate the participation of and contribution from West African civil society and members of communities affected by mining in this process. In turn, ECOWAS's role is to consult governments, international financial institutions, mining companies and other stakeholders."

According to Oxfam America, the code will ensure social stability, protect the environment, improve job security, income and food security, and respect good mining conduct norms.

The creation of the ECOWAS mining code is part of Oxfam America's programme to promote citizen participation in West Africa in decisions related to oil, gas, and mining projects, transparency of payments by international corporations to governments operating in this industry, and uniform laws and policies across the region that will forestall a "race to the bottom" as companies compete for foreign investment by compromising their social and environmental standards.

Process challenged

But protests have been flying around the subregion since the ECOWAS decision to sign the MOU.

Yao Graham, Third World Network Africa's regional director told IPS that "our concern so far is that the mode of Oxfam America's selection has not followed any procedure. They were simply hand-picked and aside from that, the organisation is providing $123,000 dollars to pay consultants that it was going to engage."

Dissatisfaction with the procedure for selection led TWN Africa – a research and advocacy NGO with a strong interest in development, the environment and trade justice – to boycott the meetings that Oxfam had called.

Bitèye says Oxfam America is committed to civil society participation. "Oxfam is not dictating or overseeing civil society in this process. We are playing the role of facilitator so civil society organizations can make their voices heard.

"With years of experience supporting civil society organizations working on mining issues, Oxfam's goal is to support the contribution of these groups to the mining convention development process both at national and regional levels.

"Oxfam's extensive experience working on extractive industries around the world also allows us to provide technical assistance and access to a network of international experts on this issue," Biteye added.

But the process has been controversial. The MOU was signed in Nigeria on 14 April, but a "validation workshop" was held in Dakar just three days later, at which a draft of the mining code was presented to around eighty regional civil society organisations.

Dakar-based lawyer Hélène Cissé, a co-author of the code, interviewed in the African finance journal Les Afriques at the end of May said following: "I believe the notion of having citizens participate played an important role in this workshop. What was most important about it, however, is that it was constructive.

"The purpose of the mining code we’re currently drafting is not to go against mining companies. That’s not at all our intention. Instead, we are trying to make them understand that local communities are assets and that economic production must be incorporated into the global effort to secure the well being of local populations."

Cissé said that modifications suggested by participants in the April workshop were integrated and the text was submitted to ECOWAS. "ECOWAS appeared to be very inclined to take this into account to formalise the final project,"

The impression of being asked to comment on an already well-developed draft did not sit well with TWN's Graham. He said ECOWAS director of industry and mines, Mensan Lawson-Hichelli was invited to Accra where the TWN expressed misgivings about the involvement of Oxfam in the drawing up of the code but nothing has come out of this protest.

When IPS called Lawson-Hichelli, he said he was not in a position to answer questions on the MOU between ECOWAS and Oxfam America. "You must direct your queries to the appropriate quarters."

Asked who that was, he replied, "I don't know."

Efforts to secure a copy of the draft code also came to nothing.

IPS eventually reached ECOWAS trade commissioner D.A. Daramy, who said, "Oxfam USA is an NGO that ECOWAS invited to correct the situation in the mining sector in the region. They did not approach us, we talked them because we knew they had the expertise.

"Currently, Oxfam USA is developing the convention that we need to set up the basis for producing the regulation required to improve the sector. The accusation that there was something wrong with our involving Oxfam USA is simply not right."

Out of step with civil society principles?

Abdulai Dramani, the environmental programme officer for Third World Network Ghana, told IPS the whole idea of the MOU is "not transparent and advances the very forms of donor capture of policy and citizens space that African peoples as well as many from the global North have been campaigning against."

He describes Oxfam America's role in nominating non-governmental organisations to participate in the process as colonial.

Dramani underlines that civil groups in the West Africa region are not against the preparation of the mining code. "What we are against is the arrangement."

And he is not alone. A letter from the Ogoni Solidarity Forum of Nigeria [ID] to the ECOWAS President charged that the MOU "violates the Southern Campaigning and Advocacy Principles that the Oxfam family adopted some years ago."

OSF pointed out that ECOWAS' foray into mining policy was relatively new and noted that the design and timetable of the project places ECOWAS at risk of missing out on a historic opportunity and benefit from the continental review of the experience of mining codes across Africa which has been initiated by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and Africa Union (AU)."

OSF also views the role assigned to Oxfam America as undermining "relations between ECOWAS and its citizens and their organisations in the region."

TWN's Dramani states that since the countries in the region do not have adequate guidelines, it is the wrong approach to start with drawing up policies. "There is the need to negotiate certain principles and these would define the conventions and the laws that would be used," he said.

All parties are agreed, it seems, on the need for improved regulation of mining in the region. Across West Africa, resource extraction has been connected to systematic violation of human rights across West Africa, often with slow and limited response from the governments who rather than protect citizens collude with multinational companies to maximise profits.

The outcome of the battle for control over a code that could define future conduct in West Africa is a vital one.

*with additional reporting from Terna Gyuse in Cape Town

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