The Root to the Resistant and Unplanned Expansion of LAC
By Jucontee T. Woewiyu
In the midst of the confusion brought on by the continuing wars and the revolving Interim Governments, LAC took what it thought was the path of lowest resistance. She negotiated directly with the occupants of the land it had wished to expand on, apparently, to the exclusion of the National Government, a process which had begun in the NPP era. The company paid off some of the occupants of the land for their huts and crops. Some of the occupants resisted on account of the inadequacy of the compensation from the company. I believe it was at this point that some Bassa political aspirants in the 2004 National Elections saw the LAC Concession issues as enhancing to their political chances and aspirations. Rather than allowing the issues to be calmly negotiated, they were politicized on the Worldwide Web by these politicians that “our people were being forcefully bull dazzled from their lands”.
It was around this politically distorted approach that the Resilient Council of Elders of Grand Bassa and River Cess were formed. As already noted, the Resilient Council turned out to be simply nothing more than a Political Action Committee (PAC) of one of the National Political Parties. In its desperation, the Council dragged in the Poro Society to forcefully and physically stop the expansion. Mob threats were made by the Resilient Council Poro forces to burn the farm. The irony of this approach is that most of the prominent Leaders of the Resilient Council are not members of the Poro. However, the Resilient Council managed to engage the services of the Poro Society in River Cess County to bring its entities and enforcement powers to stop the expansion in Grand Bassa County. In Porodom, this is an act of war against the Bassa Poro territory. When the matter was called in the Poro Court somewhere in the Blehzee Forest, key Resilient Leaders could not attend and the matter went against them.
LAC on the other hand, in its “path of least resistant approach”, committed some fundamental tactical errors. LAC used the print and other public media to defend its concession rights. Rather than simply seeking the enforcement of its rights under the concession agreement through the courts or other government agencies, she embarked on a media blitz which at times went too far. The media war between LAC and the Bassa politicians quickly reduced to Presidential Candidate Charles Walker Brumskine vs. George Mensah, General Manager of the company. To ward off some of the physical attack on the farm, the company relied heavily on the governmental authority of a County Superintendent who most citizens of Bassa knew was actually an employee of the company. This, to me, was a miscalculated and misguided approach on the part of an overzealous management of LAC. Knowing Liberia as I do, what if Brumskine had won the election as President of Liberia?
A Critical Juncture
Recently, the Minister of Agriculture signed a joint memorandum with the Resilient Council of Elders of Grand Bassa and River Cess counties putting halt to all LAC expansion activities. This memorandum supposedly says that this was done by directive of the President of the Republic of Liberia. Some say the President did not authorize such joint memorandum. I am told, however, she supports halting all expansion activities by LAC and she has publicly indicated that. Whichever information is correct, a joint memorandum between the Government with one faction in a dispute compromises the government’s neutral capacity to arbitrate such a dispute in the supreme interest of all citizens.
We are aware that for more than a year or so, the Bank of France has granted the LAC 16 million United States Dollars specifically earmarked for the Small Holder’s Project. The money has been available to the company for a long time without any action. Reliable sources have it that if the money is not used within the next few months for its intended purposes in Liberia, the company could forfeit the use of it. It was confirmed by these sources that the General Manager of LAC, Mr. George Mensah who is of Ghanaian origin has been frantically tracking the company to Ghana with its expansion and Small Holder’s Project. I believe that the joint memorandum of the Agriculture Minister and the possible Presidential support for the anti-LAC expansion may have given real steam to the company’s desire to move on to other countries with their investment.
I must hasten to warn that the “George Mensah-Ghana man” xenophobic squabblers not to blame this on the “Ghana man” as he is jealously referred to. Mensah has worked for LAC well over 30 years from rubber-tally clerk to General Manager. He single-handedly wrestled the company from the Lebanese Trader who had stolen it from the Americans with the aid of our own corrupt Judicial System. He saved it from the different warring factions which have taken over the farm from one war to another. We have ourselves to blame should this investment slips away.
A Way Forward
1. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf should quickly reach out to the European Investors of the LAC project to assure them that Liberians and her Government are not opposed to the expansion and the Small Holder’s Project. That she will do all within her powers to iron out the social and political differences so that the project can proceed in a timely fashion.
2. The Agriculture Minister should withdraw his commitment and consequently the commitment of the President from the Memorandum of Understanding with the Resilient Council of Elders of Grand Bassa and River Cess counties. This group does not in anyway represent the aspiration of the people of the two counties and ye the Liberian People.
3. In consultation with the Grand Bassa and River Cess Legislative Caucuses, the President of the Republic of Liberia should set a broad panel of citizens of the two counties with diverse political affiliation, social background including the traditional leaders to work with the Grand Bassa and River Cess Legislative Caucuses to look at the LAC expansion situation and make recommendation to Government as to the appropriate action within a timely manner.
4. As a long term resolution to this problem, the Concession Secretariat of the Government of Liberia should in consultation with the Legislature, the citizens of the area and the company review the LAC concession with a view of defining a finite boundary. This will ease the minds of future generation regarding concession expansion.
Find below exchanges between President Johnson-Sirleaf and me regarding this issue:
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu
72nd. SKD Boulevard
November 30, 2006
Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of the Republic of Liberia
I have the honour to present you my compliments and forward you an Aid Memoir from me to you with respect to the conflict regarding the expansion of the Concession Area of the Liberian Agricultural Company in Grand Bassa and River Cess Counties.
As an Elder of Grand Bassa County and a former Senior Legislator who represented the area in dispute for many years, I consider it a patriotic duty to share my knowledge of the conflict with you as your Administration endeavors to amicably resolve the conflict.
Madam President, anything that you feel I can do to further assist in this or any other matter, please feel free to so instruct.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu
Former President Pro Tempore
of the Liberian Senate
Senior Elder, Grand Bassa County
An Aide Memoir
TO: Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of the Republic of Liberia
From: Hon. Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu
Former President Pro Tempore of the
Senior Citizen of Grand Bassa County
Subject: A Way Forward on the Problem at the
Liberian Agricultural Company Regarding
Expansion of the Concession Area
Date: November 30, 2006
The Liberian Agricultural Company was started in the late 50’s by a group from the construction company known as Vianini following the completion of several construction projects in the Country. Legend has it that the focus on rubber came when UNIROYAL, an American rubber company took it from Vianini in the early sixties. UNIROYAL opted out and sold the farm to some of its employees later on. A little less than seven years ago, the LAC Employee Group sold it to the Belgium-French Consortium which now runs it.
Sometime during the war in the 90s, a Lebanese Trader, Elias Hash sued the Liberian Agricultural Company after all of its employees fled the farm to save their lives from the ravages of the war. While the war raged on, Mr. Hash was able to obtain a judgment of U.S. $240,000.00 against LAC from the Civil Law Court in Monrovia for so called indebtedness. While the City of Buchanan was totally deserted of its citizens who had fled to other parts of the country to avoid the war, the Civil Law Court supposedly held an auction in that City to sell the farm in order to satisfy Mr. Hash’s judgment. According to court records, Mr. Hash bided for and won the ownership of this $30,000,000.00 plantation for $240,000.00 from these fictitious court proceedings. As a result of immense pressure from several quarters of the International Community, including the United States and Europe, and consequently from President Taylor who finally realized that if this Lebanese man took this American Farm on account of this fiasco legal proceedings, he Taylor could be blamed for it.
President Taylor personally confronted Mr. Hash and told him to accept $1.4 million which he and his supporters had demanded as a buy back value of the farm from Mr. Hash who, at this point is now the so called legal owner of the farm. After the last direct conversation with President Taylor, Hash was extremely happy to accept the $1.4 millions in whatever installment LAC was prepared to pay it. In all of this legal fiasco to steal a farm from the Americans and give it to a Lebanese Trader, some of our Bassa Leaders with legal background and career backed Mr. Hash and financially benefited. At no time did the interest of the Bassa People whose property this farm occupies get mentioned by these Bassa legal practitioners during the Hash episode. The whole story is lengthy and intriguing but I mentioned it here because some members of the so called Resilient Council of Elders of Grand Bassa and River Cess who sparked the anti LAC expansion movement were the very Hash supporters and beneficiaries. It must be noted here that the Resilient Council of Elders in Bassa and River Cess appear to be members of one political party. Grand Bassa County is a multi-party political subdivision of Liberia and not the property of one particular party. Even some of us who are publicly known as senior citizens of Grand Bassa County have not been included in such a council.
Current Owners and the Small Holders Expansion Plan
The current owners of the farm commenced their operation with an expansion plan that included a Small Holder’s Project. According to that plan, the concession would go but so far in its expansion and would continue with Liberians owning most of the new plantation expansion. The company would provide the funding for the small holders portion of the plantation with the provision that all future rubber output will be sold to the company exclusively. A key prerequisite in the Small Holder’s Project is that the land must be owned by each participating small holders.
One phenomenon that is clear is that the lands which are in dispute for the LAC concession expansion or Small Holders Projects are government lands which have never been deeded to any individual or group before. The current occupants of the land are the descendants of original inhabitants. At most they could be considered Native Reserves. Most of the notable Liberians (key members of the Resilient Council) who hailed from the area have no real holding interest in the area up to this point. They hold little or no title to lands in the area or have done any noticeable developments there over the years. Reliable sources have it that a senior elder of the Resilient Council who hailed from the disputed area is currently trying to obtain a deed for 5000 acres of land in the very area. This, in fact would give this individual the controlling power over a substantial holding in the Small Holders Project. Could this have been the real-propellant motive behind the anti-LAC expansion movement spearheaded by the so called Resilient Council of Elders all along?
The President’s Response:
From: Elva Richardson
Mr. Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu
72nd SKD Boulevard
The President has asked me to acknowledge with thanks your letter of November 30th by which you forwarded her the Aide Memoire regarding the expansion of the concession Area of the Liberian Agricultural Company (LAC) in Grand Bassa and Rivercess Counties.
The President has referred your submission to the Chairman of the Special Committee on this matter, the Honorable Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Christopher Toe. However, she wants you to know that government's current position in this matter is very clear. The government is not opposed to the expansion project which is in the interest of our economic revitalization agenda but the government will not support any action that results in the forceful eviction of Bassa citizens from the land of their forefathers.
She has asked the Minister of Agriculture and the Special Committee members to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion.
Elva Mitchell Richardson
Special Assistant to the President