BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
For years Liberia has traded its natural resources in return for services such
as health and education from foreign corporations but have Liberians paid too
high a price? Olu Menjay and his students reclaimed the school after the war
"These buildings were destroyed on the premise that they belonged to somebody
else and that is the story all across Liberia," said Olu Menjay.
"Somebody else built it and so somebody else will come and fix it."
We were standing on the grounds of Ricks Institute about 16 miles outside the
capital city of Monrovia.
Before the civil war that began in 1989 and ended 14 terrible years later this
school was one of the best in the country.
If you look at its trim lawns and freshly painted buildings, it is hard to
imagine that it was occupied by rebel soldiers, and that after the soldiers left,
some 35,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) camped on its grounds. When they
left, they stripped the place bare.
Olu Menjay, a charismatic young Baptist minister, returned in 2005 to a ruined
shell. Classroom by classroom, building by building, Mr Menjay and his students
have reclaimed the school.
"It's about taking responsibility," Mr Menjay said, "It's about ownership."
For decades, the ownership of Liberia's natural resources has been turned over
to foreign corporations. They were granted huge concession areas and ready
access to cheap labour. In return they were supposed to look after people in
their concessions providing services like schools and health facilities. A
culture of dependency developed allowing a succession of corrupt administrations
to shirk their responsibilities.
Last year a transitional government steered the country towards democratic
elections. It also signed lengthy deals with corporations like the steel giant
Mittal and tyre manufacturers Firestone. The deals have left a bad taste in the
mouths of many Liberians.
"I do not believe personally that the interim government had the authority,
legal or moral to get into such long-term deals," argued the current Agriculture
Minister Christopher Toe. "Those Liberians who signed the agreements and
participated in this travesty should be ashamed of themselves."
The deals are being reviewed by the new government headed by Africa's first
female President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Mittal Liberia chief executive Joseph Mathews insisted the deal his company
signed was legal. Human rights groups have expressed concern about the deal. "We
went ahead according to whatever the rules were on the ground at that time," he
said. And he added that the company was socially responsible and committed to
providing health and education facilities, as well as suitable housing, to the
people in their concession area.
"We will operate to the standards the global community expects us to," he said.
There is no question the deal is important to Liberia. An iron ore mining
operation in the Nimba Mountain range will create 3,000 jobs. And Mittal has
already refurbished a school and reopened the hospital in the company town of
But critics point to extremely generous tax and royalty benefits and loose
language that gives the company virtual carte blanche, arguably creating a state
within a state. This deal has now been renegotiated.
Mittal is the country's new corporate kid on the block. But the granddaddy of
them all is Firestone Rubber.
Rubber is Liberia's biggest export and Firestone the biggest producer The
company proudly boasts an 80 year partnership with Liberia. And in the summer of
2005 the transitional government extended the concession with generous tax
breaks for another 30 years. But what kind of a partnership is it?
In May of this year a joint United Nations and Government of Liberia task force
slated Firestone for its treatment of employees, citing low pay, unsafe working
conditions, and very poor living and sanitation provisions on its giant Harbel
plantation - 118,000 acres of rubber trees Liberians have dubbed the United
Republic of Firestone.
Firestone Plantations company spokesman Rufus Karmorh takes issue with the
report and cited work the company has undertaken on schools and hospitals as
proof of their good corporate citizenship.
"Many out there can testify that Firestone has done a great job in this
country," he said. But the workers I spoke to told a different story.
Labourers live in ramshackle huts without electricity and running water Rubber
tapper Moses Kole took me to a squalid tenement where more than 200 people were
crammed into appallingly cramped quarters. He showed me where he, his wife and
eight children live, a tiny room without electricity or running water. He took
me to pit latrines that were in a deplorable condition. And then he introduced
me to Emmet Musa.
Emmet lost one eye while tapping in 2002. On the recommendation of the company
doctor he was assigned light duties as a security guard. In 2004 he was attacked
while on duty. His remaining eye was seriously damaged.
Last year Firestone terminated Emmet's employment and in August 2006 it evicted
him and his family from their home. Emmet is a broken man. "They do not want to
know whether we suffer, we die," he told me, "They do not have time for us."
When asked about the Musa case, Firestone issued the following statement from
its headquarters in Akron, Ohio: "The safety and well being of our employees is
vital to our operations. While we empathize with Mr Musa, our actions are in
keeping with the labour practices law of Liberia and the union and management
collective bargaining agreement."
The Liberian people have long been prisoners of a plantation mentality. Those
who have benefited have been a corrupt Liberian elite, and foreign
But for generations, a subservient majority have paid a high price. The new
government is reviewing both the Mittal and the Firestone agreements. As long as
the government continues to franchise out responsibility for key areas like
health, education and the well being of its people, it will be seen not as an
equal player but as little more than a spectator.
Olu Menjay of the Ricks Institute wants Liberians to take responsibility for
their own futures. That is the message he delivers day-in, day-out at Ricks
"I am a prisoner too," he said, "but a prisoner of hope, and I love to be one
until the day I die because without hope there is no way you can make it."