Is life better or worse? Some talk about the jobs, new roads and new houses. But many say life is harsher and more insecure.
“We’re afraid for tomorrow,” says Alusine Koroma, a 51-year-old villager. “There’s not enough land to feed us in the future. Now, we depend on a salary. Now, there’s no time for us to sit together to discuss the way forward.”
On a continent with a long history of foreign domination and colonial exploitation, this wave of external investment has the potential to repeat some of the errors of the past. There is still a power imbalance between huge multinational investors and weak governments, with officials tempted by quick payoffs and sometimes willing to sell out the people who live on the land.
Mining and oil companies can generate big sums of money for governments while employing less than 1 per cent of the African work force.
The greatest share of Sierra Leone’s economic boom is due to its iron-ore deposits, among the richest in the world, and its other mineral assets, including diamonds, titanium and bauxite. Two British-based mining companies, African Minerals and London Mining, are now making the first iron exports from the country in more than two decades.
African Minerals, whose magnetite iron-ore mine in Sierra Leone is said to be the biggest in the world, has sold 25 per cent of the project to a top Chinese steelmaker for $1.5-billion.
It has rebuilt a port and a 270-kilometre railway line, promising more than 7,000 jobs and $1.5-billion in revenue for the country over the next four years. It would be a massive injection of money for a government whose entire budget is barely $500-million this year.
But the arrival of the big miners has also brought conflict. Employees and local residents have often complained that African Minerals is not doing enough to help them, and the protests have sometimes turned violent.
A pay dispute led to rioting and gunfire this year in the town of Bumbana, near the African Minerals mine. Hundreds of workers had gone on strike at the mine, saying they were being discriminated against and paid lower wages than foreign employees. Police arrested dozens and opened fire, leaving at least one person dead and six injured.
Survivors say the gunfire was reminiscent of the civil war. “It was like a town under attack by rebels,” says Kadie Kalma, a 24-year-old mobile-phone saleswoman in Bumbana who says she was mistaken for a mine worker, beaten and kicked by the police, and later wounded by two bullets when the police opened fire on the striking workers.
The town has become a place of strife, not hope, she says. “I don’t see a lot of people being employed. I don’t think anywhere there is conflict is a good place.”
The other big mining concern, London Mining, has a $2-billion project to redevelop an abandoned iron-ore mine in the same region. But villagers accuse it of blocking a water channel, causing the flooding of rice fields in the village of Manonkoh for the past two years.
“You can see all the destruction,” says Umaro Koroma, a 35-year-old teacher, walking by rice fields choked under a metre of water. “We have no place to cultivate rice. If we can’t cultivate, we will have no food. And if we have no food, we will die.”
The company denies responsibility for the floods, blaming instead a fish trap in a local stream. It says it is trying to remove the trap, and that it has provided 300 kilograms of rice to every house in the village “to assist with any current hardship.”
Villagers claim they haven’t received those benefits, and question the value of foreign investment. “Maybe it’s good for the government, but it’s not good for us,” Mr. Koroma says. “We need foreign investors, but we want investors who care for us.”
A major problem is that many African governments (with a handful of exceptions, such as Botswana) do not have the business experience or legal resources to negotiate fair deals with large multinational companies. As they face the next wave of foreign investors, the interests of their people could be swept aside.
Hendrik Malan, the Africa director at the U.S. research firm Frost & Sullivan, says Africa stands where China stood 30 years ago and where India stood 20 years ago. But he also questions whether the African boom is sustainable if it fails to tackle corruption, logistical chaos and structural weaknesses: Trade among African states is only a tiny fraction of the continental total, barely a third the internal-trade rate in Asia. And many African nations are vulnerable to “Dutch disease” – the destructive effects of resource-dependent economies.