Washed and Graded Iron Ore. CREDIT: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdeimages/6325626794/" target=_blank">CDE Global</a>
Washed and Graded Iron Ore. CREDIT: CDE Global

"Blood Ore" in Sierra Leone?

May 31, 2012

In recent weeks, Sierra Leone has found itself making headlines. The two narratives about the small West African nation are seemingly unrelated—one points to a bright future, the other to painful memories.

Most prominent was the verdict handed to Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, from the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague in which he was found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's civil war. He was subsequently sentenced to 50 years in prison. It was the first ever successful prosecution of a former head of state.

Taylor was found overwhelmingly to have coordinated with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Sierra Leone rebel group determined to overthrow the government in Freetown, by providing weapons and other material support in exchange for plundered diamonds. The conflict, which saw over 50,000 people killed from 1991-2002, was a prime example of an African "resource war" and brought the term "blood diamonds" into the conflict lexicon.

The other story recently dominating the emerging markets wires was that West Africa, and Sierra Leone in particular, is now being referred to as the "new frontier" in mining. This time, however, rather than diamonds the interest is in iron ore; Sierra Leone has gone from total state collapse in the mid-1990s to one of the most attractive prospects in the world.

A Promising Future

The IMF forecasts Sierra Leone to grow (admittedly from a low base) at a world-leading 34 percent this year. Just two iron-ore deposits could add an extra US$1bn to a US$3bn economy. African Minerals said it will export 10m tonnes of iron ore this year at its Tonkolili mine. And as the Charles Taylor verdict was being read in the Netherlands, London Mining was preparing a grand ceremony to be attended by President Ernest Bai Koroma announcing the re-opening of the Marampa mine which had been closed since 1975.

Other industry is also increasingly on the radar in Sierra Leone. Offshore drilling led by Anadarko has fanned hope that Sierra Leone might replicate Ghana's commercial oil find. Samura Kamara, the country's finance minister, said Sierra Leone will outline a sovereign wealth fund in anticipation of "windfall mining revenues" and that the government was "banking on oil" that could be on the market by 2015. The expected commodities boom would open up tremendous opportunities for Sierra Leone to break out of its cycle of poverty and underdevelopment, and present enormous opportunities for further investment in the tourism and infrastructure sectors.

Although this investment turnaround is clearly remarkable, scepticism understandably persists about such rose-tinted visions of the future. Some forecasts may be too ambitious—the IMF has already been forced to revise downwards its initial 2012 growth forecast of 51.4 per cent after a fall in iron prices. Additionally, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with crumbling infrastructure and weak education, health, and governance institutions. Although there have been serious efforts by President Koroma's administration to combat corruption and red tape, it remains an endemic problem.

Youth Unemployment: A Dangerous Constant

Despite the promise of a natural resources boom, the biggest concern must be that the underlying conditions that led to civil war and state collapse in the 1990s still exist today. It is often said that diamonds caused the civil war—they did not; they perpetuated it with a fury. The root causes for the civil war lay in an archaic rural structure that led to masses of rural youth with extreme resentment of Freetown elites, corruption, and the perpetual poverty and unemployment they saw as the result. The RUF coalesced into a quasi-nationalist movement based on these legitimate grievances. Only subsequently were they manipulated by external players such as Charles Taylor and Muammar Gaddafi (the latter of whom supplied training and weapons to RUF leadership) into a nihilistic band of criminals hell-bent on diamond extraction.

As a group that had a penchant for forcing children into combat and systematic murder and maiming of non-combatants, the RUF deserve no sympathy. However, unresolved internal social tensions need to be stressed in any discussion of the future of Sierra Leone. Inappropriate management of the windfalls from iron ore operations could produce negative effects that alter the socio-political landscape. Youth unemployment, bitterness toward elites, corruption, and confused aid policies that have arguably served to perpetuate poverty are all issues that need urgently to be addressed.

Upcoming large-scale mining operations will surely drastically transform Tonkolili, Port Loko, and other areas. Migration of unskilled labour to the mines in search of jobs will bring rapid urbanization. As the populations swell with hopeful young men in search of work, poorly supplied social services and perceptions of corporate unfairness toward workers could turn them into politically tense and communally explosive areas. Indeed, on April 17 one person was killed and eight injured about 15 kilometers from African Minerals Ltd.'s Tonkolili iron-ore mine in a riot over wages in an episode that, considering the recent past, does not bode well for the future.

Freetown Needs to Reinvest in the People

Anyone willing to do business in Sierra Leone needs to be aware that, despite the current optimism, the country was not long ago one of the most violent places on earth. Iron ore prices are expected to stay above $125 per metric ton over the next five to ten years—up from an average of $50 per ton in 2009. Therefore the iron ore industry will have to become an integral part of economic development, and not allowed to become an enclave, as was the case with mineral extraction in the past.

The most crucial decisions to be made are on how the government will spend the massive infusion of capital, which will have to be not only on much needed infrastructure but also focusing efforts to diversify livelihoods among a population whose economic roots are agrarian. Otherwise the only certainty of a possible boom will be massive income inequality and extreme resentment from large numbers of impoverished rural youths, the same conditions that led to the formation of the RUF.

The external conditions of the early 1990s—war in neighbouring Liberia and nefarious meddlers like Taylor and Gaddafi—are long gone. Sierra Leonians show no appetite for a return to conflict. However, the April Tonkolili riot should be major warning. Sierra Leone could see a major windfall in extractive resources, complete with suddenly ubiquitous flash cars and luxury hotels for urban elites, with the rest of the population remaining mired in squalor. This is bound to cause resentment, and even a regular water and electrical supply for the wealthy would be divisive.

Freetown needs to remember that at the start of the civil war, the RUF had considerable support from the population. If their early slogan "No More Slaves, No More Masters: Power and Wealth to the People" becomes felt by many in Sierra Leone to still apply, unrest and at least low-level violence could be a defining feature in the coming years.

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