Illegal Sierra Leonean Miners Dying in Liberia

Unmarked graves of Gabriel Bangura, Alex Conteh, Layei Kanu and Mohamed Fontan, Sierra Leonean miners who died on Liberian mines, in a cemetery outside of Henry Town, Gbarpolu County. FrontPage Africa/James Harding Giahyue

HENRY TOWN, Liberia and KENEMA, Sierra Leone – Ibrahim Sesay, a Sierra Leonean miner, never signed up to die when he crossed into Liberia in 2008 in search of greener pasture on mines in Korninga Chiefdom of Gbarpolu’s Bopolu District.   

A New Narratives cross-border investigation by Mae Azango and Emma Black in Sierra Leone and Liberia  

With no residence or work permits, he worked on some of Liberia’s most remote, artisanal mines over two years. He hid from immigration and mining authorities who could arrest and fine him, under the dense forest canopy. But his hideout could not shield him from illness. In mid-July 2010, Sesay fell sick and died a few weeks later at age 25. He was buried in a village not far from the goldmine he worked on, leaving behind a Liberian wife and their one-month-old daughter.

Many Sierra Leonean illegal miners, like Sesay, are dying in mining communities in Gbarpolu, without the knowledge of their families back in Sierra Leone, locals say. It is unclear what the total number of casualties is but some estimates put it to dozens of deaths in the last 10 years. Liberian and Sierra Leonean authorities are calling on migrant miners to legalize their status.

But for many, the costs are too much. According to the Liberia Immigration Services (LIS) which is responsible for giving residence permits to foreigners, citizens from ECOWAS countries, pay $US150.00 the first year and $US100.00 to renew. (Non-ECOWAS citizens pay $US780.00 the first year and $US750.00 to renew.)

“There are many Sierra Leoneans miners who have died in both Henry Town and Bellekpalamu in Gbarpolu,” says “Governor” Sumah, who has taken to liaising between local, mining authorities and fellow Sierra Leoneans in the area around Bellekpalamu, not far from the Sierra Leone border. His self-appointed position has earned him the nickname “governor. “I know [about the deaths] because I had to mobilize manpower to bury them.”

Sumah says he has lost count but remembers some of the deceased by their names. Abraham Koroma, who died in July last year, was buried in a cemetery in Henry Town, he says. Gibrilla Bangura, who died last year, and Alex Conteh, Layei Kanu and Mohamed Fontan who all died in 2018, were interred at a graveyard just outside Henry Town.  Mohamed Kargbo of Magburaka, Northern Province died in 2017 and was buried in Bopolu, the capital of Gbarpolu.  Mohamed Sow from Kailahun District, Eastern Province, died on his way to Bopolu in September, and was buried in the Nathan Village.  Alpha Orchoimeh, a native of Waterloo, Freetown, died in 2017 and was buried in Bopolu. Of all the men, Fontan is the only one whose relatives are aware that he has died so far, according to Sumah.

“When many of the Sierra Leoneans who infiltrate the border get sick, they do not go to the hospital because they are afraid to be traced,” adds Barsee Sumo, the clerk in the office of the Superintendent of Gbarpolu, Joseph Akoi. “They would rather live in the bushes and refuse to come to town because they are not registered. It is only when they get sick or die we can compel their governor to identify their family.”

Three Sierra Leonean miners who died on Gbarpolu mines. L-R – Ibrahim Sesay, Mohammed Kromah and Alpha Orchoimeh. FrontPage Africa/James Harding Giahyue                                                                                                                                         

There are no official estimates of the number of Sierra Leonean miners working in Liberia but both Sumo and Somah put it to 4,000 in Gbarpolu alone. The county has 164 registered artisanal mining licenses as of January 20, the most in the country.  

Greener Pasture

License holders in Liberia pay more to their workers than employers across the western borders,  which encourages Sierra Leonean miners to come to Liberia according to the miners. For instance, mine owners in Henry Town—the Liberian county’s largest mining community—pay mineworkers the equivalent of 30 percent of the minerals they extract each day which could result in $10, $20 or more a day.

In Sierra Leone mineral licensees are paid a government fixed rate of about $US2.50 a day regardless of how much gold or diamonds they extract.

“Our boys mining here would use some of that money they get from mining to pay for tools. After a contract, they keep the tools for themselves to work on other mines in the future,” explains Momoh Swary, the governor of Henry Town. “But in Sierra Leone, the mine owners give whatever he wants to give them, because he provides the equipment for the job.”

“Many of the miners are cheated, the mine owners do not even give them a percentage but give all of them what he feels is best for them to share among themselves,” says Aloysius Dugba, the national coordinator for the Forum on Extractive Human Rights and Development (FEHRD), an organization advocating for better wages for miners in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leoneans are also in huge demand on Liberian mines due to their reputation as hard workers.

“They know very well that they are in a strange land with no relatives around, so they work hard without [a] day off,” says Eric Roberts, who claims to hold a class C license in Bellekpalamu. His name is not recorded on the mining license registry kept by the Ministry of Mines and Energy.   

Three Sierra Leonean miners work on a goldmine in BelleKpalamu, Gbarpolu County. FrontPage Africa/Mae Azango

Apart from their famous work ethic, illicit Sierra Leonean miners also thrive on the weaknesses of the Ministry of Mines, which is responsible for all mining activities in Liberia. Mining is a huge contributor to the Liberian economy. Contribution from the sector to the Liberia’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased to US$200.90 million in 2019 from US$109.40 million in 2018, according to the World Bank. The sector will also constitute two percent of real GDP growth this year. The ministry has been plagued for years by logistical and personnel challenges to carry out its duties.  It lacks GPS devices, tents and compasses. Sixty-five percent of its inspectors are volunteers, and it has no funds for fieldwork and routine inspection.

Several other factors play, too, according to Assistant Minister for Mining Emmanuel Swen, who denies knowledge of the deaths of the migrant miners.  “The issue is porous borders, the issue of the Ghanaians using their motorized canoes and landing [with Sierra Leonean miners] along our coastal areas with no way to track them, the issue of our locals hosting the foreign nationals because they benefit from their illicit activities and the lack of support for the effective monitoring of the mineral sector,” Swen says in an interview in Monrovia.   

For decades most of Liberia’s 176 border posts have been unmanned and immigration officers have struggled to keep up regular patrol and inspection.  

“It is not humanly possible to have immigration officers mounted at each of those border crossing points,” says Abraham Dolley, LIS press officer. “But what we are doing as an institution is to have community engagement to have town authorities alert LIS of any illegal migrants crossing into Liberia.”

Daniel Gbondo, a policy advisor at the Sierra Leone Ministry of Mines and Mineral Resources in Freetown, the capital, says the relationship between Liberia and Sierra Leone makes it difficult to curb illegal migration and mining in the two countries.    

Djomba Mara, anatural resource consultant, food security and livelihoods specialist with focus on Mano River basin, agrees with Gbondo.  “It is unfortunately a difficult situation to deal with given the widespread and uncontrolled nature of artisanal and small scale mining,” Mara says.

‘I look up to God’

The roads to Sierra Leone’s Northern Province—where the late Sesay hailed from—were inaccessible during the rainy season, so a team of Liberian and Sierra Leonean journalists visited the Eastern Province, where the late Sow was born.   Nobody here in the Kenema District knows about the tragedy in Liberia. A diamond mining hub since the 1930s, Kenema District is about 236 miles from Gbarpolu. In the town of Hangha, few men are digging out dirt from a huge pit filled with muddy water. Other men are in pit sluicing gravels in big sifter-like washers for any trace of diamonds. The townspeople here are shocked by the news.

“We do not know when they are leaving from here to cross into Liberia, so how will we know they are dying?,” says Chief Amara Sonja Bangahun, the chief of Hangha. “It is just that when we do not see a fellow for a while and ask his friends, is then they can say he is gone hustle in Liberia.”

Back in Henry Town, Jenet Koroma, the late Sesay’s widow, has remarried and lives with her new husband and Mbinty—the daughter she had with her deceased spouse, now 12 years old. She has had another child, a two-year-old daughter. 

In the last decade, Mrs. Koroma has tried on four occasions to find the late Sesay’s relatives but has not been successful, she tells me. In 2011, she asked a friend traveling across the border to look for his relatives in Makeni in Sierra Leone’s Northeastern Province. However, her friend could did not deliver the message because the late Sesay’s father was critically ill. On another occasion in 2015, she gave Sesay’s citizen identification card to another person to find his relatives but that also failed. Then she met another Sierra Leonean man in 2019 who promised to inform in the family back in Makeni but he hasn’t left Liberia.

“I [made] all that effort but I was not able to get in contact with Ibrahim Sesay’s family,” Mrs. Kromah says. “I have left everything now. I look up to God.”

This story was collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.