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Of African “Traditional Leaders” and Mining Licenses

19 february 2009

Although often overlooked by mining companies, and most international development organizations, chiefs and other traditional leaders (kings) still wield considerable power in many African countries — despite the rise of elected governments, bureaucracies, and other apparatus of the post-colonial state.

Donald Ray, the University of Calgary Professor of Political Science, speaking of the increased role of traditional leaders in African governance, recollects how in the mid-1970s, being a young doctoral student, he was studying rural settlement schemes in Zambia. All of a sudden, he says, one of the schemes ground to a halt when the local chief showed up and told them to stop. He controlled the land and had not been consulted.

It is true of most African countries that chiefs play a pivotal role as far as the governance of their local communities is concerned and organizations that blindly underestimate their potential will reach a dead end.

For instance, in South Africa, the country’s Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica was recently forced to put on hold a license awarded to an Australian company, Mineral Resources Commodities, that was due to mine titanium at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast, after villagers opposed the move. Sonjica later admitted that the consultation process into the planned multi-billion rand titanium mining project at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast was “flawed”.

The Zambian Parliament in 2007 also noted that although there was no particular requirement to consult traditional authority on whether a mining license should be issued or not, failure to consult chiefs had often created conflicts. “Now, we are working very closely with traditional authorities. In future, we would like to enshrine that in the Law, that is, to consult traditional authorities before issuance of mining rights in their areas,” said one Member of Parliament identified only as Dr. Mwansa.

The ability of Chief Wombassa Obojo Del Um Bongo IV, heading the Congo's monarchy, to make several rulings over the governance of his subjects (people) shows that he has a strong influence on who can operate any business venture in his area, therefore making it important for any prospective investor and indeed the government, to make consultations with him.

Apart from the monarchy, just like in any African country there are traditional leaders or chiefs that govern village politics in Congo and these are very influential so that any efforts to by-pass them when planning for any investment in their villages, would be heavily frustrated.

Traditional leaders in Zimbabwe, who have their own council and are represented in parliament, are also powerful in their governing areas. The chiefs who have strong ties with the ruling party, Zanu PF are influential for they are the ones who allocate land titles in their villages, so it is also critical that investors approach them before they start any project.

In Ghana, the Houses of Chiefs participated in delicate questions over land ownership. Foreign and domestic investors are reported to have complained that it was tough for them to obtain land titles. They pressured the government to change the system from one based on communal land tenure — involving ownership by a chief or the head of an extended family — to a form of private ownership. In response, "the government approached the National House of Chiefs to examine this issue. The National House of Chiefs concluded that for a variety of reasons, it would be too socially disruptive: it could result in the creation of a landless class.

Virtually every Ghanaian has rights to some land. Without its customary land tenure system, Ghana may have faced an impossible situation when resettling one million former citizens who were expelled from Nigeria in 1983.

African governments are now trying to work closely with traditional authorities by consulting them before any issuance of mining rights in their areas. They have also realized that failure to do so will cause unnecessary delays in the commencement of developmental projects or investments in their countries.

The importance of this problem may be illustrated by the story of one geologist, which used to work in African countries for more then 25 years. А couple of years ago, he says, in one of the African countries while we were busy making geological survey, we found a big deposit of diamonds. We were forced to dig huge trenches for the bore on two sides of the river because we were aiming to continue working in dry riverbed. We killed lots of crocodiles, whose habitat was in this wild river. After we finished the cleaning process we came close to the most exiting moment – we started digging. After we had removed the top layer of sand, everything started shining like in a dream. There were lots of diamonds there. After that the local people found out about our discovery and were really fast “to fly to our assistance.” They were filling their bags with diamonds and gravel, fighting securities, and the lucky ones who managed to get back to the village were selling the bags for USD700 - that was the price for the bag, no matter its contents and quantity. The new group of security guards which was sent there to help was also useless because as soon as they arrived and saw all the treasures they completely forgot about their work and started to collect diamonds. We got absolutely nothing from that project after we spent so much time and money.

Veronica Novoselova, Rough&Polished African Bureau Editor in Namibia