Author interview – Fenda Akiwumi speaks about ‘Global incorporation and local conflict: Sierra Leonean mining regions’

The third issue of Antipode‘s 44th volume is out now. We start on an introspective note with interventions on the sixth International Conference of Critical Geography and knowledge production and political commitment, before revisiting Melissa Wright’s wonderful Antipode RGS-IBG lecture. After that we have Fenda Akiwumi’s ‘Global incorporation and local conflict: Sierra Leonean mining regions‘ – the first of 22 superb papers in the issue.

Here we catch up with Fenda, learn a bit about the paper and see what’s next from her…

Why did you decide to write ‘Global incorporation and local conflict’?

I have been working as a researcher and consultant in the Sierra Leone mining industry since 1987.  I started out in hydrogeology / water management / environmental consultancy in the rutile mining area.  I soon became aware of the many other factors – political, economic, and socio-cultural – that are relevant to my work.  Things I would know if I were an anthropologist, for example.  My eureka moment, as it were, was when I came across the following quote by a colonial water expert in East Africa in the 1930s called F. Debenham.  He said: “the water professional must have a wider view than his original training would of itself give him, since he is concerned not only with the existence of water but its potential uses. He therefore finds himself called upon to estimate social, economic and even political values in his work, and these judgments may often be of greater actual importance than his purely scientific training in finding or measuring water”.

What’s the central concern of the paper, and why is it important?

The central concern is that there are some historic root causes to conflict in Sierra Leonean mining regions that are not being adequately addressed.  There are historic structural-constraints to development of the mineral industry – core-periphery relations at several scales.  As long as this remains the case I feel conflict will continue.  It might be managed but not resolved.

What is it that draws you, personally, intellectually and politically, to this topic?

I think I have always been socially conscious – concerned about things like fairness and respect for people.  Even as a child:  As a 9 year old, I can remember being one of the leaders of a small group of 6th graders at my elementary school, University Primary School who got one of our parents, Mrs Patricia Oyolu to type up a protest letter to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Nigeria at Nnsukka, Sir Francis Ibiam which we all signed.  We had heard that our principal Mr Samuel Akpadiok whom we all loved was going to be fired for political reasons.  We put pressure on our parents who took up the issue at PTA, and he did not get fired. I still remember the thank you letter he wrote to all students and parents which he ended with: there never was a greater testimony.  I had to ask my father what testimony meant!

Inequities and injustices in mining regions of Sierra Leone are glaringly obvious.  As I would observe the changing environment and people, I’d think – suppose this was me?  My house, my land, my sacred places – how would I feel?  Seeing the remains of a village that has just been relocated for mining can be quite disturbing.  I still have images in my mind.  In one case, a broken clay cooking pot next to three fire stones with the ashes still there, a wilting banana tree with a head of bananas 20 feet away.  That was all that was left of a 200 year old historic village.

How does your paper relate to current affairs and matters of concern?

I think conflict issues in mining areas persist worldwide.  Right now the Keystone Pipeline controversy in North America is on-going.  The weak bargaining power of developing countries such as Sierra Leone in the mining sector.  The poor implementation of legislation that might protect people is also a problem.  The lack of financial resources to monitor and control what goes on in mining areas.  This is not new information by any means, but it hasn’t been truly addressed.  I think one of the major constraints is not reconciling the dual governance systems in postcolonial countries – customary and statutory – in an effective way.  Different ways of seeing land and water resources, and different approaches to managing them.  In spite of recent efforts at reform, mining statutory legislation that is truly sensitive to, and respectful of, this cultural diversity that is the reality of Africa is still largely absent.  Major legislative reform of colonial era laws is needed.  Some clauses and contradictions in Sierra Leone laws still on the books are mind-boggling.

What are your paper’s implications for praxis? How can the knowledge you have generated help change or shape the world in progressive ways?

I think one of the biggest problems for praxis is that we do not always fully investigate the root causes of current day problems/issues that we are trying to address.  Yet, a historic context is very important because it gives a better understanding of problems, and hopefully, better ways to address them.  How the structural constraints of the global economic system mirror locally in mining villages/communities is something an economist might not think about.  But if better informed, might this knowledge lead to better Corporate Social Responsibility, for example?

What sort of reaction do you hope your paper will get, both within and beyond the academy?

I hope people will see the importance of a holistic approach to analysing such conflict problems.  And also, the importance of addressing a problem at several scales – local, national, global – to see the interconnections.  Some days I feel like I’m masquerading as an anthropologist in my writings.  On other days, a political scientist!  Like what Debenham said, I guess.

What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?

I didn’t think of an audience.  I just wrote it as I saw it, really.  But I think it will benefit a variety of professionals.  And lay people, too, who want to be informed.  Policy makers, obviously.  But I think scientists like me need to be aware of all these issues which can impact or hinder our work.

What’s your current project? What’s next?

I am currently working on a book manuscript about strangers, indigenes, land rights, and conflict in Sierra Leone resource extraction areas in historic and present day context.  I talk a little bit about the stranger in my Antipode paper but it will be the conceptual framework and subject of the whole book.  I’m planning on finishing it this year and, hopefully finding a publisher.

Many thanks to Fenda for speaking with us.