In Joy FM’s Hotline documentary, Benjamin Tetteh follows the long quest by the people of Ada to manage their most priced resource.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the Provisional National Defense Council took over large part of the Ada Songor Salt Lagoon, following clashes between the people of the area and private inventors. The military government’s intervention has denied the people of Ada of their lagoon from which they fished and harvested salt. And for all these years since the land has been in government’s hands not even a pesewa has been paid to the people as royalty or compensation. Now President John Evans Atta-Mills has announced government’s plan to make the Ada Songor Salt Project a limited liability company. Government intends bringing in private investors to partner it in running the new company. But the people of Ada are questioning their stake in the project. They say government must account for all the royalties owed them over all these years, first.
It was a fateful Friday, the 17th of May, 1985. Salt miners around the Ada Songor Salt Lagoon were already out on their day’s mission; to mine salt from the lagoon. This has been their job for many years, and their very livelihoods depend on it. As early as 8 am work came round that Police and Military men on duty at the Vacuum Salt, were on patrol. This sent shivers down the spine of the miners around. Patrols like this have often resulted in attacks and harrowing cases of atrocities—often meted out to the local miners. This was a military era and government security officers were often brutal, merciless and many would rush to deliver instant justice.
While the security officers chased the local miners from the salt lagoon amid firing of warning shots the miners left and converged at the outskirts of the township of Bonikope, and some, out of anger and frustration, begun to protest against the action of the security.
While this went on a trigger-happy Policeman opened fire- shooting live ammunition into the crowd. A bullet strayed into the Bonikorpey Township and hit two pregnant women. The two women fell down unconscious; one was breathing but the other was not. What followed were shouts for help, and promptly, people came in to help. One of the two pregnant women, Margaret Kuwornu, who fell down died on the spot. The other, Christiana Abbew, was unconscious and was rushed to the Battor hospital and she survived. She tells me her story:
CUE (It was a Friday morning, at about 9am. I had just fetched water to bath. Suddenly, about 12 police vehicles pulled up. The police came out and started firing warning shots. Our people were mining salt at the Songor lagoon then. They first fired in the direction of the Songor. The salt miners started jumping into the lagoon; some were hurt and were wailing. At the time two ladies came running to me; they asked me for water to drink. One of them, Margaret Kuwornu, was pregnant, just like me. Just when I was handing them the water a police officer came closer and aimed his gun at us. He shot and the gun hit Magaret and she fell. )
Before the gunshot a middle-aged man had just returned from the Songor lagoon. He didn’t go there to mine salt. He was there to fish. For hundreds of years the Songor lagoon had not only provided the people of Bonikope with salt for domestic and commercial use, it also provided them with lots of fish which the men catch each time the lagoon got flooded. And it was from the lagoon Nomo Huno Amanor caught his fish. While he was dressing the fish he heard a gunshot. The two pregnant women were right on his compound, and he saw them go down.
Christiana and Margaret were not the only people who suffered at the hands of armed security officers. Others tell harrowing stories of how they were beaten and forced to chew raw salt. They were then forced to drink the brine- the raw salt water on top.
Another victim of Police brutality is Solomon Nartey. He has been carrying bullets in his skin for the past 27 years. In 1985 he was shot in the thigh, and several bullets were lodged in his skin. Now that thigh is deformed, and he says that gunshot ruined his life for good.
CUE: (We were returning from the sea side where we went to sell firewood. We were pushing the wooden truck home when we met some security guards. We were walking on this road behind my house. This is the very road we’ve used for years. Yet, the security didn’t understand why we were walking close to the salt project. One of the guards asked us to drop the truck and leave, but my colleague refused, and one guard shot him in the ankle. Sensing danger I started running for my life. But the guards shot me too in my thigh. They took the truck and left. Up to today, our people call the spot “ Aku nane” or broken leg. )
Today, a statue of Maggie stands at the outskirts of Bonikorpey, a statue that points directly at the Songor lagoon.
History has it that the people of Ada have been winning or mining salt here for nearly 4 centuries. When the lagoon gets flooded either by rain water or from sea water, the people go to fish in it, till the water evaporates and crystalises into salt, pure salt. The Adas consider the Songor a deity, and the lagoon is supervised by a priest, the Libi Wornor. Each time salt formed and was matured for harvest the Libi Wornor announces to the public and any member of the public- not only the people of Ada, would go in and harvest as much bags of salt as they could. The miners then pay a token to the Land owners and the Traditional Council. This has been the tradition for all the years.
The lagoon is 30, 000 acres or 46 square miles. In the early 70s a portion of the lagoon, was leased to two private Investors; Vacuum Salt and Star Chemical. Together, the two companies took about 21,000 acres of the lagoon for commercial salt production, leaving the remaining lagoon for the locals to fish and win salt.
As the two companies realized the viability of the salt business and as their profits shot up issues over the land arose, first between the two companies and then the companies and the local miners. The companies brought in security officers to guard their projects. And as they did their job atrocities were committed, that’s according to the locals. They tell me the security officers denied them access to even the public area where they often went to mine. And the companies also complained some locals had been stealing salt from their concessions. These were the issues that led clashes between security officers and the locals.
Albert Apetorgbor is member of the Songor-owning clans. He was a Cadre during the PNDC regime. He witnessed some of the atrocities perpetrated by the Police and military.
Among the many harrowing cases of atrocities committed by security officers over the Songor, the death of Margaret Kuwornu became the turning point. It provided the evidence that grabbed the attention of the then military regime. There were reports of pregnancies that got terminated after the women were forced to drink salt water, but a lack of evidence gave little credence to such case. So Margaret’s death was the direct evidence to the military government. And the Head of State, Flt. Leut. Jerry John Rawlings personally got involved. He went down to Bonikorpey, and the locals tell me, he himself went to pick the dead body of Margaret into a Police vehicle, at midnight.
Following the death of Maggie, the PNDC regime set up a Committee to look into the affairs of the Songor lagoon. The Committee documented cases of abuse and harassment of residents of the communities around the lagoon. Here are excerpts of the Committee’s report”
“People have been killed in the villages while going about their activities which have no connection with salt winning,
Others have been shot, some killed, either on suspicion of, or because they are winning salt with the lagoon itself away from the salt pans of the companies,
Others, including Chiefs and elders, have been arrested, beaten up or made to chew salt, sometimes only because they have sought to defend the rights of the their people”.
The Committee also found that the persistent presence of uniformed Policemen at the lagoon, was intimidating the local miners. It also expressed shock that the security left the body of Margaret Kuwornu unattended for 14 hours, until midnight when the Head of State came in.
Following the Committee’s work government came in to take the whole lagoon as a state land. It later entered into agreement with the two companies granting them the right to continue working on their concessions. One big change the brought smiles back on the faces of the locals was that their right to mine in the public part of the lagoon was upheld, and the people of Ada have since been grateful to the then head of State, Jerry Rawlings.
The Committee’s work in 1985 and the subsequent changes that took place brought peace to the area, for some time.
What the military regime failed to do then, and what successive governments have failed so far to do, is going the extra mile to take a bold decision in resolving issues over the land. First, there was a recommendation from the Committee for compensation to be paid the people of Ada for the years the Songor lagoon had been in government’s control. Another recommendation was for compensations to be paid to victims of the atrocities committed over Songor. These were not done.
The PNDC government also rejected the committee’s recommendation that ownership of the lagoon be reverted to the people of Ada, while government held the right to administer or run salt operations in the lagoon. Instead, government held the on to the land, and successive administrations maintained the status quo.
Samuel Mensah Mawutor is a Programs Officer with Civic Response. The goup has been working with local miners to seek for their greater participation in the salt mining. He tells me the PNDC regime’s take-over of the lagoon was totally unnecessary.
In 1992 the Ada Songor issue was back in Parliament. This time a new law was passed, PNDC Law 287 that took over the lagoon lands under the management of the two companies, Vacuum salt and Golden Star. The law nullified previous contracts signed between the companies and government, thus placing the land in full control of government. The PNDC Law 287 states:
The lands specified are hereby vested in the President in trust for the owners and for the development of a salt industry and related activities.
Over all the years since this law was passed there were NDC one and two, NPP one and two, and now, the NDC is back in power. Yet, no single government has yet got the guts to account to the land owners, for whom the President holds the land in trust.
In 2001 Lands, Forestry and Mines Minister, Dr. Kweku Afriyie announced that the NPP government would repeal the PNDC Law 287 and revert the land to the owners. That was 2001, and today the law still stands intact. The common belief here in Ada is the Songor has been a key source of funding the party in power, a view highlighted by Mawutor of Civic Response.
And this perception is understandable. For as long as proceeds from the Songor has never been made public, and control of the Songor salt purse is directly handled by the Mines minister, it leaves a lot of doubts in the minds of people.
In the heat of the 2008 elections Presidential Candidate of the ruling NPP, Nana Akufo Addo visited Ada. He spoke about the potentials of the Songor and government’s plans for it. Later I caught up with him and he shared his thoughts on the value of salt to Ghana’s economy.
CUE: NANA ADDO
Current Mines Minister, Mike Hammah called salt the white gold.He told me salt, to him, is better than oil.Why? It is cheap to produce, and sea water is its only raw material. It is estimated that Nigeria alone spends 2 several million Dollars importing salt, sometimes from Latin America. And Ada Songor can supply more than that. Currently, salt from the Ada is exported to Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and other West African countries. Last year the Ada Songor salt project, which is managed by a three-member IMC elected by the President, produced over 60,000 tonnes of salt. Here is the IMC Chairman, Col. Dotei.
Now the NDC government, which has also promised to develop the Songor lagoon has announced plans to transform the Songor salt project as a limited liability company. Here is Vice President, John Mahama speaking at Ada in August last year.
CUE: ( Government will therefore tackle the issue of the salt industry to capture the West Africa market and even beyond and ensure the ff: diversification of the export base of the economy with the inclusion of export of salt and its derivatives, in substantial quantities to increase foreign exchange earnings. In the mean time government is in the process of transforming the Ada Songor salt project, which is currently being managed under an interim management committee, into a commercially viable limited liability company. The long term objective of this is to establish a large modern salt industry in the Ada area. This would enable optimization of salt production and serve as catalyst for the general development of the area, creation of jobs, and raising of the standards of the people.)
This plan is coming at the tail end of the party’s four-year mandate. And so far there is no clear plan for the transformation’ an issue of concern to the people of Ada. I asked Mines Minister, Mike Hammah for the latest on government’s proposal for Songor.
CUE: MIKE HAMMAH
So to the mines minister let there be the law which will set up a limited liability company first, before the stakeholders or partners are determined. So what happens to the PNDC law which took away chunk of the Songor? The mines minister says he will consult for answers.
As for the people of Ada they say they will never sit down to be cheated again. This phrase was very popular here in the PNDC’s military era. And it is surfacing again. Albert Apetorgbor, who was a cadre in that era, says Adas will no longer sit idle and be deprived of their asset.
CUE: (If anybody is interested in the resource the person must come- the investors must come to see the owners. So why should you say that in the name of private investment in Ghana I should give away my resource to the investor depriving me of my wealth. Does it sense? It doesn’t make sense. You see when government is behaving that way then government is creating a cycle of poverty. When government creates that cycle of poverty the investor will do the investment, take the profit and repatriate the money)
Mr. Apetorgbor’s suggestion is highlighted by Mawutor of Civic Response. Their argument is if the owners of lands in which gold and other minerals were discovered were made partners in the mining of the minerals Ghanaians in mining communities would have been better off, and mining would have benefited the nation more.
Another pending issue is the whereabouts of monies owed the people of Ada through royalties and compensation. And Mawutor wants answers for that.
CUE: ( Royalty is due to the landowners. People who own the resource are supposed to be paid their royalties. And therefore if it has lasted for thousand years and we still have problems we still should have the money intact. The money should be there for them that they are entitled to it)
I asked Col. Dotei of the Songor IMC where the royalties go.
So the mines ministry receives the royalties, but fails to pay the part due the land owners. I ask the mines minister if the ministry has ever paid any royalties to the land owners of Ada.
As for those who suffered at the hands of security officers over Songor Mr. Apetorgbor wants them compensated.
Before Margaret Kuwornu’s death she left behind a young boy. He is now in his twenties. He tells me, it saddens him that the resource for which his mother died has still not benefited them.
For now the people of Ada are patiently waiting for government’s next move. They hope the Mills administration will muster courage to deal with the issues over Songor, once and for all. But, as government delays Nene Korley of the Tekpebiawe Clan says the Ada Songor deity will continue to fight for the people of Ada until justice prevails.
Benjamin Tetteh for Joy FM’s Hotline