By Too Edwin Freeman
|President Sirleaf poses with Firestone managing director and senior staff, including Ambassador Nyenabo (far left) who's visiting Liberia. (LINA)|
“How come you ain’t got no brothas up on the wall?”
The quote from the classic Spike Lee joint, “Do the Right Thing,” is an apt interpretation of the contradictory optics embodied in the photo above. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf poses with the highest echelon of management at Firestone Liberia and the team is almost exclusively non-Liberian – this, after some 90 years of Firestone’s presence in Liberia! Hence the question… but the optics of the photo represents only a symptom of what’s actually wrong with the picture. The real picture… well, that’s the subject of this piece.
The subject photo was extracted from an article I recently came across while browsing the internet for news about Liberia, as I often do. Published in July of this year by the Liberian News Agency (LINA), there’s a comment ascribed to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the article, which struck me as somewhat interesting, mainly because of its peculiar incongruity. Entitled “Firestone Challenged to Produce Rubber Products in Liberia,” the LINA article reported that, “President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has called on the Management of Firestone Natural Rubber Company to be more vigilant and begin taking steps to produce gloves and other rubber products in Liberia.” Madam Sirleaf reportedly made the comment during remarks following a tour of Firestone’s “Havea Wood Operation Factory situated at Division No. 16,” according to the article.
Now, the interesting part about the comment is that on cursory read, it has the propensity to invoke jingoistic sentiments that could propel the average Liberian to impulsively applaud the President for calling Firestone out! After all, throughout its nearly 90-year presence in Liberia, the company has yet to manufacture a single rubber band in the country! As one who closely follows developments in the rubber and plastics industry however, I found the President’s comments explicitly incongruous, precisely because of another Firestone news story I read in Rubber and Plastics News more than a year ago – published on August 29, 2014, to be exact.
The Rubber & Plastics News article (http://www.rubbernews.com/article/20140829/NEWS/308259988) reported that, “Firestone Natural Rubber Co., a subsidiary of Bridgestone Corp., will cease producing liquid latex at its Liberian plantation in the fourth quarter of 2014 and solely concentrate on the production of block rubber, the company said.” The article went on to quote a company spokesman as saying, “focusing solely on the collection and processing of block rubber for internal use will help reduce the complexity of our Liberian operation and also help us achieve our goal of long-term sustainability at Firestone Liberia”
For anyone who has even a rudimentary awareness of rubber technology, juxtaposition of the two news articles would lead to the logical interpretation of Madam President’s call to Firestone as a classic example of “shutting the door after the horse has left the barn.” The reason for such an inference is obvious when one considers the fact that what Firestone (and every other rubber company in Liberia, for that matter) currently processes in Liberia (block rubber) cannot be used to manufacture gloves and the types of rubber products Madam Sirleaf is calling on the company to produce in Liberia. Latex concentrate, which is what Firestone no longer processes, is the raw required for the manufacturing of gloves, condoms, balloons, and other thin-walled products. Block rubber, on the other hand, is used to manufacture thick-walled products like tires, mats, hoses, and the like.
The circumstance of the President’s call, given the current dynamics at Firestone, could lead one to speculate that she might have been oblivious to the fact that Firestone had shut down its latex processing operation in Liberia. Either that, or no member of her team of ostensive technocrats who accompanied her on the tour, took accountability for explaining to Her Excellency the distinction between latex and block rubber vis-a-vis the manufacture of rubber products. If however, the President was aware of these nuances prior to making her call to the company, then the inference could be that her comment was simply part and parcel of the typical platitudes and prevarications that Liberian Government bureaucrats are noted for when it comes to the substantive issues of national development policies and initiatives.
While the President’s comment might portend all the trappings of a rousing call to action for Firestone, it is practicably constrained by the stark reality that the company has neither the assets nor the capacity in Liberia to engage in the downstream manufacturing of anything from natural rubber. Given the company’s current trajectory of retrenchment in its Liberia operation, as imbedded in the comments by its spokesman about “reducing complexity” and “achieving long-term sustainability,” taking steps to make Her Excellency’s call a reality will require significant course correction by the company. The longstanding obstinacy exhibited towards diversification in Liberia, throughout its 90-year history in the country, runs counterintuitive to the perception that Firestone would even contemplate, much less expend the requisite capital to set up the infrastructure necessary to actualize the President’s call.
This most recent maneuver by Firestone to discontinue the processing of latex concentrate in Liberia lends preponderant credence to the fact that in addition to its conspicuous lack of capacity, the company has neither the commitment nor the inclination to undertake any initiatives that will lead to the manufacture of any type of rubber products in the country. It is therefore the ultimate exercises in utter futility to anticipate that Firestone will resolve to engage in any downstream manufacturing operation in Liberia during this the very twilight of its operation in the country.
The purported “complexity” of Firestone’s Liberia operation presupposes that the company runs a highly intricate and vertically integrated value chain in Liberia. In actuality, the company has never at any time in its 90-year history, engaged in any multifaceted, value-added operation in the country. The removal of non-desirables (pollutants) from rubber by centrifugation prior to exporting the raw material, hardly qualifies as a complex operation, by any definition. It’s worth noting that the manner of disposal or lack thereof for those very pollutants has been a persistent source of much consternation among environmentalists and inhabitants within the vicinity of the company’s processing facilities.
Firestone’s lack of value-added processing of natural rubber has historically been a very disconcerting eccentricity of the company’s 90-year operation in the country and a source of substantial angst among many Liberians. Shamefully though, no Liberian Government administration has ever demonstrated the requisite gravitas to audaciously challenge the company on the issue, with any measure of rectitude.
Reading this very belated and superficial call by President Sirleaf, given the prevailing realities, is evocative of an idiom I heard from many elders, as a kid growing up in Cape Palmas: “If during the rainfall you didn’t fill your bucket, don’t expect that to happen when dew is falling.” The current underlying realities at Firestone should make obvious the fact that the time for the company to engage in the manufacturing of rubber products in Liberia has long come and gone.
What makes the President’s call on Firestone to produce gloves even more contradictory in context is the fact that it was made during remarks that followed her tour of the company’s wood processing facility. The rubber wood processing operation by Firestone came out of the Amended and Restated Concession Agreement (ARCA) signed between the Government of Liberia and Firestone in 2008.
Section 13.1 of the agreement calls for the company to invest $10 million in a rubber wood facility to produce sawn timber, kiln dried lumber and veneer, with employment opportunities for 500 persons.
Section 13.2 indicates that Firestone did agree to work with the Liberian Government in any investigation the Government makes to establish manufacturing facilities in the country which use rubber wood as basic raw material.
In Section 13.3, it is further stipulated that if any manufacturing facility using rubber wood as raw material is established in the country, Firestone will sell rubber wood to such entity at market price.
Section 13 of the ARCA between Firestone and Liberia unmistakably establishes the justifiable underpinning for the Government of Liberia to prioritize the establishment of rubber wood product manufacturing facilities in the country. On that basis alone, after touring the rubber wood processing facility, where Firestone processes raw material (lumber) that it apparently exports, one would have reasonably expected Madam President’s comments to be centered around engaging the company on implementing the tenets of the ascribed provision in order to curtail the wholesale export of the raw material. Rather ironically instead, the President made a call to the company for the manufacture of products for which it no longer processes the required raw material.
The context of President Johnson-Sirleaf’s comment could lead one to surmise that since putting pen to paper more half a decade ago, it is highly unlikely that the Government has committed any substantial energy towards executing the provisions of Sections 13.2 and 13.3 of the ARCA. If this is the case, then that’s a real travesty because it doesn’t require much to appreciate the fact that establishing a successful rubber wood products manufacturing sector in the country (per Section 13.2) will undoubtedly create more meaningful employment opportunities beyond the paltry 500 ostensibly low-wage sawmill jobs Firestone is currently providing. Implementing Section 13 in its entirety will also help to validate a key benefit of the newly revised concession agreement with Firestone, which the Sirleaf Government touts as one of its crowning achievements in the labor sector.
History teaches that no treaty or agreement is worth the paper it’s written on, unless it is comprehensively implemented. Buttressed by the provisions of Section 13, what’s required of Liberia’s policymakers is to bring significant efforts to bear on developing the necessary framework for promoting and regulating investment in the rubber wood industry as an emerging sector within the Liberian economy. The premise of the proposition is that the rubber wood industry is nascent and thus it could be leveraged as a catalyst for broadening the Liberian economy and making the “Made in Liberia” label a reality. Frankly, this is not a very deep concept for policymakers to grasp.
In its approach towards invigorating the rubber industry however, instead of creating a new paradigm that will expand the horizons of possibilities for the industry, the Liberian Government seems fixated on a humpty dumpty strategy which presumes that one can achieve the unfeasible. So now you know… This is exactly What’s Wrong With The picture!
And lest I forget… Madam President, tell Firestone: “We want some brothas up on the wall.”
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org