The landmark Congo Bridge in the eastern town of Koidu is at the centre of a dispute that has sharply divided the people of the diamond-rich Kono district.

A section of the community, with the apparent backing of government, are defending mining operations under and around the bridge which is thought to be sitting on a huge reserve of diamond deposits.

They say gravel underneath the bridge has served as a magnet for illegal miners whose activities have seen multiple pits dug around it, thereby compromising its structural foundation.

But civil society, environmentalists and the National Minerals Agency are opposed to the move. They are already calling it “town mining” which, going by the 2009 Mines and Minerals Act, makes it illegal.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the National Minerals Agency (NMA), and the civil society group Campaign for Just Mining (CJM) are the leading voices against the move. They say it has the tendency to spark off conflict in the district.

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Congo Bridge is situated along the main highway leading into Koidu. It has been the subject of repeated acts of illegal mining. The current dispute emerged amidst ongoing construction work on the road.

According to the Resident Minister East, Karamoh Kabba, leaving the bridge untouched will only serve as a recipe for continuous illegal mining activities which means the rehabilitated road will not last long. He told Politico that the disagreement over the issue had attracted the attention of President Ernest Bai Koroma. He said he led a delegation comprising all stakeholders including representatives from the two main political parties, to State House, where they discussed the issue with the President. He said President Koroma subsequently requested the involvement of the relevant line ministries – Mines and Minerals, Works and Infrastructure, and Local Government. He would, however, not say whether the president actually approved of the mining activity.

But presidential spokesman, Abdulai Bayraytay said the president had nothing to do with the mining. “The President is not responsible for issuing permits for mining, the NMA is responsible,” he said.

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Ibrahim Sahr Hammed Bockarie, District Coordinator of Campaign for Just Mining (CJM), described the move as an “utter violation” of the Mines and Minerals laws.

Politico learned that the Freetown-registered Pluto Mining Company, which is owned by Israeli businessman, Max Brandwayn, has been granted permission to mine the bridge.

Mr Brandwayn did not respond to either calls or text messages from Politico. But CJM’s Bockarie said he’d confronted the Israeli who told him that he had the approval of President Koroma and stakeholders in the district.

“His claim of support from the President is no secret. He tells everyone that, all the time,” Bockarie said.

Karamoh Kabba acknowledged the involvement of Brandwayn, noting that he was the “consensus choice for the people of Kono” because they knew him as an investor and a philanthropist. The minister also admitted instructing the Yamba Motor’s Garage to vacate its area of business and make way for the mining operation. He said he did so with the agreement of all stakeholders. He also said they’d agreed that after the mining was completed, Yamba Motors would reoccupy its space with a brand new garage built for the owner.

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“My job is to facilitate the aspiration of the people,” he said. CJM’s Bockarie however insisted that the involvement of the president, his minster and other stakeholders in the “illegal mining” activity “rings a loud bell on misrule and bad governance”, something “even the lawless Revolutionary United Front did not do during the 11 years of interregnum.”

Section 36 of the Mines and Minerals Act of 2009 says any mining activity within a radius of 200 metres from a town is a crime and is punishable by law. But in Koidu, town mining has become a persistent phenomenon. There are strings of mined-out pits dotted in many swampy areas in and around the town.

About 250 metres from the town centre to the current site under dispute, the police have established two checkpoints. The first one is manned by heavily-armed OSD officers, and the second one – closer to the mining site – is manned by youths of Tankoro Chiefdom.

Similar checkpoints have also been seen within the same distance between Koakoyima Town and Small Lebanon, the vicinity of the Congo Bridge.

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The armed security guards, according to sources and as have been verified by Politico, prevent vehicles, motor bikes and pedestrians from accessing the site.

Arnold Warren Nottige, Manager of NMA in Kono District, complained in an interview with Politico that his mines monitoring officers had been confronted by the security guards when they attempted to stop the mining activities. “[It] is illegal and my office has condemned it regardless of who was involved in it,” he said.

Kelfala Kamorba Dabor, Manager of EPA in Kono, added his voice to the outpouring of condemnation, describing the mining as “illegal, worrisome and environmentally unfriendly.” He said they were perturbed by the aggressiveness of police officers guarding the site and the way they were “manhandling” people and public officers who visited the site to perform their official duties.

The dispute and the ongoing mining activity have put to a standstill the ongoing road work.

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Samuel Augustine Bulli, District Coordinator of the Office of National Security (ONS) in Kono, told Politico that a special meeting had been convened to discuss the issue of the portion of land. He said it was agreed at the meeting that before tarmacking the road, the bridge should be mined out and the gravel removed to prevent further mining activity after the completion of the road work. He said it was at that meeting that it was also recommended for the main highway to be diverted to Kensay community while the mining was happening.

Bulli however refused to identify the authorities that were in attendance at the said meeting. But he said in attendance were nine of the 14 Paramount Chiefs in the district, as well as the AIG, East, Alfred Karrow Kamara and several local Kono politicians.

The mining activities started on 3 June and covers over 200 metres on the camber of the line between 555 Spot and Lebanon. The miners use heavy-duty machinery.

Residents of Koakoyima and its environs, especially pupils, are already feeling the pinch. Some of them told Politico that the diversion of the road had caused an increase in the cost of transportation to and from school.

Agnes Sia Kamanda, a JSS 3 pupil of the Koidu Girls’ Secondary School, said she now has to pay Le6,000 to and from school, double what she used to pay.

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Komba Mondeh, an SS2 pupil who attends the Ansarul Islamic Boys’ Secondary School from Koakoyima, said he now has to walk a longer distance because of the diversion.

Chief Safea Doe, Assistant Town Chief of Koakoyima, defended the mining. He said: “30% of the proceeds will be allocated to Tankoro Chiefdom for development activities.”

The Chairman of the Kono District Youths Council, who also doubles as a Board Member for NMA, Melvin Konguwa Allieu, also expressed belief that it would benefit the district with tangible development projects. He said the Israeli businessman had promised to construct a multi-purpose youth complex on the site for youths after the mining.