Top: A collage showing Iroko harvesting activities in October 2022. Picture credit: Iroko Timber and Logging Corporation
By Emmanuel Sherman
KARQUEKPO, Sinoe County – The Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has approved a contract for Iroko Timber and Logging Corporation, a new Nigerian-owned company, to operate the Central Dugbe River Community Forest. The company began logging in the fourth quarter of last year, according to its website and Facebook page.
But there is a problem with Iroko’s Dugbe River deal and operations in the 13,193-hectare forest. Timothy Odebunmi, Iroko’s majority shareholder, is not eligible to conduct logging activities in Liberia over the dishonesty of another company he co-owns.
That firm, Akewa Group of Companies, falsified the tax clearance of a mining company called Tiger Quarry to bid for the Gola Konneh Community Forest in Grand Cape Mount County in 2019. At the time, Akewa paid US$1,000 as a fine for the forgery, a violation of the Revenue Code. Odebunmi holds 50 percent of Iroko’s shares and 20 percent of Akewa’s, according to the articles of incorporation of both firms at the Liberia Business Registry. Iroko’s other shareholders are Samson Odebunmi (45 percent) and Akinsiku Arinkan (5 percent). Abigail Funke Odebunmi (60 percent) and Kenneth Amazeika (20 percent) complete the list of Akewa’s shareholders.
Odebunmi’s co-ownership of Akewa, Iroko, which he co-founded in 2021, should have disqualified the Iroko’s bid for Central Dugbe River. The Regulation on Bidders Qualifications bars individuals whose companies have been convicted or penalized for theft, embezzlement, bribery, tax evasion, false swearing, or forgery. With Akewa having paid a fine for forgery, Odebunmi should not have gotten another logging contract until 2024, according to the regulation.
Akewa with Odebunmi as a shareholder has violated a horde of provisions of forestry laws and regulations. One of the oldest active logging companies, Akewa long line of violations includes its involvement in forestry’s worst post-conflict scandal, in which the FDA criminally awarded 2.5 million hectares of forests to it and other companies. It has a track record of prolonged indebtedness to communities. Currently, it is in an out-of-court settlement with the Beyan Poye Community Forest regarding benefits.
Iroko’s Woes Amid FDA’s Failure
Iroko’s agreement with Central Dugbe River adds to the FDA’s records of failure to enforce forestry legal frameworks. Before then, the FDA had failed to disqualify Akewa over fake tax clearance, which also constitutes perjury under the regulation. It remains Akewa’s only active logging operation, with the Beyan Poye legal issues and the cancelation of a logging contract the company illegally held in Grand Bassa County.
“We prevented Akewa from doing further business until they could provide [their] tax clearance,” said Managing Director Mike Doryen in an interview with The DayLight in June last year. “They rectified it and they paid a fine and that’s how we resumed business with them.” The Bidders Qualification Regulation requires the FDA to disqualify companies that commit forgery and perjury. It did not respond to emailed inquiries for comments.
Assessing the qualification of companies is an important provision of forest management in Liberia. It mandates the FDA to investigate the character of companies and individuals, their financial capacities, and their record of legal compliance.
Iroko’s ineligibility has started to show in its operation. It has abandoned an unspecified number of logs it harvested in October last year. Photographs and a video posted to the company’s website and Facebook page show some of the logs in the forest. Akin George, a representative of the company, confirmed the harvesting in a mobile interview in March.
Logs do not remain where they were harvested for more than one month and two weeks upon harvest, according to the Regulation on Abandoned Logs, Timber and Timber Products. The logs in question have remained in the forest far beyond that statutory period.
George said the company was taking the logs from where they were harvested to another location in the forest. Bartee Togba, the head of the Central Dugbe River’s leadership, said the same. Togba said Iroko began to transfer the logs in late February, some four months after it felled the trees. The forest is a portion of 39,000 hectares and includes a proposed protected area between Grand Kru and Sinoe.
Iroko’s logs add to thousands of abandoned logs across the country, with the FDA taking no known public actions. The abandoned logs regulation mandates the agency to investigate, seize the logs and petition a court to auction them. Penalties for the offense include fines and forfeiture of the contract.
The total volume of the logs, in question, is essential for Iroko to pay the community’s benefits. Last year April, the community signed a 15-year commercial use contract with Iroko Timber Logging Corporation. It promised to build two elementary schools, handpumps, guesthouses and a clinic.
Efforts to establish contact with Timothy Odebunmi did not materialize. There is no trace of his phone number, email address or WhatsApp. In January, George promised to get Timothy Odebunmi to speak to the issue but failed to do so.
George evaded several attempts for an interview on the situation on behalf of the company. The DayLight reached out to George through phone calls and Facebook messages and WhatsApp text messages but to no avail.
The story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).