Is there even a way for a Western millionaire to ethically run an African mine? This is what Jeffrey Wright, now famous for starring on a show about old-timey prospectors, set out to prove when he started a "conflict-free mining" project in West Africa. But like a celebrity who finds out that their line of sweatpants is being stitched by Vietnamese toddlers, Wright soon found it hard to not fall into the typical ethical pit trap of the preferred profession of pith helmeted colonialists.
After partnering with an African mercenary he met on the set of Ali, Wright founded Taia Lion Resources, a gold exploration company dedicated to "conflict-free mining" in Sierra Leone, the African nation then ranked dead last on the UN Human Development Index. Wright managed to convince its government to lease them vast tracts of land near the Guinean border, which some surveyors reckoned were laced with billions of dollars worth of gold and chromite.
But Taia wanted to be a generous mining master, paying above average Sierra Leone wages (so, over a buck fifty a day) and promising to put 2-3% of the company's profits back into the local communities. They even offered the local Penguia chiefdom a silent stake in the company -- without any real power and in exchange for putting their small-time prospectors to work discovering the precious veins they could no longer call their own.
It soon became obvious to the Sierra Leoneans that whatever Wright's good intentions were by having impoverished Africans sift for gold, it wasn't going to pan out like that. Despite his many promises of wealth and prosperity, Wright and his partners never managed to drive their mining concern into the ground. (In their business, is a bad thing). Unable to hit actual paydirt, Taia's mining concern began to cave and the company had to start tightening its belt. Not that the miners of this ethical African mine had any belts to begin with. The Sierra Leonean workers soon began complaining of missed wages and not getting the protective work clothing they had requested -- something Wright's detractors qualified as pretty conflicting to his conflict-free mining promise.
Wright, a self-proclaimed "radical capitalist," didn't address these issues by compensating his African workers for the broken promises, but by using his great oratory skills to smooth things over with his detractors. But it turns out that Wright isn't as charming and soft-spoken off-screen. When he traveled to Penguia, their ruler got so sick of Wright's phony Hollywood schmoozing that he declared: "When you have a fine lady who is hungry, and you say you love her, that is not going to be working with this lady." When invited to talk about ethical mining during the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2014, he dedicated a quarter of his speech to denounce a New York Times expose on his wonky ethical track record, claiming that the greatest challenge of working in a remote Sierra Leone gold mine was "the negative stereotyping narratives like that in the New York Times article" and not, say, being denied protective gear or a salary from your six-figure Western management.
While Wright has distanced himself from Taia since then, social media doesn't forget. Often, the actor finds himself being called out on his robber baron background whenever he tries to high road other activists. Much to the enduring chagrin of Wright, who tends to respond to his detractors with personal attacks and cyberstalking ...
Proving that Jeffrey Wright is much more diligent when it comes to digging up dirt than paying the Sierra Leoneans he gets to do it for him.
For Cedric's despicable collection of conflict tweets, do follow him on Twitter.
Top Image: William Vest-Lillesoe via Flickr/HBO