Dryblower on the warning signals blowing off Africa's mining industry

IF foot shooting was an Olympic sport then Dryblower reckons the gold, silver and bronze medals would be won by African countries.
Dryblower on the warning signals blowing off Africa's mining industry Dryblower on the warning signals blowing off Africa's mining industry Dryblower on the warning signals blowing off Africa's mining industry Dryblower on the warning signals blowing off Africa's mining industry Dryblower on the warning signals blowing off Africa's mining industry


Tim Treadgold

The only problem for the judges would be separating the contestants in an event where so many acts of utter stupidity are being committed.

Front-runner for gold, but only by a whisker, is Guinea, which appears to have blown its chances of developing a world-class iron ore industry by repeatedly changing the rules to the point where big mining companies are heading for the exit.

Not far behind, but probably destined to earn a silver medal for foolish decisions, is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is considering laws which will increase the government’s share of new mines from 5% to 35% - without any compensation.

South Africa, the continent’s mining powerhouse, is heading for bronze as it strangles a once great industry with higher costs and union militancy which has done more than kill striking workers, it is killing investment.

Egypt, Kenya and Mali are also in the running for medals in a self-destructive event which some outsiders thought had been banned decades ago.

Greed is the cause of African mining’s latest descent into trouble and while international mining companies active on the continent would like to pretend that it’s not happening you don’t have to look too hard to see that it is.

For Dryblower, an observer of African mining for the past 40 years, recent events are as predictable as they are regrettable.

Defenders of the continent will condemn anyone who raises the issue of “unsafe Africa” but from the perspective of a potential investor there is now so much smoke coming out of so many African countries that a clear and alarming pattern of wealth destruction can be seen.

Before a detailed look at Guinea’s gold-medal performance, consider the latest news that includes:

Egypt, where a legal fight has broken out over Centamin’s Sukari goldmine, which could see the Australian-born but now London-based company lose its major asset, a possibility that saw Centamin’s share price crash by 40% in a day. Questionable backroom deals lie at the heart of what’s happening, but it would be a courageous investor who gets too close to Egypt while it goes through a period of dramatic political change.

Kenya, without warning, signed up for the new trend in African government to snatch a 35% stake in all new mines, without paying a cent for the stake, no matter how much an explorer had invested. It is a guaranteed way to frighten foreign investors, such as Base Resources, which also suffered a 40% share price collapse.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, which is also demanding a 35% equity interest, plus higher royalties, plus higher taxes.

Guinea, however, takes the prize for the greatest act of wealth destruction caused by rampant greed and dodgy government decisions which has already sucked in Rio Tinto and Brazil’s mining giant Vale.

A seemingly never-ending saga of rottenness, the truth about Guinea is slowly seeping out and when fully told has the potential to cost the big miners billions of dollars, while also scorching a few reputations.

The latest twist in the Guinea tale was a decision by Vale to mothball its planned $US1.3 billion Zogota mine in the area best known as Simandou.

Officially, Vale was walking off the job to focus on opportunities at home – in much the same way that BHP Billiton dropped its interest in Guinea, saying that iron ore opportunities were better at home in Australia.

That leaves Rio Tinto as the last big company standing, just as the dirty deals in Guinea start to get an airing, courtesy of a newly appointed government committee examining the sequence of events behind the Simandou fiasco that looks like this:

Rio Tinto signs a deal to explore Simandou more than a decade ago under a deal with then dictator Lansana Conte, who died in 2008;

Shortly after Conte’s death, the new government of Guinea accused Rio Tinto of not doing enough, expropriating half its tenements and awarding them to a company associated with Israeli diamond dealer Benny Steinmetz;

Steinmetz then sells his half share of Simandou to Vale for $US2.5 billion;

The iron ore price falls sharply. Vale says it’s going home; a decision which comes around the same time the new government committee starts to investigate what happened at Simandou.

Getting to the bottom of the Simandou deals will not be easy, but it is significant that the investigation process is being backed by billionaire investor George Soros, who is reported to have written to Vale and the government of Guinea listing the allegations of corruption.

No one will come out of the Simandou situation with honour. Rio Tinto might get back the full deposit, but the window of opportunity to develop is closing.

The big loser will be Guinea, which has blown a chance to have a new wealth-creating industry.

As for the rest of Africa?

Well, just add Simandou to what’s happening at Sukari, or in the platinum mines of South Africa and the mines which will not now be developed across the continent because greed took over – again!

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