Président de la Guinée et président en exercice de l’Union Africaine (2017-2018), Alpha Condé suggère, d’une réunion à l’autre, de couper le cordon ombilical entre l’Afrique et l’Europe. Il ne faut surtout pas le prendre à ses mots. Car il dit le contraire de ce qu’il pense, et pense le contraire de ce qu’il dit. M. Condé ne formule pas là un souhait sincère, ni même un voeu pieux. Il se lance plutôt dans une rengaine cynique, une manoeuvre fourbe et une tactique trompeuse.
Président bavard et brouillon
Alpha Condé voudrait faire accroire l’Afrique est désormais majeure. Malheureusement il ne fournit pas de données pour étayer son bavardage et sa démagogie. Pis, il feint d’ignorer la dépendance systématique de son régime vis-à-vis de pilleurs tels que le Groupe Bolloré. Par dessus-tout le “professeur” refuse de tenir compte de la faiblesse systémique du continent par rapport aux économies étrangères. En effet tous les voyants clignotent au rouge vif en Afrique :
Déclin des systèmes d’éducation et de recherche
Marginalisation du paysannat
Affaiblissement du réseau de santé
Non-industrialisation, avec pour causes et conséquences : la faiblesse de la production énergétique (domestique et industrielle), le manque d’eau potable, etc.
Exclusive et excessive présence des industries extractives (mines, pétrole, bois)
Importation déséquilibrée des produits (principaux et secondaires) de consommation
Mise à l’écart de l’ordre financier mondial et des marchés de capitaux
M. Condé a donc beau jeu de se démener et voyager. Il parle et se déplace dans le vide. Déboussolé et déphasé, il brandit le spectre maudit de Sékou Touré, qu’il voudrait imiter —comme le tueur Moussa Dadis Camara —, de manière sélective, oppressive et versatile.
Le discours pseudo-nationaliste de M. Conté expose son manque de stratégie. Brouillon à souhait, il enfonce la Guinée dans la paupérisation, et ce, au nom de ses médiocres intérêts personnels et familiaux. Mais sa rhétorique est contredite et annulée par l’appauvrissement croissant de l’Afrique et de la Guinée. Mais son idéologie tronquée jure avec le quotidien des Guinéens. Les citoyens ploient sous les calamités : mauvaise gouvernement, violations des droits de l’homme, corruption, impunité, etc. En dernière analyse, Président Alpha Condé n’est qu’un pion. Consentant dans ce rôle, il accepte allégrément la manipulation par ses tuteurs et bailleurs globaux et/ou régionaux.
Il suffit de lire l’article ci-dessous, publié hier par Jeune Afrique, pour mesurer l’ampleur des machinations du chef de l’Etat et de son entourage, ainsi que l’étendue de la débâcle et de la désespérance de ses populations guinéennes.
Le journaliste Mathieu Olivier est le signataire du document. Il n’a pas honte d’employer la désignation “palais Sékoutouréya” : illégitime et imméritée, illicite et illégale. Il devrait plutôt écrire Palais de la présidence de la république. Comme l’Elysée à Paris, l’immeuble est le siège d’une institution : la branche exécutive de l’Etat. Propriété publique et impersonnelle, aucun nom individuel ne doit lui être attaché. Surtout pas celui de Sékou Touré !
Tierno S. Bah
Bras de fer de titans entre Soros et Steinmetz autour d’une mine géante en Guinée
En plaçant ses apôtres de la transparence au plus près du cabinet présidentiel de la Guinée, George Soros a écarté un de ses ennemis jurés. Une stratégie bien rodée dont Jeune Afrique dévoile les coulisses.
« J’essaie de t’appeler mais tu ne réponds à aucun de tes numéros, y compris ton portable. » Ce 27 avril 2013, Alpha Mohamed Condé est inquiet. Le fils du chef de l’État guinéen tente de joindre Scott Horton, avocat américain de DLA Piper, pour l’entretenir d’une histoire que l’agence Bloomberg s’apprête à écrire, et qui semble embarrasser la présidence. La ligne ne passe pas. « Alpha Mohamed » se rabat sur sa messagerie électronique, en espérant être plus chanceux. Un reporter de Bloomberg à Conakry travaille en effet sur un article concernant un accord passé entre la Guinée et le Liberia pour l’évacuation, via Monrovia, d’une partie du minerai issu du mont Nimba.
Or, Conakry veut éviter que cette information ne revienne aux oreilles des grandes sociétés minières présentes en Guinée, qui sont elles aussi tentées d’utiliser la voie libérienne plutôt que de financer un « corridor central » menant à Conakry – ce que souhaiteraient les autorités guinéennes. « Il est extrêmement important que cette histoire ne sorte pas », explique Scott Horton dans un e-mail au fils du président et au ministre des Mines, Mohamed Lamine Fofana, ce même 27 avril. Son objectif : corriger le tir en ajustant les déclarations du ministre, et ne pas donner l’impression d’un « feu vert » pour la potentielle exportation du fer de la mine de Simandou par le Liberia.
Dans les secrets du cabinet DLA
DLA Piper n’est pas n’importe quel cabinet. Il a parmi ses clients George Soros, le célèbre milliardaire américain, qui en a fait son relais en Guinée. Quant à Scott Horton, il n’est pas non plus n’importe quel avocat. Collaborateur de Soros, ce natif de Greenville, en Caroline du Sud, a connu le milliardaire il y a trente ans, à l’époque où ce dernier avait le regard porté sur l’Europe de l’Est.
C’est d’ailleurs George Soros qui, en avril 2011, a fait en sorte que la route de Scott Horton croise celle d’Alpha Condé, le nouveau président guinéen, élu en décembre 2010. Ce dernier et George Soros se connaissent déjà. Ils se sont rencontrés par l’intermédiaire de Bernard Kouchner, ancien ministre français des Affaires étrangères.
Le milliardaire n’hésite donc pas à demander à son ami Horton, 55 ans à l’époque, d’aller rencontrer « Alpha », fraîchement installé au palais de Sékoutoureya. Le président, explique Soros, veut lancer des réformes, notamment dans les mines, secteur qu’il soupçonne d’avoir alimenté les caisses noires de son prédécesseur Lansana Conté, et il faut l’y aider. Le rôle de DLA Piper en Guinée est officiellement, et avec l’appui des ONG « sorosiennes », d’accompagner le gouvernement dans ses réformes. Il lance pour cela des enquêtes, dont une partie est menée par un certain Steven Fox, ancien du département d’État américain qui a travaillé pour la CIA, dirigeant de la société d’évaluation des risques Veracity Worldwide.
Les investigations mettent au jour des faits de corruption dans le passage des contrats miniers, qui sont donc réétudiés. DLA Piper, qui a rédigé le rapport, pointe en particulier le groupe minier BSGR, du Franco-Israélien Beny Steinmetz, accusé d’avoir obtenu les droits sur le gisement de Simandou par « corruption apparente ». Or Steinmetz n’est, lui non plus, pas n’importe qui : il est l’ennemi juré de George Soros.
La rivalité entre les deux hommes remonte à près de vingt ans, en Russie, en 1998. Depuis, les épisodes se succèdent, avec d’un côté le groupe Steinmetz, qui utilise jusqu’en 2012 l’agence de communication FTI, et de l’autre les hommes de Soros. DLA Piper a-t-il été l’instrument du milliardaire américain dans une guerre personnelle ? Toujours est-il que, dès le début de la présidence d’Alpha Condé, l’affrontement gagne la Guinée, où, chez DLA Piper, on s’emploie à contrer la menace BSGR, n’hésitant pas à « inspirer » la stratégie de la présidence guinéenne.
Une cellule est mise en place. En font partie Alpha Mohamed Condé, Mohamed Lamine Fofana, ministre des Mines, et Ibrahima Kalil Kaba, le directeur de cabinet du président, proposé comme coordinateur. Leur « coach » : Scott Horton. Le 1er juin 2013, c’est lui qui fait le point, par e-mail, à cette petite équipe sur la stratégie à adopter dans le secteur minier. Ce diplômé de l’université du Texas, qui échange de façon régulière avec George Soros, va droit au but.
« La Guinée passe constamment à côté d’opportunités en étant trop lente à réagir et en étant instrumentalisée par des personnes comme M. Steinmetz », estime-t-il. Et de leur conseiller une offensive fondée sur le fait que « la Guinée est une victime de Steinmetz ». Il va plus loin : « Nous sommes très proches maintenant d’obtenir des informations selon lesquelles Steinmetz finance et radicalise l’opposition, les poussant à envisager un changement de régime sans élections. […] Je pense que ce serait un coup majeur de la part de la présidence. »
Info ou intox ? À l’époque, cela fait en tout cas plusieurs mois que DLA Piper réfléchit à une stratégie, notamment via les médias, visant à contrer « les attaques de BSGR ». Alors que le gouvernement est empêtré dans l’affaire du prêt guinéen contracté auprès de la société Palladino, c’est par exemple une nouvelle fois Scott Horton qui intervient. Le 21 mars 2013, il met en relation deux communicants engagés par la présidence guinéenne, Célia Grémy, du cabinet Momentum Consulting, et Chris McShane, de Hillingdon Cresswell, avec les conseillers presse de Palladino, Lawrence Dore et Locksley Ryan.
Objectif : déminer le possible scandale Palladino et présenter le prêt entre le gouvernement guinéen et Palladino plus transparent, notamment en le publiant sur internet. Moins d’un mois plus tard, les équipes touchent au but. Lawrence Dore propose d’écrire un communiqué dans lequel il serait clair que quelqu’un, « comme BSGR, a cherché à dénaturer le prêt Palladino pour discréditer le gouvernement ».
À la même période, BSGR est peu à peu écarté de Simandou. Sous le régime du président Lansana Conté, le groupe avait en effet réussi à obtenir la moitié des concessions de la mine. Elle les avait revendues en 2009 au groupe brésilien Vale, pour 2,5 milliards de dollars. Mais, en avril 2013, après les accusations de corruption contre BSGR, Vale rompt l’accord, moyennant l’abandon de son avance de 500 millions de dollars.
Le 16 juin 2013, une rencontre réunit à Londres Sam Walsh, président-directeur général de Rio Tinto, Jin-Yong Cai, son homologue de la Société financière internationale (IFC, filiale de la Banque mondiale), et Alpha Condé, présent au Royaume-Uni à l’occasion du G8. L’hôte de cette réunion extraordinaire n’est autre que George Soros, un habitué des rendez-vous en marge des sommets internationaux.
Cette rencontre n’est pas anodine : elle confirme les dispositions prises par l’État guinéen pour abroger les permis détenus par BSGR, alors que Rio Tinto, associé au chinois Chinalco, obtient le droit d’exploitation totale de Simandou. Depuis, la guerre par réseaux interposés n’a pas faibli. Le Franco-Israélien, assigné à résidence en Israël, est aujourd’hui accusé de corruption par la Guinée, le FBI et le canton de Genève. Un de ses anciens collaborateurs, Frédéric Cilins, a été condamné à deux ans de prison aux États-Unis. Au cœur de plusieurs enquêtes, Beny Steinmetz ne se prive toutefois pas de contre-attaquer : le 14 avril, il a déposé plainte à New York contre Soros et sa fondation Open Society Foundations, qu’il accuse d’avoir fait échouer ses projets à Simandou.
Entitled “Exploiting a State on the Brink of Failure: The Case of Guinea” this paper is excerpt from Part II, Country Case Studies, of J.R. Mailey‘s The Anatomy of the Resource Curse: Predatory Investment in Africa’s Extractive Industries, published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Washington, D.C. Special Report No. 3. May 2015. The full PDF Report (146 pages) can be downloaded from BlogGuinée’s Documents section. Tierno S. Bah
Guinea is blessed with generous mineral endowments. It is the world’s second largest exporter of bauxite, the key ingredient in aluminum production. However, by virtually any measure, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its annual GDP per capita is just $460. Less than half of Guinea’s population has access to running water and electricity, and a mere 30 percent of the adult population is literate. Almost 15 percent of children born in Guinea will die before reaching the age of 5.
A widely recognized cause of Guinea’s plight is poor governance. Abuse of public office and mismanagement of public resources and institutions have been the norm in Guinea for decades. The country routinely ranks near the bottom of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption has crippled the state’s ability to perform basic public services and has created an environment of impunity. Guinea has been subject to autocratic rule almost since independence in 1958.
Between 1984 and 2008, Guinea was ruled by the notoriously rapacious regime of President Lansana Conté characterized by its opacity, predatory practices, and lack of accountability. He and his associates routinely made cash withdrawals from the country’s central bank in broad daylight 213. Petty corruption was also widespread, as civil servants in the president’s good graces were free to overinvoice, misappropriate funds, and solicit bribes without fear of consequences or investigation.
On the evening of December 22, 2008, President Conté died following a long illness. Six hours after the announcement of Conte’s death, a group of military officers took to the airwaves announcing the formation of a military government calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil National pour la Démocratie et le Développement, CNDD). Their first act was to suspend the constitution and dissolve the National Assembly. The coup was led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, a junior officer who headed the army’s fuel supplies unit. On December 24, 2008, it was announced that Camara was President of the CNDD.
On the Brink of Failure : A Desperate and Isolated Regime
The African Union (AU) swiftly condemned the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Guinea’s membership. The United States and European Union put on hold some key bilateral assistance programs.
Inheriting a state on the brink of failure, the CNDD promised to undertake widespread reforms. Camara pledged that the junta would organize “free, credible and transparent elections” within 2 years’ time, telling reporters “the council has no ambitions to hold on to power.” 214
The CNDD also vowed to crack down on drug trafficking and corruption. “Anyone who has misappropriated state assets for his benefit, if caught, will be judged and punished before the people,” Camara told an audience of hundreds of public representatives, including trade unionists, politicians, and clergy 215. The mining sector was to receive particular attention as CNDD officials promised to undertake a review of all existing contracts and renegotiate those that were unfavorable. The junta’s promises of reform proved empty. Allies of Camara were granted key posts in government and on the boards of foreign companies operating in Guinea. The junta replaced regional administrators with loyal officers who ran state institutions by fiat. Already decaying public sector institutions slid into irrelevance. The junta tightly restricted civil liberties and political dissent. Those who criticized the government or tried to oppose the CNDD were intimidated, harassed, or attacked. Corruption, meanwhile, actually accelerated. When he took office in 2011, President Alpha Condé estimated that the junta spent more during its 2-year tenure than the country had spent in the previous five decades 216.
Control over the country’s lucrative mining sector was concentrated within the hands of the newly appointed Minister of Mines, Mahmoud Thiam, a former Wall Street banker who held U.S. and Guinean citizenship. Though he spent extensive time abroad even after assuming office, Thiam proved extremely influential. He engineered a shakeup of the mining sector that ushered in several multibillion-dollar deals and prompted audits of several major foreign mining companies’ activities in Guinea. In reality, the changes merely re-engineered long standing patronage networks to suit Guinea’s new rulers.
Frustrations among Guineans steadily mounted. On September 28, 2009, tens of thousands of Guineans organized by civil society activists gathered at a rally held in Conakry’s main soccer stadium to protest the junta after it became apparent that Camara would not honor his promise to sit out the presidential elections scheduled for January 2010. Shortly after opposition leaders arrived at the protest, an armed contingent of presidential guards, soldiers, police, and militia gathered at the exits of the stadium and fired tear gas at the protestors before charging the stadium and opening fire. According to Human Rights Watch, the attackers killed 157 protesters, raped dozens of women and girls, and left more than 1,400 wounded in the massacre that ensued 217. Foreign governments and regional organizations tightened sanctions and called for a speedy transition to civilian rule.
Whereas many investors would shy away from such a turbulent political context because of concerns about political risk and damage to corporate reputation, the Queensway Group saw opportunity.
Every Crook on Earth Shows up in Conakry
To gain access to Guinea’s lucrative mining deposits and exploration rights in its potential offshore oil fields, the Queensway Group made contact with the junta soon after the December 2008 coup by approaching Guinea’s envoy to China, Ambassador Mamadi Diaré218.
In early 2009, the Group sent a delegation to Conakry to meet with the junta. The Group’s main contact in Conakry was Mines Minister Mahmoud Thiam. Initially Thiam was skeptical, saying that:
“When a new government comes into power, especially an inexperienced one, there’s one phenomenon that never fails: every crook on earth shows up. And every crook on earth has the biggest promises, has access to billions of dollars of lines of credits, of loans.” 219
However, his concerns subsided after Sonangol CEO, Manuel Vicente, flew to Conakry shortly thereafter 220.
Still, other senior officials in the new government remained skeptical. After all, the Queensway Group was merely one of numerous international investors vying for a slice of Guinea’s resource bounty. Hoping to separate itself from other contenders, Queensway sponsored a new national airline, Air Guinée International. Queensway hosted a celebration at Conakry International Airport to commemorate the launch of the new airline. Camara was the guest of honor. In attendance were Sam Pa and Lo Fong Hung, representing CIF and China Sonangol, the sponsors of the national airline. The Queensway Group was accompanied by a delegation that included François Chazelle, then Airbus Vice President of Sales, Executive & Private Aviation, who had a pre-existing business relationship with Sam Pa from China Sonangol’s purchase of three Airbus jets. Also part of the delegation was Ian Lee, then Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East at International Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that promotes Singaporean business interests abroad 221.
The partnership gained steam the following week, on June 12, 2009, when CIF and the CNDD signed a framework agreement that outlined plans to establish a joint venture company to be used as a vehicle for the Group’s investments in the country. CIF would be the majority partner in the joint venture, holding 85 percent of the company’s shares. (This 85-percent stake was ultimately divided between CIF and China Sonangol.) The Government of Guinea initially would carry a 15-percent stake with the option to purchase an additional 10 percent of the company’s shares from Queensway at a later date.
The framework agreement stipulated that the joint venture company would carry out projects in a broad range of sectors, including “energy, water treatment, electricity, transportation, housing, agriculture, fisheries, or in any other area of common interest.” 222 Indeed, as it had done elsewhere, the Group promised to undertake an ambitious and extravagant set of projects, including a new thermal power station and several large dams, as well as the construction of palatial government office buildings, valued at $650 million. It would install a trans-Guinean railway to transport minerals from the country’s interior to a port on the coast. The Group promised to ship 100 buses to Conakry within 45 days of signing the agreement. The recently inaugurated airline, Air Guinée International, was also part of the package 223.
As in Angola, CIF committed to financing the projects and would be in charge of design and implementation. The Guinean government, in turn, would facilitate CIF’s ability to obtain all necessary permits and approvals, and “applicable exemptions.” Importantly, the framework agreement specified that during a period of 12 months (“the exclusivity period”), the joint venture company would have exclusive rights to undertake projects in all of the specified sectors. Indeed, the government agreed “not to undertake at any time during the exclusivity period, discussions, negotiations or enter into contracts or agreements with a third party on competing projects.” 224 Importantly also, a confidentiality clause stipulated that “all information exchanged between [the parties of the deal] in connection with this Framework Agreement and all documents, materials and other information … under this Framework Agreement and on negotiations related thereto … will remain strictly confidential to the parties, both during the performance and at the end of the Project.” 225
As sweeping as it was, the framework agreement was just that, the framework for a partnership. Many of the details of the partnership’s setup and operations still needed to be ironed out. The Queensway Group sent two envoys, Jack Cheung Chun Fai, a senior aide to Sam Pa, and Adrian Lian, to represent its interests in Conakry. For the Guinean side, Camara created a “steering committee” to coordinate CIF and China Sonangol’s investments in the country. Mahmoud Thiam served as one of the steering committee’s vice presidents 226.
The “Contract of the Century”
On October 10, 2009, just 2 weeks after the September 28 massacre, representatives from the Queensway Group and the Guinean junta signed a shareholders agreement to finalize the terms of their partnership. Vicente and Cheung signed the agreement on behalf of Queensway. Two representatives from the CNDD—Minister of Finance Mamadou Sandé, and Minister of Justice Siba Nolamou—signed the agreement for the junta. Thiam called the shareholders agreement “the contract of the century.” Although the documents governing the partnership were not released to the public, Thiam provided the press with an overview of the agreement, likening the deal to the partnership between the Queensway Group and Angola:
The $7 billion will be financed by the CIF through the same mechanisms used for the $11 billion invested by the Chinese in Angola since 2005: a combination of their own funds, private and Chinese state banks’ credit lines, and by international banks upon their signature 227.
The shareholders agreement formally created a joint venture between the Queensway Group and the Guinean state called Africa Development Corporation (ADC). Singapore-registered subsidiaries of China Sonangol and CIF were each to hold a 42.5-percent stake in the deal, and the Government of Guinea would carry the remaining 15 percent228. The agreement stipulated that ADC would have several subsidiary companies for various business sectors operating under the label “Guinea Development Corporation” (GDC). ADC would own 85 percent of each subsidiary, and the Guinean state would control the remaining 15 percent. These companies included:
GDC Mining Oil & Gas
GDC Commercial & Logistics
GDC Water & Energy
Upon inspection, the terms of the deal were flagrantly unfavorable to the Guinean people. The agreement effectively provided ADC and the GDCs with exclusive rights to projects in a wide variety of sectors. Two clauses illustrate the scope of the deal:
The parties propose that ADC and the GDCs should be used as their joint venture vehicle to inter alia
construct and/or provide services in the following sectors: water, electricity (including power generators, power plant, hydorelectric [sic] dams), housing, port, fisheries, telecommunication, airport, airline, logistics, road, railway and all such transportation, infrastructure and other utilities projects
invest and operate diamond, iron, bauxite, gold, oil and gas and minerals concessions
such other projects as may be agreed by the Parties from time to time (the ‘Projects’), in the Republic of Guinea….
Subject to the laws and regulations in force, The Republic of Guinea shall give full exclusivity to ADC and the GDCs in respect of the sectors identified and approved by the Parties, as set out in the proposed Projects to be undertaken by the GDCs in this Agreement and the Master Agreement (‘Projects Sectors’) … 229
In essence, the shareholders agreement granted ADC control of the country’s entire economy for as long as the junta saw fit.
The composition of ADC’s three-member board of directors provides a second example of the extremely disadvantageous terms. According to the shareholders agreement, the board would consist of three members, two nominated by CIF and China Sonangol and the third nominated by the Guinean government. According to Africa-Asia Confidential, the three initial board members were Adrian Lian, Jack Cheung, and Thiam. Requiring only a simple majority for key investment decisions, this board structure guaranteed that the Queensway Group would permanently control all key investment decision making for the company (and country)230.
The ADC’s shareholders agreement contained a confidentiality clause that each party “shall treat as confidential and not disclose or use any information of a confidential nature relating to ADC and the GDCs or the other Parties received or obtained as a result of entering into this Agreement.” The junta had entered into an agreement that would have major implications for nearly every sector of the country’s economy yet it would be unable to discuss any specifics with its citizens about the investments or parties with whom it made this deal. According to The Economist, the Queensway Group was “so pleased that it reportedly gave Guinea’s military ruler a helicopter as a present.” 231
The Queensway Group also helped alleviate the junta’s short-term financial woes. Media reports claim that in late October 2009, CIF’s Singapore-registered subsidiary transferred $100 million from an account in Hong Kong to the Central Bank of Guinea. Thiam requested to use $50 million from this transfer for “emergency budgetary support” to keep the cash-strapped government afloat 232. Correspondence between China Sonangol and the Central Bank of Guinea links Sam Pa to this bank transfer. A July 21, 2010 letter from Alhassane Barry, then Governor of the Central Bank of Guinea, to “Mr. Antonio Famtosonghiu Sampo Menezes”—a known alias of Sam Pa—confirmed that at least one $45 million bank transfer did occur from a Bank of China (Hong Kong) account under the same alias.
International criticism of the Group’s deals in Guinea came swiftly.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the deal and calling for its cancellation.
UK Minister for Europe, David Lidington, followed suit, criticizing the deals in an explanatory memorandum.
An analysis published by Chatham House stated that CIF “does not seem to regard the instability of military rule as a brake on its ambition. Far from it, the company seized on the coup to strike deals potentially giving it overwhelming control over the economy.” 233
Given the glaring deficiencies in the deal, the “contract of the century” was looking to be an economic debacle for Guineans.
Criticism Suppressed or Ignored
On October 8, 2009, several days before the deal was announced, Guinea’s Council of Ministers met to discuss “the various documents which were to govern the contractual relationship” with the Queensway Group. During this meeting, which was led by then Prime Minister Kabiné Komara, the Council of Ministers provided substantive feedback and raised several concerns about the draft shareholders agreement. However, upon review of the final version, Prime Minister Komara observed that the guidance of the Council of Ministers had largely been ignored and that “new provisions that [went] far beyond the mandate given to the Steering Committee of the Council … also emerged.” Prime Minister Komara then wrote to the steering committee responsible for coordinating investments by CIF and China Sonangol on November 4, 2009, urging that the Minister of Mines should renegotiate “certain clauses that were rather unbalanced for the Guinean side.” 234
When concerns expressed in the Prime Minister’s first letter went unaddressed, he wrote a second letter to the president of the steering committee. On December 2, 2009, copies were also sent to the Minister of Mines as well as to the Ministers of Justice and Economy. Attached to the second letter was a six-page memorandum that provided a detailed analysis of the deficiencies of the shareholders agreement and guidelines to “facilitate and expedite the revision and renegotiation” 235 of the contract. The memo stated that the Council of Ministers specifically had decided during its October 8 meeting that exclusivity should not be granted to ADC or the GDCs, though it did recognize that CIF and China Sonangol could serve jointly as a strategic partner. “Priority would be given to the strategic partner,” Prime Minister Komara wrote, “under the condition that the prices it offers are more profitable and that its competence and reputation in the sectors concerned are proven.” 236
Furthermore, the Prime Minister contended that exclusivity should be granted to ADC only for a fixed term of no more than 12 months and that such status should only apply to projects agreed upon when the framework agreement was negotiated.
The memo reveals that the Council of Ministers was unaware that the steering committee planned to create a national mining company with CIF:
The Council of Ministers did not…discuss the issue of [the creation of] a national mining company. Moreover, it is unacceptable to promise now that a foreign investor will be a shareholder in such a company, as it would give it ipso facto ownership of all present and future wealth of the country 237.
The Prime Minister questioned the entire premise and validity of the arrangement. “The Government will not grant concessions in return for investment,” the memo stated bluntly before advising the steering committee, “this clause should be dropped altogether.” Moreover, Prime Minister Komara contended that the shareholders agreement could not be considered final, stating that “the document cannot be legally binding in the current context of the transition as the areas and subjects covered are sensitive, diverse and strategic.” 238
While few Guineans were privy to the details about the partnership with the Group, at least one activist faced consequences for speaking out against the deals.
Yéro Baldé, then Director of Project Financing at Guinea Alumina Corporation, lost his job after vocalizing concerns about the deals that the junta had negotiated with the Queensway Group. On February 27, 2010, Baldé appeared on national television and criticized the deal. “There was something seriously wrong,” he later recalled. “The government had just raped women and killed innocent civilians, all investors were going away and yet this group stayed and signed. It’s hard to know what’s truly in it for Guinea in this contract.” 239
After Baldé’s appearance on national television, Thiam requested Guinea Alumina Corporation’s managers deal with their outspoken employee. Baldé was fired shortly thereafter 240.
The CNDD’s Witch Hunt in the Oil and Mining Sector
As if exclusive rights to all of Guinea’s unclaimed petroleum and mineral deposits were not enough, Queensway also helped to expedite the CNDD’s shakeup of the oil and mining sector by underwriting audits of oil and mining firms already operating in the country. Moscow-based United Company RUSAL Plc, the world’s largest aluminum company and a major player in Guinea’s mining sector, was the first subject of the audits. One of RUSAL’s most lucrative assets in Guinea, the Friguia bauxite and alumina complex, was the main target of the CNDD’s mining sector review. RUSAL had purchased the Friguia complex in 2006 from the Conté government. In May 2009, Thiam claimed to reporters that the Conté government had sold the complex to RUSAL for only $20 million dollars—a fraction of Friguia’s true worth—justifying the government’s legal proceedings to rectify the situation.
In early September 2009, a Guinean court determined that the 2006 sale of the Friguia complex was null and void.
According to Momo Sacko, a legal advisor to the Presidency at the time, this meant “that from now on, the [Friguia complex] is 100 percent owned by Guinea.” 241
On October 14, 2009, 6 weeks after the court decision voiding RUSAL’s ownership of Friguia and just days after the signing of the ADC shareholders agreement, the junta entered into a loan agreement with the Queensway Group. The agreement stipulated that CIF’s Singapore-registered subsidiary would extend a loan of up to $3.3 million to be used exclusively for the purpose of engaging Alex Stewart International, an international consultancy, “to perform an audit on specific mining operations in the Republic of Guinea, including RUSAL.” 242 The loan agreement was signed by Thiam, who insisted that CIF “was the only place where [the Government of Guinea] could get that money.” 243 In signing the agreement, Thiam also committed the Guinean state to pay CIF 2 percent of all funds that the junta recovered from Alex Stewart’s audit of the Russian mining giant as a “success fee entitlement.”
On January 13, 2010, Alex Stewart reported to the government that it was entitled to seek some $860 million in damages from RUSAL 244.
This meant that CIF could claim a success fee of potentially $19.2 million, a figure almost six times the original loan. Additionally, per the ADC shareholders agreement, ADC was poised to receive exclusive rights to the Friguia complex seized from RUSAL. RUSAL was only one of several investors targeted by the CNDD’s review of oil and mining contracts. Houston-based oil company Hyperdynamics Corporation similarly became embroiled in a dispute with the junta that led to the forfeiture of approximately 70 percent of its offshore oil acreage. According to Africa-Asia Confidential, this holding fell directly into the hands of China Sonangol 245.
Ousmane Kaba, head of the CNDD’s audit committee, told reporters at a news conference that the audits should not be seen as “a witch hunt.” The audits, according to Kaba, were an attempt to understand how and by whom key decisions had been made previously. “If we do not try to know how our country was managed yesterday,” he continued, “we cannot claim to bequeath to our children a prosperous Guinea.” 246
The role of the Queensway Group—a potential competitor of RUSAL—in financing the audit was clearly a conflict of interest which undermined the integrity of the contract review process. Another problematic aspect of the audit of Friguia (and the restructuring of the mining sector more broadly) were reports that Minister of Mines Thiam, Queensway’s key ally in Conakry, may have been rewarded financially for ensuring that CIF and China Sonangol benefited from the shakeup 247.
Thiam was implicated in another corruption scandal involving a major foreign investor that benefited from the mining sector review. Several reports claim that Thiam served as interlocutor for BSG Resources Ltd, a mining company controlled by Israeli billionaire Benny Steinmetz, to pay bribes to senior officials in the military. Thiam’s alleged role in these transactions subsequently became the subject of an FBI probe 248.
Queensway’s Changing Allegiances in Conakry
On December 3, 2009, the commander of the presidential guard shot and seriously wounded Captain Camara, the leader of Guinea’s junta. The following day, Camara was flown to Morocco for medical treatment. General Sékouba Konaté, the CNDD’s Vice President and Defense Minister, stepped in to run the government. Although many feared that the assassination attempt would send Guinea deeper into a crisis, leaders from the region worked in tandem with Konaté to hasten the country’s transition to civilian rule.
In January 2010, Konaté vowed that elections would be held within 6 months and, importantly, there would be no candidate from Guinea’s armed forces. Soon thereafter, Jean-Marie Doré, an opposition leader involved in organizing the September 28 protests, became interim Prime Minister and spearheaded preparations for presidential elections.
Although several of the Queensway Group’s key allies temporarily maintained their posts in Conakry, it became clear that major changes to the political landscape in Guinea were imminent. The Group sought to forge new relationships that would ensure that its presence in Guinea outlived the CNDD.
In late June 2010, the director of the communications unit for the interim Prime Minister dispatched a press release announcing a declaration of commitment between CIF and the interim government. The dispatch explained that Sam Pa and Thiam (still Minister of Mines) had come to meet with interim Prime Minister Doré. During the meeting, Sam Pa apparently touted China as an example of an economic model for African countries and extolled the value of the Queensway Group’s investments elsewhere on the continent.
“What China has achieved, Africa can do it too,” Sam Pa told Doré.
In a slideshow presentation, Sam Pa showcased the Queensway Group’s claimed accomplishments in Angola in an effort to demonstrate CIF’s “power and reliability.” 249 Sam Pa was reported to have suggested to the interim Prime Minister that the projects in Guinea could quickly get moving with the proper determination. Doré was quoted reciprocating Sam Pa’s enthusiasm by saying, “we want to express our commitment to working with China and, in particular, with you.” 250
Sam Pa’s courtship of the Prime Minister’s office contrasted sharply with the Queensway Group’s tense relationship with the Central Bank of Guinea during this time period. Shortly after Sam Pa met with interim Prime Minister Doré, the Queensway Group took steps to reclaim the funds it had transferred to the Central Bank of Guinea in November 2009 in the final months of the Camara junta 251.
In a series of letters in July 2010, Jack Cheung, Queensway’s representative in Conakry, wrote to the governor of Guinea’s central bank demanding that the remaining balance of the $45 million loan provided to the bank as “emergency budgetary support,” be transferred back to China Sonangol. Cheung threatened that there would be “serious political and legal consequences” if the government did not address China Sonangol’s concerns 252.
In his final demand letter, Cheung explained that the company’s auditor was “not satisfied with the controllability of the money deposited in the Central Bank of Guinea.… It is very important to transfer the money immediately…. Otherwise, our auditor and the department of finance of our group will lose confidence in investing in Guinea.” 253
Meanwhile, as Guinea’s political transition progressed, the Queensway Group heavily courted the two leading candidates in the country’s highly anticipated presidential elections.
According to Africa Confidential, the Queensway Group nominated one candidate’s wife, Mrs. Halimatou Diallo, to the board of Air Guinée International 254.
After Alpha Condé won the November 2010 presidential election, Queensway’s efforts to woo him intensified. Just over a month after his inauguration, Condé travelled to Angola for a state visit. In addition to meeting privately with President dos Santos, President Condé was given a tour of several CIF and GRN project sites. Angola’s Foreign Minister, George Chikoty, accompanied President Condé to the Novo Centradidade do Kilamba, the controversial public housing project linked to CIF on the outskirts of Luanda. Later he was escorted to Queensway’s cement plant located on the outskirts of the capital city 255.
Partnership with Bellzone
Hedging its risks, in May 2010, CIF also forged a partnership with Bellzone Mining, a relatively unknown firm predominantly owned by Australian investors. The company’s managing director and largest shareholder was an Australian national, Nikolajs Zuks, who held a 31.5-percent stake. CIF signed a series of agreements with Bellzone to jointly undertake projects in Guinea’s mining and infrastructure construction sectors on August 4, 2010.
The contract for the Bellzone deal was countersigned by Mines Minister Mahmoud Thiam and Minister of Economy and Finance Kerfalla Yansane—two holdover representatives from Guinea’s junta.
Upon finalizing the agreement, Bellzone’s managing director called CIF “a highly regarded group of companies with a proven track record of developing large infrastructure projects in Africa.” 256 Listing the advantages of partnering with CIF, Graham Fyfe, Bellzone’s chief operating officer, highlighted the firm’s deep pockets, stating that “from a cash point of view, yes, they do have a lot of cash.” Speaking at a mining conference in September 2011, Fyfe also cited the Queensway Group’s “intimate relationship with Sinopec” (one of China’s largest state-owned oil companies) and said that the firm likely has “relationships at the highest levels in China.” The official referred to CIF’s legal and commercial team as “a challenging bunch of guys” willing to engage in “tough negotiating,” but said that overall Bellzone found that CIF was “easy to do business with.” 257 CIF and Bellzone agreed to jointly explore for iron ore at two sites in Guinea, Kalia and Forécariah. CIF agreed to finance the Kalia Iron Project, which would cost approximately $4.45 billion, in return for rights to purchase all of the mine’s output at market price.
Following the signing of the CIF-Bellzone agreement, Acting President Konaté signed a decree that gave Bellzone “an exclusive corridor” to construct railway and port facilities in order to export iron ore production from Kalia.” 258 As part of its agreement with Bellzone, CIF agreed to finance and develop the needed infrastructure. At the same time, CIF and Bellzone formed a joint venture “to undertake the accelerated exploration and development program at CIF’s Forécariah iron permits that lie between 30 and 80 kilometres from the Guinea coast.” 259 Even after securing two productive mining concessions in partnership with Bellzone, the Queensway Group continued its attempts to wrest control of mining opportunities from rival firms. During a September 2011 meeting with officials from the Government of Guinea, officials from the CIF-Bellzone team attempted to persuade the Condé government to grant it the rights to the Simandou iron ore mine, the lucrative concession run by Rio Tinto 260. When The Sunday Times (UK) asked if his company indeed was trying to gain control of Simandou away from the rival mining giant, Zuks simply responded, “What’s wrong with that?” 261
Sorting through the Mess
After numerous campaign promises and public statements in the weeks following his inauguration in December 2010, President Condé took concrete steps to reform the mining sector. The newly elected president enlisted the services of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, founder of the Open Society Institute, to assist with a mining sector review process. “Guinea is currently experiencing a new era,” Soros told reporters. “Its natural resources have in the past not been used to benefit the people. Guinea now has an opportunity to change this.” 262 The review process began shortly thereafter. In a June 30, 2011 letter of intent to the IMF, the government found that only one loan of $78 million was ever contracted by the Queensway Group over the 2 years of engagement and billions promised 263. Going forward the Government of Guinea promised to “refrain from any non-concessional borrowing or the issuance of guarantees under [the CIF and China Sonangol] contract.” 264
A new mining code developed by the Condé regime was approved on September 9, 2011. International civil society organizations, several of which served as advisors to the Government of Guinea throughout the reform process, lauded the new code, highlighting both the content and the process by which it was crafted. The mining code mandated the publication of all mining sector contracts and established a formal commitment to the principles of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. It established clear and transparent “procedures for the award, renewal, transfer, and cancellation of mining titles.” The code required all companies in Guinea’s mining sector to sign a “code of conduct” and develop an anticorruption monitoring plan in coordination with Guinean authorities. Mohamed Lamine Fofana, the Condé government’s Minister of Mines, told reporters that “The new mining code will allow future investors in Guinea to work in transparency.” 265
On January 22, 2012, the Government of Guinea published the terms of reference for the Guinea Contract Review Process that outlined the institutions and procedures involved in the process. In this way, the terms of reference aimed to: bolster the legitimacy of mining contracts; eliminate unchecked suspicion about contracts; prevent reforms from undermining investor confidence; and reinforce the legal basis of contracts. The document also outlined plans to establish two committees to oversee the process—the technical committee and the strategic committee—and identified the roles for each. In short, a serendipitous turn of events that catalyzed the country’s first democratic election since independence in 1958 brought a window of opportunity for reform in the mining sector.
On February 15, 2013, Guinea’s government published existing mining sector contracts online, making it one of the first African states to make all such documents available to the public 266. Additionally, the Condé administration recognized the institutional capacity constraints it faced and sought technical and strategic assistance from leading international experts on extractive sector transparency. Revenue Watch Institute (now the Natural Resource Governance Institute) partnered with the World Bank Institute and Columbia University to set up the Web site where Guinea’s mining contracts were published 267. The same organization also partnered with the Institut Supérieur de l’Information et de la Communication and the Thomson Reuters Foundation to conduct a 10-day training program for 15 Guinean journalists on reporting on the oil and mining industries 268.
Even after the country’s transition to civilian rule, investigating corruption remained dangerous.
In just 8 months as Director of the Treasury, Aissatou Boiro gained a reputation for being a fierce opponent of corruption and had launched official investigations into the disappearance of millions of dollars from Guinea’s state coffers during the tenure of previous regimes.
On November 9, 2012, Boiro was shot and killed by a group of men wearing military uniforms.
Former colleagues believe the assassination was an attempt to thwart an ongoing investigation. “In Guinea all of the cases of large-scale embezzlement happen at the treasury department,” one former treasury official told Reuters. “(Boiro) became inconvenient for certain economic predators who are in the government.” 269
While the reform process struggled to maintain momentum, Queensway continued to advance its agenda in Guinea’s mining sector through its partnership with Bellzone. On March 23, 2012, Bellzone announced that it had begun production and product stockpiling at its Forécariah mine. On August 9, 2012, Bellzone signed an offtake agreement with Glencore, a Swiss commodities trading firm, for the latter to purchase a 50-percent share of iron ore produced at the Forécariah mine. Less than a month later, on September 4, 2012, West African Iron Ore Group, also based in Switzerland, announced that it had reached a similar agreement with CIF for the purchase of the other 50-percent share of ore produced at the mine. China Sonangol’s partnership with Bellzone did not go entirely smoothly, however. Trading at £92 (about US$147) a share in early 2011, Bellzone stock plummeted over the next 4 years to only £0.50 (about US$0.80) a share amid plunging iron ore prices and concerns over the viability of Bellzone’s projects in Guinea. When the company’s ability to finance its operations came into question, Bellzone looked to China Sonangol to provide an urgently needed £4 million (about US$6.4 million) short-term loan in August 2014. The loan was secured against the entirety of the company’s mineral assets in Guinea and, once finalized, would require Bellzone to transfer an unspecified asset from one of its subsidiaries to another. However, Bellzone suspended trading of its shares on September 21, 2014, as talks with China Sonangol over the loan facility stalled 270. Turmoil continued at Bellzone for several months after trading suspended. On September 5, 2014, Africa Mining Intelligence reported that Bellzone had entered into a “secret loan accord” with Panama-based PRVC S.A., a consulting firm headed by an Angolan businessman named Ezequiel da Cunha. The $860 million loan was not disclosed to the market, violating the rules of the London Stock Exchange 271.
In November 2014, China Sonangol negotiated a 51-percent stake in Bellzone and swiftly replaced the company’s board with its own 272.
By early December 2014, Bellzone had run into trouble with Guinean regulators. The Ministry of Mines warned the company that it had wrongfully dismissed local employees and failed to produce a plan for the safe transport of iron ore 273. Meanwhile, the government’s new technical committee charged with reviewing Guinea’s mining sector found that Bellzone had engaged in an unapproved transfer of one of its mining licenses to an affiliated company and, on a separate occasion, pledged to sell its mineral rights without approval 274.
In early March 2015, Bellzone and China Sonangol finalized the terms of a multiyear loan to finance the company’s operations in Guinea. When trading of Bellzone’s stock resumed on March 5, 2015—after a 5-month hiatus—the company’s share price jumped 587 percent in one day.
Queensway’s operations in Guinea reveal the lengths to which it would go to preserve its ill-gotten source of wealth from an illegitimate government even after its allies fell from power.
Guinea’s political transition has provided it a chance to become a rare success story among fragile states seeking to install effective systems for management of the extractive sector. At the same time, Guinea’s experience demonstrates the uphill battle that newly democratizing states face when seeking such reforms. Ultimately, Guinea’s ability to translate its mineral wealth into tangible development outcomes will depend on whether or not the government has the will and capacity to follow through with reforms.
J.R. Mailey Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Washington, D.C.
Notes 213. Paul Melly, Guinea: Situation Analysis and Outlook, Writenet Report (UK/Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2008), 3-11. 214. “Guinea Ministers Submit to Rebels,” BBC, December 26, 2008. 215. Victor Omoregie, “Guinea: Junta Warns Mining Sector,” Vanguard (Nigeria), December 29, 2008. 216. “Guinea bankrupted by junta – President Alpha Conde,” BBC, February 22, 2011. 217. Bloody Monday: The September 28 Massacre and Rapes by Security Forces in Guinea (New York: Human Rights Watch, December 2009), 7-8. “Guinea massacre toll put at 157,” BBC, September 29, 2009. 218. “CIF, Beijing’s stalking horse,” Africa-Asia Confidential 3, no. 7 (May 2010). 219. Murray et al. 220. Ibid. 221. Author interviews, April 2012 and May 2012. 222. Framework Agreement between the Republic of Guinea and China International Fund, June 2009. Copy on file with the author. 223. “Blood and money in the streets,” Africa-Asia Confidential 2, no. 12 (October 2009). 224. Framework Agreement between the Republic of Guinea and China International Fund, June 2009. 225. Ibid. 226. Africa-Asia Confidential (October 2009). 227. Ibid. 228. Importantly, CIF Singapore is wholly owned by China Sonangol International (S), which is, in turn, owned by a BVI shell company called Newtech Holdings Limited. 229. Shareholders Agreement between the Republic of Guinea and China International Fund, October 10, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 230. Africa-Asia Confidential (October 2009). 231. The Economist. 232. Murray et al. 233. Daniel Balint-Kurti, “Guinea: Bought by Beijing,” Chatham House, March 2, 2010. 234. Kabiné Komara, “Directives relatives aux amendements et à la renegociation du Pacte d’Actionnaires entre la République de Guinée, CIF Singapour, et China Sonangol International,” memorandum, December 2, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 235. Ibid. 236. Ibid. 237. Ibid. 238. Ibid. 239. Murray et al. 240. “Who’s Who: Abdoulaye Yéro Baldé,” Africa Mining Intelligence No. 223 (March 2010). 241. Saliou Samb “Guinea court reclaims Friguia from RUSAL,” Reuters, September 10, 2009. 242. Loan Agreement between CIF Singapore and Alex Stewart International, October 14, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 243. Murray et al. 244. Tom Burgis, “Behind the Wrangle for Guinea’s Minerals,” Financial Times, June 5, 2010. 245. “The junta rewards new friends,” Africa-Asia Confidential 3, no. 1 (November 2009). 246. Alpha Camara and Antony Sguazzin, “Guinea Asks Rusal to Return Friguia Alumina Complex,” Bloomberg, September 10, 2009. 247. The Economist. Murray et al. 248. Jesse Riseborough and Franz Wild, “Late Guinea President Wife Said to Assist Steinmetz Probe,” Bloomberg, April 19, 2013. 249. “Le Patron de la China international Fund chez le Premier ministre: des beaux jours qui s’annoncent pour les secteurs énergétique et minier guinéens,” Guinee 24, June 19, 2010. 250. Ibid. 251. Correspondence between the Central Bank of Guinea and China Sonangol indicates that the “Deposit Agreement” for the transfer of $45,000,000 to the Central Bank of Guinea was signed on November 24, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 252. Jack Cheung letter to Central Bank of Guinea dated July 21, 2010. Copy on file with the author. 253. Jack Cheung letter to Central Bank of Guinea dated July 27, 2010. Copy on file with the author. 254. “Minister Thiam covers his bases,” Africa Confidential 51, no. 14 (July 2010). 255. “Guinea Conakry’s leader visits new Luanda’s city centres,” Agência Angola Press, January 28, 2011. 256. “Binding MOU reached with China International Fund,” Bellzone Mining PLC press release, May 24, 2010. 257. Graham Fyfe, “Bellzone’s Guinea Projects” (presentation to the 82nd Minesite Mining Forum, London, United Kingdom, September 15, 2011). 258. “Kalia Rail and Port Infrastructure Update,” Bellzone Mining Plc press release, July 4, 2011. 259. “Forecariah Offtake Agreement with Glencore,” Bellzone Mining Plc press release, August 9, 2012. 260. Danny Fortson, “Chinese eye Rio’s African jewel,” The Sunday Times (UK), May 6, 2012. 261. Ibid. 262. “New Guinean Mining Code to Tackle Corruption,” Natural Resource Governance Institute, March 3, 2011. 263. Letter of Intent, Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies, and Technical Memorandum of Understanding from the Government of Guinea to the International Monetary Fund, dated June 30, 2011, 13. 264. Ibid. 265. Code Minier de la République de Guinée (Conakry: Ministère des mines et de la géologie, Septembre 9, 2011), 72-73. 266. Saliou Samb, “Guinea adopts new mining code boosting state share,” Reuters, September 10, 2011. 267. On February 15, 2013, the Technical Committee in charge of reviewing mining titles and contracts, Comité Technique de Revue des Titres et Conventions Miniers (CTRTCM), announced the official launch of its web site . 268. Emma Tarrant Tayou, “Training for Journalists Begins in Guinea,” Revenue Resource Governance Institute blog, November 26, 2012. 269. Boubacar Diallo, “Official: Guinea treasury chief assassinated,” Associated Press, November 10, 2012. 270. Tom Burgis, “Bellzone trading halted in fight over loan terms,” Financial Times, September 22, 2014. 271. “A secret loan accord for Bellzone Mining,” Africa Mining Intelligence No. 327 (September 2014). 272. “Chinese Directors Take The Top Jobs At Bellzone, Along With James Leahy,” Minesite, November 19, 2014. 273. “Government hits out at China International Fund,” Africa Mining Intelligence No. 334 (December 2014). 274. Ibid.
Africa’s largest iron-ore mining project has been bedeviled by dust-ups and delays.
“An emblematic tragedy” is how Sir Paul Collier, an adviser to the British government, describes the situation in Guinea—referring not to the Ebola outbreak (awful though he considers that to be) but the saga of Simandou, a mining project mired in allegations of corruption, expropriation and corporate espionage.
Simandou, a mountainous area in southern Guinea (pictured), has been called the El Dorado of iron ore. It is the world’s largest known untapped deposit of the stuff, with enough ore to sustain annual production of 200m tonnes—7% of global iron-ore output—for more than a quarter of a century. Better still, the ore there has unusually high iron content. The potential project cost for the mine, and the railway and port that would be needed to get ore on to ships, is $20 billion, making it Africa’s largest ever proposed mining venture. Guinea could do with the investment: it ranks 179th out of 187 countries in the UN’s human-development index. Wags, alas, have taken to calling Simandou “Simandon’t”. Exploration rights were first granted in the 1990s, yet the earliest anyone expects production to begin is 2019.
The saga oozes intrigue. Among its cast of characters:
Two of the world’s biggest mining groups
The Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto and Vale of Brazil
Beny Steinmetz, an Israeli diamond tycoon
George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist
Mark Malloch-Brown, a former deputy head of the UN
The wife of Guinea’s former leader
And, possibly, members of South Africa’s elite and security services.
It is, as one lawyer involved in the case wryly puts it, “a slightly Hollywood story”.
The opening chapter was the awarding of exploration licences for four blocks at Simandou to Rio Tinto in 1997. The northern two blocks were snatched back from the company in 2008, as the then dictator, Lansana Conté, lay on his deathbed. The ostensible reason was that Rio was not developing the site quickly enough. Months later the rights to these blocks were assigned to BSG Resources (BSGR), a firm indirectly owned by a Steinmetz family trust. With no upfront payment required, the deal appeared to be very attractive for BSGR.
Mo Ibrahim, an African billionaire, asked whether the Guinean officials who agreed to it were “idiots, or criminals, or both”. After Conté’s death, BSGR sold 51% of its interest to Vale for $2.5 billion, $500m of which was paid immediately.
A new government, led by Alpha Condé, took power in 2010, after Guinea’s first democratic elections, and set up a committee to review past contracts. This concluded that BSGR got its blocks through bribery. As a result, the firm was stripped of its concession earlier this year. The government signed a new deal with Rio and its Chinese partner, Chinalco, to develop the two southern blocks they had held onto.
This involved Rio having to pay $700m, part of which was upfront taxes.
This wrangling has generated lots of work for lawyers. Rio has filed a racketeering suit in New York against BSGR and Vale, claiming they conspired to steal the northern blocks. BSGR has an arbitration suit against Guinea; Vale has one against BSGR. The latter is sealed but understood to argue that BSGR duped Vale into buying an asset that was presented as legitimate but had been corruptly obtained. (Vale never paid the remaining $2 billion to BSGR, but says it spent a further $700m on Simandou.) In an interview with Piaui, a Brazilian magazine, Vale’s former boss, Roger Agnelli, said of the union with BSGR:
“A guy can marry a former hooker and only discover years later that his wife used to be a prostitute.”
On top of these actions, BSGR sued Global Witness last year. The firm claims that the group violated Mr Steinmetz’s privacy by publishing “personal” data in its investigative reports on the case, arguing that since Global Witness is not a bona fide journalistic outfit, but an advocacy group, it needs to comply with higher data-protection standards. Global Witness denies this. The case, which is before Britain’s information commissioner and the High Court, could break new legal ground on the free-speech rights of lobby groups.
Last year a related case was settled out of court when Mr Steinmetz received a portion of his costs—but no admission of fault—from Lord Malloch-Brown (a former employee of this newspaper) and FTI Consulting, the public-relations firm of which he was a regional chairman. The tycoon had sued for breach of contract and defamation, accusing Lord Malloch-Brown of persuading FTI to cancel a contract to represent BSGR, in response to pressure from Mr Soros (an associate, and a patron of Global Witness).
And then there are government investigations into Simandou, in America, Britain and elsewhere. Last week a court in Florida allowed prosecutors to seize property owned by Mamadie Touré, the widow of Conté, the late dictator, including restaurant equipment and houses, which the prosecutors believe was bought with the proceeds of corruption. The firm alleged to have given the bribes in the American government’s complaint is not named, but it is unmistakably BSGR.
The next legal development, expected any day, will be a ruling by a judge in New York on a motion by defendants to have Rio’s racketeering suit moved to London, where the bar for proving its allegations would be higher.
Rio’s legal complaint is spicy stuff. It alleges that BSGR doled out $100m in bribes and that Frédéric Cilins, an associate of Mr Steinmetz, befriended staff at the business centre of the Novotel hotel in Conakry, the Guinean capital, to obtain copies of faxes detailing Rio’s plans at Simandou. The complaint also claims that Vale feigned interest in buying assets from Rio, months after the Brazilian group had begun secret negotiations with BSGR, in order to hoodwink Rio into showing it confidential information about Simandou’s geology. Seeing an opportunity to wrest control of part of the site from its rival “on the cheap”, Vale shared this data with BSGR in violation of a confidentiality agreement, Rio alleges.
Testimony and surveillance transcripts from an FBI investigation, made public by the Guinean investigating committee, are particularly illuminating. Ms Touré (who has turned co-operating witness) says BSGR offered her millions of dollars, jewellery, two Toyota Land Cruisers and a 5% stake in the project to persuade her dying husband to sign over the Simandou rights. Some of her allegations are supported by photocopies of cheques. In one transcript, Mr Cilins, having flown to Florida to meet her, urges her to destroy apparently corrupt contracts: “You have to destroy everything, urgently, urgently, urgently.” He promises more money if she does, saying the message comes “directly from the number 1”. When she asks who that is, he whispers “Beny”. In March Mr Cilins pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and received a two-year prison sentence.
BSGR denies wrongdoing. The company says the seemingly damning documents were “fabricated” and plays down its relationship with Mr Cilins, saying he never signed a formal contract to represent the firm. The Guinean committee was established “to provide a pretext to illegally seize our assets in Guinea”, the company states. BSGR says it “looks forward to testing the evidence” at a forthcoming arbitration tribunal.
As for Rio’s racketeering claims, a lawyer for BSGR describes them as “amazingly fictitious”. Nevertheless, the trust that controls BSGR is said to have hired Joe Lieberman, a former United States senator, and Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, to conduct an internal probe of the bribery allegations—though the firm will not say whether they have begun their work.
The narrative being pushed by BSGR became clearer when it filed its defence in the Rio suit and a request for arbitration. It alleges that the election that brought Mr Condé to power was rigged with help from South African interests. These provided Mr Condé with financial and other support—including altering voter registers—in return for a promised stake in the nation’s mining assets, including the blocks snatched from BSGR, its arbitration filing states. In another document it names 83 individuals and companies, including South African politicians, businessmen and spies, who could have “discoverable information” that might support its claims.
A spokesman for Guinea’s government says of the alleged election-rigging: — BSGR has never provided Guinea with any evidence to back its allegations. A spokesman for the Rainbow Coalition, of which Mr Condé’s party is a member, says: — The suggestion that an outsider like Alpha Condé rigged the elections against a military insider [Cellou Diallo] beggars belief. Guinea’s supreme court certified the poll result, and the Carter Centre, which promotes democracy worldwide, said the electoral process was “broadly consistent with the country’s…obligations for genuine democratic elections.”
Mr Condé has insisted he is cleaning up government after many years of corrupt dictatorship.
But some of the regime’s dealings with business raise questions about its judgment.
In May, for instance, the Common Court of Justice and Arbitration, the highest tribunal of a west African body overseeing commercial law, ruled that the government acted illegally in tearing up a container-terminal management contract with Getma International, a French company, in 2011 and handing it shortly afterwards to Bolloré, another French firm. The panel awarded Getma $49m in damages.
Guinea scored just 25 out of 100 in Transparency International’s latest corruption-perceptions index, placing it below Ukraine.
The closest thing the drama has to a central character is Mr Steinmetz. But seen from another angle, the colourful individuals, and even BSGR, are a sideshow. The big-picture story is a titanic battle between the giants of iron-ore mining—a business in which BSGR is a minnow—for control of the world’s richest deposits.
Some analysts think Rio’s intention all along was to go slow with Simandou, holding it as a defensive play to frustrate global competitors.
The company may have grown less inclined to mine the site: the iron-ore price has fallen by 60% from record highs in 2011. But it is probably also loath to let it fall into the hands of a rival that could reap rewards once the price rebounds. Tellingly, Mr Agnelli said of the joint venture with BSGR: —It was strategically important for Vale not to leave Rio Tinto alone with all that ore. So important, in fact, that some of the contract terms with BSGR were rushed (or even agreed only verbally), leading to much executive disquiet at Vale.
Rio says it is committed to developing its two remaining blocks. It is less clear how keen it is to regain the other two. The firm has said it no longer wants to increase its exposure to Guinea, but not everyone believes that. If the government were to auction them off—it is preparing a tender—interest could come from, among others, Vale, ArcelorMittal and Glencore.
But prospective investors will have to weigh up the risks. One is the outstanding legal challenge from BSGR. Bigger ones are political uncertainty—a presidential election is due to be held next year—and Ebola.
Company accountants worry more about the project’s steep costs. Simandou sits in a thickly forested mountain range—difficult terrain that greatly raises the cost of building the 650km railway (with 35 bridges and 24km of tunnels) to the coast. I t doesn’t help that Mr Condé has insisted the tracks run through Guinea to a domestic port, rather than taking a shorter, easier route through Liberia (see map).
The government had wanted to take a big stake in the infrastructure but could not afford to. With help from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), Simandou’s managers are now looking to assemble a private consortium to finance, build and operate the railway and port. Roadshows for potential contractors begin this month. The estimated infrastructure costs are $13 billion. Whether the project is economically viable will depend on the future trajectory of the iron-ore price.
Simandou could do wonders for Guinea’s emaciated economy (GDP per person is a mere $530).
Tom Butler of the IFC, which has a 5% stake in Rio’s project, describes it as “potentially transformational”: even at today’s deflated iron-ore price, it would produce annual revenue for the state of “a multiple of the current annual budget”. It could generate tens of thousands of jobs and, thanks to the railway, make agri-business in the country’s interior competitive for export. Moreover, success would encourage investment in Guinea’s sizeable deposits of other minerals, such as bauxite, graphite and manganese.
But nothing will come out of the ground for at least five years. It could be closer to ten. A recent presentation by Glencore, seen by Reuters, predicted that Rio will not rush to produce iron ore from Africa because its focus in coming years will be on growth projects in Australia.
Meanwhile, the legal skirmishes will continue. The arbitration cases, for instance, could grind on for up to five years—prolonging this cautionary tale of the ugly recriminations that can follow when the rights to vast mineral riches are handed out in questionable circumstances.
If there was a sliver of doubt, there cannot be any longer — George Soros and Beny Steinmetz are at each other’s throats and this isn’t going to end happily for one of them.
Of the two, Soros is better known. A multibillionaire (I’ve seen numbers like $30bn), he rose to international fame (and infamy in Britain) as the man who shorted more than $10bn in sterling, triggering the UK’s withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, prompting a devaluation of the pound and earning himself $1.1bn. A
Hungarian nonpractising Jew, Soros, 83, has been married twice and is currently courting Tamiko Bolton, 40, a New York pharmacist.
Beny Steinmetz, 56, allegedly Israel’s richest man, is said to be worth about $6bn. He inherited the Geneva-based Steinmetz Diamond Group from his father and later formed Beny Steinmetz Group Resources, also Geneva-based but managed out of London.
The Steinmetz Diamond Group continues to be diamond giant De Beers’s largest sightholder.
The Guinea corral
Steinmetz is a commercial hurricane. He rarely stays in one place for long. He’s a legendary deal-maker and I’m sure he has been burnt frequently.
Of course, buying, polishing and selling diamonds isn’t at all the same as developing a major mining operation. I am not at all certain as to what it was that persuaded Steinmetz to shift gear so dramatically.
A long article in The New Yorker (July 8) quotes Paul Collier of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford as taking “a dim view of businessmen like Steinmetz who have secured rights to natural resources they may not actually have the expertise to develop.”
That’s such a crappy observation I cannot believe an adviser to UK Prime Minister David Cameron would make it. I can think offhand of many men who did exactly that — Cecil John Rhodes, Ernest Oppenheimer and others. The issue revolves around the Simandou iron ore deposits in south-central Guinea, a large area containing what may be the largest high-grade undeveloped continuous iron-ore body in the world.
It is where most miners would not want it to be. Guinea is grossly undeveloped, its peoples mired in poverty, probably worse off now than when its first president, the irrational Sekou Touré, gave the French the boot and then proceeded to lock away in concentration camps and murder all those he thought might oppose him.
Touré died in 1984 but nothing got any better.
Meanwhile, along came mining house Rio Tinto, which qualifies in Collier’s book as able to develop a project. Rio secured the mining rights to Simandou north and south in 1997. It did nothing with them, and probably deep-froze them to hold off competitors while it developed its operations in the Western Australian Pilbara.
Steinmetz was given two unconnected areas, one north of Simandou, the other south.
The northern site wasn’t worth persevering with, but the south revealed an entirely new deposit, henceforth called Zogota.
When Touré’s successor, Lansana Conté, died in 2008, a military junta led by Moussa Dadis Camara, an army captain, took power. Dadis brought technocrats into the cabinet, one of them Mahmoud Thiam, to serve as minister of mines.
Thiam and his sister were smuggled out of Guinea during Touré’s reign — his father died in one of Touré’s concentration camps. Thiam was educated in the US, obtained an economics degree from Cornell University and went on to work for Merrill Lynch and UBS.
Accused in The New Yorker of being a Steinmetz champion, it was Thiam who told Rio Tinto it wasn’t complying with the terms of its mining leases. He stripped the company of its northern Simandou licence and awarded it to Beny Steinmetz Group Resources on the grounds that it had discovered the Zogota deposit.
Predictably enough, Rio Tinto was enraged. It claims it invested heavily in Simandou, but the time frame belies that — it doesn’t take nearly 12 years to start developing an iron-ore deposit, or begin rebuilding a railway line, or begin developing a deep-water port, at least some of which would be undertaken with international financing.
A number of things then transpired. Not in any order, the Guineans finally held an allegedly open, free, election. Alpha Condé, 72, who had lived outside Guinea for 50 years, won 18% in the first round. His principal opponent Dalein Diallo won more than 45%. In the delayed second round, Condé suddenly appeared with 53% and Diallo with 47% — an about-term in fortunes that invites deep suspicion.
It was at this juncture that stories began to emerge that South Africa had provided financial support (said to be about $18m) to Condé, used to help finance a South African company, Waymark Infotech, which provided election management. Stories circulated that Soros and South African companies were providing “advice” and, in one case (Palladino), $25m to Condé’s new government and that organisations financed by Soros had become prominent.
The latest twist in a story that is fast providing a slew of plots for thriller novelists is that Steinmetz’s group allegedly prevailed on Mamadie Touré, the fourth wife of the dying previous president, Lansana Conté, to procure the mining licence for Simandou. They allegedly provided her with money, diamonds and a guaranteed 5% stake in Simandou. She revealed all this to a curiously and conveniently unnamed cabinet minister.
A wire worn by Mamadie Touré recorded a damaging discussion in Jacksonville, Florida, between her and Frédéric Cilins, said to have orchestrated the bribes, and to have been close to Steinmetz. The FBI was listening. Cilins was arrested and released on $15m bail.
Meanwhile, Rio Tinto sold a portion of its southern Simandou licence to the Aluminium Company of China for $1.7bn and then paid $700m to the Guinean government in return for a guarantee that no further action would be taken against it.
What will happen now? Did Condé steal the election with help from backers in South Africa? Did Beny Steinmetz Group Resources bribe Guineans to get the licence? Did Rio Tinto pay [the government of Guinea] an effective $700m bribe to hold on to southern Simandou? There’s lots more — but no space.
La justice américaine enquête sur les conditions d’obtention d’une licence d’exploitation d’un immense gisement de fer situe aux confins de la forêt guinéenne. Un homme est en prison en Floride. BSGR dément tout lien avec ses activités en Guinée. Ce groupe minier dépend d’une fondation dont le bénéficiaire est le milliardaire israélien vivant à Genève Beny Steinmetz.
Incarcéré en Floride depuis un mois, Frédéric Cilins a tout loisir de penser à son rendez-vous du 11 avril à Jacksonville. « Il faut détruire les documents de toute urgence », répète-t-il alors, sans se douter qu’il est sur écoute. La jeune femme en face de lui vient de lui avouer que la police est sur leur piste. On l’a interrogée sur des « pots-de-vin et des contrats miniers en Guinée ». Mamadie Toure était la quatrième épouse du défunt dictateur guinéen Lansana Conté. Pour qu’elle se taise, Frédéric Cilins lui promet un million de dollars. Et éventuellement « cinq ». Prudente, elle demande si un responsable a donné son feu vert. « Bien sûr », répond le Français, qui revient le week-end suivant pour tout brûler. C’est là qu’il se fait cueillir par les agents du FBI. Il n’a pas eu le temps de faire disparaître une série de documents « relatifs à l’attribution des concessions de Simandou », selon leur déposition, le plus grand gisement de fer encore non exploité au monde, dans le sud-est de la Guinée-Conakry.
Derrière Frédéric Cilins, un personnage mystérieux qui avait ses entrées à Conakry, la justice américaine pourrait viser la société BSGR, conglomérat minier propriété d’une fondation dont Beny Steinmetz et sa famille proche sont les uniques bénéficiaires. Le milliardaire israélien, 57 ans, réside à Genève avec sa famille, dans un immeuble grand siècle sur les quais. Son entourage indique qu’il passe près d’un tiers de son temps en Israël. Présenté par l’agence Bloomberg comme la « plus grande fortune israélienne », il a pris la succession de la société diamantaire Steinmetz Diamonds Group, fondée par son père et chapeautée par une société basée à Genève. Ses activités lui ont parfois valu d’être décrit comme un flibustier écumant le continent africain pour piller ses trésors. « L’Afrique n’est qu’un chapitre de l’histoire du groupe, qui dispose aussi d’un important bras immobilier, d’un hedge fund maison, d’une marque de diamants », rétorque un proche du milliardaire. Reste que le groupe minier BSGR – dans lequel on réduit le rôle de Beny Steinmetz à celui « d’ambassadeur et de conseiller » – risque gros.
”Frédéric Cilins a aidé BSGR à installer son bureau à Conakry, mais c’est fini depuis 2008…”
L’opération Simandou devait être l’investissement le plus éclatant d’un homme qui, il y a un an encore, caressait le projet de placer certaines de ses activités en bourse. Aujourd’hui il pourrait le perdre. Et voir ses opérations guinéennes projetées devant les tribunaux américains. Le Français arrêté en Floride est accusé d’avoir fait « obstruction à une enquête » en relation avec « des commissions versées à des membres de l’ancien gouvernement guinéen ». Selon les termes de la plainte enregistrée au Tribunal de Jacksonville, la justice s’intéresse à des « transferts vers les Etats-Unis, liés à un montage visant à obtenir, par corruption, une concession minière de valeur située dans la région de Simandou ». L’affaire est désormais instruite par le bureau de Preet Bharara, le redouté procureur new-yorkais qui a fait tomber la banque suisse Wegelin. Des proches de l’enquête américaine suggèrent que l’affaire pourrait avoir des prolongements au Royaume-Uni et n’excluent pas qu’une demande d’entraide judiciaire à la Suisse soit déposée cet été.
Au sein de BSGR, on nie tout lien avec les ennuis judiciaires de Frédéric Cilins L’intermédiaire a bien « aidé BSGR à installer son bureau à Conakry » et a « représenté le groupe au cours de réunions avec le ministre des Mines », a admis la société dans un courrier aux autorités guinéennes. Mais « tout s’est arrêté en mars 2008 », poursuit un proche de BSGR. Donc avant l’obtention de concessions dans la montagne de Simandou.
En Guinée, le groupe BSGR est déjà dans le collimateur de la justice. Le vice-président de son bureau à Conakry a été appréhendé le 22 avril, pour son rôle, selon le Ministère de la justice, dans « l’acquisition par BSGR de droits sur le gisement de Simandou ». Aux confins de la forêt guinéenne, les monts Simandou attisent toutes les convoitises en raison du minerai de fer de qualité exceptionnelle qu’ils renferment. Problème de taille, l’exploitation du fer de Simandou et surtout son acheminement jusqu’à la côte — nécessite des investissements colossaux. Creuser la montagne, réaliser — la ligne de chemin de fer jusqu’à Conakry — sans oublier l’aménagement d’un terminal en haute mer — nécessitent 25 milliards de dollars.
Le budget a même fait hésiter un conglomérat Rio Tinto, qui disposait dès les années 1990 des droits sur l’ensemble d’une zone grande comme deux fois le Valais. Le gouvernement guinéen s’impatiente. Et, finalement, en août 2008, il retire au groupe anglo-australien ses licences pour deux des quatre parcelles de Simandou. En embuscade depuis 2006, BSGR décroche la timbale et obtient les deux « bloc s» perdus par Rio Tinto. L’accord est finalisé quelques jours avant la mort du président Lansana Conté, le 22 décembre 2008. BSGR, qui a déjà dépensé 165 millions de dollars pour ses travaux de prospection entre 2006 et 2009, ne peut financer seul ce projet titanesque, même s’il en a réduit la facture à 10 milliards en obtenant de pouvoir sortir le minerai en ralliant le Liberia voisin. Il s’allie donc en avril 2010 au géant brésilien du fer, Vale, à qui il vend 51% de ses parts à Simandou, pour la somme de 2,5 milliards de dollars, la plus grosse transaction jamais réalisée par le groupe. Vale s’engage à verser 500 millions tout de suite.
A son arrivée au pouvoir, en décembre 2010, Alpha Condé, premier président démocratiquement élu de Guinée, promet de faire du développement de son pays une priorité. Après vingt-quatre ans de dictature de Lansana Conté — suivis de deux années de chaos sous la junte militaire — le pays stagne au 178e rang sur 187 nations de l’indice de développement humain des Nations unies. Et ce, malgré son énorme potentiel minier, qui lui vaut son surnom de « scandale géologique ».
« J’ai hérité d’un pays, pas d’un Etat », déplore Alpha Condé devant la tâche qui l’attend. La réforme du secteur minier – qui représente les sept dixièmes des recettes en devises – est le premier des grands chantiers que le nouveau président entend mettre en œuvre. Il s’entoure de conseillers et d’ONG de l’Ouest, notamment celles financées par George Soros. Première étape, le gouvernement se dote d’un Comité technique de revue des titres et conventions miniers qui examine sous toutes leurs coutures les contrats signés par BSGR en Guinée. Contacté par Le Temps, le ministre des Mines, Mohamed Lamine Fofana, confirme que « le site de Simandou met en lumière un cas de corruption pour obtenir le gisement ».
Le Comité technique envoie le 30 octobre 2012 un long courrier à BSGR pour lui demander des éclaircissements sur 25 « allégations » qui étayent les éventuelles malversations dont le groupe se serait rendu coupable. « Lors de l’hospitalisation du président Conté à Genève, Beny Steinmetz […] l’a rencontré pour plaider en faveur de l’acquisition de droits de Simandou », relate ainsi le document. BSGR dément, soulignant « l’absence du moindre élément de preuve ». Dans un courrier, le groupe « conteste formellement avoir réalisé aucun paiement, directement ou indirectement, à des agents publics ou toute autre personne afin d’influencer le gouvernement guinéen ».
Selon Nava Touré, le président du Comité technique, en dépit de la gravité des accusations, les dirigeants de BSGR n’ont initialement pas jugé bon de coopérer pleinement, « contestant même notre légitimité ». « Nous avons tous pouvoirs pour recommander la révocation des droits de BSGR, au terme de la procédure », prévient aujourd’hui Nava Touré.
D’autant que, aux Etats-Unis, la veuve du président guinéen s’est mise à table. Dans un document de justice, elle relate comment Frédéric Cilins lui a « offert la somme de 12 millions de dollars, à répartir entre elle, les ministres et les hauts fonctionnaires à qui il pourrait être nécessaire de faire appel pour sécuriser les droits miniers ». Les justices américaine et guinéenne ont en main des documents accablants, les contrats que Frédéric Cilins n’a pas eu le temps de détruire et que les agents du FBI ont saisis. Parmi eux, un premier « protocole d’accord » signé en 2007. Mais aussi un « contrat de commission », signé l’année suivante, et évoquant le versement de 2 millions de dollars. Suit une « lettre d’engagement ». Enfin, en août 2010, un contrat final promet « 5 millions de dollars versés en deux fois » à la jeune épouse du président.
A Londres, l’affaire a pris une tournure ‘‘people’’
Interrogé, BSGR se refuse à tout commentaire sur la procédure en cours aux Etats-Unis. Un porte-parole assure cependant que BSGR « n’a rien à cacher et, si besoin, coopérera pleinement avec les autorités américaines ou britanniques ». De son côté, le conglomérat brésilien Vale, son partenaire sur la montagne de fer de Simandou, promet de rester « à l’entière disposition des autorités américaines pour coopérer à leur enquête ». Et a indiqué être en train de « rassembler les documents qui lui ont été demandés ».
Dans le même temps, BSGR fourbit ses armes et s’apprête à contre-attaquer. Il veut présenter sa vérité, un complot ourdi contre le groupe pour l’évincer de Guinée et lui soutirer de l’argent. Dans un communiqué diffusé jeudi, la société estime que « le but final du gouvernement guinéen reste l’expropriation de BSGR et de Vale ». Surtout, l’entourage de Beny Steinmetz pointe du doigt une « campagne » de dénigrement coordonnée par le gouvernement guinéen, de multiples ONG à la solde de George Soros, les avocats du réseau DLA Piper, la société d’intelligence économique Veracity et même « des journalistes en vue ».
A Londres, l’affaire a pris une tournure « people » depuis que BSGR poursuit en justice FTI Consulting, agence jusque-là en charge de son image. Accusant le patron de cette dernière — le très influent Mark Malloch-Brown, un ancien ministre — d’avoir fourni des informations confidentielles à son vieil ami George Soros. Contacté, un proche du célèbre financier assure « qu’il n’y a jamais eu de conflit personnel entre eux, George n’avait jamais entendu parler de Monsieur Steinmetz avant cette histoire et ne l’a jamais rencontré ». Ce dernier refuse de s’exprimer sur l’affaire, « en raison de la procédure judiciaire en cours ». Alpha Condé, le président guinéen, aurait été présenté au philanthrope par un « ami commun » afin de l’aider à reconstruire le pays. Le milliardaire lui aurait donné un conseil : — Pour négocier avec les groupes miniers, il faut disposer d’avocats aussi bons qu’eux. Conakry s’est ainsi attaché les services de DLA Piper, l’un des plus grands réseaux de juristes au monde.
Un proche de BSGR attire également l’attention sur de possibles liens entre les ennuis du groupe en Guinée et une affaire encore plus sombre, révélée par le Business Day sud-africain en août 2011. Celle d’un accord secret entre l’entourage du président guinéen Alpha Condé et le groupe sud-africain Palladino, en vue du transfert d’actifs miniers. Il y a un an, cette dernière avait cependant démenti formellement l’existence d’un tel pacte.
La survie de BSGR pourrait se jouer avec cette rocambolesque affaire de corruption. Mais les enjeux sont encore plus importants pour la Guinée, dont l’économie dépend essentiellement de l’industrie minière. L’extraction du fer, dont les réserves guinéennes sont pourtant les plus importantes d’Afrique de l’Ouest, n’a pas encore démarré. Et la controverse autour de BSGR effraie les investisseurs : tous les chantiers de Simandou se sont arrêtés. « La Guinée a manqué le train, commente un expert proche du dossier. Le fer guinéen serait plus accessible s’il était sur la Lune. »
Pierre-Alexandre Sallier et Boris Mabillard Le temps.ch