Entitled “The Deceivers” Global Witness’ Report investigates and exposes the corrupt practices of British businessmen Phil Edmonds and Andrew Groves. Operating from London, the duo is present in the mining sector in Liberia, Guinea Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe…. I reprint here the Guinea and Liberia sections of the report. This version of the document corrects a glaring geography mistake: Liberia, not Gambia, shares with Guinea the Western chimpanzees habitat zone. And it includes relevant pictures and germane links.
Tierno S. Bah
Global Witness. “The Deceivers”, Sable Mining. “Guinea: The Prize”
As a spin bowler for the England cricket team Phil Edmonds won a reputation for deception and guile. He and his business partner Andrew Groves put those skills to use on the stock market, fleecing millions from investors as they carved out an African business empire with bribery and dirty tricks.
Guinea: The Prize
After Liberia, Edmonds and Groves set their sights on a new prize: Mount Nimba in Guinea. To win it, their company Sable Mining—still listed on AIM-got close to the future president, backing the campaign that brought him to power, courting his son and paying millions to one of his close friends to advance their business with bribery.
August 2010. Guinea is in the grip of election fever as the impoverished West African nation prepares to end five decades of dictatorship with its first free vote. Presidential candidate Alpha Condé is flying in with Sable Mining chief Andrew Groves—and Sable’s man in Conakry is worried the price of bribes is about to skyrocket.
“Once we get there on a plane with presi, the future head of the country, and two ‘big-shots’ from a big western company, trust me, prices will inflate like crazy,” Sable’s Guinean agent, Aboubacar Sampil, wrote in a 28 August email to a Sable executive. “Folks in the admin will try to get a lot, lot more for each step, leading to a minimum of about $500,000 not including the minister’s share.”
The email is among a cache of documents leaked to Global Witness by sources who requested anonymity.
Sable, listed by Edmonds and Groves on AIM in 2008, had spent the previous months lining up its first iron ore rights in Liberia. Now it was backing Condé’s campaign in neighbouring Guinea. To get close to Condé, Sable was courting his son, Alpha Mohammed Condé —with the implication that when his father became president, Sable’s interests in Guinea would be taken care of.
Alpha Mohammed Condé
“We look forward to bringing this political collaboration to life,” Alpha Mohammed wrote to Sable on 4 August 2010. “It will make my dad all the more comfortable to support our business partnerships and trust us as a team to be solution providers for many of the challenges he will face.”
As Sable took care of campaign logistics—booking flights for the Condés, arranging meetings with a Liberian minister and the heads of South African intelligence, and offering the loan of a helicopter—its agent Sampil, an old confidante of Condé and a member of his entourage, was on the ground in Guinea scouting for permits.
To get them, he wanted money for bribes. Four times that August Sampil asked Sable for money via Alpha Mohammed’s Paris bank account, leaked emails seen by Global Witness show.
“Now it is very important to make money transfer to the Alpha bank account. That can help to finalise faster with the technicians of the ministry,” Sampil wrote on one occasion. “They started giving me some information that I have to pay for. You know how things work.”
Alpha Mohammed had sent Sable his bank details earlier in the month—but wiring cash to the son of a high-profile politician was proving tricky. “We are having a few issues with our risk/compliance people in terms of getting this payment made,” wrote Sable’s London lawyer on 17 August. Groves suggested routing the payment through a Sable account in South Africa.
“Alpha Condé paid,” Groves wrote a few hours later to say he had sent the son his money. But 10 days later Sampil, who had asked for 15,000 euros, was still complaining that the transfer hadn’t come through.
Alpha Mohammed told Global Witness that he had never “attempted to use improper influence to assist Sable”—though the emails show that he was aware of plans to send bribe money through his account
“Any payments to Alpha Mohammed Condé from Sable Mining would have been for consultancy work or reimbursement for travel,” a spokesman for the Guinean government said. Alpha Mohammed “would be able to show that his bank never had more than 10,000 euros in his account”.
Sampil declined to comment for this report. Edmonds and Groves told Global Witness that if any bribery occurred in Guinea, it was without their knowledge. Jim Cochrane, Sable chairman since 2014, said the company obeys the law wherever it operates and that questions from Global Witness had “prompted a further internal review of all these matters, many of which were subject to review a number of years ago”.
Global Witness’s investigation did not reveal any evidence of wrongdoing by Alpha Condé Sr.
Condé won the election. And whatever Sampil was doing for Sable, by January 2012 his efforts were paying off. One of the key permits Sampil had applied for during the election campaign—when he was soliciting bribe money from Sable—came through: iron ore exploration rights in Mount Nimba on the Liberian border, prime mining territory close to concessions held by multinationals BHP Billiton and Arcelor-Mittal
Sampil was handsomely rewarded. Sable appointed him a non-executive director with an annual salary of $120,000 and in 2014 paid him $6 million in “consultancy fees”. His importance to Sable “cannot be underestimated”, the company’s lawyer said in a 2012 court filing.
Sampil “does not hold any position with the government of the Republic of Guinea and does not represent the administration in any capacity”, the company told the Times. Payments to him were “fully justifiable and have been disclosed fully”, Cochrane wrote to Global Witness.
There was just one problem with the Nimba permit: it was illegal
Maps of the exploration area granted to Sable show that it overlapped with the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, a World Heritage Site on Unesco’s danger list, home to the rare Western chimpanzee, already extinct in nearby
Gambia Liberia, and the critically endangered Western Nimba viviparous toad, one of the only toad species that spawns live young.
About the Western Chimpanzees, watch Gilles Nivet’s documentary movie Le Pacte de Bossou. — T.S. Bah
While Sable’s permit was later adjusted to skirt the reserve just outside the boundary, in some places it remained less than 90 metres from the park. It also covered swathes of the buffer zone surrounding the reserve, which is also internationally recognised.
Letting Sable operate there “contravenes commitments made by our government to the international community”, warned environment minister Samady Touré in a letter to the mining minister on 9 August 2012, four days after the permit was revised. The company’s activities “are incompatible with the current status of the Strict Nature Reserve” under Guinean law, wrote Touré, who requested the cancellation of the permits
“This contract involves a licence on the buffer zone of the Nimba site and not the protected area. It was believed that this would have lower negative impact,” a spokesman for the Guinean government told Global Witness in an email. “The basic premise of preferential treatment for Sable from the Condé government is simply incorrect.”
‘A quick and dirty job’
Touré’s protests went unheeded and three months later he was dismissed. Unesco officials who visited Nimba in 2013 feared for the future of the reserve. Sable’s planned mine could squeeze a band of endangered chimpanzees into a narrow corridor between mining concessions, said the Unesco team’s report, and forest landscapes already threatened by hunting, logging and farming would be isolated and fragmented.
But with no power to stop Sable, all Unesco could do was urge the company to carry out environmental impact assessments to the “highest international standards”. The report Sable produced in February 2015 didn’t come close, according to a senior Unesco official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was a “quick and dirty job”, the official told Global Witness. Sable’s consultants spent so little time in the field that they even mistook passing migrant birds for native wildlife.
“The bird inventory has as the two most common species two migrant species from Europe because they just did the inventory on the days they came through,” the official said. “It is very clear that they didn’t do proper baseline studies.”
Parts of the report, seen by Global Witness, look suspiciously like a hasty cut-and-paste job. Sable’s concession is a “nesting site for marine turtles”, it says. Nimba is 270 kilometres from the sea
On the ground in Nimba, Sable plied local officials with gifts to keep them on-side. In secret recordings of speeches from a village ceremony in July 2013, Guinean officials can be heard thanking Sable for its gifts: Sable renovated the local prefect’s house; local environmental and mining officials received 11 motorcycles and a pick-up truck.
With the officials taken care of, Sable had just one hurdle left to clear: getting its ore out of Guinea
It was a nut that far bigger mining companies had failed to crack. Guinea’s big iron deposits are in the country’s south and east, from where the easiest export route is a short haul across Liberia to the coast by rail. But Guinea’s government was desperate for infrastructure, insisting that companies fund a much longer and costlier railway to the Guinean capital that would carry passengers as well as ore.
In August 2013, Sable succeeded where its competitors had failed when a Guinean ministerial decree granted the company the right to export through Liberia. With the Guineans onside, the Liberians followed, signing an export deal with Sable on 23 January 2013
In London, the news sent Sable stock rocketing more than 300 per cent. But Edmonds and Groves may not have been telling investors the whole story. The Liberian railway was in the hands of international steel giant Arcelor-Mittal and the arrangement to use it was far from a done deal.
“There’s nothing agreed yet on the railway,” a person with close knowledge of talks between Arcelor and Sable told Global Witness, speaking anonymously due to the confidentiality of the discussions. Far from having secured an export route, Sable was more likely to end up fighting a “lengthy court battle”, the person said. The railway deal is “not yet consummated”, the Liberian government told Global Witness.
‘Just do what I do’
With a rail deal nowhere near as close as he was publicly claiming, Groves offered Arcelor an alternative: buying Sable’s ore “at the mine gate”, leaving the larger company to take care of transportation. But Arcelor officials suspected Groves of exaggerating the quality of Sable’s deposit, cherry-picking the best samples to make the overall quality seem higher, insiders say.
Even as iron ore prices slumped in 2014, Sable continued to tell the markets that Nimba was a workable prospect. But it’s unsure the company will ever get any iron out of Guinea.
Since Sable arrived in West Africa, Guinea has been hit by a deadly Ebola epidemic that left 2,536 dead and few companies with appetite for the foreign investment needed for recovery. But Andrew Groves has some advice for those who do feel equal to the challenge, say two people who attended a meeting with him in 2014.
“Just get them all round the table—army, police, government, environmental, doesn’t matter who it is—we get them all round the table and we just give them money to make things happen and it all just goes away,” Groves said, according to one of them (the other gave a similar account). “You should just do what I do. Because everything goes smoothly when you do it like I do.”
Next, Liberia: The Bribes
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