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DAVID GLEASON: Why genuine miners avoid Guinea


2012/06/14

THE two stories in this column about Guineas mining assets and Mvelaphanda Holdings involvement have generated an unusual amount of international interest. I am told project developers in Guinea, elements of civil society and opposition parties are planning legal action in the US (under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) and the UK (under new foreign investment anticorruption legislation). Last weekend, in response to stories about Palladino and its $25m loan to Guinea, businessman and Mvela associate Walter Hennig categorically denied the company had the right to a 30% stake in active private sector mining projects if repayment of the loan is defaulted. It was a smart move. But the contract was actually between Palladino 2 and the Guinean government, not with Palladino. I understand Palladino 2 was created in 2010 for the specific purpose of entering into the agreement; Palladino was incorporated in 2003 and the use of Palladino 2 does seem strange. Given that the holdup in the Rio Tinto iron ore project was resolved last year after Rio agreed to pay $700m once the settlement agreement and presidential decrees are promulgated, quite why it needs a $25m loan from Palladino 2 is curious. Hennig has insisted the consortium which is involved in Palladino and Florus Bell, the other BVI company, was asked by the Guinean government to assist in cleaning up the mess in the mining sector. Maybe so, but I cannot be persuaded that the consortiums efforts will go unrewarded. I identified some of those involved, in this column on Friday, and they are not individuals who take on tasks of this kind with no reward at the other end. I have to guess that mining developers will take all the initial risks (geological, technical, geopolitical). Once those risks are off the table and financing is about to start, Soguipami, the Guinean governments investment vehicle, may then exercise the provisions under the new mining code. These are for a 15% free ride for the government with an entitlement to buy up to another 20% in any mining project. But where does all this put the consortium? A contact in Conakry says tales are circulating that some mining projects may be seized and handed on to other parties. How will foreign mining companies respond? The Rio iron ore project is unlikely to be threatened. But BHP Billiton announced last week it might sell its 33,33% stake in Guinea Alumina and is working with investment bank Lazard to find a buyer. And Russian aluminium producer Rusal, which has operated in Guinea for years, described the new mining code as "senseless". It added: "Any investor of good sense will look for investment opportunities somewhere outside Guinea." Guinea is described by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank as a highly indebted poor country. It is seeking debt relief from both commercial and official lenders, and a three-year extended credit facility and an allocation of interim poor-country assistance is under consideration by the IMF. Questions are being asked about the terms of the loan agreement, which includes interest at Libor plus 3%. If Guinea is so poor it has to beg debt relief, why is it borrowing money at such high interest payments? The longer-term problem for Guinea is what effect this uncertainty and rumour might have on international investment. The country is awash with mineral resources, but many mining companies may be discouraged by political developments that leave them baffled. WE FIRST asked Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) spokes-man Patrick Craven to make the past years financial statements available a week ago. He sent us off to talk to someone else, who sent us back to Craven, who said hed let us know. He didnt, so we called again. Maybe theyll sort this out today. Im not holding my breath. Presuming the response is no, the next question is: what does it have to hide? In any event, surely a federation as big as Cosatu owes it to the public to show us what it does with its members money? The Labour Relations Act should be amended to require trade unions and federations to publish their financial statements in full and make them easily available. THE other problem," e-mailed Tony Robinson from Cape Town, "is that you have to make good use of the R&D work." He was commenting on my column on innovation and R&D yesterday. Robinson pointed me to the lithium ion battery, the small device that made possible the cellphone revolution,

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http://m.businessday.co.za/article.aspx?id=875779

laptops and, most recently, tablets. It will probably play a huge role in develop ing electric cars. The lithium battery was partially developed by a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) team led by Michael Thackeray, a graduate of the University of Cape Town. In 1983, Thackeray, John Goodenough of Oxford University and co-workers identified manganese spinel as a cathode material. This advanced work done earlier by Goodenough (1979), who first showed that lithium batteries were possible. The battery development unit was closed down soon after the government changeover in 1994. The scientists who worked on the lithium ion battery have long since dispersed. They now populate leading scientific establishments around the world, mostly in the US. Thackeray is a distinguished fellow, senior scientist and group leader of the Argonne National Laboratorys battery development department in Illinois. The CSIR also developed the Zebra battery, based on molten salt; it was invented in 1985 by Johann Coetzer based on work by German scientist Georg Otto Erb, who developed it for military applications such as the V1 and V2 rockets during the Second World War. Ironically, the CSIRs 2010 annual report announced the establishment of a new battery research centre. It is, of course, easy to be wise after the event, but the closure of the battery unit in the mid-1990s can be seen now as an example of really abysmal decision-making and an almost total absence of foresight, particularly since this would have coincided with the early years of the cellphone revolution. E-mail: david@gleason.co.za Twitter: @TheTorqueColumn

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