Guinea has begun a battle to revoke mining contracts that were fraudulently acquired under previous governments, President Alpha Conde said, adding the West African country stood to gain up to $3 billion by reawarding them.
Conde’s government has accused BSG Resources (BSGR), the mining arm of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s business empire, of illicitly acquiring licences to mine one of the world’s largest untapped iron-ore deposits, Simandou.
The Guinean government alleges that BSGR bribed officials and Mamadie Toure, the wife of former President Lansana Conte, to win permits to develop the northern half of the deposit. The company did not pay any money up front for the licenses.
BSGR has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and accuses the government of seeking to profit by reselling the licences.
Two BSGR employees have been arrested by anti-corruption investigators in Guinea. A third man, named by Guinea’s government as an agent for the firm, was arrested and charged in the United States.
“Today we have started a battle to recover our mines which were acquired fraudulently,” Conde, elected in 2010 following a transition from a military coup, said in a speech late on Wednesday.
“The recovery of these mines and their sale will bring Guinea between $2.5 and $3 billion,” he said, without specifying which licenses he was referring to.
BSGR struck a deal in 2010 to sell 51 percent of the northern Simandou blocks to Brazil’s Vale, the world’s top iron ore producer, for $2.5 billion.
Conde’s government has not made any accusations of wrongdoing against Vale.
The Brazilian company paid some $500 million up front in cash to BSGR, but has said hurdles for other payments have not been met. It has also halted work on the northern half of Simandou and at the smaller Zogota project it is developing with BSGR.
Miner Rio Tinto, which is developing the southern half of the Simandou iron ore deposit, said in August it could be interested in increasing its footprint in Guinea, including additional blocks held by rivals.
Rio had initially held the whole of the Simandou but in 2008 it was accused of moving too slowly and was stripped of the northern half by Conte, who died months later.
Guinea is awaiting the results of legislative elections on Saturday which are slowing trickling in from some 12,000 polling stations across the West African country.
Initial results from a couple of provincial towns showed Conde’s RPG party taking an early lead, but opposition parties performing strongly. No party is expected to win a majority in the 114-member National Assembly but the vote is seen as a trial run for the 2015 presidential poll.
Observers have warned that any dispute over the election results could plunge Guinea back into months of violent political protests which killed some 50 people in the run up to the vote.
“People want to destabilise the country from overseas, but do not fear. Nothing is going to happen,” Conde told thousands of supporters at a ceremony to mark Guinea’s independence day, without specifying who he was referring to.