Report | May 13, 2014

Guinea's "Deal of the Century"

It’s not often a story sets out the mechanics of corruption as starkly as the foray by billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources into Guinea. We can often wonder just how a company has beaten off rivals to get its hands on an oilfield or mine—but a combination of backroom deals, offshore accounting and byzantine financial transactions usually ensures we never find out.

This time was different. When BSGR set its sights on Simandou, perhaps the world’s biggest untapped iron ore reserve, it struck a corrupt bargain with the president’s wife, promising her millions of dollars in bribes for her help to win the mine. In the course of a two-year investigation, Global Witness gained access to detailed documentation of one of Africa’s biggest mining scandals, including transcripts of FBI wiretaps, signed cheques and bribery contracts between Mamadie Touré - the widow of President Lansana Conté - BSGR and associates. BSGR says the evidence, including the contracts, was “fabricated”.

Much of the material has now been made public by a Guinean government inquiry, shining a rare spotlight on the scramble for Africa’s minerals.

Global Witness first sounded the alarm about Simandou in late 2012. In what one newspaper called “the deal of the century”, BSGR had in 2008 secured rights to two of the giant ore deposit’s four exploration blocks after they were taken away from a rival miner, Rio Tinto. BSGR paid nothing (it says it invested $160 million in Simandou and other Guinean projects) and then resold half of its stake to another mining company, Vale for $2.5 billion. That was equivalent to twice Guinea’s national budget that year.

BSGR has said corruption allegations are “entirely baseless” and that it always acted “to the highest standards of corporate governance”. But it wasn’t long before new evidence emerged to cast doubt on that assertion.

On 14 April 2013, Frédéric Cilins, a former BSGR agent, was arrested in Florida after meeting Touré at Jacksonville airport. Over the course of two hours and a chicken sandwich, he repeatedly offered her millions of dollars to destroy her contracts with BSGR to ensure they didn’t fall into the hands of US investigators. What he didn’t know is that the she was wearing a hidden microphone supplied by the FBI. A French transcript of that conversation, seen by Global Witness and now available online, showed Cilins telling Touré that he was acting on direct orders from Beny Steinmetz himself.

Five days after Cilins was detained, Global Witness published this video showing BSGR executives, Cilins and others hobnobbing with Touré at a PR event for the Simandou project—demolishing the company’s claim that it had “never approached Mme Touré” regarding the mine.

More evidence piled up and by mid-2013 BSGR’s version of the story was getting shaky: one of the signatories to Touré’s bribe contracts was Pentler Holdings, a shell company registered anonymously in one of the most opaque financial jurisdictions, the British Virgin Islands. BSGR had said it had nothing to do with Pentler. In August, a Global Witness report showed how the company was in fact set up by a BSGR director. This illustrates why Global Witness is campaigning around the world to end the use of anonymous shell companies.

By now, criminal inquiries were underway—by 2014 BSGR would find itself under investigation in several countries, including the US, Switzerland and Guinea itself—and with a Guinean government committee set to rule on the legality of its Simandou holdings, pressure was building. BSGR didn’t take it lying down, launching an aggressive media campaign claiming the company was the victim of an international conspiracy, with Global Witness cast among the plotters.

As well as attacking Global Witness in public statements, BSGR attempted to use the Data Protection Act to compel us to hand over source material—potentially setting a dangerous precedent that would arm corporations with a new weapon to stifle investigative journalism. For two years the lawsuit bounced between the UK’s High Court and the Information Commissioner’s Office, which in December 2014 decided against BSGR, a decision hailed as a “victory for press freedom”.

BSGR’s scrap with Global Witness served to distract attention from the bigger battle: the one for Simandou. By the time of the Information Commissioner’s ruling BSGR had lost that fight. Citing “sufficient certainty [of] the existence of corrupt practices”, in April 2014 Guinea’s mining committee stripped BSGR of its assets and now plans to put them up for auction.

The Simandou story isn’t over though. BSGR continues to challenge the confiscation in the courts. And Guinea’s government still has much to do to show that this time its subterranean riches can do more for the country than funnel wealth into the hands of corrupt elites.

Here’s a summary of Global Witness' reporting on the story so far (for a chronology of the Simandou saga click here):

Image: Copyright © 2014 Rio Tinto