Views, ideas, inspiration, vision and practical tips for a better more prosperous Malawi

After suspension of oil and gas exploration licences in Malawi what happens now?

Anglo American Corporation was founded in Johannesburg in 1917 with £1 million (what today would have been £75 million, adjusting for inflation according to one inflation calculator).

AngloAmerican

It has since grown into a publicly traded behemoth with a market capitalisation of £31.2 billion and revenues of £29.3 billion (2013). It’s headquarters is now in London and the company is now known as Anglo American Plc, the fourth largest mining company in the world.

Although a net ‘loss’ of $961 million was declared in 2013, Anglo American is undoubtedly one of the big boys in the industry. To give you a scale of just how big they are, Anglo American Plc owns 85% of Luxembourg registered De Beers Investments, the holding company of De Beers, another prominent mining giant which is well-known in Southern Africa. But if that’s not convincing enough then how about this: Anglo American recently walked away from a gold interest worth $300 billion, after investing over $541 million it it. Apparently, the withdrawal is related to environmental risks, in particular the threat the Pebble Mine would pose to Alaskan Salmon (there’s even a campaign), although Anglo’s chief executive claimed the withdrawal was in fact a way of prioritizing “.. capital to projects with the highest value and lowest risks.”

Both Anglo American and De Beers have been criticised over their practices in Africa, including price-fixing, low wages (for Anglo American recently in Chile here) and lack of transparency. In particular, according to a Wikipedia entry:

In 1977, the company [Anglo American] demanded that the paper it owned, Rand Daily Mail, tone down its equal-rights support after exposing the murder of South African activist Steve Biko amid the subsequent government backlash. [words in parenthesis for clarity]

Further, a British charity, War on Want, published a report in August 2007 that accused Anglo American of profiting from the abuse of people in the developing countries in which the mining giant operates. According to War on Want:

“in the Philippines and South Africa, local communities threatened with Anglo American mines have faced severe repression in their fight to stay on their land, while in Ghana and Mali, local communities see little of the huge profits being made by AngloGold Ashanti but suffer from fear and intimidation and from the damaging impact of its mines on their environment, health and livelihoods”

In response, the company subsequently published a report defending itself and disclosing its finances.

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Malawi’s first president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda could have begun a state owned mining company in Malawi in the late 1960’s. He could have hired specialists from abroad, bought equipment from Britain or the US, begun prospecting for minerals, and by 1970 laid a foundation for a functional mining industry. The technology was available, and when Malawians had been travelling to South Africa in their thousands to work in the mines, labour would not have been a problem.

Banda didn’t begin a mining company. Instead he focussed on agriculture, which traditionally does not reap large profits as the sort which mining companies the likes of De Beers and Anglo American have been known to reap.

That decision could be a contributory factor further explaining Malawi’s economic woes today. While others were investing in assets and initiatives having huge long-term yields, Malawians were dabbling with agriculture and tobacco.

But to give him credit, while Dr Banda could have thought mining was not a priority to the newly independent country, he must have known that Malawi didn’t have enough capital resources to waste on ambitious projects whose very returns were unknown if not a gamble?

Further, having just broken away from the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, it’s understandable that while Britain could have been willing to extend Malawi a line of credit, as single-minded as Banda was known to have been, it’s inconceivable to think that he would have wanted to be constrained by such kind of favours from the very same people he so vehemently denounced. As he once declared: “We have no minerals. The soil is our gold mine”. In any case, what did a medical doctor who barely 10 years previously had been running a clinic in London know about the mining industry of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Having said this, would Dr Banda have started a state-owned mining company if he knew what treasures lay beneath the surface of Malawi’s geology? If he knew the value of such treasures on the international market?

Especially since there was information available as early as 1966 as to the Mineral deposits and mining potential of Malawi, according to a research paper titled MINERAL RESOURCES OF MALAWI AND MINING POTENTIAL by Rodney Mshali (The Society of Malawi Journal Vol. 62, No. 2 (2009), pp. 27-35 published by: Society of Malawi – Historical and Scientific ). Banda could have decided to take the risk if he wanted to.

Mineral Deposits

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Whichever way, it’s not my place to make a determination on Dr Banda’s judgement at this time.

But what does all this have to do with the current mining landscape in Malawi?

Well, as can be seen in the following links in Zambia, Chile, South Africa and Ethiopia , some mining companies have been known to be a menace to the countries they operate in. Issues of ownership, corruption, tax evasion in the form of profit shifting, low pay and poor working conditions, and of environmental degradation are often always lingering. In Malawi, recently, it has emerged that Paladin was considering to discharge ‘contaminated’ sludge kept in a dam near its Kayelekera mine into Malawi’s rivers systems for fear that if they did not do so, the rain season would cause their dam to overflow.

Thus, when news broke just under two weeks ago that the government of Malawi had suspended all oil and gas exploration licenses on Lake Malawi, so as to allow government to scrutinise and review each Licence that was issued or signed, I didn’t really know what to make of it. After all,  Malawi has had its fair share of sorry episodes of bad contracts married with irresponsible management, with the Paladin saga at Kayelekera. Although appearing diligent, uncovering any such lax agreements will just remind us all how deep in muck the country really is. It will not be a cause for celebration.

So then, what will the government do?

If they plan to review the oil exploration licenses in all good faith, and if necessary use legal mechanisms to resolve any indications of foul play -including unfair or prejudicial contract terms that do not benefit Malawians; if they plan to bring the miscreants to justice, then the suspension is a noble move.

In addition, the government of Malawi could work with charities [such as SHERPA (France), the Center for Trade Policy and Development (Zambia), the Berne Declaration (Switzerland), l’Entraide Missionnaire (Canada) and Mining Watch (Canada) ] which in 2011 filed complaints against mining companies Glencore International AG and First Quantum Minerals Ltd, to the Swiss and Canadian National Contact Points (NCP) for violating the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises including for Tax avoidance in Zambia.

However, if the suspension of oil and gas exploration in Malawi is a veiled attempt at ‘rent-seeking’, as is rumoured to have taken place not only during Bingu Wa Mutharika’s regime, but also during the People’s Party administration, then it would be unfortunate because the government would have lost an opportunity to harness the resources that Malawi has. DPP would have lost a chance to show transparency.

One more thing; how can Peter Mutharika be sure that the value of assets or mineral resources declared by Oil companies interested in prospecting, or already prospecting is accurate, and not under-declared/under-valued ? For example, if the actual value (or near estimate) of viable crude oil deposits under the basin of Lake Malawi was US$400 billion, what is to stop the Oil companies holding the exploration licenses from misinforming the government that they had found only US$100 billion worth of confirmed deposits under the lake? Especially when the government was unable to verify those figures?

Wouldn’t an independent state-owned Mining company, that had its own equipment, and that owned a stake in each exploration site, and that was jointly involved in the exploration, so as to be able to verify the findings by its own independently undertaken mapping and surveying reduce such a risk?

Finally, it goes without saying that for them to be successful, any state-owned organisation (including parastatals) should be run and managed by people who by merit are fit to do so, and not by public appointees with little or no experience in the relevant technical field or area.

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About Sang N.

Writer, Entrepreneur & Activist. Interests: History, Entrepreneurship, Business, Motors, Architecture, Aviation, Travel, Food and Art.

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