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Mining and corruption. Crying foul in Guinea

Africa’s largest iron-ore mining project has been bedeviled by dust-ups and delays.

“An emblematic tragedy” is how Sir Paul Collier, an adviser to the British government, describes the situation in Guinea—referring not to the Ebola outbreak (awful though he considers that to be) but the saga of Simandou, a mining project mired in allegations of corruption, expropriation and corporate espionage.

Simandou, a mountainous area in southern Guinea (pictured), has been called the El Dorado of iron ore. It is the world’s largest known untapped deposit of the stuff, with enough ore to sustain annual production of 200m tonnes—7% of global iron-ore output—for more than a quarter of a century. Better still, the ore there has unusually high iron content. The potential project cost for the mine, and the railway and port that would be needed to get ore on to ships, is $20 billion, making it Africa’s largest ever proposed mining venture. Guinea could do with the investment: it ranks 179th out of 187 countries in the UN’s human-development index. Wags, alas, have taken to calling Simandou “Simandon’t”. Exploration rights were first granted in the 1990s, yet the earliest anyone expects production to begin is 2019.

The saga oozes intrigue. Among its cast of characters:

  • Two of the world’s biggest mining groups
  • The Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto and Vale of Brazil
  • Beny Steinmetz, an Israeli diamond tycoon
  • George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist
  • Mark Malloch-Brown, a former deputy head of the UN
  • The wife of Guinea’s former leader
  • And, possibly, members of South Africa’s elite and security services.

It is, as one lawyer involved in the case wryly puts it, “a slightly Hollywood story”.

The opening chapter was the awarding of exploration licences for four blocks at Simandou to Rio Tinto in 1997. The northern two blocks were snatched back from the company in 2008, as the then dictator, Lansana Conté, lay on his deathbed. The ostensible reason was that Rio was not developing the site quickly enough. Months later the rights to these blocks were assigned to BSG Resources (BSGR), a firm indirectly owned by a Steinmetz family trust. With no upfront payment required, the deal appeared to be very attractive for BSGR.

Guinea iron ore mines
Mo Ibrahim, an African billionaire, asked whether the Guinean officials who agreed to it were “idiots, or criminals, or both”. After Conté’s death, BSGR sold 51% of its interest to Vale for $2.5 billion, $500m of which was paid immediately.

A new government, led by Alpha Condé, took power in 2010, after Guinea’s first democratic elections, and set up a committee to review past contracts. This concluded that BSGR got its blocks through bribery. As a result, the firm was stripped of its concession earlier this year. The government signed a new deal with Rio and its Chinese partner, Chinalco, to develop the two southern blocks they had held onto.

This involved Rio having to pay $700m, part of which was upfront taxes.

This wrangling has generated lots of work for lawyers.
Rio has filed a racketeering suit in New York against BSGR and Vale, claiming they conspired to steal the northern blocks.
BSGR has an arbitration suit against Guinea; Vale has one against BSGR.
The latter is sealed but understood to argue that BSGR duped Vale into buying an asset that was presented as legitimate but had been corruptly obtained. (Vale never paid the remaining $2 billion to BSGR, but says it spent a further $700m on Simandou.)
In an interview with Piaui, a Brazilian magazine, Vale’s former boss, Roger Agnelli, said of the union with BSGR:

“A guy can marry a former hooker and only discover years later that his wife used to be a prostitute.”

On top of these actions, BSGR sued Global Witness last year. The firm claims that the group violated Mr Steinmetz’s privacy by publishing “personal” data in its investigative reports on the case, arguing that since Global Witness is not a bona fide journalistic outfit, but an advocacy group, it needs to comply with higher data-protection standards. Global Witness denies this. The case, which is before Britain’s information commissioner and the High Court, could break new legal ground on the free-speech rights of lobby groups.

Last year a related case was settled out of court when Mr Steinmetz received a portion of his costs—but no admission of fault—from Lord Malloch-Brown (a former employee of this newspaper) and FTI Consulting, the public-relations firm of which he was a regional chairman. The tycoon had sued for breach of contract and defamation, accusing Lord Malloch-Brown of persuading FTI to cancel a contract to represent BSGR, in response to pressure from Mr Soros (an associate, and a patron of Global Witness).

And then there are government investigations into Simandou, in America, Britain and elsewhere.
Last week a court in Florida allowed prosecutors to seize property owned by Mamadie Touré, the widow of Conté, the late dictator, including restaurant equipment and houses, which the prosecutors believe was bought with the proceeds of corruption.
The firm alleged to have given the bribes in the American government’s complaint is not named, but it is unmistakably BSGR.

The next legal development, expected any day, will be a ruling by a judge in New York on a motion by defendants to have Rio’s racketeering suit moved to London, where the bar for proving its allegations would be higher.

Rio’s legal complaint is spicy stuff. It alleges that BSGR doled out $100m in bribes and that Frédéric Cilins, an associate of Mr Steinmetz, befriended staff at the business centre of the Novotel hotel in Conakry, the Guinean capital, to obtain copies of faxes detailing Rio’s plans at Simandou. The complaint also claims that Vale feigned interest in buying assets from Rio, months after the Brazilian group had begun secret negotiations with BSGR, in order to hoodwink Rio into showing it confidential information about Simandou’s geology. Seeing an opportunity to wrest control of part of the site from its rival “on the cheap”, Vale shared this data with BSGR in violation of a confidentiality agreement, Rio alleges.

Testimony and surveillance transcripts from an FBI investigation, made public by the Guinean investigating committee, are particularly illuminating. Ms Touré (who has turned co-operating witness) says BSGR offered her millions of dollars, jewellery, two Toyota Land Cruisers and a 5% stake in the project to persuade her dying husband to sign over the Simandou rights. Some of her allegations are supported by photocopies of cheques. In one transcript, Mr Cilins, having flown to Florida to meet her, urges her to destroy apparently corrupt contracts: “You have to destroy everything, urgently, urgently, urgently.” He promises more money if she does, saying the message comes “directly from the number 1”. When she asks who that is, he whispers “Beny”. In March Mr Cilins pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and received a two-year prison sentence.

BSGR denies wrongdoing. The company says the seemingly damning documents were “fabricated” and plays down its relationship with Mr Cilins, saying he never signed a formal contract to represent the firm. The Guinean committee was established “to provide a pretext to illegally seize our assets in Guinea”, the company states. BSGR says it “looks forward to testing the evidence” at a forthcoming arbitration tribunal.

As for Rio’s racketeering claims, a lawyer for BSGR describes them as “amazingly fictitious”. Nevertheless, the trust that controls BSGR is said to have hired Joe Lieberman, a former United States senator, and Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, to conduct an internal probe of the bribery allegations—though the firm will not say whether they have begun their work.

Spooky

The narrative being pushed by BSGR became clearer when it filed its defence in the Rio suit and a request for arbitration. It alleges that the election that brought Mr Condé to power was rigged with help from South African interests. These provided Mr Condé with financial and other support—including altering voter registers—in return for a promised stake in the nation’s mining assets, including the blocks snatched from BSGR, its arbitration filing states.
In another document it names 83 individuals and companies, including South African politicians, businessmen and spies, who could have “discoverable information” that might support its claims.

A spokesman for Guinea’s government says of the alleged election-rigging:
— BSGR has never provided Guinea with any evidence to back its allegations.
A spokesman for the Rainbow Coalition, of which Mr Condé’s party is a member, says:
— The suggestion that an outsider like Alpha Condé rigged the elections against a military insider [Cellou Diallo] beggars belief.
Guinea’s supreme court certified the poll result, and the Carter Centre, which promotes democracy worldwide, said the electoral process was “broadly consistent with the country’s…obligations for genuine democratic elections.”

Mr Condé has insisted he is cleaning up government after many years of corrupt dictatorship.

But some of the regime’s dealings with business raise questions about its judgment.

In May, for instance, the Common Court of Justice and Arbitration, the highest tribunal of a west African body overseeing commercial law, ruled that the government acted illegally in tearing up a container-terminal management contract with Getma International, a French company, in 2011 and handing it shortly afterwards to Bolloré, another French firm. The panel awarded Getma $49m in damages.

Guinea scored just 25 out of 100 in Transparency International’s latest corruption-perceptions index, placing it below Ukraine.

The closest thing the drama has to a central character is Mr Steinmetz. But seen from another angle, the colourful individuals, and even BSGR, are a sideshow. The big-picture story is a titanic battle between the giants of iron-ore mining—a business in which BSGR is a minnow—for control of the world’s richest deposits.

Some analysts think Rio’s intention all along was to go slow with Simandou, holding it as a defensive play to frustrate global competitors.

The company may have grown less inclined to mine the site: the iron-ore price has fallen by 60% from record highs in 2011. But it is probably also loath to let it fall into the hands of a rival that could reap rewards once the price rebounds. Tellingly, Mr Agnelli said of the joint venture with BSGR:
—It was strategically important for Vale not to leave Rio Tinto alone with all that ore.
So important, in fact, that some of the contract terms with BSGR were rushed (or even agreed only verbally), leading to much executive disquiet at Vale.

Rio says it is committed to developing its two remaining blocks. It is less clear how keen it is to regain the other two. The firm has said it no longer wants to increase its exposure to Guinea, but not everyone believes that. If the government were to auction them off—it is preparing a tender—interest could come from, among others, Vale, ArcelorMittal and Glencore.

But prospective investors will have to weigh up the risks. One is the outstanding legal challenge from BSGR. Bigger ones are political uncertainty—a presidential election is due to be held next year—and Ebola.

Tunnel vision

Company accountants worry more about the project’s steep costs. Simandou sits in a thickly forested mountain range—difficult terrain that greatly raises the cost of building the 650km railway (with 35 bridges and 24km of tunnels) to the coast. I
t doesn’t help that Mr Condé has insisted the tracks run through Guinea to a domestic port, rather than taking a shorter, easier route through Liberia (see map).

The government had wanted to take a big stake in the infrastructure but could not afford to. With help from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), Simandou’s managers are now looking to assemble a private consortium to finance, build and operate the railway and port.
Roadshows for potential contractors begin this month. The estimated infrastructure costs are $13 billion. Whether the project is economically viable will depend on the future trajectory of the iron-ore price.

Simandou could do wonders for Guinea’s emaciated economy (GDP per person is a mere $530).

Tom Butler of the IFC, which has a 5% stake in Rio’s project, describes it as “potentially transformational”: even at today’s deflated iron-ore price, it would produce annual revenue for the state of “a multiple of the current annual budget”. It could generate tens of thousands of jobs and, thanks to the railway, make agri-business in the country’s interior competitive for export.
Moreover, success would encourage investment in Guinea’s sizeable deposits of other minerals, such as bauxite, graphite and manganese.

But nothing will come out of the ground for at least five years. It could be closer to ten. A recent presentation by Glencore, seen by Reuters, predicted that Rio will not rush to produce iron ore from Africa because its focus in coming years will be on growth projects in Australia.

Meanwhile, the legal skirmishes will continue. The arbitration cases, for instance, could grind on for up to five years—prolonging this cautionary tale of the ugly recriminations that can follow when the rights to vast mineral riches are handed out in questionable circumstances.

The beleaguered people of Guinea deserve better.

The Economist
Dec 6th 2014

High noon at the Guinea corral

If there was a sliver of doubt, there cannot be any longer — George Soros and Beny Steinmetz are at each other’s throats and this isn’t going to end happily for one of them.

Of the two, Soros is better known. A multibillionaire (I’ve seen numbers like $30bn), he rose to international fame (and infamy in Britain) as the man who shorted more than $10bn in sterling, triggering the UK’s withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, prompting a devaluation of the pound and earning himself $1.1bn. A

Hungarian nonpractising Jew, Soros, 83, has been married twice and is currently courting Tamiko Bolton, 40, a New York pharmacist.

Beny Steinmetz, 56, allegedly Israel’s richest man, is said to be worth about $6bn. He inherited the Geneva-based Steinmetz Diamond Group from his father and later formed Beny Steinmetz Group Resources, also Geneva-based but managed out of London.

The Steinmetz Diamond Group continues to be diamond giant De Beers’s largest sightholder.

The Guinea corral

Steinmetz is a commercial hurricane. He rarely stays in one place for long. He’s a legendary deal-maker and I’m sure he has been burnt frequently.

Of course, buying, polishing and selling diamonds isn’t at all the same as developing a major mining operation. I am not at all certain as to what it was that persuaded Steinmetz to shift gear so dramatically.

A long article in The New Yorker (July 8) quotes Paul Collier of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford as taking “a dim view of businessmen like Steinmetz who have secured rights to natural resources they may not actually have the expertise to develop.”

That’s such a crappy observation I cannot believe an adviser to UK Prime Minister David Cameron would make it. I can think offhand of many men who did exactly that — Cecil John Rhodes, Ernest Oppenheimer and others. The issue revolves around the Simandou iron ore deposits in south-central Guinea, a large area containing what may be the largest high-grade undeveloped continuous iron-ore body in the world.

It is where most miners would not want it to be. Guinea is grossly undeveloped, its peoples mired in poverty, probably worse off now than when its first president, the irrational Sekou Touré, gave the French the boot and then proceeded to lock away in concentration camps and murder all those he thought might oppose him.

Touré died in 1984 but nothing got any better.

[ Mamadie Toure

Meanwhile, along came mining house Rio Tinto, which qualifies in Collier’s book as able to develop a project. Rio secured the mining rights to Simandou north and south in 1997. It did nothing with them, and probably deep-froze them to hold off competitors while it developed its operations in the Western Australian Pilbara.

Steinmetz was given two unconnected areas, one north of Simandou, the other south.

The northern site wasn’t worth persevering with, but the south revealed an entirely new deposit, henceforth called Zogota.

When Touré’s successor, Lansana Conté, died in 2008, a military junta led by Moussa Dadis Camara, an army captain, took power. Dadis brought technocrats into the cabinet, one of them Mahmoud Thiam, to serve as minister of mines.

Thiam and his sister were smuggled out of Guinea during Touré’s reign — his father died in one of Touré’s concentration camps. Thiam was educated in the US, obtained an economics degree from Cornell University and went on to work for Merrill Lynch and UBS.

Accused in The New Yorker of being a Steinmetz champion, it was Thiam who told Rio Tinto it wasn’t complying with the terms of its mining leases. He stripped the company of its northern Simandou licence and awarded it to Beny Steinmetz Group Resources on the grounds that it had discovered the Zogota deposit.

Predictably enough, Rio Tinto was enraged. It claims it invested heavily in Simandou, but the time frame belies that — it doesn’t take nearly 12 years to start developing an iron-ore deposit, or begin rebuilding a railway line, or begin developing a deep-water port, at least some of which would be undertaken with international financing.

A number of things then transpired. Not in any order, the Guineans finally held an allegedly open, free, election. Alpha Condé, 72, who had lived outside Guinea for 50 years, won 18% in the first round. His principal opponent Dalein Diallo won more than 45%. In the delayed second round, Condé suddenly appeared with 53% and Diallo with 47% — an about-term in fortunes that invites deep suspicion.

It was at this juncture that stories began to emerge that South Africa had provided financial support (said to be about $18m) to Condé, used to help finance a South African company, Waymark Infotech, which provided election management. Stories circulated that Soros and South African companies were providing “advice” and, in one case (Palladino), $25m to Condé’s new government and that organisations financed by Soros had become prominent.

The latest twist in a story that is fast providing a slew of plots for thriller novelists is that Steinmetz’s group allegedly prevailed on Mamadie Touré, the fourth wife of the dying previous president, Lansana Conté, to procure the mining licence for Simandou. They allegedly provided her with money, diamonds and a guaranteed 5% stake in Simandou. She revealed all this to a curiously and conveniently unnamed cabinet minister.

A wire worn by Mamadie Touré recorded a damaging discussion in Jacksonville, Florida, between her and Frédéric Cilins, said to have orchestrated the bribes, and to have been close to Steinmetz. The FBI was listening. Cilins was arrested and released on $15m bail.

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto sold a portion of its southern Simandou licence to the Aluminium Company of China for $1.7bn and then paid $700m to the Guinean government in return for a guarantee that no further action would be taken against it.

What will happen now? Did Condé steal the election with help from backers in South Africa? Did Beny Steinmetz Group Resources bribe Guineans to get the licence? Did Rio Tinto pay [the government of Guinea] an effective $700m bribe to hold on to southern Simandou? There’s lots more — but no space.

Who is your money on — Soros or Steinmetz?

David Gleason
Business Daily Live, South Africa

Le coup de trop du groupe Steinmetz

Beny Steinmetz, BSGR
Beny Steinmetz, BSGR

La justice américaine enquête sur les conditions d’obtention d’une licence d’exploitation d’un immense gisement de fer situe aux confins de la forêt guinéenne. Un homme est en prison en Floride. BSGR dément tout lien avec ses activités en Guinée. Ce groupe minier dépend d’une fondation dont le bénéficiaire est le milliardaire israélien vivant à Genève Beny Steinmetz.

Incarcéré en Floride depuis un mois, Frédéric Cilins a tout loisir de penser à son rendez-vous du 11 avril à Jacksonville. « Il faut détruire les documents de toute urgence », répète-t-il alors, sans se douter qu’il est sur écoute. La jeune femme en face de lui vient de lui avouer que la police est sur leur piste. On l’a interrogée sur des « pots-de-vin et des contrats miniers en Guinée ». Mamadie Toure était la quatrième épouse du défunt dictateur guinéen Lansana Conté. Pour qu’elle se taise, Frédéric Cilins lui promet un million de dollars. Et éventuellement « cinq ». Prudente, elle demande si un responsable a donné son feu vert. « Bien sûr », répond le Français, qui revient le week-end suivant pour tout brûler. C’est là qu’il se fait cueillir par les agents du FBI. Il n’a pas eu le temps de faire disparaître une série de documents « relatifs à l’attribution des concessions de Simandou », selon leur déposition, le plus grand gisement de fer encore non exploité au monde, dans le sud-est de la Guinée-Conakry.

Derrière Frédéric Cilins, un personnage mystérieux qui avait ses entrées à Conakry, la justice américaine pourrait viser la société BSGR, conglomérat minier propriété d’une fondation dont Beny Steinmetz et sa famille proche sont les uniques bénéficiaires. Le milliardaire israélien, 57 ans, réside à Genève avec sa famille, dans un immeuble grand siècle sur les quais. Son entourage indique qu’il passe près d’un tiers de son temps en Israël. Présenté par l’agence Bloomberg comme la « plus grande fortune israélienne », il a pris la succession de la société diamantaire Steinmetz Diamonds Group, fondée par son père et chapeautée par une société basée à Genève. Ses activités lui ont parfois valu d’être décrit comme un flibustier écumant le continent africain pour piller ses trésors. « L’Afrique n’est qu’un chapitre de l’histoire du groupe, qui dispose aussi d’un important bras immobilier, d’un hedge fund maison, d’une marque de diamants », rétorque un proche du milliardaire. Reste que le groupe minier BSGR – dans lequel on réduit le rôle de Beny Steinmetz à celui « d’ambassadeur et de conseiller » – risque gros.

”Frédéric Cilins a aidé BSGR à installer son bureau à Conakry, mais c’est fini depuis 2008…”

L’opération Simandou devait être l’investissement le plus éclatant d’un homme qui, il y a un an encore, caressait le projet de placer certaines de ses activités en bourse. Aujourd’hui il pourrait le perdre. Et voir ses opérations guinéennes projetées devant les tribunaux américains. Le Français arrêté en Floride est accusé d’avoir fait « obstruction à une enquête » en relation avec « des commissions versées à des membres de l’ancien gouvernement guinéen ». Selon les termes de la plainte enregistrée au Tribunal de Jacksonville, la justice s’intéresse à des « transferts vers les Etats-Unis, liés à un montage visant à obtenir, par corruption, une concession minière de valeur située dans la région de Simandou ». L’affaire est désormais instruite par le bureau de Preet Bharara, le redouté procureur new-yorkais qui a fait tomber la banque suisse Wegelin. Des proches de l’enquête américaine suggèrent que l’affaire pourrait avoir des prolongements au Royaume-Uni et n’excluent pas qu’une demande d’entraide judiciaire à la Suisse soit déposée cet été.

Au sein de BSGR, on nie tout lien avec les ennuis judiciaires de Frédéric Cilins L’intermédiaire a bien « aidé BSGR à installer son bureau à Conakry » et a « représenté le groupe au cours de réunions avec le ministre des Mines », a admis la société dans un courrier aux autorités guinéennes. Mais « tout s’est arrêté en mars 2008 », poursuit un proche de BSGR. Donc avant l’obtention de concessions dans la montagne de Simandou.

En Guinée, le groupe BSGR est déjà dans le collimateur de la justice. Le vice-président de son bureau à Conakry a été appréhendé le 22 avril, pour son rôle, selon le Ministère de la justice, dans « l’acquisition par BSGR de droits sur le gisement de Simandou ». Aux confins de la forêt guinéenne, les monts Simandou attisent toutes les convoitises en raison du minerai de fer de qualité exceptionnelle qu’ils renferment. Problème de taille, l’exploitation du fer de Simandou  et surtout son acheminement jusqu’à la côte — nécessite des investissements colossaux. Creuser la montagne, réaliser — la ligne de chemin de fer jusqu’à Conakry — sans oublier l’aménagement d’un terminal en haute mer — nécessitent 25 milliards de dollars.

Le budget a même fait hésiter un conglomérat Rio Tinto, qui disposait dès les années 1990 des droits sur l’ensemble d’une zone grande comme deux fois le Valais. Le gouvernement guinéen s’impatiente. Et, finalement, en août 2008, il retire au groupe anglo-australien ses licences pour deux des quatre parcelles de Simandou. En embuscade depuis 2006, BSGR décroche la timbale et obtient les deux « bloc s» perdus par Rio Tinto.
L’accord est finalisé quelques jours avant la mort du président Lansana Conté, le 22 décembre 2008. BSGR, qui a déjà dépensé 165 millions de dollars pour ses travaux de prospection entre 2006 et 2009, ne peut financer seul ce projet titanesque, même s’il en a réduit la facture à 10 milliards en obtenant de pouvoir sortir le minerai en ralliant le Liberia voisin. Il s’allie donc en avril 2010 au géant brésilien du fer, Vale, à qui il vend 51% de ses parts à Simandou, pour la somme de 2,5 milliards de dollars, la plus grosse transaction jamais réalisée par le groupe. Vale s’engage à verser 500 millions tout de suite.

A son arrivée au pouvoir, en décembre 2010, Alpha Condé, premier président démocratiquement élu de Guinée, promet de faire du développement de son pays une priorité. Après vingt-quatre ans de dictature de Lansana Conté — suivis de deux années de chaos sous la junte militaire — le pays stagne au 178e rang sur 187 nations de l’indice de développement humain des Nations unies. Et ce, malgré son énorme potentiel minier, qui lui vaut son surnom de « scandale géologique ».

« J’ai hérité d’un pays, pas d’un Etat », déplore Alpha Condé devant la tâche qui l’attend. La réforme du secteur minier – qui représente les sept dixièmes des recettes en devises – est le premier des grands chantiers que le nouveau président entend mettre en œuvre. Il s’entoure de conseillers et d’ONG de l’Ouest, notamment celles financées par George Soros. Première étape, le gouvernement se dote d’un Comité technique de revue des titres et conventions miniers qui examine sous toutes leurs coutures les contrats signés par BSGR en Guinée. Contacté par Le Temps, le ministre des Mines, Mohamed Lamine Fofana, confirme que « le site de Simandou met en lumière un cas de corruption pour obtenir le gisement ».

Le Comité technique envoie le 30 octobre 2012 un long courrier à BSGR pour lui demander des éclaircissements sur 25 « allégations » qui étayent les éventuelles malversations dont le groupe se serait rendu coupable. « Lors de l’hospitalisation du président Conté à Genève, Beny Steinmetz […] l’a rencontré pour plaider en faveur de l’acquisition de droits de Simandou », relate ainsi le document. BSGR dément, soulignant « l’absence du moindre élément de preuve ». Dans un courrier, le groupe « conteste formellement avoir réalisé aucun paiement, directement ou indirectement, à des agents publics ou toute autre personne afin d’influencer le gouvernement guinéen ».

Selon Nava Touré, le président du Comité technique, en dépit de la gravité des accusations, les dirigeants de BSGR n’ont initialement pas jugé bon de coopérer pleinement, « contestant même notre légitimité ». « Nous avons tous pouvoirs pour recommander la révocation des droits de BSGR, au terme de la procédure », prévient aujourd’hui Nava Touré.

D’autant que, aux Etats-Unis, la veuve du président guinéen s’est mise à table. Dans un document de justice, elle relate comment Frédéric Cilins lui a « offert la somme de 12 millions de dollars, à répartir entre elle, les ministres et les hauts fonctionnaires à qui il pourrait être nécessaire de faire appel pour sécuriser les droits miniers ». Les justices américaine et guinéenne ont en main des documents accablants, les contrats que Frédéric Cilins n’a pas eu le temps de détruire et que les agents du FBI ont saisis. Parmi eux, un premier « protocole d’accord » signé en 2007. Mais aussi un « contrat de commission », signé l’année suivante, et évoquant le versement de 2 millions de dollars. Suit une « lettre d’engagement ». Enfin, en août 2010, un contrat final promet « 5 millions de dollars versés en deux fois » à la jeune épouse du président.

A Londres, l’affaire a pris une tournure ‘‘people’’

Interrogé, BSGR se refuse à tout commentaire sur la procédure en cours aux Etats-Unis. Un porte-parole assure cependant que BSGR « n’a rien à cacher et, si besoin, coopérera pleinement avec les autorités américaines ou britanniques ». De son côté, le conglomérat brésilien Vale, son partenaire sur la montagne de fer de Simandou, promet de rester « à l’entière disposition des autorités américaines pour coopérer à leur enquête ». Et a indiqué être en train de « rassembler les documents qui lui ont été demandés ».

Dans le même temps, BSGR fourbit ses armes et s’apprête à contre-attaquer. Il veut présenter sa vérité, un complot ourdi contre le groupe pour l’évincer de Guinée et lui soutirer de l’argent. Dans un communiqué diffusé jeudi, la société estime que « le but final du gouvernement guinéen reste l’expropriation de BSGR et de Vale ». Surtout, l’entourage de Beny Steinmetz pointe du doigt une « campagne » de dénigrement coordonnée par le gouvernement guinéen, de multiples ONG à la solde de George Soros, les avocats du réseau DLA Piper, la société d’intelligence économique Veracity et même « des journalistes en vue ».

A Londres, l’affaire a pris une tournure « people » depuis que BSGR poursuit en justice FTI Consulting, agence jusque-là en charge de son image. Accusant le patron de cette dernière — le très influent Mark Malloch-Brown, un ancien ministre — d’avoir fourni des informations confidentielles à son vieil ami George Soros. Contacté, un proche du célèbre financier assure « qu’il n’y a jamais eu de conflit personnel entre eux, George n’avait jamais entendu parler de Monsieur Steinmetz avant cette histoire et ne l’a jamais rencontré ». Ce dernier refuse de s’exprimer sur l’affaire, « en raison de la procédure judiciaire en cours ». Alpha Condé, le président guinéen, aurait été présenté au philanthrope par un « ami commun » afin de l’aider à reconstruire le pays. Le milliardaire lui aurait donné un conseil :
— Pour négocier avec les groupes miniers, il faut disposer d’avocats aussi bons qu’eux.
Conakry s’est ainsi attaché les services de DLA Piper, l’un des plus grands réseaux de juristes au monde.

Un proche de BSGR attire également l’attention sur de possibles liens entre les ennuis du groupe en Guinée et une affaire encore plus sombre, révélée par le Business Day sud-africain en août 2011. Celle d’un accord secret entre l’entourage du président guinéen Alpha Condé et le groupe sud-africain Palladino, en vue du transfert d’actifs miniers. Il y a un an, cette dernière avait cependant démenti formellement l’existence d’un tel pacte.

La survie de BSGR pourrait se jouer avec cette rocambolesque affaire de corruption. Mais les enjeux sont encore plus importants pour la Guinée, dont l’économie dépend essentiellement de l’industrie minière. L’extraction du fer, dont les réserves guinéennes sont pourtant les plus importantes d’Afrique de l’Ouest, n’a pas encore démarré. Et la controverse autour de BSGR effraie les investisseurs : tous les chantiers de Simandou se sont arrêtés. « La Guinée a manqué le train, commente un expert proche du dossier. Le fer guinéen serait plus accessible s’il était sur la Lune. »

Pierre-Alexandre Sallier et Boris Mabillard
Le temps.ch