Africa mining: Will mineral-rich countries start a cartel like OPEC?

As countries such as China grow increasingly dependent on minerals such as copper and cobalt, Africa mining firms are wondering how far the continent's leaders will go to extract better terms. Some are now talking about a cartel like OPEC.

Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters/File
Miners form a human chain while digging an open-pit mine near Kobu, in northeastern Congo.

African leaders are pushing for tougher terms on mining concessions after 25 years of structural adjustment – when countries cut red tape and offered generous tax holidays to foreign prospectors.

The new dynamic was on display at a recent mining conference in Senegal. The chief executive officer of a multinational Africa mining firm was speaking, but Senegal's president didn't appear to be listening.

Across the hall from President Abdoulaye Wade sat 500 delegates from foreign mining firms. They had come in March to see which new holes were worth digging in this continent whose riches are in demand from booming economies like China's.

When the CEO's presentation ended, Mr. Wade treated his visitors to a rhyme: "I never said, enrichissez-vous." [Enrich yourselves]. "I said enrichissons-nous." (Let's enrich one another.)

A cheer rose up from the African delegates.

"I think we're at a turning point," says Bonnie Campbell, political science professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal and author of "Mining in Africa." "There's been a quarter-century where a certain investment-friendly road has been taken. [Now] there is a recognition that there needs to be another focus."

A cartel modeled after OPEC?

The capstone of that push, at least for Wade, would be an international alliance of Africa's mineral-rich nations, modeled after OPEC – a pan-African body that could influence the price of metals like the cobalt in Chinese-made laptop and cellphone batteries, 90 percent of which comes from Africa, according to the business watchdog SwedWatch.

"It's an ambitious but feasible idea," says Mazou Yessouph Faudy, geological director for Niger's Mining Ministry. "Our economy is falling. As a producer of uranium, it would be good to involve ourselves in a union of producers that could set the price."

Already, according to estimates by gold mining company Randgold Resources, the continent produces 30 percent of the minerals required by the US and China.

"[Africa is] going to become a very important player in the commodity and minerals market," says Roger Dixon, chairman for South Africa's SRK mining consultancy, citing China's 11.9 percent growth in its gross domestic product, the total of goods and services produced, in the first quarter of 2010. "With that kind of demand, I think it's a great opportunity for Africa to move to the forefront of things."

Africa should call mining companies' bluff

The question is how. For African negotiators, seizing the moment may mean demanding that companies hire more locals, adhere to stricter environmental rules, or build more roads and schools for local communities.

Those are all accommodations that mining companies find reasonable, says Mr. Dixon.

But an OPEC-like cartel? That's "crazy," says Honorary Prof. Phillip Crowson at Scotland's Center for Mineral Law and Policy.

"There were attempts to do this with phosphates, iron ore, bauxite, copper – none of them worked," he says, because too many nations opted out. "Mining companies don't have to invest, and if the terms aren't attractive, they won't."

Professor Campbell thinks African arbitrators should call their bluff.

"The idea that global companies will go elsewhere, we've always heard that," she says. "We have to be careful about this discourse that says if you raise a finger, investment will flee."

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