LIBERIA: ENCUMBERED BY THE WEAH REGIME, SOLWAY AND HPX LOOK UP TO BOAKAI

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The investigative African Magazine, AFRICA INTELLIGENCE, in its January 30, 2024, edition, said that Solway and HPX are facing numerous hurdles and as results the miners are looking up to President BOAKAI for help.

According to Africa Intelligence, the Swiss and US firms are hoping the newly installed president will clean up Liberia’s mining sector. With Washington’s backing, they are trying to undo the former administration’s maneuvers and to build a rail corridor.

“Swiss-based miner Solway Investment Group (SIG) is fighting on several fronts. While the US Treasury Department recently lifted sanctions on its subsidiaries in Guatemala, the one registered in Liberia is facing a series of obstacles. In Monrovia, Solway Mining has had its license to explore for iron ore deposits in Nimba County withdrawn. This decision came in the final months of former president George Weah’s administration, which awarded the license to ArcelorMittal (AI, 06/10/23). Also underway is a battle for control of the company, whose Liberian director and part owner has taken over the entire shareholding without informing the parent company.” AI indicated.

Via UK law firm Signature Litigation, SIG turned to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). At the end of 2023, the Swiss group took steps to challenge what Signature called the “unlawful expropriation” of its mining license and threatened to take the Liberian state to arbitration (AI, 18/10/23).

On 15 December, then justice minister Frank Musa Dean (who has since been appointed to Liberia’s Supreme Court) demanded an explanation from his mining counterpart Gesler E. Murray, to no avail. The outgoing Weah administration, which was advised by Hogan Lovells, did not appoint arbitrators or express a preference for a particular jurisdiction. Solway, for its part, proposed the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA).

The transaction in favour of ArcelorMittal had been prepared behind the scenes by some of Weah’s close associates, such as Murray and then finance minister Samuel D. Tweah Jr (now the subject of US sanctions). Both are among the signatories of the transfer document, which was ratified earlier in 2023 by senior executives of the steel giant, including Ram Chandra Saraf of Cyprus-registered ArcelorMittal Liberia Holdings and Petrus Stephanus Buys on behalf of the Swiss-based ArcelorMittal Holdings A.G. The proceedings were conducted under the supervision of Jozephus Coenen, head of the Monrovia-based ArcelorMittal Liberia, and Sapan Gupta, vice-chairman of the UK-based ArcelorMittal Ltd. US investigators are looking closely into the roles of each in the steel giant’s dealings in Liberia.

“Solway was represented by its Liberian local manager, Alford Boima Morgan. Originally a 25% shareholder in the Swiss group’s Monrovia subsidiary, Morgan gradually manipulated the articles of association and structure to take over the entirety of the stock. At the beginning of this year, he openly presented himself as CEO and sole shareholder of Solway Mining in a legal complaint he filed in Liberia against the government, and more specifically against Tweah. The Swiss and Cypriot branches of ArcelorMittal are also being targeted.” The investigative African Magazine said.

In this document, consulted by Africa Intelligence, Morgan contends that ArcelorMittal paid the government $17.5m to transfer the licence to it. Of this sum, the government was supposed to pay $15m to Solway Mining, a company under its control. Morgan accused Tweah of having organised the embezzlement of these funds paid by ArcelorMittal. Some of this money was allegedly used to finance the last (unsuccessful) election campaign of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Morgan is taking legal advice from Benedict Sannoh, a lawyer and another former justice minister.

Joseph Boakai, who replaced Weah as president on 22 January, intends to put these matters in order. He has tasked his close associate and friend Sylvester Grigsby, who is being considered for the post of presidential affairs minister, with getting to the bottom of the affair (AI, 26/01/24).

On the sidelines of Bokai’s swearing-in ceremony, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, reminded him that Washington would support his efforts to tackle corruption. The Solway affair came up during this meeting, as did the case of billionaire Robert Friedland’s High Power Exploration (HPX), a US company which acquired iron ore deposits in the region in July and which owns the Nimba project on the Guinean side of the border.

Together, the two companies continue to work with the Liberian authorities to negotiate amicably and obtain the withdrawal of the concession from ArcelorMittal. The concession gives ArcelorMittal a monopoly on the railway linking the Nimba mining area, which lies on the border with Guinea, to the Liberian port of Buchanan. Access to a “multi-user” railway, managed by an independent operator, is crucial to the launch of mining projects.

“While Weah wavered before finally doing nothing, Boakai seems ready to break the deadlock, not least because of the US State Department’s support for the liberalisation. Washington has yet to send Mark Toner to Monrovia to replace Michael McCarthy as ambassador. Washington is in favour of HPX structuring what it has now dubbed the “Liberty Corridor”. This planned infrastructure includes an extension to the Nimba project in Guinea, with a view to exporting production via Liberia.” AI stipulates.

This is a priority for HPX’s Australian CEO, Bronwyn Barnes, who is partly inspired by the rail corridor linking Lobito in Angola to Kolwezi in the DRC, which Friedland’s Ivanhoe Mines uses to evacuate its Congolese copper (AI, 22/01/24). Commodities trading giant Trafigura is at the forefront of this project and has not ruled out positioning itself on the Guinea-Liberian corridor as well. However, the Swiss multinational, headed by another Australian, Jeremy Weir, is the target of several legal proceedings in the United States and Switzerland for, among other things, alleged corruption of foreign public officials, notably in Angola (AI, 22/12/23). In the context of the Lobito Corridor, this reinforces the US administration’s reluctance to invest alongside the company.

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