update on General Nice and Burkina Faso

The transitional government of Burkina Faso has authorised Frank Timiș’ Pan African Burkina to resume manganese exports from their Tambao mine. Their export license had been suspended in March over the company’s alleged failure to invest in road and railway infrastructure (Jeune Afrique).

The reason this appears in an ostensibly Northern-looking blog is that the Tambao mine used to belong to a subsidiary of General Nice Group (俊安集团), the current owner of the (dormant) Isua iron mine in Greenland. General Nice conducted exploration activities at Tambao through 2012, and, at least according to their interpretation of the license agreement, had exclusive rights to take the mine to the production stage. The government of Blaise Campaoré (who had been president since 1987) begged to differ, and instead resold the mine to Timiș, a Romanian-Australian miner.

It probably speaks in General Nice’s favour that Campaoré had done more or less the same thing before: rights to explore the mine had first been sold to UAE-based Wadi Al Rawda before the Campaoré administration decided to sell them again to General Nice. The Emiratis sued at an arbitration tribunal, a dispute settled in 2013. General Nice also sued when they were in turn deprived of their permit. Quite unusually in the context of Chinese companies in Africa, a rather strong-worded campaign was launched on Facebook and local media defending General Nice’s position and accusing Campaoré and his entourage of corruption, as described in my background article on General Nice.

Compaoré was ousted in 2014 and fled to Côte d’Ivoire. The transitional government announced it would revise mining contracts signed by the previous administration, such as the award of the Tambao permit to Timiș’ company. With their nemesis Compaoré in exile (and just issued an arrest warrant) and Timiș prevented from exporting, things were starting to look better for General Nice. Talks to reach a settlement (GN are claiming $50m in compensation) started again, and as of last July the country’s Council of Ministers was voicing its will to “continue negotiations” with GN “in order to reach a definitive settlement of the dispute”.

A new president, Roch Marc Chistian Kaboré, has just been elected and will be sworn in next week.

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General Nice ‘reviewing the potential’ of Isua, other projects in Greenland and beyond

The latest issue of Mining Global carries a piece on General Nice’s plans for the Isua iron mine in Greenland, the rights to which they acquired last December from Ebola-stricken London Mining. In what seem to be the first media comments about their plans for the project, they talk about ongoing work on an “optimisation plan” for the project and a “thorough review [of] its economic value” amid discussions with potential contractors and investors. They are even “reviewing the potential of other projects” in Greenland and elsewhere in the region.

Some of these comments come from none less than Jenny Yang (Yang Jianzhen 杨建珍), whose involvement with the Isua project goes back several years, to her role in promoting it to Chinese investors as London Mining’s represenative in China. Ms Yang is now quoted as vice president of General Nice Development (俊安发展有限公司), the HK-based company that owns the project through a Jersey company. General Nice Development is mostly owned by Group chairman Cai Suixin 蔡穗新 and his father. As I’ve mentioned before, Ms Yang was involved in contacts between General Nice and London Mining related to cooperation related to the latter’s Marampa iron mine in Sierra Leone.

An excursus into iron mining in Sierra Leone might be in order here. After London Mining fell into administration, the Marampa mine ended up being acquired by Romanian-Australian mining entrepreneur Frank Timiș. Marampa isn’t doing particularly well and work at the mine has been suspended amid a dispute with former staff over retirement payments. The Tonkolili iron mine, Sierra Leone’s largest, has meanwhile passed from Timiș’s African Minerals (in administration) into Chinese hands after Shandong Steel (山东钢铁), who already held a minority stake at the project, acquired the remainder of it by taking control of African Minerals. And in Burkina Faso, the Tambao manganese mine, owned by Timiș’s Pan African Minerals, was ordered to halt production while the government reviews the legality of the license, awarded to Pan African after being taken from a General Nice company. (General Nice didn’t take lightly to it and are claiming compensation from the Burkinabe government; I’ve also written on that dispute.) The Tambao mine was also the scene of the kidnapping of a Romanian employee last month, now allegedly held in Mali by a jihadist group.

General Nice’s stated enthusiasm about developing the Greenland mine goes against a climate of skepticism among Chinese industry sources about the economic sense of investing in a large, expensive project with prices this low. Then again, the sheer fact of owning the Isua mine and talking about it might help the company garner support for other investments in the region that might offer better medium-term profitability.

General Nice is unusual among Chinese mining companies in multiple ways. I’ve written about the group’s history in a long-ish background article that I can’t help but keep touting every now and then. Shorter updates also keep popping up.