Jim Armitage: Blair's repeated Guinea trips raise eyebrows over his connections
Global Outlook: It is his mixture of charity and business that can leave questions to be answered
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Saturday 26 January 2013
Here's a challenge for you. Find a blank map of the continent of Africa and point to Guinea.
If you can do that with no difficulty whatsoever, then good on you. If you can't, you're in the majority, I'm sure. If you got in the ballpark of Senegal, Sierra Leone, that kind of area, you've done well.
The point is, Guinea is barely ever in the news, even with the current upsurge of interest in its neighbour, Mali. To all intents and purposes, it's hardly what one might call a high-profile geopolitical hub.
So it's perhaps more than a little strange that Tony Blair has visited no fewer than six times since the summer of 2011. Most recently on a flying visit on 13 January to meet the president en route to Sierra Leone.
For a chap whose main job is attempting to bring peace to the Middle East – as well as bringing harmony among the world's faiths – that struck me as being quite a lot of trips to one poor country.
A few points to remember:
Firstly, Mr Blair has been signed up as an unpaid adviser to the country's relatively new president, Alpha Condé, through his African Governance Initiative. Nothing wrong with that – Guinea, incredibly rich in minerals, was a byword for, let's say, unorthodox deal-making under the former regime and could do with some help cleaning up its act.
But, as so often with Mr Blair, it is his mixture of charity and business that can leave questions to be asked.
Firstly, his private consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, is a paid adviser to Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Development Company. This is an organisation which has struck several lucrative minerals deals with the Guinean government. Just two months ago it signed a major bauxite supply deal from the country with a 50 per cent state-owned mining group.
Secondly, Oleg Deripaska's Rusal aluminium giant owns mineral assets in Guinea and, on New Year's Eve, struck a deal to develop what its stock-market announcement described as "the world's biggest bauxite deposit" in the country. Mr Deripaska gifted one of the former PM's climate charities £300,000 in 2009.
Mr Blair denies he profits from deals made in Guinea, but he clearly leaves himself open to, at the least, raised eyebrows about his paid and unpaid connections. And isn't that always the problem with Mr Blair? He has always seemed to me to be a fundamentally well-intentioned man, but one who gets himself compromised by his many competing personal interests.
This strikes me as a pity. Because his charity's work, alongside that other unelected globetrotting statesman, George Soros, is valuable in the Guinean government's attempts to bring democratic stability to a deeply troubled country.
Mr Condé, took over in 2010 in Guinea's first democratic elections for decades. He is now in the process of reviewing the country's mining contracts set up under its previous military dictatorship in an attempt to get a better deal for the people.
A key player in those previous contracts is an Israeli diamond magnate called Beny Steinmetz. His connections – political and business – in the African continent are practically unrivalled, save for those of his former business partner and fellow Israeli gem tycoon Dan Gertler – a regular fixture in these pages. Eight months before Mr Condé's election, Mr Steinmetz struck an extraordinary deal. He sold to the Brazilian mining giant Vale a half-share in a vast iron-ore deposit in Guinea for $2.5bn (£1.5bn). Why so extraordinary? Because he bought the rights from the military regime only two years earlier for $160m.
He won them after the dictatorship stripped them from London-listed Rio Tinto. In an echo of Mr Gertler's dealings with the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rights were signed over to Mr Steinmetz's company. Quite how he managed to get them at the price is one of the many questions currently being looked at by an independent investigation due to report within the next few weeks.
The findings could be explosive. According to recent reports, we may get tales of gifts ranging from diamond-encrusted gold watches to multi-million dollar commission payments and even a gold and diamond miniature Formula One car.
Mr Steinmetz's company denies any improper behaviour or knowledge of such gifts. It also says it has only received a fraction of the $2.5bn from its sale to Vale and adds that the deal involved a long-term commitment rather than a quick "flip".
One adviser to the Guinea government is Paul Collier, a development expert at Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government.
He says of Guinea today: "It is a minor miracle that you have got a decent president with a competent finance minister in place within two years of taking over from a dictatorship. He's cleaning up the pigsties he inherited. You have to applaud that."
Vale seems less than happy at the way its Guinea deal has turned out. In October it started putting the brakes on its mining work there.
But speaking in Davos on Thursday, President Condé said he wants to keep working with Vale on a new deal, as well as offering London's Rio Tinto a long-term slug of development rights. Crucially, though, he seems to want to keep these deals clean.
We should hope he succeeds and brings in the investment and wealth creation Guinea's people deserve.
If he can stave off the corruption that goes hand-in-hand with African minerals, Guinea could become – to use a Blairish term – a beacon in West Africa for others to follow.
That would really put Guinea on the map.
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