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Resource Nationalism in Africa – What It Means for Governments, Companies and Communities

Africa is the worlds most resource rich continent

Today is The Times’ much-anticipated CEO Summit Africa with one of the more intriguing panels focusing on resource nationalism: opportunity or threat? Both the Indonesian government’s recent efforts to set out a timeframe for foreign mining divestment, and the developing clarity in South Africa’s ongoing debate on the state’s role in mining, show that there continues to be considerable focus around the world on sovereigns seeking a greater share of extractive sector activity.

Is it possible (as at least one analysis firm attempts) to rank extractive sector jurisdictions in terms of the relative strength of local ‘resource nationalism’ forces? There is often good reason to doubt the commercial utility of comparative country risk rankings, or at least to closely scrutinise the assumptions and methodologies used in compiling them.

It may be more useful to track drivers or triggers for government actions on resource revenue issues in each setting than to try to compare jurisdictions. ‘Resource nationalism’ is a global phenomenon partly reflecting the commodities ‘supercycle’, but also one with very discrete wrinkles particular to individual sectors and countries. Take Ghana’s decision late last year to revisit fiscal arrangements in the mining sector. The move partly reflects the government’s response, like others on the continent, to global demand/price factors. Indeed, the IMF advised Accra to consider raising its mining tax levels. However, the move is also closely-connected to the role that mining revenue possibilities have come to play in Ghana’s upcoming (and tightly-contested) election later this year.

One exercise might be to narrow the range of possible scenarios by categorising the upper and lower limits of how resource nationalism demands or responses might manifest. That is, to ask what model may be registering uptake in more than one jurisdiction? Nader Mousavizadeh is moderating the CEO Summit ‘resource nationalism’ panel. One of the questions sent by organisers to panel members ahead of the conference was whether it is possible to identify existing or emerging ‘best’ and ‘worst’ practice in the ways states are manifesting ‘resource nationalism’.

The question might, however, be considered misconceived – things differ so markedly between various mineral and metal commodity sectors it often makes no sense to talk of ‘the extractive sector’. Geography (and other factors) mean that there are considerable differences between what any two nominally competing supply countries could each ‘get away with’ in increasing royalties, taxes, or local participation requirements. Still, global and diversified miners in particular are searching for a workable and durable-yet-flexible model as they try to navigate the resource nationalism phenomenon.

Can any of the components of the recent offer to Zimbabwean government ministers by Impala Platinum subsidiary Zimplats offer any insights? The offer involved transferring 10 percent of Zimplats’ shares to an employees’ trust fund, and 10 percent to a local community trust – the transfer to be financed over time by dividends from the shares themselves. In addition, there appears to be an in-principle agreement to transfer a further 31 percent of shares to a national economic empowerment fund (comprising the 51 percent of corporate indigenisation demanded by ZANU-PF ministers,) although it remains unclear how the government would pay for this share.

These issues are almost certainly not fully resolved. They are in large part inseparable not only from current platinum price buoyancy, but also from the Zimbabwe context, and especially the role of foreign capital in contemporary political dynamics there. Despite the limits inherent in drawing wider lessons from Zimbabwe’s platinum sector, parts of the ‘deal’ may conceivably be useful in seeking to estimate the high-water mark of mining firm concessions to sovereigns during the current resource nationalism phenomenon.

Not all assertive sovereigns are responding to populist pressures, or are democratically accountable. Even so, the emphasis on local communities is not surprising. Recent events from Tanzania to Peru to South Africa point to an issue somewhat connected to ‘resource nationalism’. It is one where there is considerable potential both for contestation with local communities and for innovation by governments and firms to mitigate such risks: the relationships between artisanal miners and big firms operating in the same general vicinity.

There are important distinctions to be drawn between informal miners holding permits and illegal mining – often conducted by criminal syndicates, and involving considerable environmental and safety risks. The recent rockfall deaths of illegal miners at the (already-controversial) Grootvlei complex in South Arica highlights problems for regulators, but also issues for firms in what strategies they have for engaging local non-labour communities. The more thoughtful firms are not waiting for local regulators, and in settings like Liberia, much of the innovation in workable arrangements with artisanal communities can be expected to come from firms, not governments. Anticipating issues and offering fair outcomes may work at both the micro (community engagement) and macro (revenue policy) levels, depending on the setting.


Jolyon Ford is a senior analyst at Oxford Analytica, the global analysis and advisory firm. Oxford Analytica has provided the briefing book for the Times CEO Summit at the Savoy Hotel, London, on March 19.

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