Political interference is delaying resolution of a royalties row between Gecamines, a state-owned miner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Chinese mining company China Molybdenum, who are partners in a massive copper and cobalt mine in the African country, an observer said.

Gecamines, which holds 20 per cent of the Tenke Fungurume mine, said earlier this month that a third-party administrator had temporarily taken over management of the mine, which is at the centre of a dispute over royalties.

However, China Molybdenum (CMOC) said there had been “no change” in control of its DRC subsidiary, Tenke Fungurume Mining.

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Reuters reported on June 9 that court-appointed administrator Sage Ngoie Mbayo had taken over management of the mine, just over two months after DRC Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde promised to halt court proceedings against the Chinese company in the royalties dispute.

The francophone editor at the China-Africa Project, Christian-Geraud Neema, who is also a Congolese mining and policy analyst, said the situation has a lot to do with political interference.

“If the administrator takes his role, it will be a major setback for CMOC, which received guarantees from the prime minister that the judicial procedures won’t go further,” Neema said, adding that when those guarantees were given, Lukonde, a former director general of Gecamines, instructed members of his cabinet to handle the case.

Lukonde’s team seems to be reading from a different script to that of a review commission appointed by DRC President Felix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff in August. The commission was supposed to be the only framework for dealing with issues related to the mine, but the prime minister said in March that the government would take over.

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That showed “there might be an internal fight between the presidency and the prime minister on how these issues should be handled”, Neema said.

He said that after several meetings with China Molybdenum representatives and members of the review commission, which was set up to investigate the reserves at the mine to help determine the true value of the government’s shareholding through Gecamines, DRC Justice Minister Ruth Mutombo decided to move forward with the suspended judicial process.

That could be an indication the parties have failed to agree on contentious issues, including the sharing of royalties and the amount of minerals at the mine.

“CMOC still has political allies within the Congolese political apparatus, allowing it to slow down the process,” Neema said, adding that sources had told him the judicial process will move ahead, and Ngoie, the temporary administrator, will take control.

“Now we have to see how the prime minister will react. He wasn’t keen on seeing CMOC challenged that way.”

China Molybdenum chief executive Sun Ruiwen has visited Kinshasa twice in recent months, meeting with Tshisekedi in December and Lukonde in March.

Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde had previously promised to halt court operations against the Chinese company. Photo: AFP alt=Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde had previously promised to halt court operations against the Chinese company. Photo: AFP>

In February, a commercial court in Lubumbashi suspended Tenke Fungurume Mining from managing the mine and appointed Ngoie as the mine’s administrator for six months, with the “responsibility of reconciling the two parties on divergent issues, namely access to technical information as well as the determination of the rights of the parties”.

Reuters reported that Ngoie had been appointed as Gecamines’s representative at Tenke Fungurume Mining before his appointment as administrator.

But Lukonde suspended court proceedings against China Molybdenum in late March and stopped the implementation of the court order. The DRC government and the Chinese company agreed to settle their dispute outside court, and said they would appoint an “internationally recognised third party to conduct an assessment for a definitive solution” to their dispute over royalty payments.

Gecamines has accused China Molybdenum of not declaring thousands of tonnes of reserves at the site, allegedly denying Kinshasa much-needed royalties. Gecamines wants Tenke Fungurume Mining’s books to be audited to ascertain its fair share of revenues from the mine at a time of growing demand for cobalt, a metal used to make lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

The DRC alleges the mine understated its reserves to reduce the amount of royalties it pays to Gecamines. China Molybdenum, which owns 80 per cent of the mine, denies having done so.

Reuters reported on June 9 that Mutombo had ordered the enforcement of February’s court directive on the appointment of a third-party administrator.

Patrice Pungwe, the secretary general of Gecamines, told Reuters that Ngoie had officially taken charge of Tenke Fungurume, Congo’s second-biggest copper mine.

However, China Molybdenum denied reports that an administrator had taken over.

“There is no change in the management rights of TFM, and production and operations are running as usual,” China Molybdenum spokesman Vincent Zhou told Reuters on June 10.

China Molybdenum issued a statement saying that its vice-president, Zhou Jun, who is also general manager of Tenke Fungurume Mining, had met Chinese and Congolese executives of its DRC subsidiary that day.

Zhou Jun was quoted as saying that, since the start of this year, “TFM has overcome multiple challenges such as changes in the external environment and focused on both production and construction, achieving yet again record copper and cobalt production with significant improvement in product quality.”

Neema said discussions between the parties are continuing.

According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which tracks the lithium-ion battery to electric vehicle supply chain, Tenke Fungurume Mining is the second-largest cobalt producer in the DRC after Anglo-Swiss Glencore and accounted for around 10 per cent of global supply last year.

BMI’s chief data officer, Caspar Rawles, said in March that negotiations appeared to have failed or that “Gecamines haven’t found the resolution they were expecting and are putting more pressure on China Moly via the legal route”.

“With so much focus on the energy transition and the opportunity this offers the DRC via its vast reserves of both cobalt and copper, it would seem the [DRC] government wants to ensure they can maximise potential royalties/revenues,” he said.

Although the DRC produces two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt, the government says the country has not benefited sufficiently from its extraction. Most of its cobalt ore is exported to China to make batteries, weapons, machinery and electronics.

Tshisekedi, who was elected president in January 2019, accused his predecessors of signing lopsided contracts with mining companies – most of them Chinese – and said he wanted to renegotiate them. The DRC government says the deals were skewed in favour of foreign companies and elite Congolese politicians.

Neema said Tenke Fungurume is an important project for China Molybdenum, and it will need to reach an agreement with Gecamines and the DRC government.

He said an eye should be kept on “how the Chinese government may react, directly or indirectly, through various channels”.

“From the Congolese side, next year is election year, they can’t afford to go in with that situation pending over their head,” Neema said. “So, the clock is ticking.”

China Molybdenum acquired its controlling stake in the Tenke Fungurume mine in 2016 for US$2.65 billion from US miner Freeport-McMoRan and increased its stake to 80 per cent for US$1.14 billion in 2019. It says it plans to invest US$2.51 billion to double production at the site.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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