“a hooker”, whilst BSGR has threatened to sue anyone who tries to develop its contested blocks. “We are saying, very loud and clear, any person who touches this asset, we will sue,” one party told Global Mining Observer. Guinea's government, meanwhile, has variously rescinded mining rights held by all three groups. “It's a case of hitting the crocodile closest to the canoe,” one spokesman says.
Rio Tinto, which finally decided to sell its interest in Simandou earlier this year, has long maintained that it is the victim in the affair, edging its asset forward as others play fast and loose, bribing officials to win a share of Rio's giant project. Private detectives have claimed that at the height of the iron ore boom, ministers in Guinea were racing sports cars to the airport at Conakry, to collect bags of cash from aeroplanes.
The owner of the Lamborghini in question says it was in fact an imported SUV, discontinued in '92, which he took off-roading on weekends. Either way, “we're not just going to sit here and take it lying down,” Sam Walsh said, when Rio filed corruption charges against Vale.
The case was brought in New York, allowing Walsh's legal team to push for treble damages, potentially adding-up to a multi-billion dollar payout. “They didn't just want a cookie,” says Dr. Frank Lucas, a mining broker in London, who follows mining lawsuits closely. “They wanted the cookie and the cookie jar. And they wanted some peanut butter sandwich too.” The case was thrown out.
Sources sued by Rio say it was even more
flagrant than rivals, making a one-off $700m payment to Guinea's government in 2011, described as a “settlement”. They also accuse Rio of obstructing Simandou's development, playing a game of tactical delays, holding iron ore off the market to protect prices for its vast cash-flowing operations in Australia.
Rio has always been cagey about progress at Simandou. “Some people have thought, when we announced the signing of the framework, that we were committing to the project,” Walsh told investors in 2014. “It's a commitment to the framework.” Rio originally planned to have Simandou in production by 2013, but the date was pushed out in increments to 2015, then 2018, before being dropped. In total, the company has sat on the asset for 20 years.
Sources linked to Glencore, which has considered options for weighing-in on Simandou, describe it as “a pipe-dream”, still decades away from production. The biggest financial obstacle is a 650km railway costing around $13bn, which Rio says it planned to build, with 35 bridges and 24km of tunnels, running through the rainforest to Guinea's coast.
Insiders at the IFC, the investment division of the World Bank, which was Rio's partner in Guinea, have doggedly maintained that Simandou was doable. “The Rio strategy... they're thinking of the iron ore price in five years time.” Further down the track and both Rio and the IFC have abandoned the asset. “The World Bank these days has very limited capital for individual countries,” says a former high-ranking
investment official at the IFC, who led the bank's dealings with Rio. “Right now, capital is fairly weary about investing in Guinea.”
“Here's a dirt poor place that's been stagnant for half a century,” says Sir Paul Collier, an Oxford academic, who has personally advised Guinea's government on its mining laws. “This was one of the fragile states that was going nowhere.” Collier has acted as an unofficial champion for the “massive progress” made by Rio in growing Guinea's economy. Simandou offered “a development corridor” and “opens the country up”, he says, whilst the IFC brought a guarantee that business would be done “in a proper manner”, “untainted by corruption.”
Rio's internal emails make all those suppositions questionable. Collier declined to comment on Rio and the IFC holding their stake in Simandou via an offshore tax structure. “Private interests have got to benefit,” he says, “otherwise they wouldn't be there.”
Rio Tinto's position in Guinea has always teetered on the edge of hypocritical. BSGR has been criticised for making gifts to government officials, including a diamond-encrusted model Ferrari, but former ministers say that Rio also lobbied “aggressively”, even contacting their relatives. BSGR has been criticised for selling part of Simandou to Vale, even though Rio previously tried to do the same.
Documents sitting with the Serious Fraud Office in London, seen by Global Mining Observer and The Sunday Times, include emails between one company and senior political