Mahmoud Thiam: Guinea's $200m Technocrat from UBS

Issue 106, October 2014

The following is an account of the Simandou affair by Guinea’s former mining minister. It is not intended to reflect the opinions of all sides to Rio Tinto’s current lawsuit.

A MAN MUST FIND HIMSELF in a very special position before he is able to deny accepting a $200m bribe. Mahmoud Thiam’s life and career has never been dull. 

Born in Guinea, Thiam left when he was seven in the early 1970s, after his father, a banker, was murdered by Guinea’s dictatorship. He went to live with his uncle, a diplomat for the UN, moving from country to country and studying at French-speaking schools.

Academically he flourished and gained a place at Cornell, studying agricultural economics, before starting “a venture with some partners” in New York. The firm was licensed to trade agricultural commodities under a US commerce department program, he explains, in competition with EU subsidies.

After a “catastrophic business transaction” involving Angola, Thiam left and joined Merrill Lynch. “I rose fairly quickly,” he says. “I think it was more by luck and circumstance than by my own merit I guess, but I was lucky enough to develop my business very fast at Merrill.”

Thiam built his own investment banking team that became largely autonomous, jumping from debt restructuring to telecoms after Russia’s debt crisis in ’98, before expanding into commodity-backed finance and advisory work for finance ministries, central banks and “large business concerns”, including Chinese and Indian groups seeking mining investment in Africa.

UBS

“We were being courted very aggressively by a number of banks,” Thiam says. “We were very well treated and very comfortable at Merrill so we didn’t consider it, but just after 2000, we noticed that Merrill might go through an aggressive contraction.”

“We had a very large transaction pending and were afraid that our business would get harmed if Merrill could not deploy the resources, so when we felt Merrill being a little hesitant, we contacted the banks that had been courting us and put them in competition.”

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“We noticed that Merrill might go through an aggressive contraction.”

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SPECIAL FOCUS:
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Low profile investments in
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