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

Issue 106, October 2014

Continued from Page 1 ➤

The move was so lucrative for Thiam and his team that his secretary is said to have earned a $500,000 bonus in the subsequent transfer to UBS.

Flying to Guinea

By the time he left Merrill Lynch, mining, oil and gas was Thiam’s main business, but his banking career on Wall Street was cut short when he was invited in 2008 to become Guinea’s mining minister.

“An individual who knew of me and my work at the bank and was familiar with me, was picked out to become prime minister by the military,” Thiam recalls. “They wanted a civilian technocrat to come in and run a mostly civilian government.”

The new prime minister, Kabine Komara, had been a director at a trade finance bank based in Cairo. He telephoned Thiam and offered UBS an advisory mandate over Guinea’s mining industry. Thiam agreed, on the basis that Komara appoint a mining minister “who understands the language of the markets. His response was, ‘Why don’t you recommend someone you think you can work with?’”

Thiam says he put forward three candidates for the ministry, but the military insisted to Komara that Thiam take the role himself. “I rejected him.
It took three weeks of going back and forth and I finally accepted. It was absolutely unexpected. It was even very unwelcome if I might say.”

Rio Tinto

In the final six months of the former president’s regime, Rio Tinto’s rights to half of its multi-billion tonne Simandou iron ore deposit, deep in Guinea’s interior, had been stripped from the group and awarded to BSGR, the private mining arm of diamond tycoon, Beny Steinmetz.

Six years later and lawsuits are flying: corruption enquiries funded by financier George Soros have stripped BSGR of its rights, Rio is suing both BSGR and Brazil’s Vale, which bought into the contested blocks for $2.5bn in 2010, whilst BSGR is seeking arbitration with the World Bank.

Mahmoud Thiam is an unlikely linchpin in the affair...

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“Why don’t you recommend someone you think you can work with.”

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