Zimbabwe, Namibia “playing with fire” after unveiling lithium export bans, says attorney

Peter Leon, partner, Herbert, Smith Freehills.

BANS on mineral exports by Zimbabwe and Namibia could fall foul of World Trade Organisation (WTO) founding regulations.

That is the view of prominent attorney Peter Leon who told a mining conference this month the bans were a new form of resource nationalism akin to “playing with fire”.

In December, Zimbabwe imposed a ban on the export of unprocessed lithium aimed at stopping illegal exports of minerals by artisanal miners. Zimbabwe has the largest reserves of hard rock lithium which is important to clean energy technologies.

Namibia followed suit with a similar ban in June. In addition to unprocessed lithium it also banned the export of other critical minerals. Namibia has significant resources of rare earth minerals such as dysprosium and terbium which are needed for permanent magnets in the batteries of electric cars and wind turbines.

“Zambia and Namibia are playing with fire as this is against the fundamental principles of international trade law,” said Leon, a partner with Herbert Smith Freehills.

“I imagine that the countries affected by the bans, especially those affected by Namibia, may take some steps around it,” said Leon. He was speaking at the London Indaba, a mining conference, on June 26.

The WTO allows export and import levies but is opposed to quantity restrictions as a basic precept of its formation, said Leon. Since raw mineral export bans are often coupled with other laws promoting in-country processing – so-called ‘beneficiation’ – will end up “breaking every law in the WTO’s book”, he said.

In 2020, Indonesia placed a ban on nickel exports saying it had domestic shortages. The WTO didn’t accept this argument. It sided with the European Union which had launched an objection. An attempt by Indonesia to appeal the WTO’s judgement was likely to fail as the WTO appellate division no longer exists, said Leon. The US declined to support the WTO during the administration of former president, Donald Trump.

US seeking direct trade

The US under President Joe Biden has made no attempts to restore the WTO’s appeal capability but it recently signed a memorandum of understanding directly with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia on rules for securing critical minerals.

Under the terms of the MoU – signed during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December – the US will support the commitment between the DRC and Zambia to develop jointly a supply chain for electric vehicle batteries.

The DRC produces more than 70% of the world’s cobalt, and Zambia is the world’s sixth-largest copper producer and the second-largest cobalt producer in Africa.

The MoU is non-binding agreement and “a work in progress”, said Leon who added however that it was “interesting that the US got the DRC and Zambia to talk”. The DRC was loaded with political risk whereas Zambia was “moving in the right direction” under President Hakainde Hichilema, he said.


  1. Both countries have a right to ban export of their minerals. Moreover why do you want minerals from a country you sanctioned for human rights violation. It’s hypocrisy and pathetic at the same time.

  2. What a load of nonsense, rules and laws designed by developed countries to prevent developing nations from creating jobs, businesses and skills in their own counties by benefiting from the real upside of producing/ having raw materials. Perhaps the WTO rules are wrong, not the countries decisions.

  3. This is what I call arm‐twisting and muscle‐flexing tactics by powerful countries. The bullying must stop.

  4. Title says Zimbabwe and Namibia. The piece says Zambia and Namibia which is it Zimbabwe or Zambia do you think they are the same country?

    • This article just screams with elitist white supremacy designed to perpetuate slavery of the African continent. WTO needs to review its policies to align with the raise of true independence by African nations. The tide is changing, the west must wake up and align.

  5. This guy’s crazy. What does it matter following so-called international rules when we Zimbabweans are under illegal sanctions. Why not tell the USA that they are playing with fire imposing illegal sanctions. Such hypocrisy!!

  6. No no no… you are wrong… when non 1st world countries choose to do exactly what 1st world countries do… it’s a problem… guess what … they can go to hell. This article and this “specialist” is unaware of political games played….

  7. Sovereign States have rights to protection of their minerals, economies and development of their industries. It is called the right to self-determination in its crudest form.

    The fire referred to here is a blatant arrogance of those change threatens their very existence for many years as a results of invasion and occupation of the third world and codification of colonial culture under the cloak of law. The facts that should apply to any progressive law is that this resources belongs to this sovereign states and they have right to dispose them as they see fit and not to be dictated to by desperate so power hungry institutions. What happened to self-determination?

    It is about time all African States follows Zimbabwe and Namibian Model. Self-determination in Practice. No fire is played with when exercising one’s inalienable rights. This are principles that peace should be build on. Respect for one’s rights.

  8. Evergreen European/American exploitation at work. We have seen it many times before. A strong African president was recently desposed-off by mining interests enforcing similar economic moves to help country’s economy. First they bumped-off with Lumumba of Congo. These evil exploiters will stop at nothing, in their quest for more and more of third world resources at dirt prices. We all need greater vigilance to guard against tigers in the vicinity.

  9. Maybe they should re-wrote the WTO cook book so as to push for the development of the developing economies. Unfortunately the WTO cook book has been written by the big corporates to promote the big corporates’ interests and to keep the developing economies in perpetual darkness. Zimbabwe and Namibia are correct in requesting beneficiation in their own countries.

  10. Kkkkkkkk vachena Ava soooka. I wish Peter
    Lion had the same view on sanctions unlawfully imposed on us. Who’s crooked regulations is he talking about. He must remember we are an independent country. The only reason being the need to keep on playing Big Bully Brothers and keep on taking our resources for free. Haikona mhani stop holding Africa at ransom. When are you going to see us as Humans and Equals. Mucharega rini kuti gara matare tisipo. Ityai mwari imi. Stop seeing us as baboons. Africa is not a wilderness. Viva Africa, unit and fight those agents of our poverty.

  11. This is what all African countries should be doing as we are always being bullied for our resources,until Zimbabwe is Free no minerals should be exported from Africa, we must boycott all imports from Europe & US, we must be singing the song FREE ZIMBABWE.

  12. What it basically means is that African countries must not benefit from their resources but keep selling them to rich countries as raw and they process them and sell back to African countries at a higher price and call this equitable? What load of rubbish and arrogance. We must benefit from our resources period just as they benefit from theirs

  13. It has been clear from Day 1 that the West has not changed one bit from it’s hegemonic policies. They seek to continue ransacking our wealth for their benefit, exclusively – in sync with the infamous ‘Africans are meant to be hewers of wood and drawers of water’ dictum. What a load of cow dung. Africa, move fast, smell the coffee and fight from one corner. No more client states, and never again!

  14. If African Governments can work together and promote Trade amongst themselves we will not have this rubbish, instead every African Leader has chosen whom they want to associate with in the West.

  15. What kind of nonsesity is this so called developed countries doing to our fellow Africans, they enjoy living life of paraside whilst other struggle with their economy, this bullshit must come to an end.

  16. If the WTO regulations indeed preclude noble attempts by countries to self-beneficiate its minerals as part of their development strategies, then it is clear to me that the WTO statutes need amendment to rid it of what I think is a revulsive posture. If the ‘fire’ should materialise to any consequence at all, then the time for these countries to take the preemptive steps is now. Perhaps it’s opportune for the affected countries to make a mark on the organisation.

  17. Hypocrites, our minerals our choice. Zimbabwe has struggled under sanctions which has affected the citizens who had nothing to do with the politics and world games that are meant to enrich a few countries who think àfrican lives dont matter. Empty threats, africa hold fast the tables are turning. We will regain our glory yet

  18. This so called lawyer is a clown out to force the hand of these countries to play according to their tune . My only wish is if our African government’s would use wisely these natural resources for the benefit of the nation’s people.

  19. The arrogance and naivety of the Western world is on top level it’s unbelievable. They look after their own people first before giving leftover scraps to Africa and that’s ok, but soon as those very African countries do the same, they are “playing with fire”. Zimbabwe is banned from exporting other minerals that can be found elsewhere, but they will happily take what’s scarce!! Isn’t that ironic?! The Saudis (OPEC), have the power to increase or decrease oil production at will, and Biden has threatened them with everything, but they haven’t been bullied like this!! Remember them not willing to send any vaksinz to African countries because they had to fulfill their domestic demands first? It’s time for Africa to stand up against bullying and exploitation from the West!! Come on BRICS!! We need to dedollarise first, then they will start respecting us and start practicing fair trade!!

  20. Why do we not beneficiate our minerals ourselves voluntarily, creating higher domestic value added and employment in our own countries, without resorting to bans and coercion?
    Perhaps we should study engineering, gain experience in rich country processing plants, and come back to do it in our own countries. Doing it instead of talking about it. Get a tip from China.

  21. WTO was established with the main aim to exploit Africa. Wake up Africa . Enough is enough of this bullying.

  22. I would love to see a big battery factory exporting to other countries not raw minerals being exported Zimbabwe is playing big league now if they continue like this

  23. Strong arm tactics. Entitlement by the elitists. These countries have a right to decide on what they want to do with their minerals. Them refining their own minerals means job means creating jobs for their own people. Why is this an issue?Africa has a right to determine their own future.

  24. This guy is crazy and confused, how come Zimbabwe is under sanctions and same time they need Zimbabwe minerals, truly speaking they are playing with fire, they can go to hell

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