Miners in Sahel coup crisis turn to ‘back channel engagements’

THE rolling coups in the Sahel region in Africa expose mining companies operating there to numerous risks which requires ‘back-channel engagements’ with the new government and the careful management of human safety and business continuity.

In the last three years, West and Central Africa have been plagued by nine coups in countries, such as Mali, Guinea, Chad, and Burkina Faso. Before the latest outbreak of coups in the region, Africa has seen relative political stability, but the latest spate of overthrows poses a serious threat to progress in the region, said Andrew Irvine, director of legal and corporate engagement at the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

He facilitated a panel discussion on how mining companies could manage risks when they find themselves amid a coup. The discussion was on the last day of Mining Indaba in Cape Town on Thursday last week.

Martijn Bosboom, General Counsel at the Australian miner Perseus, said the firm acquired the Meyas Sand Gold Project in the northern part of Sudan a few months after the October 2021 coup. In April 2023, war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

According to Bosboom, more than 10 million people have since been displaced. Short-term risks Perseus had to deal with include the safety of its people and food and fuel shortages. “But the longer term-risks are the possibility of sanctions. There are also ‘informal’ sanctions, such as suppliers that don’t want to do business with us and banks not willing to provide funding.”

He said when war started, Perseus immediately reached out to the government of the day. “And we had to make it clear that we were not choosing sides and that we’d work with and support any government in place.”

Besides Sudan, Perseus also operates gold mines in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

Elison Karuhanga, company secretary of the Ugandan Chamber of Mines, said mining companies who are in the middle of a coup should prioritise survival and then apply common sense, have backchannel engagements with the government of the day, and make the necessary arrangements for business continuity.

Abdoul Karim Kabele Camara, director of legal affairs at Endeavour Mining – which operates in Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso – said it counts in mining companies’ favour that the military regimes in the conflict-stricken Sahel region knows the importance of mining to the country’s revenue. “They know mining companies are heavily involved in the economy of the country and they’re generally supportive.”

He pointed out that companies should make sure they don’t fall foul of international rules and laws. “Beyond the coup, you need to make sure you legally protect yourself and not subject yourselves to sanctions.”