Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 2): Beny Steinmetz

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 1): Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

This, the second  in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone profiles Beny Steinmetz, one of five billionaire investors in the country and his investment portfolio in Africa.

Part 2. King of Diamonds in Sierra Leone

It’s December 2012 and workers at the Octéa diamond mine in the town of Koidu in Sierra Leone are on strike, complaining of poor wages, “appalling” working conditions and ”racism”. [i]  When the Minister of Mines and Mineral Resources travels to Koidu to deal with the crisis, protestors allegedly throw stones. Armed Sierra Leone police claim to be overwhelmed and open fire. Two people are killed, one a passing motorcycle taxi or “okada” driver. The population is furious and riots erupt. The military are called in.

When the Sierra Leonean Vice President visits the district, ostensibly to mediate, he meets with aggrieved workers and community members.[ii] Instead of listening to their complaints, he adds insult to their injuries, telling them to sit on the ground in front of him as punishment for disrupting the operations of the company. He threatens to ”smash” anyone who fails to heed his word.[iii]

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This is not the first time that police protecting the Koidu diamond mine have shot and killed unarmed civilians. Five years earlier, two Koidu youths were gunned down during a protest against the delay in relocating people whose homes lay within range of fallout from the explosions to unearth the diamond-bearing kimberlite. After those deaths, the government of Sierra Leone, under newly elected President Ernest Bai Koroma, suspended the operations of the mine and launched an official inquiry into the event. A few months later the man behind the Koidu mine, Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz, jetted in to the capital Freetown and met with President Koroma.[iv] Without further ado, or action on the recommendations of the inquiry and the Government’s own White Paper that had been drawn up to implement them, the mine was suddenly re-opened without any explanation.

Beny Steinmetz is founder of BSG and its subsidiary BSG Resources (BSGR), of which the Koidu mine is a subsidiary.[v] With a net worth of US $ 4.1 billion he ranks number 316 of 1,426 of the world’s billionaires on the 2013 Forbes List.[vi] BSG, often referred to as the Beny Steinmetz Group, is a privately owned holding company with a wide range of business interests around the world, particularly diamonds. The head office of BSG Resources is in Guernsey, which the Tax Justice Network considers a secrecy jurisdiction, [vii] in other words a tax haven.  In addition to Sierra Leone, BSG extracts natural resources in several other post-conflict, fragile or politically turbulent countries, including Guinea,[viii] and also Albania, Kosovo, Liberia, Macedonia, Nigeria and Romania. Steinmetz’s controversial deal to acquire iron ore deposits worth many billions of dollars at Simandou in Guinea is now under investigation by the FBI.

Like so many corporate conglomerates that straddle borders and continents, the complex structure of BSG seems designed to defy easy analysis. According to the online Mining Journal,  “BSG is understood to be 81% owned by something called the Balda Foundation”, of which Steinmetz is a beneficiary.[ix]  Its diamond division, Octéa Limited, owns Koidu Limited, the sole kimberlite diamond mine in Sierra Leone.[x] The US jeweller, Tiffany & Co., whose glittering masterpieces have ”defined style and celebrated the world’s great love stories,”[xi] sources many of its diamonds from BSGR’s mine underneath the hard-luck town of Koidu, capital of the Kono District. [xii]

Koidu is a place of rampant poverty and ruins, the legacy of the war fuelled by diamonds.

Koidu is a place of rampant poverty and ruins, the legacy of the war fuelled by diamonds.

Kono District was hit very hard by the war that decimated Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002. The conflict has often been blamed on blood diamonds but in reality it had its roots in decades of poor governance, inequitable distribution of power and wealth accruing from natural resource exploitation that was perpetuated by what Sierra Leonean scholar Lansana Gberie has called “an effete and crass political elite in Freetown”.[xiii]  Billions of dollars worth of diamonds have come from the area and yet today Koidu is a dismal and depressing place of rampant poverty and shocking squalor.

There is no running water, electricity, sanitation, nothing to show for all the diamonds except for the physical ruins and social ills that are the legacy of the war that was fuelled by the blood-soaked gems extracted from the earth here.  And local people, displaced or affected by the blasting at the diamond mine, continue to complain that the authorities favour the company over them, allowing Beny Steinmetz’s company to operate with “impunity”.

Next: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor, Part 3: Frank Timis

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[i] BBC News. Sierra Leone Koidu mine: Foreigners ‘holed up’ after clashes. 19 December 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20781940 [accessed 18 March 2013]

[ii] Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD). ‘Kimberlite Diamond Mining and Gross Human Rights Abuses in Kono; What  Hope for Prosperity?’ Press Release. 5 February 2013. http://www.nmjd.org/home/current-news [accessed 18 March 2013]

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Sierra Leone Association of Journalists on Mining and Extractives (AJME). Mining Watch Sierra Leone, p 17 http://www.nmjd.org/home/images/report/Mining%20Watch%20Newspaper.pdf [accessed 18 March 2013]

[v] BSG Resources, Group Structure. http://www.bsgresources.com/about/group-structure.aspx [accessed 18 March 2013]

[vi] Forbes. The World’s Billionaires. Beny Steinmetz. http://www.forbes.com/profile/beny-steinmetz/ [accessed 18 March 2013]

[vii] Tax Justice Network, 4 October 2011. http://www.secrecyjurisdictions.com/PDF/Guernsey.pdf [accessed 18 March 2013]

[viii] See: Global Witness. ‘Beny Steinmetz Group Resources must publicly address questions over Guinea mining concessions,’ 9 November 2012. http://www.globalwitness.org/library/beny-steinmetz-group-resources-must-publicly-address-questions-over-guinea-mining-concession [accessed 18 March 2013], and: BSG Resources Limited. ‘Statement Regarding Simandou Project, Guinea’, November 2012. http://www.bsgresources.com/documents/BSGR_Project_Guinea_November_2012.pdf [accessed 18 March 2013]

[ix] Mining Journal Online. ‘BSG Executive Chop,’ 25 February 2010. http://www.mining-journal.com/fifth-column/bsg-executive-chop?SQ_DESIGN_NAME=print_friendly [accessed 18 March 2013]

[x] BSG Resources. Mining & Metals – Diamond Mining. http://www.bsgresources.com/operations/mining-and-metals-diamond-mining.aspx [accessed 18 March 2013]

[xiii] Lansana Gberie, ‘A dirty war in West Africa – the RUF and the destruction of Sierra Leone,’ 2005. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p 196


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