The country has taken on high-profile companies including Acacia Mining and Petra
Tanzania fights against under-invoicing in resource-extraction industries
A dispute over mineral royalties in Tanzania is being closely watched by resource investors as its outcome could set a precedent as to how mining, oil and gas disputes are handled by African countries.
Most resource projects on the continent are financed by companies based in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The UAE, too, is home to firms involved in developing gas and oil plays in African countries, including Tanzania.
In March, Tanzania's president John Magufuli banned the export of gold and copper ore produced by the country's largest gold miner, the London listed Acacia Mining. In a televised speech Mr Magafuli said Acacia had not declared the full value of the ore concentrate it was exporting for refining abroad. In doing so Acacia paid less tax, he alleged.
Mr Magufuli also accused Acacia of not declaring other minerals in the exported ore. A special committee set up to verify Acacia's export documentation found a substantial financial shortfall in the value of declarations.
“The committee [investigating the exports] found that there were many other minerals in those shipping containers that were not declared, such as sulphur, iron, iridium, titanium and zinc,” Mr Magufuli said in his broadcast on CNBC Africa. “They were also under-invoicing the actual gold, copper and silver content in those shipping containers.”
The move has been wildly popular both at home and in other countries in the region.
More recently Tanzanian authorities seized a US$15 million consignment of diamonds belonging to another London-based mining firm, Petra. The gems were sourced at its Williamson mine and en route to Antwerp for processing.
"While Williamson Diamonds declared in its documentation that the value of the diamonds was $14.8m, a fresh valuation done by the government established that the actual value of the diamonds is $29.5m," an official government statement released in early September read.
Both companies have denied hiding the true value of their exports. Acacia did not respond to requests for comment, but in regulatory filings has said it now has an unshipped stockpile of $265m in concentrate inventory and had burned through $210m of its cash reserves by early September.
Acacia was also hit with a $190 billion dollar fine by the government, approximately equal to 200 years of its revenue.
A Petra spokesman referred to the company's official statement on the matter, which said its Tanzania mine's products are valued by government officials, not its staff; "Petra is not responsible for the provisional valuation of diamond parcels from Williamson before they are exported to Antwerp; this is carried out by the government’s diamonds and gemstones valuation agency."
Meanwhile Tanzania itself stands to lose $553m in taxes and labour incomes annually if Acacia shuts down its operations in the country, an audit report by Ernst & Young shows. Already Reuters reports that numerous mining projects in the works are being quietly put on hold. So far though, Mr Magafuli is not backing down.
The issue of under-declaring the value of exports has been bubbling beneath the surface for some time, not just in Tanzania but in other resource producers across Africa. Activists, and increasingly voters are demanding a bigger share of mineral wealth.
Thomas Scurfield, the Tanzania analyst at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in the UK, says citizens suspect companies of dodging tax because they do not see many benefits trickling down to their communities.
"While countries undoubtedly do lose from such practices, some combination of generous contracts, ineffective use of collected revenues and mismanaged expectations are often also to blame," Mr Scurfield said. "Tanzania is arguably a pertinent example of how these different factors can come together with far-reaching implications."
Placating a sceptical populace is not helped by the way imperious government officials sign deals with little to no consultation with the communities affected.
"When a mining company signs a deal with government, it is the high political office that is also involved," says Ignatius Kamwanje, a geoscience consultant based in Malawi, where similar tensions exist over mining deals and the value they deliver. "The majority and stakeholders have to be consulted through various platforms before the deals are signed."
Similar disputes are playing out in Asia and South America as well. In countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Mongolia and Brazil, there are ongoing disputes over mineral rights. The issue is not just royalties but whether or not mines should be allowed to be owned by foreigners at all.
“We’re seeing the rise of more nationalistic governments everywhere,” says Paul Mitchell, a partner at Ernst & Young’s mining and metals practice. “That desire to hold the assets of a nation and work on them themselves, I think is only going to rise as we realise they’re becoming scarce, and are only going to become more scarce.”
Tanzania's open challenge to the established order is therefore going to be scrutinised by resource countries everywhere. Nationalisation of resources fell out of favour after the millennium, especially across Africa. The post-colonial years of supporting loss-making, poorly run mines drained treasuries and, desperate for capital, governments invited private money to take over.
Now, this could be changing.
"There is nothing unorthodox about governments holding shares in mining companies; it's commonplace in the region," says Dan Paget, a scholar at Oxford University's department of politics and international relations.
"While it has become unfashionable for states to run mines themselves, they have before, and they could again."