By Eddy Claude Nininahazwe
In response to criticism that foreign companies are reaping overly large profits in Burundi from the exploitation of natural resources such as nickel, rare earth, gold, and coltan, the government has suspended the mining activities of all foreign companies beginning July 14, 2021. In his speech on the country’s July 1 Independence Day this year, President Evariste Ndayishimiye ordered the suspension.
As far back as 2004, when President Pierre Nkurunziza took office, Burundian nationals were already beginning to question the mining contracts, and over the years, especially during election campaigns, leaders have promised to spur the growth of Burundi’s economy through its own significant natural resources. A 2010 study made clear just how abundant those resources are – there is enough nickel in the ground for 40 years of nonstop mining in just one of Burundi’s 117 communes, Musongati commune in Rutana Province, in the southeastern part of Burundi. In 2015, the late President Nkurunziza promised that Burundi would “say goodbye to poverty, thanks to its natural resources.”
The mining code in Burundi allows foreign companies that invest in mining to own 90% of the shares, leaving just 10% to Burundi. Rainbow Rare Earths Ltd. is one such company. Based in England, Rainbow Rare Earths mines in Gakara Hill, located in rural Bujumbura. The Gakara mining area has enormous reserves of rare earth elements – heavy metals that are essential in the manufacture of high-tech devices such as smartphones and TV screens.
The Tanganyika Mining Company, owned by Russian oligarchs, mines gold deposits in the hills of Cimba, Mageyo, Gakekwa, Gafumbegeti, Mukoma, Rutorero, and Muhungu in Mabayi commune, Cibitoke Province, in western Burundi.
On May 19, 2021, residents of the lands impacted by the Tanganyika Mining Company, tired of what they perceive to be exploitation, gathered in the streets to demand compensation for their land, which had been targeted for mining. The residents, supported by the local administration, barricaded the roads leading to the mining sites. Those barricades have now been removed, however the residents have not dropped their demands.
In October 2018, then-President Nkurunziza drove out locals who were mining gold manually in the north of the country, in the province of Muyinga, in the commune of Butihinda. The president then launched a company called African Mining Burundi. The government has a 15% stake in African Mining Burundi, which is required to make an annual contribution to Muyinga of $50,000 USD. The company holds rights to nine gold mining sites, as well as sites for the extraction of other minerals. Also in the mining business in Burundi is NTEGA Holding, which exploits coltan in Kirundo province, Ntega commune, in the locality of Runyankenzi.
Anger about mining contracts
Local organizations defending public interests vehemently criticize the mining contracts as favoring foreign multinationals, while disadvantaging Burundian companies. One local organization, Olucome, known for fighting corruption, long ago began complaining that mining contracts protected by the Burundian leadership were designed to enrich a handful of people, rather than ordinary citizens. The leader of Olucome, Gabriel Rufyiri, again aired these concerns in a statement released for the press on July 11, which was African Anti-Corruption Day. In 2014, the same organization denounced the president of the republic for having authorized the signing of an agreement with the foreign-owned multinational companies BMM international and Kermas LTD for the exploitation of nickel.
“The agreement, marred by numerous irregularities, proceeded without any accountability, and a mining license was granted, without any call for tenders,” said Rufyiri. Other local organizations also condemned the agreement. Initiative Citoyenne pour l’Environnement et le Développement Durable (ICED) wrote to the presidency of Burundi with a proposal about how to equitably redistribute resources. The proposal criticized the greed of foreign multinationals toward Burundi’s natural resources, and the harm the multinationals do to the country.
Call for transparency of contracts
Burundi Prime Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni was invited to parliament on April 15, 2021, to respond to questions from members of parliament about mining contracts with multinationals. He confirmed that Burundi has not gained anything through these contracts, other than being plundered in plain sight.
“Many of these companies have now received formal suspension notices because we realized that they were there only to plunder our mineral wealth. They have duped the government through the conventions that govern their operations – thus the need to renegotiate,” said Bunyoni. In March 2021, Bunyoni sent a note to the Burundi Ministry of Energy and Mines, ordering it to suspend all activities of Rainbow Mining Burundi following the report of the commission responsible for evaluating the agreement for the exploitation of rare earth from the Gakara mining area. The multinational Rainbow Mining Burundi responded to the Burundian government by asking for contract renegotiation.
In his Independence Day speech, President Ndayishimiye criticized unfair contracts and called for their renegotiation. While contracts are suspended, the Ministry of Energy and Mines reassured the multinational companies that they still own mining licenses in Burundi. Burundi sees the mining sector as a pillar of the economy.
“We did not touch their operating licenses; they were only asked to suspend their activities as we renegotiate our agreements,” said Minister Ibrahim Uwizeye. Burundi had previously aimed at 10% economic growth by 2020, based on a projected revenue stream of 47% from minerals, however the pandemic disrupted those plans. Multiple studies by earth science academicians point to Burundi as having 6% of the world’s known reserves of nickel, as well as of gold and coltan. According to mining experts, rare earth is uniquely found and exploited on the African continent in Burundi. Until recently, China has held a practical monopoly on the exploitation of rare earth.