We were never a serious mining destination until 2009 when Paladin Limited (PAL) commissioned the mining of uranium at Kayelekera, Karonga. The Australian company invested $500 million at Kayelekera—making it the largest single development project in the country so far.
And do you know what that means?
It means, whether we like it or not, Paladin will remain Malawi’s critical referee for every potential mining company wishing to invest in Malawi. The reason is simple: it is in the tradition of every mining company to principally consult pathfinders—those that have gone before—as part of their risk analysis.
Being Malawi’s mining pathfinder—a flag carrier—every mining company wishing to invest in Malawi will have to consult and take a great deal of counsel from Paladin. No company would make a mining investment decision in Malawi without Paladin’s blessings.
That is why after I received news of Paladin’s slow but steady signing off at Kayelekera, I reflected deeply on the kind of referee Paladin, as a pathfinder, would be to Malawi’s future potential mining investors.
What mining experience have we given to this company in the four years of its operation in the country? Have we shown them we are a friendly mining investment destination? What memories do they have of Malawi? Will they be Malawi’s good referees to those wishing to invest in Malawi?
Without mincing a word, I can argue that Paladin will be flying home with bitter memories of the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’. I don’t think Paladin got the ‘warmth’ from the ‘warm heart of Africa’. Our relationship with the company bordered heavily on suspicion, mistrust and hostility driven more by our ignorance than national consciousness.
Being a nation without a history of large-scale mining, we did not want to give ourselves time to understand how mining works. Instead, we enjoyed the bliss of debating conspiracy theories of seeing Paladin as an agent of neo-colonialism, a company that had come to ‘steal our resources’, ‘enrich its belly’, ‘marry our daughters’ and ‘pollute our children with radiation’.
These theories held ground because we, at some point in time, we felt that we were not benefiting much from our uranium the way we should have. In fact, the answer as to why this was the case pointed all to Paladin: we all blamed it for not ‘committing much to the development of Karonga, specifically, and Malawi, in general.’
And the quest to force Paladin to do more, I should confess, drove us into a raw sense of senselessness. We started making shocking demands that, at best, were laughable and, at worst, stupid and useless.
Imagine: a chief wakes up, mobilises his people and demands that Paladin leave Kayelekera immediately. Serious? Or a self-styled Karonga activist runs amok with street demonstrations, blocking Paladin vehicles and demanding closure of the mining. Just like that? In fact, we even heard from some civil society organisations (CSOs), members of Parliament (MP) and politicians demanding the renegotiation of the development agreement between government and Paladin. Really?
All these shocking demands squeezed Paladin into a helpless corner. Yet, we forgot that Paladin is a $500 million investor who, if truth be told, created a number of lucrative jobs and spurred business in a country where, sometime in 2012, Japanese ambassador Fujio Samukawa said “it is difficult to sell to investors because of energy crisis and high cost of transportation.” And Paladin took that risk.
I am not against those who were angered by the realisation that we were not benefiting much from our uranium. But channeling the anger to Paladin, the investor, was completely out of order.
And here is why: Paladin did not fly directly from Australia to Karonga to start mining uranium. It had to follow all the legal processes as enshrined in the laws of the country: apply for a mining license and negotiate a development agreement with the Malawi Government.
If today we feel government made funny concessions to Paladin in the Development Agreement in exchange for unexplained favours, something which has led to our failure to benefit from uranium, I just don’t find it rational, as a nation, to bare our fangs at Paladin. We know who gave out those funny concessions. Don’t we?
That adds to everything we kept blaming Paladin for: employing expatriates, mistreating Malawian workers, not favouring Karonga businesses and all those jibes.
If there is truth in these jibes, I just don’t see how a company could fly from Australia and start taking Malawians for granted. To agree to such nonsensical jibes is akin to believing that we are a nation without a government and laws. Which I believe we are not.
If we feel Paladin gave us a raw deal, the underlying wisdom, then, is simple: there is something terribly wrong with the nature of our government and its mining laws. Period!
To mean, if, in the future, we want to benefit from our resources, we need to channel our energy in reforming our government and the mining laws. We need chiefs to call on government to be transparent and accountable in giving mining licenses and signing Development Agreements. We need self-styled activists to stage demonstrations demanding government to be open about mining ventures. We need CSOs, MPs and politicians to push for the review of mining laws and see to it that once reviewed the implementation is to the letter.
Otherwise, this sickness of waking up and start making strong statements of condemning Paladin, or any investor, is a classic case of curing symptoms. If we do not change the nature of government and review mining laws, we will continue being hostile to investors—eventually, chasing the investors we need to extract the minerals we, on our own, can’t manage.
Bon voyage Paladin. But what flag are you carrying of Malawi?