In mid December, Robert Fowler, a career Canadian diplomat who is currently the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger, and his aide Louis Guay, an official at Foreign Affairs, were abducted in Niger. They were kidnapped not long after visiting a mine operated by Montréal-based SEMAFO (Société d’exploitation minière-Afrique de l’Ouest). The president and CEO of SEMAFO, Benoit La Salle, told the National Post: “Louis [Guay] called me and said he was going down there on a UN mission and that he heard the mine was a Canadian success and he wanted to report this back to Canada.”
At this point there are few other confirmed details regarding the kidnapping. Agence France Presse reported that the federal government, Niger and the UN have all become extremely secretive about the kidnapping. The UN initially denied that Fowler was on an official trip, but then a spokesperson contradicted this earlier statement, admitting that in fact he was on official business.
This event raises some questions about relations between Ottawa and Canadian resource corporations operating abroad. Is it common for diplomats to visit Canadian operated mines in foreign countries? Why was a UN envoy, sent to a country to deal with a conflict largely over natural resources, visiting a Canadian operated mine? Was the visit a message to Niger’s government? The rebels? The UN?
Finally, does Guay, who organized the last minute trip to the mine and who once ran a Canadian gold company in the Dominican Republic, have ties to the President of SEMAFO?
The mine Fowler and Guay visited is run by a company with interesting ties to Ottawa’s so-called “development” world. SEMAFO is an outgrowth of La Salle’s work for Plan Canada, a subsidiary of Plan International, “one of the world’s largest development organizations, working in more than 65 countries worldwide on critical issues affecting millions of children.” Plan Canada is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. In July, La Salle told an interviewer that SEMAFO “was created in 1995 during my first visit to Burkina Faso as part of a mission with the NGO-Plan. I am the president of the administration council of Plan Canada and a director of Plan International. So, after the Plan organized visit to Burkina Faso provided me an opportunity to get close with national authorities, I decided to create SEMAFO to participate in the development of Burkina Faso’s mining industry.” In another interview, La Salle said “[in my position at Plan] I was able to meet [African] presidents, prime ministers and functionaries” whom he now does business with.
La Salle has put his political contacts to good use. An April 2007 Montreal Gazette business article headlined “Local Miner a Major Force in Niger” reports on the close relations between SEMAFO and Hama Amadou, then Prime Minister of Niger. “‘We work very closely with him,’ said Benoit La Salle, chief executive and chairman. ‘We’re part of his budget every year. He knows us.’ The Prime Minister was even helpful in solving a strike at the mine that shut down production just before Christmas. ‘He gave us all the right direction to solve this legally,’ La Salle said. ‘We went to court, we had the strike declared illegal and that allowed us to let go of some of the employees and rehire some of them based upon a new work contract. It allowed us to let go of some undesirable employees because they had been on strike a few times.’”
SEMAFO’s preferred prime minister seems also to have been involved in some activities not quite as “legal” as firing striking workers. In June 2008 Reuters reported that “former Niger Prime Minister Hama Amadou has been arrested on corruption charges. Niger’s Parliament voted this week to try Amadou, who is accused of embezzling $237 000, in a separate corruption scandal.”
SEMAFO is not the only Canadian resource company that has put its political connections to good use in Niger. Calgary-based TG World Energy, the Globe and Mail reported, “hired Mr. [Jean] Chrétien last year  to help it get out of a pickle in the impoverished African nation of Niger.” TG’s rights to explore 18 million acres of Niger’s wilderness for oil and gas were revoked by the government, which felt TG hadn’t invested enough in prospecting. Niger then awarded the concession to a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp. The Calgary company sued Niger’s government and went to arbitration with the Chinese firm. “It also asked Mr. Chrétien to intervene,” reports the Globe. “The former prime minister spoke with officials of China National Petroleum during a trip to Beijing and then in March of 2004, he flew into Niamey, the Niger capital. In normal circumstances, the best TG World could have hoped to get on its own was a meeting with the Energy Minister. But Mr. Chrétien managed to snag a meeting with the President.”
Chrétien’s lobbying led to a new agreement between TG World, Niger and the Chinese, which saw the Canadian company’s stock price increase from 8 cents to more than $1 per share within a year.
In fact, none of this sort of Canadian “diplomacy” is unusual. Canadian diplomatic involvement in Niger is widely replicated across Africa. Within 13 months after leaving office Chrétien made business-related visits to Gambia, Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Describing political lobbying on behalf of Canadian mining corporations in the Congo, one commentator told Democracy Now that every Prime Minister since Pierre Trudeau (Clark, Mulroney, Chrétien, Martin) “has left office and profited from the natural resources of the Congo while the Congolese people suffer.”
There is something particularly distasteful about former public officials exchanging their political contacts, prestige etc. for a buck. But, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to public officials’ support for Canadian business in Africa. Canadian embassies and trade missions are largely focused on advancing this country’s corporate interests. The authors of Africa’s Blessing, Africa’s Curse note: “Canadian diplomatic missions in Africa spend much of their time making sure that mining companies and host governments are brought together and the companies are much praised by Canadian officials.”
This diplomacy has enabled Canadian corporations, particularly mining companies, to thrive. Today, Africa is home to some 600 Canadian mining concessions worth more than $12 billion. Over the past two decades, there has been a huge increase in Canadian mining investments across the continent. Up from about a quarter billion dollars in 1989, Canadian mining assets in Africa were (before the recent commodities crash) projected to top $20 billion by 2010. Every Canadian should be concerned about this investment and ask what is being done in our name.
While a few independent-minded reporters have written about Canadian mines that have spurred war in the Congo, killings in Tanzania and environmental devastation from Kenya to Ghana, most of the mainstream media prefers to focus on how the Chinese are buying up Africa.
Wouldn’t Canadians be better served if the media told us about companies based in our country buying up Africa, the politicians helping them do it and the effects on ordinary Africans?
Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming Canada on the World Stage: A Force for Good or Bad Actor? and other books.