“Acacia surrender”: Tz newspaper coverage of mineral concentrates saga

Nipashe 15/6/17

On Wednesday, the President of Tanzania, John Magufuli, met with the Chairman of Barrick Gold, John Thornton, who had flown in from North America for the purpose. The State House communications team released a video, shot on the steps outside the meeting, in which the President and Mr Thornton shared their versions of what had transpired. This dominated the headlines on Thursday, with most papers presenting the meeting in a very particular way.

More on that in a moment, but first, here’s the video:

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the summary won’t take long: the President thanks Thornton for coming, and for agreeing to pay what is due, and Thornton says they are pleased to be able to enter dialogue to resolve the ongoing dispute, and will be happy to pay whatever they are rightfully supposed to pay.

I will get to my main point shortly – how the media has covered the meeting – but a little background may be useful first. The dispute relates to exports of “mineral concentrates” produced by Acacia Mining plc (a subsidiary of Barrick) at its three gold mines in Tanzania. Exports have been suspended, and a large number of containers containing concentrates have been seized for investigations. The committees formed by the President to carry out these investigations concluded by accusing the company of massively understating the amount of gold and other minerals present in the exported concentrates, thus depriving Tanzania of a huge amount of revenues – to the tune of three years’ worth of the national budget. Acacia and Barrick are alarmed and dispute the committees’ findings, saying their exports have always been audited and declared accurately, and that all payments of tax and royalities, etc. to the Tanzanian government have been appropriately paid. For a few weeks now, Acacia have been calling for dialogue with the Tanzanian government, so the issue can be resolved.

(If you’re looking for more detail, this post on Bloomberg is the best place to go.)

So the meeting essentially concluded with an agreement to have more discussions, no more, no less. There was no agreement reached on the amount of money owed (if any) by Acacia / Barrick to the government of Tanzania, and no admission of liability on the part of Barrick. The government’s own official press release on the meeting supports this conclusion, as do Thornton’s comments after the meeting and the latest press release on the Acacia website and the market update call they held on Thursday morning.

But a look at the papers in Tanzania shows a very different interpretation. Let’s start with a selection of six Swahili papers that take a similar line. All six portray the meeting as a big win for the President, and for Tanzania, though they go well beyond even what the President himself said about the meeting. Several state either that Acacia/Barrick have agreed to pay what is being demanded of them or that they have admitted responsibility, points which do not reflect the actual agreement reached:

Two other Swahili papers took a different line, referring instead to an issue that formed the second part of President Magufuli’s remarks after the meeting. The President directed the media to stop attacking former Presidents’ Mkapa and Kikwete for their supposedly lax oversight of the mining sector.

As I write, I’m hearing that the government has suspended Mawio for 2 years in direct response (expect more on that in a later post):

Next up, three English language papers. In this case, the tone is more measured. It’s hard to agree with the whole sentiment of the Guardian and Daily News headlines – battle won? were Acacia hiding? – but in the case of the Citizen, the headline does seem to represent reality:

The same applies to the Citizen’s coverage inside the paper as well, notably in a balanced and sensible editorial column:

“Now that the ground has been set for negotiations, our prayer is that both the parties will engage in earnest talks based on good intentions for mutual benefit.

“[I]t is in the interest of both parties to find a middle ground and secure a win-win situation, for we wouldn’t like to see this standoff degenerate into a fully-blown crisis with devastating consequences.”

Let’s move on to the cartoons next, some of which are as bad as the headlines at misreading the situation. Nipashe and Mtanzania are off the mark, Mwananchi has managed to sidestep the main point, and Daily News has gone very aggressive in its imagery. The Citizen is better, but Gado (not in any paper) goes in a completely different direction from everyone else:

(UPDATED 16/6/17: one additional cartoon added, from The Guardian, with “Father Acacia”)

There’s a lot more to discuss here – on parliament’s resolution in praise of the President, on the prohibition on discussing the former Presidents, on the suspension of Mawio and perhaps most importantly on whether the numbers given in the first committee’s report are plausible. But that’s for another time.

On this topic, I can only leave you with some questions. I have three:

  1. Do these journalists and editors really not know they’re misleading the public?
  2. If they know, then why are they doing it?
  3. Could it in any way relate to the powers that allow the government to suspend Mawio for two years?

Finally, finally, for the sake of sharing but with no commentary, here’s a collection of cartoons from earlier in this saga: