Edgar Lungu. Picture: ALLO IMAGES/AFP/BERND VAN JUTRCZENKA/DPA
Edgar Lungu. Picture: ALLO IMAGES/AFP/BERND VAN JUTRCZENKA/DPA

Lusaka — Zambian President Edgar Lungu has threatened to “divorce” the domestic copper units of Vedanta Resources and Glencore after the companies said they would curb operations in the southern African nation.

The threat marks an escalation in tension between the mining industry in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer and the state, after an increase in royalties and plans to introduce new taxes.

Last week, mines minister Richard Musukwa said the government directed Glencore’s Mopani Copper Mines to hand over two shafts to local contractors rather than close them.

Zambia’s kwacha extended its losses against the dollar to as much as 3.2% to the lowest level since 2015, and was down 2.3% at 13.91 per dollar on Friday in Lusaka. Yields on the country’s $1bn of Eurobonds due in April 2024 rose 11 basis points to a record 18.25% after Lungu’s statement.

Shaft closures rankle

Lungu visited Copperbelt province on Friday to meet officials from labour unions and the Chamber of Mines, the main industry lobby group, after Mopani announced it plans to shut two shafts and fire hundreds of workers. The disagreement could weaken the kwacha, which is already the world’s second-worst performing currency against the dollar this year, having fallen 14.7%.

“I want to make it very clear that I have come here to sanction, if it’s the will of the Zambian people, that we divorce these mines,” he said in a speech broadcast live on Facebook as the crowd responded with cheers.

“My position is that enough is enough. The attorney-general is here, the lawyers are here. They will guide us how to proceed with this divorce.”

Amos Chanda, a spokesman for the president, said that by using the word “divorce”, Lungu was referring to the fact that other unidentified investors are interested in Zambian mining assets.

“Everything that will be done will be done within the confines of the law, in line with the existing mining licences,” Chanda said. “It is not in the policy of the Zambian government under any circumstances to engage in nationalisation or seizure of private assets without due process.”

Vedanta’s Konkola Copper Mines noted Lungu’s concerns and said it is committed to its operations in the country.

“We believe there is an opportunity to resolve these matters for the benefit of all stakeholders,” Eugene Chungu, a company spokesman, said by phone. “Certainly, we are committed to investing in the country for the long haul.”

A Mopani spokesman declined to comment.

Lungu accused mining companies of lying about their profits and trying to arm-twist the government over its plans to replace value-added tax with a new sales tax system.

“We know they are liars, they are cheats and they take us for fools,” he said. “Let me conclude by saying that sales tax is here to stay. We are not going to be blackmailed by the investors, no. Those who are uncomfortable to stay in our house can go out.”

Bloomberg