China-Angola: Is the Catoca idyll coming to an end?

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Friday, 24 June 2022 09:22

Catoca is the fourth largest open pit diamond mine in the world. ©Twitter.

The joint venture China Sonangol, which holds almost a 20% stake in Angola’s main gemstone deposit, has had its stake blocked. Its name has been cited in several cases of suspected corruption.

The action marks a cloud in the usually clear sky of relations between Beijing and Luanda. The Angolan judiciary has seized the stake of the Chinese shareholder in Angolan mining company Catoca, which operates the country’s main diamond deposit and the world’s fourth largest open-pit mine for this precious stone.

Revealed by the Financial Times and then confirmed by the Angolan press in recent days, the seizure dates back a few months, namely to the last quarter of 2021, according to information we obtained.

Contested seizure

In detail, the Angolan public prosecutor’s office, led by Attorney General Hélder Pitta Gróz, blocked Lev Leviev International’s (LLI) 18% stake in Catoca, designating l’Institut de gestion des actifs et participations de l’État – IGAPE – (Institute for the Management of State Assets and Holdings), a public body attached to the ministry of finance, as custodian. This action, for which the Angolan judiciary has not detailed the reasons or the framework, is being contested by China Sonangol, which in 2011 bought back its stake in Catoca held through LLI from Israeli tycoon Lev Leviev.

Established in 2004, China Sonangol is a joint venture between Angola’s national oil company Sonangol and a Hong Kong-based company. It developed its activity in the Angolan oil market before investing in the diamond sector. Its name is regularly associated – in the media as well as in several cases of suspected corruption – with two key figures from the era of former President José Eduardo dos Santos: businessman Sam Pa and former Vice-President Manuel Vicente.

Record profits

If this seizure is finalised, the Angolan state (which currently owns 41% of Catoca via the national company Endiama), would take control of the mining company with 59% of the shares, which would formalise a break with the former Chinese partners. Beijing is Luanda’s top financier and has been an important commercial partner of Angola for many years.

The other historical Catoca shareholder, also holding 41% of the capital, is the Russian giant Alrosa. When asked several times by the press about the consequences for Catoca of international sanctions against Moscow due to the war in Ukraine, the company’s management denied any impact. In early March, when presenting its 2021 results, Catoca highlighted an annual profit of $200 million (€190 million), “the best result in five years”. According to the company’s 2020 business report, the latest available online, it had $615.1m in revenue that year and a profit of $163.2m.

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