Mark Bristow came to Barrick Gold Corp. with a strong reputation for operating mines in tough jurisdictions in Africa. But a solution to one of the company’s most vexing problems on the continent still eludes him.
The chief executive says the miner has made little progress in its attempts to end a tax dispute with Tanzania that has crippled production at its London-based subsidiary.
Speaking in Toronto on Wednesday after the release of Barrick’s first-quarter earnings, Mr. Bristow said that two years after a fracas erupted between 63.9-per-cent Barrick-owned Acacia Mining PLC and the government of Tanzania, both parties are still very much at odds.
“All the effort we’ve made, we don’t seem to be able to get through to anyone,” he said, expressing frustration with the situation.
Mr. Bristow said Barrick is now considering “all options,” including buying back Acacia’s minority shareholders or encouraging the miner to announce a strategic sales process.
In 2017, the Tanzanian government accused Acacia of US$200-billion in tax fraud and imposed a gold concentrate export ban on the company. While Acacia maintains it has paid a significant amount in taxes to Tanzania, Barrick has argued it needs to pay more. Because of Acacia’s frayed relationship with the government, its own management has been locked out of negotiations with Tanzania, with Barrick negotiating on its behalf.
After Barrick announced its US$6-billion acquisition of Randgold Resources in September, 2018, there was much optimism that Mr. Bristow, Randgold’s founder, might be the one to finally end the tax dispute. He came into Barrick with a stellar reputation as a seasoned African operator who’d worked almost trouble-free on the continent for more than two decades.
But the task is proving a big ask even for Mr. Bristow and his team, including former Randgold colleague Willem Jacobs, now Barrick’s chief operating officer for Africa and the Middle East.
“Getting the conflicted parties to see, at this stage, that almost any solution is better than none, that’s proving difficult,” Mr. Bristow said.
“There’s not a lot of trust left on either side.”
In February, Barrick under Mr. Bristow said it would soon present a proposal to Acacia’s board that would see Acacia split “economic benefits," including taxes and royalties from its Tanzanian mines, 50/50 with the East African country. The agreement was similar in scope to one tentatively arranged in October, 2017, by Barrick executive chairman John Thornton.
However, neither pact has gotten over the finish line.
“We have never received a complete proposal between Barrick and the government of Tanzania for Acacia to review and potentially recommend to shareholders,” Acacia spokesperson Gordon Poole wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail on Thursday.
Mr. Bristow said Wednesday the miner continues to engage in talks with Tanzania in efforts to end the dispute.
Away from the noise over Acacia, Barrick’s first financial statement after closing the Randgold acquisition was generally better than the street expected.
Net profit fell 30 per cent year-over-year to US$111-million from US$158-million for the period ending March 31.
On an adjusted basis, Barrick reported a profit of 11 US cents a share, two cents better than analysts surveyed by Refinitiv expected.
The company’s all-in sustaining cost (AISC), which measures most of the costs of mining, was US$825-million, better than estimates.
Barrick also gave a tighter timeline Wednesday on US$1.5-billion in planned non-core asset sales after the Randgold deal, saying it is hoping to have them wrapped up by the middle of next year. In an interview, Mr. Bristow said asset sales could include Barrick’s 50-per-cent share in the Kalgoorlie mine in Australia, as well as Lumwana, a low-grade copper mine in Zambia. Barrick tried to sell its Lagunas Norte mine in Peru, but was unable to reach acceptable terms with any interested parties, Mr. Bristow said.
Barrick may also emerge as a buyer of assets over the next year.
Mr. Bristow made it clear he covets Canadian miner B2Gold Corp.’s Fekola mine in Mali, calling it a “genuine high-quality asset.”
But since B2Gold CEO Clive Johnson is a “smart guy” and not likely to part with Fekola without requiring a steep premium, Barrick will have to be opportunistic.
“If he messes up, I’ll buy it,” Mr. Bristow said.
Shares in Barrick closed down 1 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange Wednesday.
During the quarter, the company also struck a joint-venture deal with Newmont Goldcorp Corp., not long after abandoning plans to buy it. Both companies said the deal will reduce combined costs by US$500-million a year for the first five years.