The Zambian government expects to conclude talks with potential buyers of Vedanta Resources Ltd.’s local copper unit within a month, President Edgar Lungu said.
His comments preempt a hearing by Zambia’s High Court on Thursday on the state’s bid to liquidate the asset after a dispute between the government and the Indian company.
The stand-off has rattled investors, with yields on Zambian Eurobonds surging to new records last month.
The government received expressions of interest for the unit, Konkola Copper Mines, from companies based in Turkey, Russia, India, Canada and China, President Lungu said in an interview Wednesday.
He didn’t identify the firms.
“The team which we have put up is interrogating all these companies to see whether they can fit, meet our expectations,” President Lungu said on the sidelines of a conference in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital.
“I think it’s going on very well. By the end of this month, towards the midway next month, we should wrap up in terms of talking to the would-be investors.”
Zambia’s government moved to liquidate Konkola after President Lungu accused the company of cheating on its taxes and lying about its expansion plans.
Vedanta, majority owned by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, says it’s a loyal investor that has spent $3 billion on the operations.
The liquidation doesn’t amount to nationalization, and the government stepped in because the company had failed, said President Lungu.
Vedanta reported a $165 million operating loss at Konkola in the year through March. Still, the company valued the assets at about $1.6 billion in its most recent annual report. The government is eager for a private investor to take over because running the loss-making operations would be a drain on an already strained state budget.
“We can’t afford keeping that thing because it’s very expensive and obviously we don’t want government to get strapped in there and get stuck,” said President Lungu. “We want to do this expeditiously and within the law.”
President Lungu also said the government would consider revisiting mining taxes opposed by producers if they proved the levels are too onerous. Konkola, along with units of Glencore Plc and First Quantum Minerals Ltd., is among copper miners that have been affected by higher mining royalties introduced this year, in addition to other tax increases.
The country’s mining-lobby group has warned the government the tax hikes could result in Zambia’s copper output, the second-biggest in Africa, falling by as much as 100,000 metric tons this year from a record 861,946 tons in 2018.
“They always grumble, but I think if they make their case we will hear them,” President Lungu said. “But for now, they’ve not made any case to warrant us reversing our position on the tax regime. We are not convinced.”
The government is a minority shareholder in most of the country’s mines and wouldn’t want to smother them with taxes, Lungu said. Some companies have threatened to shutter shafts and fire hundreds of workers because of the tax increases. At least one — First Quantum — backed down. Still, only two of the country’s five copper smelters are currently operating, though not all the owners have cited the new taxes as the reason for shutdowns.
“Every time we’ve tried to raise our share of tax they’ve always come up with their prophesy of doom, all the time,” said Lungu. “They will put up a fight but we want to get our fair share of tax without killing the industry.”