A Billion Dollar Bauxite Refinery for Ghana?



By E. Ablorh-Odjidja,


December 5, 2002



The story in the Daily Graphic of December 4, 2002, about “$1bn Bauxite refinery plant” in Ghana being contemplated by an Australian company, should have come with a commentary, no matter how sad that comment.


The comment is until February 24, 1966, Ghana had the chance to own a refinery. So the idea of a refinery to process Ghana’s bauxite didn’t just fly in from Australia.


According to the Graphic, it was the Minister for Mines in Ghana, Mr. Kwadwo Adjei-Darko, who reported that “negotiations have begun between the government of Ghana and BHP Billinton, an Australian mining company, for the latter to establish a $1 billion bauxite refinery plant in the country and mine bauxite.”


The Minister went on to confirm that “Ghana has large deposits of bauxite, it is not able to process the raw bauxite into alumina locally due to the absence of a refinery.”


To his regret, he said, Ghana’s “bauxite deposit at Awaso is being mined and exported in its raw state abroad, where it is processed into alumina and imported back into the country.” He should have added the reason why. It was February 24, 1966 that aborted the potential to refine.


For those who need to be reminded, I suggest they read the book “Volta, Man’s Greatest Lake” by James Moxon.


Moxon’s book reveals power politics at its naked best. It shows how Akosombo Dam was deprived of one of its star attributes, namely a refinery to process local bauxite. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the Republic of Ghana, wanted it. Moxon inferred that it was this objective that contributed to Nkrumah’s ouster.


With this new investment in the offing, Ghana has come a full circle in her development plans. The problem is that the circle comes with bad memories that, nevertheless, need to be revisited.


Ideally, Nkrumah wanted the capability for Ghana to process local bauxite from raw stage to the final aluminum metal; not to mention the possibility of transporting the finished products in Ghana’s own shipping line, the Black Star Line.


Edgar Kaiser, the man who headed the consortium that built the dam, never wanted an integrated aluminum industry in Ghana, according to Moxon. He preferred to haul raw bauxite from Jamaica and South America to his Valco smelter in Ghana; attracted there by cheap electricity, plus exemptions from duties as agreed to prior to the building of his Valco smelter.


Now Nkrumah and Kaiser are gone. It is BHP Billington that wants to invest in refinery in Ghana and expects “to extract 10 million tonnes of bauxite annually, (and) has also targeted production for a minimum of 50 years,” according to the Graphic.


We can deduce by this BHP Billington calculation that the deposits in Ghana are substantial. But wait till you learn about the full extent of the potential bauxite sources that Nkrumah, through political alliances and strategies, had in mind for his version of an integrated aluminum industry.


Remember Ghana, Guinea, Mali? Yes, Ghana was one part of a federation of these three West African states in the early sixties. Between Ghana and Guinea, there was enough supply of bauxite to provide leverage on the world’s aluminum market.


Today, Guinea is the largest single producer of aluminum ore in the world, through a company called Cie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG), formed in 1973 to carry on that operation seven years after Nkrumah was ousted from Ghana.


It gets more interesting to learn that the CBG is owned by a group called the Halco Partnership. That Alcan, the majority share holder of CBG, also owns the majority share of Ghana Bauxite Company which has operations at Awaso. And more so to know that CBG’s partnership contains some of the same names, Reynolds for instance, that backed the Kaiser consortium in the 60s. Slice it as you would, these are the same companies that control the aluminum stakes in West Africa and consequently the world then and now.


I said in a review of Moxon’s book a couple of years back that, “only the naive may not notice the convenience of cheap electric power in the convergence of the completion of the dam and Nkrumah's ouster.” In short, February 24, 1966 was a power play with Nkrumah and Ghana (and perhaps Africa), the victims.


Had the entire Akosombo project, as envisaged by Nkrumah, gone as planned, lovers of Africa would have seen a major portion of the world’s supply of aluminum under the control of Africans!


That eventuality, in the eyes of Kaiser and company, threatened every theory in their test book for managing, and ultimately deriving huge profits from bi-lateral projects in Third World countries.


In “Volta, man’s Greatest Lake,” Moxon reveals greed at its purest form, and the extreme naiveté on the part of the leaders of the 1966 coup.


Moxon describes the whole Akosombo concept as worthy; that a nation " rich in natural resources and skilled in manpower" as Ghana must have a goal that looks "into the future while it struggles to salvage the present". There could not have been a better goal at that time than to harness the Volta for cheap electricity.


And there is no better time to salvage the past than now. So some 36 years later, the NPP government must be commended for jump-starting the refinery notion.


There are some who have questioned the desirability of the Akosombo project from day one. Even the energy crises of the 70s did not convince them. This new confidence in the refinery concept, hopefully, will reaffirm the reasonableness of the initial project.


Minister Adjei-Darko envisages an investment that “will fulfill the country’s dream of establishing an integrated aluminium industry.” But there is a lesson here to be learned for Ghana’s benefit by linking the project to Nkrumah.


Indeed, the same power plays may lie ahead. However, it is a project that must be embraced with all the enthusiasm the country can muster.


I can see some wise men saying “with a nation that doesn’t have enough electricity for everyday use, you will not have enough power left over to refine bauxite.”


The answer for these wise men is to be found in BHP Billington’s efforts. BHP, described as “the world’s largest mining company”

knows the answer; otherwise they will not be investing one billion dollars in the project, if the Honorable Minister is to be believed.


But referring to history again, the potential for abundant electricity could have been tapped had the original Akosombo plan, with all its smaller complimentary dams, been completed. That Ghana didn’t was because of the coup. Please revisit the Nkrumah/Kaiser saga of the period before February 24, 1966.


The NPP government must be applauded for broaching the refinery project. The nation needs it. The decision alone legitimizes continuity. For a nation that is famous for her inability to pursue many worthwhile projects to their logical conclusions, this is an excellent decision.


Had Ghana done so earlier, Awaso, Nyinahin, and Kobreso, could have been well known names on the world map today. Ghana could have developed skills of all kinds as a result. Even kids in primary schools would have gained from the process; touched by the benefits that could have realigned their educational goals for the better.


It is enough to remember that Ghana has been through this developmental stage before. No need to roll back now. Just watch the process. The last time it was Nkrumah. Now it is Kufuor continuing the process. Without splitting ideological differences between the two, it must suffice to say that the national interest must be pursued above all else.


The venture that came to be known as the Akosombo Dam is an iconic one. It has been a high point of civilization for Ghana to date. The refinery must be regarded as part and parcel or a continuation of the original Akosombo project. Try as one would, that fact cannot be hidden.