Shearman & Sterling and top Australian firm Gilbert + Tobin are advising Australian mining company Sundance Resources on its agreement with the government of Cameroon to move forward with the so-called Mbalam iron ore project that straddles the country's border with the Republic of the Congo.
Announced late last month, the agreement comes a little more than two years after six members of Sundances board of directors, including prominent mining lawyer John Carr-Gregg, were killed when the charter plane carrying them to the remote Mbalam region crashed in the Congo's dense jungle in June 2010.
Christophe Asselineau, the Paris-based project development and finance partner who heads Shearman's Africa practice and led the firm's team advising Sundance, was originally scheduled to be on the fatal flight. Though hesitant to discuss the tragedy, Asselineau tells The Am Law Daily that several former Sundance executives, including then-company secretary Carr-Gregg, were in his office just two days before the fatal crash.
Asselineau says the Sundance group, which was headed to the region to tour iron ore fields estimated to be worth up to $4.7 billion, suggested he forgo the flight and rendezvous with them a few days later instead. He remembers getting a phone call from a local lawyer working with the team, Marie Andre NGwe, that the plane carrying Carr-Gregg, eight other passengers, and two pilots had gone missing.
All told, according to an Am Law Daily story at the time, seven people affiliated with Sundance died in the crash, including mining tycoon Ken Talbot, whose nearly 17 percent stake made him the Perth-based company's largest shareholder, and a then 55-year-old Carr-Gregg, a former senior associate at leading Aussie firm Allens.
About 200 people gathered in Sydney in early July 2010 for a memorial service for Carr-Gregg, who also served as general manager for corporate services at Sundance. Reflecting on Carr-Gregg's professional accomplishments, Asselineau notes that he began his legal career in the gaming industry. Theres a lot of similarities in gaming and mining, theyre both about taking chances, Asselineau says. I only knew John for a few months, but he was quite a character.
For Asselineau, who joined Shearman in April 2011 from London-based Simmons & Simmons, where he also headed the Africa group, flying to Cameroon to negotiate on behalf of Sundance in connection with the Mbalam project marked the latest chapter in a 25-year run handling African deals.
Asselineau cites the landmark $3.7 billion oil pipeline project between Chad and Cameroon a decade ago as among the highlights of his career on the continent. Since closing that deal, he says, he has made the six-hour flight from Paris to the West African country about once a montha pace he does not expect will slow anytime soon.
Theres no question that the level of African activity is growing, Asselineau told The American Lawyer in September for a story about the increase in legal work emanating from Africa. And this is really cross-practicenot just projects work but increasingly finance, M&A, and international arbitration."
Africa can be difficult for the uninitiated to navigate, with cultural quirks and government bureaucracies often creating obstacles to quick-and-easy dealmaking. Those complications notwithstanding, Asselineau says the lawyers on both sides of the Mbalam deal played key roles in achieving the agreement following years-long negotiations over the iron ore development project, which adjoins the border separating southern Cameroon from the $600 million Nabemba site in northern Congo.