23.11.2011 Feature Article

France: A vampire and a deposit box for Africa’s looted funds?

Nicolas Sarkozy, French PresidentNicolas Sarkozy, French President
23.11.2011 LISTEN

By Lord Aikins Adusei

On June 21st 2010 Ms. Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister and current IMF Chief and Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, World Bank Group's Managing Director and former Finance Minister of Nigeria wrote an article which was posted on Project Syndicate website captioned 'No Safe Havens for Dirty Money'. In their article they argued that tax havens, looted funds, bribery, and corruption hurt poor countries more and that the global financial crisis has served to show that there is little tolerance for people who cheat. To them both high income and particularly low income countries will benefit if everyone plays by the rules adding that 'Corruption – under any form or circumstance – is a cancer that cripples developed and developing economies alike. It undermines economic growth. It is a crime that produces particularly damaging consequences in the developing world'. “Everyone must play by the rules” in order to save the world from the current difficult economic and financial situation.

The people in low income countries, according to Lagarde and Okonjo-Iweala, want to see an end to the corrupt financial havens that allow corrupt officials to steal public money and stash it abroad. They submitted that the impunity for this type of global crime can no longer be tolerated: 'Abuse of public authority for private gain is not acceptable'. They added that there is the urgent need to foster openness and transparency in financial transactions and to ensure accountability at the global level.

In March 2010 Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington based anti corruption group published a report titled “Illicit Financial Flows from Africa: Hidden Resource for Development”. The report estimated that between 1970 and 2008 Africa lost about $854 billion through trade mispricing. The GFI report added that the figure of the illicit financial outflows could have gone as high as 1.8 trillion dollars if components such as mispricing of services and smuggling had been included.

Global Financial Integrity has argued that a large portion of this massive illicit money leaving Africa finds its way into Europe and North America through a network of opaque global financial system comprising tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions, disguised corporations, anonymous trust accounts, fake foundations, trade mispricing, and money laundering techniques. A key component of this huge illegal money transfers is the stealing of public money by corrupt officials. These public monies, usually proceeds from sale of natural resources, loans contracted from World Bank, IMF and grants are meant to help the poor countries fight and end human suffering, end poverty; put children in school; end energy poverty; build hospitals; provide potable water; promote food security and provide badly needed retroviral drugs to people living with HIV and AIDS.

The stolen monies are welcomed by the banks in Europe notably those in France, Switzerland, Britain,and Luxemburg. In most cases little or no due diligence is followed and most of the banks appear to advise and encourage their so called clients on how to invest their monies in order to avoid being detected. The Levin Report of 2010 prepared by a committe of the the US Senate revealed that Britain, Switzerland, United States and France are known to be major recipients of these stolen public monies from Africa. These rich countries have been seriously involved in shady deals with Africa's political elite who are amassing wealth at the expense of the welfare of their populations. The conditions of secrecy created in countries such as France, Switzerland, Britain and Luxemburg enable African leaders to steal with impunity and deposit their ill-gotten wealth in these jurisdictions. Thus when corrupt African dictators, public officials and top civil servants dishonestly empty the treasuries of their poor countries they find western allies who are willing and cooperative to hide the looted funds. The case of Alpine nation of Switzerland as a safe haven for Africa's looted funds is known worldwide. Switzerland has been described as a parasite feeding on poor African and Third World countries because for more than half a century it has 'built a reputation as the world's centre for tax evasion, fraud accounting, money laundering, racketeering and a staunch ally of corrupt third world leaders and a great beneficiary of third world corruption'. Over the last six decades or more various categories of persons including presidents, popes, prime ministers, corrupt dictators, wealthy business men, and drug dealers have all used and benefited from the banking secrecy laws of Switzerland'.

However, when it comes to France very little is known about how it has successfully milked African countries and created massive poverty in its former colonies. Very little is known because of the eagerness of the French media and the judiciary to protect illegal financial operations of French politicians and members of the business fraternity. The French media, the French prosecution office and the judiciary have all turned a blind eye to the adulterous relationship between French politicians and French business leaders on one hand and the political entities in Africa on the other. Since the 1960s France has connived, aided and abetted African leaders to plunder the treasuries of their countries for safe keeping in France and to buy luxurious properties in French cities.

This corrupt behaviour of the French establishment is what makes the article by Lagarde and Okonjo-Iweala on 'No Safe Havens for Dirty Money' is interesting. It is interesting in sense that while the content of the article and its conclusion are in the right direction it is also laden with hypocrisy, double standards and pretence on the part of the authors and the entities they represent. For example in their article Lagarde and Okonjo-Iweala praised France and the United States for pushing G-20 countries to adopt tougher financial regulation, and for promoting governance, and accountability aim at safeguarding the world's economy. However, while praising France Lagarde and Okonjo-Iweala failed to tell the world about how France has encouraged corruption and mismanegement in Africa and continues to do so despite the fact that such corrupt activities are hurting the poor in Africa.

Christine Lagarde for instance was the Minister of Finance in France and a key cabinet member in the President Nicolas Sarkozy's government. As a Finance Minister she was in a powerful position to fight corruption and bribery and end the practice where her country has become a safe haven for Africa's looted assets, but she and her government did nothing to stop France from becoming the deposit box of Africa's dirty money. French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised in 2006 to change the adulterous relationship between France and her former colonies in Africa so as to bring an end to the massive corruption and dictatorship sometimes engineered and supported by the French state, but almost four years after taking office he has done little if not nothing to follow through his campaign promise.

France continues to serve as a haven for looted African resources with the encouragement of French politicians, businessmen and banking officials. They continue to encourage corrupt African leaders to steal from their poor countries and hide their loot in French Banks. France continues to serve as a paradise for corrupt African leaders where they enjoy their loot after leaving office and the French authorities are quick and too willing to entertain them despite the growing call for France to take action against them.

France and the Bongos of Gabon

The most important discussion on how France has served as Africa's angel of death devouring African economies and turning rich resource countries into pariah states could be seen from Gabon. The late Omar Bongo of Gabon who ruled his country for 41 years was considered one of the corrupt African leaders and was known worldwide to have used his country's oil wealth to buy mansions and other properties in France and to buy political influence and favour from the French ruling class. In 2009 French police investigation uncovered a huge number of properties that were bought by Bongo and his family. In all 33 mansions and other luxurious properties were uncovered. One of the mansions a 21,528 sq ft is located at Rue de la Baume near to the Elysee Palace the home of the French presidency. According to the Sunday Times in UK, the investigation also uncovered nine other properties in Paris, four of which are on the exclusive Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe. Bongo was also reported to have a further seven properties in Nice, including four villas, one of which has a swimming pool. The late Edith and wife of Omar Bongo, until her death still had two flats near the Eiffel Tower and another property in Nice.

Omar Bongo together with his family had 70 bank accounts in France from which several properties worth millions of dollars were bought from. Omar Bongo and his relatives also bought a fleet of limousines, including a £308,823 Maybach for Edith. Payment of some of the cars was directly taken from the treasury of Gabon. The Sunday Times in UK reported that until her death Edith had over 75 million dollars stashed in banks in French Monaco. The same Edith used a cheque drawn on an account owned by Gabon treasury to buy the £308,823 Maybach in February 2004. “Bongo's daughter Pascaline, 52, used a cheque from the same account for a part-payment of £29,497 towards a £60,000 Mercedes two years later. Bongo bought himself a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti F1 in October 2004 for £153,000, while his son Ali Bongo (now Gabon president) acquired a Ferrari 456 M GT in June 2001 for £156,000”. French police investigations indicate that this lifestyle of profligacy was supported by leading French banks.

The current President of Gabon Ali Bongo, son of Omar Bongo has continued the corrupt empire his father created with French politicians and the business elite. Canard Enchainé, a French satiric newspaper reported on the eve of the 2010 France-Afrique conference in Paris that Ali Bongo had purchased a hundred million euro property in Paris. The property located on the University street has been described as "one of the most beautiful" in the heart of Paris. Canard Enchainé noted that the building covers a space of 4,500 square metres with the garden covering 3,700 square metres. "The 100 million euros does not include other expenditure to be made for the renovation and maintenance work which could take a third of Gabon's GDP".

The sad thing is that major investigations uncovering huge financial irregularities in France on the part of the Bongos have been shelved. The investigations have been shelved because French authorities believe that if they move against the Bongos they (the Bongos) may retaliate by punishing French businesses in Gabon and deny them access to the lucrative oil deals. Till today not a penny of the millions of dollars of Gabonese money believed to have been stolen by Bongo and hiding in French banks has been returned. This is what brings the hypocrisy of French politicians like Lagarde out clearly. While shouting 'No safe havens for dirty money' at the same time they are keeping billions of such monies in their banks with no indication that they are ever going to return them.

One of the most notable quotes of Omar Bongo was: “Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel”. That is how Bongo saw the corrupt relationship that existed between him and his international friends in France.

Apart from directly stealing money meant for the development of Gabon and stashing it in French banks with full knowledge and support of French elites, the Bongos also showered French business elites with business contracts in Gabon, and as if that was not enough Omar Bongo also showered French politicians with financial gifts that only came to light after his death. Bongo is believed to have used proceeds from his country's oil to finance the election campaign of a number of French politicians and then used those politicians to help him secure his dictatorship in Gabon and also to protect his stolen assets in France. According to Henry Samuel of the Telegraph newspaper in the UK, former French Presidents Jacque Chirac and François Mitterrand are among a host of French politicians who are alleged to have received illegal payments from Bongo. According to former French president Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, the late Omar Bongo spent years building up a very questionable financial network with politicians in France. This financial network deprived the people of Gabon access to the basic necessities of life including food, water, housing, electricity, health and education.

In 2001 Pierre Mario, former head of French intelligence acknowledged that Bongo used money stolen from his poverty stricken country to pay subsidies to French political parties and politicians. He noted that "the subsidies of Bongo serve everyone at the time of French elections and create a sort of backward colonialism". The irony of the situation is that while Omar Bongo saw nothing wrong with how he mismanaged Gabon oil revenue to enrich himself and his cronies, France also saw nothing wrong on how a president of its former colony squandered money on properties and on politicians in France.

To achieve their so called foreign policy objectives French politicians and business elite encouraged Bongo to amass wealth meant for the development of his country. France also used the entire arsenal available to her (including military and intelligence) to make sure her so called national interest was not threatened. France offered military, political and other support to Omar Bongo which effectively enabled him to remain a dominant figure for 42 years in Gabon. The French military base in Gabon for instance was not used only to protect the Bongos but was also used to gather intelligence which France used to effect regime change in her former colonies.

Thus despite his reputation as a corrupt dictator, French politicians routinely entertained and openly showered praises on Bongo for his enthusiastic support for French dubious policies towards Africa most importantly the encouragement of African tyrants to loot and deposit their dirty money in French banks.

Mike Jocktane former aide to Omar Bongo will on Thursday 24th November 2011 publish a book titled "The Scandal of the Ill-gotten Gains". The yet to be published book contains details of how Omar Bongo sent briefcases full of money to Nicolas Sarkozy to help his presidential bid in 2007. According to Mike Jocktane "Omar Bongo helped finance Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign” and provided him money after the 2007 elections. The financing of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign by Bongo underscores why he made Gabon his first point of call in Africa apparently to thank Omar Bongo for his financial support. Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy described Bongo as a 'great and loyal friend of France' but he (Bongo) has been denounced for working for, himself, his family, France and local elites and not for Gabon and its poor people. Eva Joly, European Union Member of Parliament and a former French investigating magistrate who investigated the Elf corruption scandal has argued that Omar Bongo represented only himself and the interest of his associates in France and not the people of Gabon. “He (Bongo) was a president who didn't care about his citizens. He served France's interests and French politicians well. The oil boom did not benefit the Gabonese. It benefited us (French citizens). France has a great debt toward Gabon for having kept Bongo in power all these years”. According to Eva Joly despite an oil-led GDP per capita which was equivalent to that of Portugal's GDP, Gabon built only 5 km of freeway a year and still had one of the world's highest infant mortality rates by the time of his death in 2009.

France and other African dictators

However, it is not only the Bongos in Gabon who have used France as a safe haven for their ill gotten wealth and who are being protected by the French state. Paul Biya of Cameroon, Dos Santos of Angola, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Republic, Blaise Campore of Burkina Faso and Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea have made headlines in recent years for using France as a fortress for their corrupt dealings. For example Denis Sassou Nguesso, according to French police investigation has 24 properties, one hundred and twelve (112) bank accounts and fleet of cars in France. It is believed that these numerous bank accounts contain hundreds of millions of dollars of money siphoned from the coffers of his resource rich but economically impoverished country.

In 2011 French police seized 11 luxurious cars worth $5 million from the home of spoil-child Obiang Mangue son of Equatorial Guinea's dictator Obiang Nguema. The point is that there are so many stolen African assets hidden in France if when returned to the countries of origin could make some of them the richest countries on the planet.

Like Switzerland, France has carved a name for herself as a protector and supporter of corrupt African dictators and a beneficiary of their illicit activities. However, unlike Switzerland which has embarked on a journey of image rehabilitation by repatriating some of the money deposited in her crook banks, France has shown no interest in doing such a thing. The military support France usually provide her client dictators in Africa has not only promoted dictatorships, human rights abuse, conflicts and corruption but has also undermined democracy, good governance, rule of law, economic development, food security and poverty reduction. Thus France's obscure and deadly African policies have produced a situation where the people of Africa have been deprived of resources that could have enabled the citizens to enjoy good standard of living.

Through the actions of its military, the courts, politicians and business leaders, France indirectly and directly has encouraged dictators in Africa to loot the coffers of their poor countries and deposit the loot in French banks. French cities are washed with properties bought by corrupt African leaders using monies they have stolen from their impoverished countries. French political and business leaders consider these African leaders as friends and allies. The corrupt French political and business establishment annually throw lavish parties at the French presidency for their African friends while the corrupt African leaders reciprocate with banquets during which African resources are auctioned to French corporations without a price. France has been a willing accomplice to the day light robbery taking place in Gabon, Cameroon, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Mali, Guinea, Chad, and many parts of French-speaking Africa and has become a deposit box for dirty money and assets stolen from the African people.

Therefore the chorus 'No Safe Havens for Dirty Money' being sung by Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala must be played to French politicians, business elites, the banks, the property sector and the corporations, for charity they say begins at home.

By Lord Aikins Adusei
The author is a political activist and anti corruption campaigner