/ 15 November 2010

France probes African leaders’ wealth

Three African leaders and their families are to be investigated in Paris for allegedly embezzling state funds to acquire vast assets in France, including bank accounts, Riviera villas and fleets of luxury cars.

After a series of legal battles known as the “case of the ill-gotten gains”, Paris’s highest appeals court authorised an inquiry into Gabon’s late leader Omar Bongo, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.

The independent anti-corruption organisation Transparency International had brought a case accusing the leaders of laundering their nation’s riches.

The NGO said the African leaders and their families had assets worth €160-million in France including scores of penthouses and villas, dozens of French bank accounts and cars including Ferraris, Maseratis and a Rolls-Royce.

A police report in 2007 said the Bongo clan had 39 properties in France, mostly in Paris’s exclusive 16th Arrondissement and on the Riviera.

The family also had 70 French bank accounts, 11 in Omar Bongo’s name. They had at least nine luxury cars in France, including Ferraris and Mercedes worth €1, 5-million. Bongo, once the world’s longest-ruling head of state, died last year and was succeeded by his son Ali.

The family of Sassou-Nguesso, Omar Bongo’s father-in-law, had 112 French bank accounts, 18 properties and at least one car in France worth more than €170 000. The Obiang family had eight luxury cars in France, worth €4, 2-million.

Obiang’s son, a government minister, owns an apartment in an exclusive area of the capital.

Transparency International said the assets were worth several times more than the African leaders officially earned. The NGO fought a long court battle to open a judicial investigation as French state prosecutors opposed an inquiry.

The recent ruling sets a precedent for corruption investigations against sitting heads of state. An investigating magistrate will now begin looking into the assets of the three leaders and the role of French banks in acquiring them.

Transparency International praised the court ruling as a “major step forward” in French judicial history that opened the way for other “politically and economically sensitive” inquiries.

The African leaders and their families have denied building up personal wealth in France through embezzlement, money-laundering and the misuse of public funds.

The case threatens to lay bare the opaque deal-making and blind eye to corruption of France’s special “Francafrique” relationship with its former African colonies.

The case could also strain French diplomatic and business ties with Gabon and Congo, two former colonies, and with Equatorial Guinea, a growing oil exporter. — Guardian News & Media 2010