/ 10 February 2012

France probes Africa’s big spenders

France Probes Africa's Big Spenders

At 42 Avenue Foch, the tree-lined boulevard that is one of Paris’s most expensive streets, looms a five-storey private mansion complete with disco, spa room, hair salon, gold- and jewel-encrusted taps, a lift, pastel-pink dining room and a breathtaking balcony view of the Arc de Triomphe.

Local people always knew when there was about to be a visit from its 41-year-old “playboy” resident, Teodorin Obiang, oldest son of the autocratic president of Equatorial Guinea.

Days before Obiang Jr’s private jet touched down, two massive lorries would pull up outside and disgorge a sea of fresh flowers to dress the interior of the mansion.

When Obiang was in residence, passers-by would see a parade of couturiers from Paris’s top design houses waiting to be admitted for fittings before returning with trucks loaded with made-to-measure clothes. Crates of the most expensive burgundy wines were another regular delivery.

On one occasion 15 000 DVDs were hauled in on wooden pallets.

But the most public statement of opulence was the fleet of luxury, turbocharged sports cars, parked in garages or in the cobbled courtyard.

“The noise factor was extreme,” one local said. “He seemed obsessed with security, so when he wanted to go out between midnight and 2am he’d order the chauffeur to warm up four cars so that no one knew which one he’d take. Can you imagine the noise of Ferraris, Porsches and Maseratis all running at once? Then he’d come down and decide to take a fifth car and that would have to be started.”

But the courtyard has fallen quiet, the mansion empty of occupants. Three months ago French police towed away 11 luxury cars in a raid.

The raid was the first in the landmark French inquiry known as the case of the “ill-gotten gains”. In an unprecedented move, three serving African leaders and their families are under investigation in Paris over whether they embezzled state funds to acquire vast assets in France, including bank accounts, Riviera villas and fleets of luxury cars.

The clan of Gabon’s late leader, Omar Bongo, and its current leader, his son Ali Bongo; the Congo-Brazzaville leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso and his family; and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and his clan are accused of having assets worth €160-million in France, from penthouses and villas to bank accounts and luxury car fleets.

The leaders and their families have denied building up personal wealth in France through embezzlement, money laundering and the misuse of public funds. Judges are beginning the detailed task of trying to prove that such spectacular wealth was directly siphoned from the coffers of the oil-rich states to the detriment of populations left to live in misery.

With billions of dollars worth of Muammar Gaddafi’s assets frozen by the United Nations and its member countries and other moves to recover the wealth of deposed autocrats such as Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the drive to seize billions plundered by corrupt leaders has never been higher. But the French case against three serving African leaders, initiated by anti-corruption non-governmental organisations as part of a long legal battle, illustrates the limits on Western willingness to act against rulers still in power.

“With deposed heads of state after the Arab Spring there was no problem [because] the whole community was scandalised at the plundering of money from their countries. We’re warning against double standards: Why should you have to wait for a leader to fall to put a stop to corruption?” said Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere, head of Sherpa, one NGO leading the case.

The police inquiry has given an unprecedented insight into the lifestyle of certain African leaders. When the spectacular art collection from the homes of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent went up for auction in Paris in 2009, it was called the art sale of the century and raised more than €370-million. French authorities later revealed that Obiang Jr bought 109 lots at the sale, costing €18-million.

Olivier Pardo, the lawyer for Equatorial Guinea in France, said the case of the “ill-gotten gains” violated international law and that he would contest the case and pursue France through the international courts. It may not just be France.

A United States government court action is seeking to seize $71-million of assets from Obiang Jr in the US that it claims were paid for through corruption. His US assets are said to include $1.8-million of Michael Jackson memorabilia. A spokesman for Equatorial Guinea denied wrongdoing. An inquiry into the Obiangs’ assets is also under way in Spain.

On a corner of Paris’s chic Avenue Rapp, in the heart of the wealthy 7th arrondissement, the gentlemen’s outfitters Pape tells its own story of the lifestyle of leaders of oil-rich states. The Senegalese tailor Pape Ibrahima N’diaye, a Paris institution known as “Monsieur Pape”, is a favourite of French lawyers, politicians and businessmen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the 68-year-old leader of Congo-Brazzaville, famous for his impeccable suits and dress sense, did not hold back in his private fittings.

A new book, The Scandal of the Ill-gotten Gains, by the investigative journalists Thomas Hofnung and Xavier Harel, has sent shockwaves through the French establishment with fresh details of spending habits. The authors reveal a note by Tracfin, the French anti-money laundering authority, which states that, in the 12 months from November 2009, Sassou-Nguesso spent more than €652 000 on clothes there. His lawyer dismissed the sum as “false and absurd”.

Sassou-Nguesso clan members have 24 properties in France in their own names, 112 bank accounts and various sports cars. Meanwhile, NGOs point out that 70% of Congo-Brazzaville people live on less than $1 a day.

In the heart of the 8th arrondissement, a mansion on the quiet Rue de la Baume has come to symbolise the wealth of Gabon’s late leader, Omar Bongo. When Bongo died in 2009 he was the world’s longest-ruling head of state, save for the British and Thai monarchies. The Bongo clan has the biggest property portfolio in the “ill-gotten gains case”.

A preliminary police report claimed he and his close relatives own 39 properties in France, mostly in Paris and on the French Riviera. They also have 70 French bank accounts and at least nine luxury cars in France. Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo, was elected president in 2009 after his father’s death. That year he bought himself a Bentley Continental Flying Spur for more than €200 000.

Anti-corruption campaigners have already trooped past the €18.9-million mansion, bought in 2007 in the name of two Bongo children, then 13 and 16, and other relatives, in what some call Paris’s “ill-gotten gains” walking tour. When in power, Omar Bongo’s official salary was reportedly as much as €20 000 a month. French officials are now investigating where the money originated.

The case has shed further light on allegations of French collusion in corruption under the cosy system, known as “francafrique”, in which kickbacks, petrodollars and privileged relations defined Paris’s foreign policy towards its former colonies.

Recent allegations about African leaders regularly giving briefcases of cash to French politicians has ruffled feathers in Paris. “It has contributed to a climate of mistrust of politicians, one of a number of different affairs which have sparked revulsion in France,” said Hofnung.

Paris, with its image as the capital of the art of living, was always popular with high-spending dictators. The question now is what impact the case has in other countries where serving leaders placed their cash. —