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AFRICA: Yet Another Case of Graft Involving French Arms Trade

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Feb 19 2009 (IPS) - Three days ago, Jean-Charles Marchiani, a former member of the French secret services, was released from the Paris prison of La Santé where he had been serving time since May 2008. Last year, a tribunal in Paris found Marchiani guilty of influence peddling and other corruption charges involving African countries.

Marchiani, who was also a close collaborator of former French minister of the interior Charles Pasqua, was sentenced in 2008 to three years in prison. He has been freed early thanks to a special amnesty granted by French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

But Marchiani could soon again find himself behind bars in La Santé. He is facing other charges of corruption for his participation in so-called Angolagate, a labyrinth of shadowy, illegal weapon trade deals with Angola that took place between 1993 and 1998.

Marchiani is but one of numerous French political and business personalities facing accusations of influence peddling and corruption involved in the transfer of weapons to Angola, worth 970 million dollars.

From the late 1970s, Angola's leftist government of José Eduardo dos Santos was fighting a bloody civil war against the right-wing UNITA, which was supported by the U.S., the apartheid regime of South Africa and Israel.

The trafficking of weapons was carried out at a time when the French government, obeying a United Nations weapons embargo to Angola, had banned all transfers of military material to the southern African country. It produced a net income of some 400 million dollars for Pierre Falcone and Arcadi Gaydamak, the two businesspeople who led the deal.


The list of 42 French personalities facing charges of corruption and influence peddling in Angolagate include former minister of the interior Pasqua, Jean-Francois Mitterrand, son of former president Francois Mitterrand, as well as the head of state's closest aide, Jacques Attali. Mitterrand was president at the time the affair began.

During the court case, which started last October, prosecutor Romain Victor accused French authorities of complicity with this illegal arms deal. French authorities had allowed the ‘‘illicit trafficking’’ to flourish despite being alerted by press reports and members of its own intelligence services.

‘‘Nothing happens, nobody steps in,’’ Victor told the court on Feb 11. ‘‘The defence ministry only takes legal action in 2001, after being asked to by an examining magistrate.

‘‘The real reasons for this laissez-faire attitude are to be found in the economic and strategic interests that lie in the background,’’ Victor charged, referring to France's interest in accessing oil and the enormous amounts of money involved in the deals.

Victor said that both Falcone as well as Gaydamak ‘‘had direct relations with French intelligence services and enjoyed powerful contacts at state level’’.

The court case is approaching its end. Victor demanded prison sentences and substantial fines for Pasqua and Mitterrand, as well as for Falcone and Gaydamak.

Angola, which possesses the second largest oil reserves in Africa after Nigeria, is a regular hotspot in judiciary inquiries into corruption affairs involving French political personalities and corporations.

In the early 2000, the French courts ruled on the Elf Aquitaine scandal, known after the state-owned oil company which was involved in a huge corruption affair in, among other countries, Angola.

Through Elf-Aquitaine, France bought influence and contacts in Africa using a net of secret bank accounts in Switzerland. The system had been masterminded by Elf's top executive, Loik le Floch-Prigent, his right-hand Alfred Sirven and the company's so-called Mr. Africa, André Tarallo.

Other African countries mentioned in the Elf Aquitaine investigation included Cameroon, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville. No criminal charges were brought against the countries' leaders, who all denied any wrongdoing.

During the Elf Aquitaine trail, Le Floch-Prigent candidly admitted that corruption in dealing with African countries had been at the heart of the French state for years. Corruption ‘‘was not so much secret as it was opaque,’’ he said before the court.

‘‘Clearly in most petrol-producing countries it is the head of state or king who is the real beneficiary,’’ Le Floch-Prigent added.

At present, French authorities are investigating the origins of the wealth amassed by Angola's head of state Dos Santos in France. A complaint of misuse of public funds was lodged by humanitarian organisations against the leaders of five African countries, and lodged again by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog group.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Dos Santos government embezzled some four billion dollars from the country's oil revenues between 1997 and 2002. Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organisation.

French authorities are also inquiring into the corruption allegations against the operations of the Thales group, France's largest military company, in South Africa.

According to South African prosecutors, the leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Jacob Zuma, took some 400,000 dollars in 783 bribes from Thint Holdings Southern African Ltd and Thint Ltd, both Thales branches in South Africa, starting 1998.

At the time Thales was known as Thomson CSF and Zuma was deputy president of South Africa.

In 2005, Zuma's close aide Schabir Shaik was convicted of bribery and sentenced to 15 years of prison for his involvement in the Thomson affair. The Durban high court ruled that Shaik was guilty of corruption and fraud, and found there was ‘‘overwhelming’’ evidence of a corrupt relationship between Shaik and Zuma.

This led to the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, firing Zuma.

This January, the South African supreme court of appeals validated the charges of corruption, racketeering, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion against Zuma. The case against Zuma will start on Aug 25. He has pleaded innocence.

The ANC ordered Mbeki, who has been accused of driving a political vendetta against Zuma, to step down from office in Sept last year after the high court overturned the charges against Zuma. These are the charges that were then reinstated by the supreme court of appeals.

Internal documents from Thales, to which IPS has had access, suggest that Mbeki was from the very beginning informed of Zuma’s alleged involvement in corruption.

A Thomson internal memorandum dated Nov 1998, detailing the company's relations with Zuma, also includes a list of questions addressed to Mbeki, suggesting that he was informed of the affair.

 
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