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FRANCE: New Claims About Corrupt Relations with African Dictators

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Feb 16 2009 (IPS) - The possibility that French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner might have misused his public position in France to boost his profitable private business with prominent African dictators arises at a time when the local authorities are dealing with numerous corruption affairs.

The accusations against Kouchner are summarised in a new book ‘‘Le Monde selon K.’’ (‘‘The world according to K.’’) by investigative journalist Pierre Péan.

In the book, Péan alleges that Kouchner, co-owner of IMEDIA and African Steps, obtained profitable contracts from the governments of Gabon and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) at a time when he was executive director of a public health cooperation agency in Paris. IMEDIA and African Steps are two political counselling companies.

The governments in Gabon and the Republic of Congo – both oil-rich countries – are notorious as two particularly corrupt dictatorships. Omar Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1968 and Denis Sassou Nguesso has been in power in Brazzaville since 1997 when his troops, supported by Angola, won a civil war against then president Pascal Lissouba.

Bongo and Sassou Nguesso have family links: Bongo is married to Edith Lucie Sassou-Nguesso, Denis's daughter.

According to the claims by Péan, based on official documents from the respective African governments, the two companies were paid 4.6 million euros by the governments of Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, for advising their respective health departments.


Although Kouchner's activities as advisor were not illegal, several circumstances make the dealings with Bongo and Sassou Nguesso problematic. On the one hand, Kouchner was at the time of the dealings president of Esther, a French health cooperation agency which mainly engages with African countries.

On the other hand, the last payments by the Gabonese government to IMEDIA came when Kouchner was already serving as foreign minister. In a letter dated Aug 2, 2007, Eric Danon, executive at IMEDIA and close to Kouchner, urged Bongo's government to pay bills which had been outstanding since 2006.

Finally, in January and March 2008, the Gabonese government settled the bills.

IPS possesses copies of the letter by Danon, as well as of the transfers from the Gabonese treasury to IMEDIA. As foreign minister, Kouchner appointed Danon and his other business partner Jacques Baudouin to important posts at the foreign ministry.

And finally, the dealings contradict the image Kouchner has always transmitted of himself. ‘‘What I find reproachful is that Kouchner has cultivated an image of an immaculate knight whose behaviour is firmly rooted on ethics,’’ Péan told IPS. ‘‘But this image does not fit his business dealings.’’

Kouchner, who had been a former member of the Socialist Party since the 1980s until he left the party to become minister under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, has denied any wrongdoings. ‘‘Péan's accusations against me are abominable and grotesque,’’ he said during a parliamentary debate on Feb 4.

Kouchner said that he was proud of having helped the two African governments to improve their public health systems and announced that he is pursuing a case of defamation against Péan.

Kouchner’s dealings are also more questionable because they involve dictators who, despite presiding over some of the poorest people in Africa, command huge fortunes, as evidenced by their vast properties in France.

According to a report by the Paris-based police agency against organised and financial crimes (OCRGDF, after its French name), Bongo and Sassou Nguesso, together with the president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, and that of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, possess considerable fortunes in real estate and luxurious automobiles in France.

The OCRGDF report, consisting of 34 files and thousands of pages, was opened in late 2007 after three French humanitarian associations lodged a complaint against the four dictators and the president of Burkina Faso, Blasé Compaoré, under the charges of ‘‘embezzlement of public funds’’.

In the report, the French police conclude that the African leaders have amassed a fortune in real estate in ‘‘the neighbourhoods (in and around Paris) of highest commercial value’’ and presents a non-exhaustive list of properties. All African leaders investigated are also owners of large fleets of luxurious sport cars and limousines and control numerous bank accounts.

The list includes a luxurious mansion near the Champs Elysées, the most high-priced neighbourhood in Paris, bought on June 15, 2007 for almost 19 million Euros (some 25 million dollars), by Omar Bongo's two children, Omar Denis and Yacine Queenie, who were 13 and 16 years old at the time.

Bongo alone is owner of 33 luxurious real estate properties in Paris and in the south of France.

Similarly, Denis Sassou Nguesso and his relatives are owners of at least five sumptuous mansions in and around Paris, for a market value of at least 10 million euros.

The African dictators also own a large flotilla of expensive sport automobiles and limousines, including Ferraris, Bugattis, Aston Martins and Mercedez Benzes. According to the OCRGDF report, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, of Equatorial Guinea possesses 15 luxurious sport cars and limousines, worth 5.7 million euros.

Despite the evidence suggesting impropriety, the French authorities closed the investigation without further consequences. But it had to open it again last December, when the anti-corruption watchdog organisation Transparency International presented a new claim against the five African heads of government.

And yet, few observers believe that the complaints will ever lead to judgments or sanctions against the African leaders. As the daily newspaper Le Monde put it recently, ‘‘three of the five governments concerned enjoy the unshakeable support of French president Nicolas Sarkozy’’.

Another proof of this support: Jean-Marie Bockel, former French deputy minister for international cooperation, who in Jan 2008 had dared to publicly speak of the ‘‘squandering of African resources’’ by African heads of state, was soon after removed from office.

In his book, Péan claims that Bongo and Sassou Nguesso complained to Kouchner about these ‘‘unobliging’’ remarks. Now Bockel is deputy minister in charge of French war veterans at the ministry of defence.

 
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