Gabon ‘siphoned funds’ to France

Millions stolen from African bank went into political parties’ coffers, leaked cables quote US embassy source as saying.

Bongo and Chirac 2
Chirac has denied previous claims that he benefited from his friendship with the late Omar Bongo, left [EPA file photo]

Top-ranking Gabonese officials working for the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) colluded to embezzle millions, giving much of the money to members of France’s two main political parties, according to a memo by the US embassy in Yaounde.

Around $36 million was stolen from the pooled reserves of the Central African Economic Community (BEAC) over a period of five years, the memo said.

Dated July 7, 2009, the memo was published on Tuesday by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, which obtained the document marked “Confidential” from WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website.

The affair become public in October 2009, three months after the embassy memo was written.

Omar Bongo, the late president, and his son, Ali Bongo, the country’s current president, were among those who profited from the stolen money, the embassy’s unnamed source said.

Citing a “senior third-country national” working at the bank as its source, the memo says that the Gabonese officials involved “used the proceeds for their own enrichment and, at [Omar] Bongo’s direction, funnelled funds to French political parties, including in support of French president Nicolas Sarkozy”.

Both France’s ruling UMP party and the Socialist party accepted embezzled money, the source said, though the former received the bulk: “especially [former French president Jacques] Chirac and including [current president Nicolas] Sarkozy”.

‘France’s favourite president’

The banking official said that “Bongo was France’s favourite president in Africa,” and “this is classic France Afrique”, (sic) referring to the term commonly used to describe France’s contentious post-colonial relationship with its former colonies.

“He said technocrats from the French treasury were relatively progressive in encouraging the Francophone governments to be more autonomous, but that the Banque de France continued to exert an outsized influence,” the memo’s author writes, echoing a perspective often heard from critics of France’s continuing influence in the region.

The BEAC scandal may concern a period of five years, but allegations of money being funnelled from Gabon to members of the French political class span decades, though they have never been proven.

Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, alleged in 2009 that Chiracreceived illegal financing for his 1981 presidential campaign from the elder Bongo. Chirac, known to have been a close friend with Bongo, denied the claims.

In June 2009, the BEAC official had informed the embassy that a review of the BEAC’s accounts – carried out in light of revelations of a scandal over high-risk unauthorised investments – had uncovered “even broader and more brazen malfeasance linked to a hierarchy of Gabonese officials throughout BEAC”.

The headquarters of BEAC are hosted in Cameroon, while the bank’s governor was appointed by Gabon. The six member states include Chad, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Shell companies

Under a subheading The Easy Way to Rob a Bank, the memo details the extent of Ali Bongo’s control of the bank’s accounts.

His appointees were in charge of international wire transfers, and the accountant working in the bank’s Paris branch was his close friend, Armand Brice Nzamba.

Cheques were written in the names of the officials themselves, shell companies and Gabonese politicians.

The heads of other CEMAC member states had expressed frustration over the revelations of such extensive fraud, but it offered a means for them to establish more control over its governance, the memo adds.

“Institutionally, he predicted, these scandals will mean the end of Gabon’s monopoly on the governorship, which will now rotate among the member states, and will lead to revisions to internal controls,” its author writes.

Indeed, in February 2010, Lucas Abaga Nchama of Equatorial Guinea was appointed as the bank’s head.

Source: Al Jazeera