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Tigray Conflict: What Happened to Ethiopia?

4 min read.

The ongoing displacement and killings of minorities and the ongoing war in Tigray—labeled by the federal government as enforcing law and order—are disturbing. It can’t go on.

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Tigray Conflict: What Happened to Ethiopia?

The recent goings-on in Ethiopia, particularly those of the last few months, have left many puzzled as to what exactly happened to the Ethiopia of 2018—an Ethiopia that promised major political transformations and even took a handful of steps to that effect.

Both the ongoing displacement and killings of minorities in regions such as Oromia, Amhara, and Beneshangul-Gumuz and the ongoing war in Tigray—labeled by the federal government as enforcing law and order—are disturbing. Toward the end of 2020, the federal government started waging what it startlingly called a “law enforcement operation” in the Tigray region, branding the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading partner in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) between 1988 and 2018, as “a criminal organization and vowing to destroy it.”

From media coverage of the events, we have learned that some veterans of TPLF were caught and brought to court while others were killed. The hunt and its accompanying promise to bring the perpetrators to justice continues today; both the war and the legal procedures of those who have been caught are still ongoing at the writing of this post. The humanitarian crisis and the danger of famine in Tigray have become alarming to the international community, while the Ethiopian government seems to turn a deaf ear to humanitarian pleas and pressure.

One wonders where we got it wrong while actually trying to right the sociopolitical ills that the country has inherited from a troubled federal experiment and authoritarian rule since 1991, and a violent imperial history that preceded it.

If we take a closer look at Ethiopia’s political history, particularly in its moments of transition, a familiar pattern of relying on the criminal justice system to solve political problems can easily be detected. For instance, in November 1974, upon seizing power, the Derg (then provisional military government) ordered the killing of 60 high-ranking officials who served in the monarchy. They justified this action by labeling the individuals as criminals as attested to by a statement from the provisional military council.

“The executions,” the council said, “were a political decision taken to mete out justice to those officials of the previous government who had thrived on corruption, maladministration and a “divide and rule” policy.” The Derg also decreed that the rest of the detainees would be tried in a military tribunal. A new government, led by the TPLF/EPRDF, came to power after ousting the Derg in 1991. Again, the regime resorted to the language of law. The first step the EPRDF took was to hunt the perpetrators and bring them to court. These events, which journalist John Ryle described as “the first large-scale human rights trial of recent times,” unfolded on a grand scale: the entire former leadership of the country was under indictment for genocide and crimes against humanity.

On both the discursive and practical levels, there is continuity between these three events. The criminalization of political problems and the attempt to solve them through the court system is a consistent trait of these moments of transition. All three mobilize the law; with a particular  commitment to preserving a preexisting law. They believe in the courtroom—which, ironically, they control—to deliver justice. By this account, justice for victims partly depends on the removal of those who are now defined as perpetrators from the political realm, because they are reduced to being criminals, not political actors with constituencies. Only the victors are legitimate political actors; they claim to mete out  justice and are thereby absolved of any responsibility for partaking in the violence. All three regimes in post-imperial Ethiopia, sideline the main issue—that is, the unresolved political problems—while relying on the seeming universality and neutrality of the law.

Resorting to the criminal justice system instead of seeking political solutions through the intricacies of the political process justifies further violent actions in the interest of maintaining law and order. As a result, the political goes unscrutinized and the victors simply operate within the existing structure instead of introducing more profound change.

This simply shows that—as Mahmood Mamdani cautions in his new book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities—a “Nuremberg Trial” inspired approach to solving politically driven violence is inadequate. The courtroom in fact reinforces the vicious cycle of violence by dichotomizing political communities as either victims or perpetrators, thereby defining new enemies. Most of the sociopolitical and economic problems that necessitated the change, such as the quest for democracy, equality, freedom, respect of human rights, and economic development, remain largely unaddressed.

Unless Ethiopia is willing to give a new way of resolving political differences a chance, the vicious cycle of violence will continue unabated. As Mamdani suggests, there has to be room and preparedness to change rules and to be open to new political orders. Relying on the courtroom to solve political problems only serves the interests of those in power, and helps them maintain their position by creating enemies around which they can galvanize popular support. For instance, TPLF has now become the new criminal group; it makes perfect sense, then, for the government and its supporters to withdraw protection from civilians in Tigray and elsewhere who have been victimized in the name of restoring law and order. Collateral damage is the language used to explain atrocities on civilians. Conducting performative politics such as elections elsewhere in the country while framing the conflict in Tigray as a “law and order” issue will not address the deep seated problems Ethiopia is confronted with.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Serawit Bekele Debele is a researcher at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth Germany. Her research focuses on revolution and queer subjectivities in North East Africa.

Politics

Does Ethiopia’s War, Mask an Even Deeper Crisis?

The real story of the conflict in Ethiopia is not about the atrocities and the damage to the Ethiopian peoples and state as a whole. It is about the consequences of the Meles Zenawi-TPLF fall from power.

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Does Ethiopia’s War, Mask an Even Deeper Crisis?

The war in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray that began officially in November 2020 masks more than it reveals. The natural and necessary tendency of most commentators has been to focus on the very tragic atrocities being inflicted on the civilian population.

However, it is a story that effectively begins in 1991, with the American-instigated sabotage by then leader Meles Zenawi, of the transition from the high centralisation of the Mengistu government he was replacing, to something more democratic and representative of the actual make-up of the country.

Up until 1991, Ethiopia was what it always had been: an empire fighting to hold itself tighter together. The clue was in the title of the head of state: “Emperor”, from Menelik II (1889-1913) who expanded northern Abyssinia southwards, to Haile Selassie (1930-1974), who sought to consolidate it there.

Even after 1974, when Emperor Selassie was deposed by Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the empire state—now stripped of its pomp—and the elevated place of its Orthodox Christian religion, remained culturally Amharic and governed strictly from the centre.

That was supposed to have changed after 12 May 1991, when an assortment of armed groups, fighting in the names of the various nationalities that had been conquered during the formation of the empire, drove out Mengistu’s war-battered government.

Instead, in stepped the new Tigray People’s Liberation Front regime, headed by Meles Zenawi, and wrapped in a package of other political formations collectively called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

It is the dynamics of replacing the leadership of this Front, following the death of Meles Zenawi in August 2012, which birthed this new phase of the eternal crisis of the Ethiopian empire state. In choosing Abiy Ahmed, the leadership of the Front set themselves on a collision course with the TPLF element of the regime who took every subsequent change, firing or redeployment of their well-embedded cadres in the state machinery as marginalisation and victimisation.

They may not have been entirely wrong. However, as is often said, to a person in a position of privilege, equality often feels like oppression.

Where TPLF was right, was in opposing now Prime Minister Abiy’s gambit to systematically do away with even what little federation and regional autonomy there had been under Meles. They saw themselves as the potential principal victims of Abiy’s move to dissolve the EPDRF and replace it with his Prosperity Party (PP), replete with the language of empire, nostalgia, and notions of centralism.

The rest were details. Prime Minister Abiy, now as PP, intended to postpone the elections scheduled for late 2020 that were supposed to have marked the end of the interim period of the post-Meles regime. TPLF, now reduced to its home region, insisted that Abiy had no mandate to do that and went ahead to organise the elections for Tigray alone. Abiy declared this illegal. TPLF claimed election victory for Tigray. Abiy sought to re-impose Addis authority over the region by sending in his own hand-picked Tigrayan administration and to take control of the very large Ethiopian federal military garrison that the Meles administration had “wisely” previously relocated to the Tigrayan capital city of Mekelle. Fighting then broke out, as TPLF resisted this.

So far, the forces fighting on the side of Tigray have prevailed, albeit in a very qualified way.

First, they avoided annihilation, given the much larger resources available to the Ethiopian state as a whole, versus an army drawn from a population making up less than 7 per cent of the total Ethiopian population. This was achieved by the TPLF decision to abandon an initial plan to defend their urban spaces conventionally, and withdraw to the less physically accessible parts of the region, and then undertake widespread mobilisation.

Second, they then managed to disable, immobilise and take prisoner large numbers of soldiers—including their commanders—from the Ethiopian state army. This enabled them to re-take the places they had previously abandoned, including their capital.

So far, the forces fighting on the side of Tigray have prevailed, albeit in a very qualified way.

By these means, they bought themselves vital breathing space, but the destruction and loss of human life, as well as injury to ordinary bystanders has been colossal. What is more, neighbours with issues, such as Eritrea still, and the Republic of Sudan, have taken advantage of the conflict to physically reclaim areas of Ethiopia they believe are theirs.

The question nevertheless remains, where does everyone involved go from here?

The obvious is being done. The Tigrayan forces are seeking to take advantage of their recent success to consolidate their position. They seek to re-take territories that they lost in the initial Ethiopian/Eritrean onslaught, as well as build military pacts with groups opposed to not just the Ethiopian regime, but also the regime’s military allies like the government of Eritrea to the north. This means more fighting.

Thirdly, they perhaps see a value in taking the fight outside Tigray, if only to ease the pressure on their own people. This may point to a conviction that their situation will not end until Ethiopia, either as a whole, or in the form of the current government, ceases to exist. This could mean a lot more fighting.

Despite the setback—to put it mildly—of having lost a significant portion of soldiers, equipment and territory from this initial encounter, the Addis Ababa government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is also not giving up. Addis Ababa remains defiant. They insist that history is on their side, and that going to war in Tigray was a justified “law and order” policing operation.

The government has resorted to forced recruitment of youth from the southern regions and the countryside to augment the already very enthusiastic militia mobilisation in the Amhara region from which Prime Minister Abiy draws perhaps the bulk of his political support, primarily for his willingness to abandon the multinational-federalist constitution of  1995 in favour of re-centralisation, a matter very dear within Amhara nationalism and shared with the urban elite who serve the state. This means more fighting. Their first move seems to be to revive another Mengistu-era tactic of denying relief aid to the region to force it to submit.

As for the politics, the elected but then displaced regional government of Tigray now seeks to invoke the current constitution of the country in a bid to begin laying out a political argument to the rest of the country and the wider world. This may turn out to be the more difficult part as the TPLF, Tigray’s historical political leadership—the overwhelmingly dominant factor in the current resistance—itself has more questions to answer to the rest of the Ethiopian population, especially on the very points (human rights, democracy, national/ethnic identity) that may be the only arguments that can serve it now.

The reality is that the 27 years of TPLF rule over all of Ethiopia that ended in 2012, was simply a bad experience. The bitter truth is that not many people in Ethiopia who are not Tigrayans have reasons to like the TPLF. And the Tigrayan people as a whole are the victims of this.

It began with deception, and then deceptions within that deception, then a lot of gaslighting, and ended with outright betrayal.

The war against the previous regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam had been exceptionally vicious. Mengistu, despite having displaced the monarchy, had been determined to hold together and further homogenise the Ethiopian state. He had not even been prepared to listen to arguments from Eritrean nationalists, despite that region having been forcefully brought into the empire by the very monarch he had deposed.

Against this were the various nationalities of Ethiopia who had been scheduled to be homogenised into a single Amharic-speaking “Ethiopian” identity. With rebellions stewing from as far back as the 1960s, constant war became a permanent feature of the Mengistu period.

This is why the 1991 victory against Mengistu was of enormous political significance. It was not just the end of a dictatorship, but also potentially the end of the empire state, and the politics that created it.

For the first time, a person not claiming to be Amhara was in charge of government. It was, in effect, Independence Day for the conquered nations of the south, and also for Eritrea.

What happened instead was that the Meles Zenawi faction of the TPLF leadership got into an American-backed conspiracy to prevent a loosening or even possible breakup of what the Americans consider to be a Christian-based anchor state surrounded by Muslim-dominated countries and communities.

It began with deception, and then deceptions within that deception, then a lot of gaslighting, and ended with outright betrayal.

Through the usual diplomatic-politico-military manoeuvrings that accompany such transitions (think South Africa’s Boer-ANC 1991 dealings), the West enabled Meles to end up with the largest armed group in the rebellion, in order to control the TPLF and to diplomatically outmanoeuvre the other authentic fighting groups by replacing them with concocted “PDOs” (People’s Democratic Organizations) of his own making, which in turn enabled TPLF to control the EPDRF.

Federation was offered with one hand, then taken away with the other. The soldiers of the other fighting groups were encamped waiting to be integrated into a new national Ethiopian “federal” army, whereupon many were then massacred by TPLF cadres. At one point, the TPLF regime even resorted to confiscating farm implements from southern farmers, out of fear that they might launch a peasant revolt in protest at these measures.

New, essentially TPLF-invented, political parties sprung up claiming to also represent the oppressed nationalities, and were promptly integrated into the new Front to substitute the original ones.

Most critically, TPLF cut a deal with the rebel Eritrea People’s Liberation Front to grant Eritrea independence in return for the Eritreans dropping their historical support to all the groups that had been fighting Mengistu with them.

It was a comprehensive betrayal.

I suspect that those political voices coming from outside Tigray that have condemned the war and the atrocities committed against the Tigrayan population have probably done so out of high principle (and through gritted teeth). Despite having been victims of TPLF abuses while it was in power, they are politically and culturally obliged to stick to their own principles and condemn the Abiy regime for doing to the Tigrayan population what the TPLF did to them while in power.

In early June the Ethiopian government declared a ceasefire (to encourage “deep reflection” apparently), and claimed to have voluntarily removed its troops from the Tigrayan capital. The Tigrayan forces demanded a restoration of communications (telephone, internet, etc.), an investigation into human rights violations, and negotiations based on the key tenets of the 1995 constitution. This last point would mean respect for federation based on nationality, respect for demarcated regional boundaries, and freedom of speech and assembly. But the moment to seriously consider such a negotiated ceasefire has now passed.

Federation was offered with one hand, then taken away with the other.

The irony here is that none of those things were guaranteed nor respected while the Meles-faction-within-TPLF-within-EPDRF-make-up-of-made-up-parties was in power.

On top of the bad behaviour described above, the TPLF regime was well known for shooting demonstrators with live bullets, suppressing gatherings, turning off the telephone and internet networks during periods of unrest, abducting regime opponents, rigging elections and territorial boundary-setting processes and generally trampling constitutional provisions at will. But since it was also a darling of the United States Department of State, none of any of that mattered (except to the victims).

The real story here is therefore—and tragically—not the atrocities, waste and attendant damage to the Ethiopian peoples and state as a whole as a result of this conflict. This is because there has probably not been a moment in the entire history of this empire state since its formation, where it has not been in conflict with either a neighbour, or its own population, or both. If Death-from-war were a country, it would probably be called Ethiopia.

The real story is about the consequences of the Meles Zenawi-TPLF fall from power, and the resultant mess in which he has left his people. And the real story behind that is the tragedy of how Meles passed up an opportunity to allow the great people of this country to finally take a different direction, and opted instead to become a cynical, opportunistic, American-pleasing Machiavelli.

This is unwittingly confirmed by the formerly retired General Tsadkan Gebretensae, who came out of retirement at 68 years to help provide leadership to the Tigrayan forces, and is credited as the mastermind behind their remarkable change in fortune. In an early June interview, he explained, “When this started, it was very clear that the most senior, the most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years.”

Gebretensae made this statement without any sense of irony, or at least a recognition that others may find it odd that persons from one of the much smaller regions of the country (comprising 6 or 7  per cent of the population, or about seven million people, as noted earlier) would somehow have managed to remain the military “backbone” of a country comprising over 110 million people, and with other nationalities numbering more than twenty and even forty million.

Even if one were willing to buy the story promoted since 1991 that the TPLF had done the bulk of the fighting against the Mengistu regime, the question still remains as to why, in the three decades they were in power, they were unable to then reorganise the Ethiopian national armed forces to better reflect the demographics of the country.

The moment to seriously consider such a negotiated ceasefire has now passed.

In fact, even this period of war still reflects the essentially self-serving and self-absorbed culture of the Tigrayan political leadership. The fact is that in being invaded and persecuted by the Abiy regime, Tigrayans are actually being made victims of all the repressive state machinery, and disregard for laws and constitutionalism that the TPLF either created or took advantage of while in power.

However, the TPLF now seeks to exploit and become the first beneficiaries of the movement and culture of democracy and respect for human rights that actually came into being, championed by oppressed Oromo youth, because of TPLF’s own excesses while in power.

This is so, to the extent that even when making their political arguments today—and receiving support even from some of their previous victims—few, if any, in the TPLF leadership running the Tigray side of the war, have publicly and genuinely acknowledged the suffering, loss and hurt their 1991 betrayal and all that followed caused others, let alone made any apology for it. This is essentially narcissistic.

As mentioned earlier, not many Ethiopians have any love for the TPLF for reasons such as these, and many others. Theirs was a self-serving, oppressive, discriminatory and arrogant regime.

The real challenge, therefore, will lay in constructing a national dialogue in which all the current and historical grievances of all the peoples that are, or once were, Ethiopians, are finally aired, atoned for and corrected.

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Politics

BP Millions Promised to Offshore Firm Run by Angolan Tycoon Accused of Corruption

The investigation was based on hundreds of pages of confidential files provided by Jonathan Taylor, a former SBM lawyer turned whistle-blower. The documents include emails, contracts, legal advice and corporate intelligence reports. Journalists also had access to hours of secret audio recordings of SBM crisis meetings.

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BP Millions Promised to Offshore Firm Run by Angolan Tycoon Accused of Corruption

British oil major BP paid $100 million to cancel a shipyard construction project in Angola only for a third of the money to be promised to a Panamanian company run by a powerful and allegedly corrupt Angolan official, according to whistle-blower documents seen by Finance Uncovered.

The documents shine new light on the enormous influence of oil executives at the top of Angola’s state-owned oil company Sonangol, who have for decades acted as gatekeepers to Sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest hydrocarbon reserves.

After cancelling an order for floating oil platforms from the Paenal shipyard in Angola, BP wired its cancellation fee in November 2011 to SBM Offshore N.V., a specialist construction company that had been developing the yard and preparing to lead the build.

Two months later, SBM signed a contract agreeing that, after deducting certain costs, the remaining $70.3 million would be shared, on an equal basis, between it and a secretive Panamanian company called Sonangol International Inc (SII).

There is no suggestion this agreement was reached with BP’s knowledge or consent.

The 50-50 split had been verbally requested by Baptista Sumbe, who was then a top executive at Sonangol, according to SBM documents. Sumbe was also president, chief executive, secretary and treasurer of SII, as well as being the sole signatory for at least one of its bank accounts, according to filings on the Panama corporate register.

More concerning still — and initially unbeknown to SBM’s newly promoted chief executive Bruno Chabas — SBM had been quietly paying millions of dollars in “commissions” to a second Panamanian company run by Sumbe, called Mardrill Inc, without anything in return. This shocking revelation, which later featured in multiple court cases, was discovered by SBM’s lawyers conducting an internal investigation in early 2012 following an unrelated tip off.

This history of bribes to Mardrill had for years been kept a closely held secret, known only to former SBM chief executives and few, if any, others inside SBM, papers in a Swiss court case would later explain. In January 2012, Chabas (left) did not know about it when he signed the agreement to pay $35 million to SII — though he found out days later.

At that point, having learned that Sumbe was suspected of corruption, the SBM boss could have halted the payment and torn up the contract with SII.

Finance Uncovered asked SBM whether, despite its concerning discoveries, it still went ahead and paid $35 million to SII in 2012. The company declined to answer.

In a statement, SBM said Finance Uncovered was asking about “dated issues… the company has long put behind it”. It added: “[Our] legacy issues have been widely reported on for years and have been resolved with multiple authorities around the globe. In 2012 a complete new management team took over.”

The trail of money and promises, leading from BP to Panama, was unearthed in a collaborative investigation involving: Finance Uncovered, De Telegraaf in the Netherlands, Expresso in Portugal and The Telegraph in the United Kingdom.

The investigation was based on hundreds of pages of confidential files provided by Jonathan Taylor, a former SBM lawyer turned whistle-blower. The documents include emails, contracts, legal advice and corporate intelligence reports. Journalists also had access to hours of secret audio recordings of SBM crisis meetings.

Taylor has separately passed documents to the Serious Fraud Office and has said he is willing to share the same files with prosecutors in other countries.

Together, these files provide a front-row view of SBM’s tortuous deliberations as it was forced, on the one hand, to face up to a past built on bribes, while, on the other hand, seeking to remain in favour with some of the most corrupt regimes in the world.

Sumbe’s request that SBM share half the money received from BP sounded simple enough, but it sent the $3.3 billion construction company, listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, into a spin. Without a written contract that entitled Sonangol or SII to those funds, Chabas and the SBM legal team feared such a payment could look like a bribe.

Justifying the payment

SBM decided it needed to come up with a justification before handing over the funds — a rationale that could be set out in a formal contract.

Whistleblower documents reveal executives explored multiple proposals, consulting with three law firms and hiring corporate intelligence firm Kroll to carry out background checks. Finally, a summary of the planned payment was sent to non-executives on SBM’s audit committee for sign off.

The result was a January 2012 contract, signed by Sumbe and Chabas, which, at first glance, appeared to be one of the most polished and scrutinised agreements SBM had contemplated in years.

But investigations by Finance Uncovered and its media partners have cast the agreement in a different light.

One of the main justifications SBM put forward for its decision to pay SII was that the Panamanian company was being reimbursed for money wasted on developing the Paenal yard in preparation for BP’s oil platform order. But whistleblower documents show SII did not incur any meaningful expenses at the shipyard; much of the costs were instead financed by a loan from SBM.

SBM also argued that the money from BP ought to be evenly shared with SII because the Dutch construction firm had regularly split joint venture income with Sonangol companies in this manner since the 1990s. However, the Paenal yard was not a 50-50 joint venture. SBM and SII each had only one-third stakes in the holding company that controlled Paenal. The remaining one-third was owned by Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Co.

A spokesperson for DSME told Finance Uncovered she was unable to find evidence that the Korean company knew of the $100 million from BP, or SBM’s plans to split it with SII.

As well as putting forward seemingly misleading justifications for the planned £35m payments to SII, SBM appeared not to have heeded warnings contained in early legal advice. For example, lawyers from Berwin Leighton Paisner, now part of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, recommended SBM should take steps to ensure funds not reach Sonangol or its executives.

One BLP lawyer wrote: “From the materials we have reviewed, it is not clear what (if any) financial or other risk Sonangol itself has taken in connection with Paenal Yard which would justify its receipt of any portion of the [BP cancellation fee].”

He added: “Absent a clear, contractual entitlement to these funds, any payment made to Sonangol itself would risk being perceived (at best) as an unjustified ‘windfall’ and (at worst) as a payment which may have some corrupt intent given the recipient, the power it wields in Angola and the risk that these ‘windfall’ funds could be paid onwards to government officials.”

Confronting the past

Days after Chabas signed the agreement to pay SII, SBM received news that plunged the company into crisis. One of its customers, the U.S. gas company Noble Energy, had found emails on a laptop suggesting that a former SBM sales executive, who had left years earlier to set up a consultancy firm, knew about suspicious gifts which could amount to bribes — and could be linked to SBM.

Worse still, discreet investigations by SBM’s legal department, codenamed “Project Pandora”, quickly found that concerns raised by Noble were the tip of an iceberg. Bribery at SBM was widespread. And one of the hotspots was Angola, where the inquiries suggested SBM had channeled millions of dollars in bribes to Mardrill, one of the Panamanian companies run by Sumbe.

Despite these revelations, however, Chabas appeared to see no reason to tear up SBM’s contract with SII and break its promise to pay $35 million.

Secret audio recordings reveal how he pressed SBM’s general counsel and head of compliance Jay Printz to ensure the money was swiftly wired to SII. During the fractious meeting, Chabas said: “I thought this [the agreed payment to SII] was signed off … We need to progress. I’m concerned about the relationship with Sonangol, so that’s something we need to progress quickly.”

Printz, who taped the meeting, would quit SBM the following month.

On the recording, he is heard telling his boss: “I’m worried, you know, to be blunt, that … you’re going to have a hard time doing the right thing, which could involve shutting down a lot of business in Angola.

“I mean, these guys are going to have to stop being paid bribes, and they’re not going to like that,” he said. In a later U.S. settlement with prosecutors, SBM would later admit it had bribed at least nine Sonangol executives. Printz added: “And I know perfectly well what’s going to unfold here.”

Three weeks later, the troubled lawyer drafted a resignation letter to Chabas in which he complained of the “inappropriate resistance” he had encountered while leading Project Pandora. “SBM is unlikely to comprehensively remediate its widespread bribery practices,” he wrote. “I remain concerned that further offences are likely to be committed.”

Finance Uncovered was unable to reach Printz or confirm that the draft resignation letter was sent. After he left SBM, Chabas asked another member of the legal team, Jonathan Taylor, to take over Project Pandora. Taylor also grew concerned and resigned two months after Printz.

SBM’s payments to Mardrill would later feature in the settlement of criminal cases in the United States and the Netherlands, which together cost the company $478 million.  They were also used as key evidence in the Swiss prosecution of Didier Keller, one of Chabas’s predecessors as SBM chief executive.

By contrast, Chabas’s decision to authorise a $35 million SBM payment to SII has never featured in a criminal case. In fact, prosecutors have mostly praised Chabas for his cooperation and for the steps he took to clean up SBM’s culture of corruption.

SBM would later boast that remedial measures taken by the company in 2012 left it “the white swan in a pitch-black pond.”

When asked a series of questions about SBM’s dealings with Sumbe, and about payments to the Panamanian companies he operated, Mardrill and SII, the Dutch construction company declined to give specific answers.

Finance Uncovered and its media partners identified several similarities between SII and Mardrill that might have given SBM cause for concern: both were registered to the same address in Panama, though neither had operations in the country; both used accounts at a bank in Portugal where Sonangol was the largest shareholder; and the two companies had two directors in common.

Another warning sign that might have troubled SBM was the fact that the exact ownership of both Mardrill and SII was shrouded in mystery. Though both companies presented as part of the Sonangol empire, neither were named on a list of subsidiaries companies published in Sonagol’s 2012 annual report. Meanwhile, filings at the Panama corporate registry showed both were set up in the late 1990s with “bearer shares”.

Companies that issue bearer shares are popular with people looking to hide their control of bank accounts and other assets. Such firms do not keep a register of shareholders, instead granting ownership rights to the person — the “bearer” — in physical possession of share certificates. The use of bearer shares has been restricted or outlawed in many countries in recent years.

SBM said it had carried out additional inquiries into SII’s ownership in 2012 and was eventually satisfied that it was owned by Sonangol. It did not respond to questions about the ownership of Mardrill.

Sonangol also told Finance Uncovered that it is the owner of SII. This is confirmed in Sonangol’s recent annual reports, where the Panamanian company is now listed as a subsidiary company.

BP thrives in Angola

The trail of evidence running through the whistleblower documents raises questions not just about decisions at SBM, but also about BP’s anti-graft efforts in notoriously corrupt Angola, Africa’s second largest oil producer.

Finance Uncovered asked BP whether it knew that part of the cancellation fee it paid to SBM was later promised to a secretive Panamanian company run by allegedly corrupt Angolan official Sumbe. BP declined to answer directly, but hinted that it took no interest in what SBM did with the money.

In a statement, it said: “BP paid the contractually required sum to settle the … liability to SBM under the terms of the contract. It did not have any intention for, or control over, the future use of the [cancellation fee] in the hands of the payee.” BP said the cost of paying the fee was shared with co-investors in its Angolan operations.

BP’s code of conduct suggests the company is committed to a more pro-active approach to combating corruption. It says: “We do not tolerate bribery and corruption in any of its forms in our business …. [W]e work to ensure our business partners share our commitment.” As part of anti-corruption efforts, the code says, BP follows “counterparty due diligence procedures,” though what these entail is not specified.

The fineprint of BP’s original contract with SBM contained clauses giving the British oil giant the right to inspect SBM’s books and records if it became concerned that payments had been used to fund bribes. Asked if it had exercised these inspection rights, BP declined to answer. It said: “BP completely rejects any suggestion that it acted improperly in the payment of the [cancellation] fee to SBM.”

Asked why, in 2011, it chose to abandon plans to build oil platforms at the Paenal yard, BP said it had “encountered various technical and commercial challenges” at three deep water reservoirs in Block 31, many miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, directly westwards of the mouth of the Congo River.

It said the decision was taken collectively, with its consortium partners, and the cost of cancellation was shared. BP said it had wanted to delay construction work at the Paenal yard rather than cancel it, but SBM refused to grant a contract extension.

Not everything went badly for BP’s Angolan operations in 2011. In December that year, BP signed a new deal with Sonangol that dramatically expanded its interests in Angola, providing access to five new deep water exploration and production blocks covering 24,200 square kilometres. Soon after, BP described Angola as one of its four target countries for investment and growth.

Finance Uncovered has seen is no evidence to suggest a connection between BP’s $100 million cancellation fee payment and the oil major’s transformative deal with Sonangol a month later. For the avoidance of doubt, BP confirmed in a statement that no such connection existed.

In 2012, BP began pumping oil from other Block 31 reservoirs, using a oil platform built in Singapore by Modec, a competitor to SBM.

Sumbe’s Texas mansion

Records disclosed last year as part of the Swiss prosecution of former SBM chief executive Didier Keller show, in detail, what happened to some of the corrupt payments the Dutch oil platform company made to Mardrill.

Prosecutors described how, during a two and a half year period spanning 2006 to mid-2008, $4.7 million was paid from an SBM bank account in London to an account owned by Mardrill at Banco Comercial Português, now called Millennium BCP, in Lisbon, Portugal.

And during the same period, Mardrill made 45 transfers, totalling $2.9 million, from its account at Millennium BCP to accounts controlled by Baptista Sumbe and his wife Rosa Sumbe. Prosecutors said the couple made extensive personal use of this money.

Four years later, in May 2012, SBM whistleblower documents show, SII, like Mardrill, requested money be sent to an account at Portuguese bank Millennium BCP.

Sumbe knew this bank especially well. Not only did the two Panamanian companies run by him own accounts there, but Sonangol was the bank’s largest shareholder, with a stake of 11 percent at the end of 2011.

In February 2012, Sumbe secured a seat on one of the Portuguese bank’s board committees and by the end of the same year Sonangol had increased its stake in Millennium BCP to more than 19 percent — welcome support for a bank struggling in the face of the sovereign debt crisis gripping many European countries at the time.

Millennium BCP told Finance Uncovered it could not comment on specific customers, but added: “In all cases, regardless of the bank’s possible relationship with the parties involved in a transaction, Millennium BCP carries out its duties of analysis and reporting of all entities and transactions with the same rigor.”

Another Sonangol executive who once sat on a Millennium BCP board committee was Sumbe’s boss, Manuel Vicente, who served as president of Sonangol unitil January 2012. Vicente was also a director of SII until 2014.

According to Swiss court documents, Vicente is alleged to have played an early role in encouraging SBM to make payments to Mardrill. According to Keller’s evidence to Swiss prosecutors, the SBM boss had initially attempted to resist pressure from Sumbe to start paying Mardrill in 2001. Keller told prosecutors he thought it suspicious that Sumbe wanted “commission” payments wired to a company set up in Panmana, so he queried the scheme with Vicente. But Keller’s questioning was not well received, according to Swiss court documents, and Vicente criticised him for not trusting Sumbe, his right-hand man.

After this uncomfortable episode, the Swiss court found, Keller knew the commission payments were very likely bribes but authorised them nonetheless. The judge later gave Keller credit for his admissions of guilt, and for cooperation with ongoing criminal investigations, handing him a fine and a two-year suspended jail sentence.

Finance Uncovered’s efforts to contact Sumbe, who no longer works for Sonangol, were unsuccessful. Similarly, Rosa Sumbe could not be reached. For many years, the couple lived with their children at a $1.3 million mansion within the Royal Oaks Country Club gated community in Houston, Texas. The large house has a swimming pool and views over the 16th hole of the club’s golf course. In January this year, Rosa posted a picture on Facebook which appears to show her and her husband at the Houston mansion, suggesting the couple may still live in the area.

Despite the Sumbes and Vicente being named in court proceedings in Switzerland, there is no record of them ever being arrested or charged in relation to Mardrill payments. Nor is there evidence that they personally benefited from funds belonging to SII.

Although the U.S. Justice Department has extensive powers to prosecute companies and individuals responsible for paying bribes, there is currently no specific offence of benefitting from corrupt payments. President Joe Biden’s administration is currently looking to strengthen U.S. law in this area.

Vicente stepped down from Sonangol in January 2012 to start a political career, soon after becoming Angola’s vice-president, a role he held until 2017. Though he remained a director of SII until 2014, a spokesperson for Vicente said he had nothing to do with activity at the company after moving into politics.

Sumbe’s controversial boss

Vicente is no stranger to corruption allegations. In 2010, Angolan anti-corruption campaigner and journalist Rafael de Morais published a report alleging that a U.S. oil exploration company called Cobalt International Energy had gone into partnership with a front company secretly owned by Vicente and two other top Angolan officials. U.S. authorities began investigating the matter in 2011, and the following year Vicente confirmed his involvement to the Financial Times newspaper. Cobalt and Vicente denied wrongdoing but the front company nevertheless ended its partnership with Cobalt. U.S. investigations into the matter petered out.

Vicente was again linked to bribery allegations in 2017, this time in Portugal. The former Sonangol boss was charged with corruption and money laundering after allegedly paying €760,000 ($810,000) to a prosecutor for dropping an investigation into his dealings in Portugal. After the investigation shut down in 2012, Vicente, who sat on the board of Millennium BCP, allegedly asked a colleague at the Portuguese bank to offer the prosecutor job, which he did.

In 2018, the former prosecutor was convicted of bribery offences and sentenced to six years and eight months in jail. Vicente denied the charges, which were thrown out by an appeal court after the Angolan government successfully intervened in court proceedings and argued that the case against the country’s former vice-president should be referred to prosecutors in Luanda.

Anti-corruption campaigners at Transparency International have expressed concern that Angolan prosecutors may never take up the case against Vicente.

Under president João Lourenço, who came to power in 2017, Angola has been aggressively pursuing allegations of past corruption linked to certain former Sonangol executives — most notably Isabel dos Santos, daughter of former president José Eduardo dos Santos. Some media articles allege that Vicente has enjoyed a more favorable relationship with Lourenço, reportedly acting as one of the president’s advisers.

In March this year, Dos Santos filed papers in a London court case alleging Lourenço is pursuing a “personal vendetta” against her. The allegations are based on secret recordings of Angola’s business and political establishment, including Vicente, which were made by Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube, according to the court filing.

Black Cube is well known for deploying undercover private detectives to inveigle their way into the confidences of unsuspecting individuals before secretly taping conversations. Its most famous client was the former Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, who hired Black Cube as part of an unsuccessful effort to fight off accusations that he had used his position to launch multiple sex attacks on women.

Taylor in limbo

Jonathan Taylor, the SBM whistleblower, is currently fighting extradition from Croatia. He had travelled there on what was supposed to be a family holiday 10 months ago, but has been prevented from leaving because of an extradition request from Monaco. He is wanted for questioning over allegations of extortion in Monaco, where SBM’s head office was formerly located. Taylor denies any wrongdoing.

Written following a research collaboration with Edwin van der Schoot and Micael Pereira

This article was first published by Finance Uncovered.

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Kenya: Institutionalised Theft and the High Cost of ‘Budgeted Corruption’

Leaked data exposes loopholes in Kenya’s procurement process, enabling graft.

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Kenya: Institutionalised Theft and the High Cost of ‘Budgeted Corruption’

In June, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a lofty goal: vaccinating the entire adult population of 27 million against COVID-19 by the end of the year. But a long-time problem –– the lack of functioning medical facilities throughout the country –– left many skeptical.

The lack of clinics is not for want of spending.

In 2016, Kenya’s Ministry of Health paid over US$10 million to private companies to deliver and install shipping containers repurposed as portable clinics, to improve healthcare access for marginalised populations in the urban centers of Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu. For the next four years, the 100 containers sat near the Mombasa port while government agencies investigated how an obscure Kenyan company won a hyper-inflated contract to supply them.

Some time last year, the container clinics were moved from their storage place. Yet journalists could only locate a handful of them, and not one is operational.

Kenyans are used to seeing procurement scandals in the news, stories about billions in public funds paid to ghost companies for goods and services that never materialize. But they rarely learn who is behind the schemes, or why they’re so common.

When OCCRP member center Africa Uncensored acquired a leak of 25,727 public procurement records that spanned nearly four years and eight government agencies, reporters set about digging through the data. They identified companies linked to public officials, while seeking to understand the systemic loopholes that enable endemic fraud and embezzlement in Kenya.

Procurement contracts are now “commonly referred to in Kenya as ‘budgeted corruption,’” according to John Githongo, an anti-corruption activist and whistleblower, who added that there have been no consequences for the political elite involved in the plunder.

“Unfortunately it has been a defining characteristic of the Jubilee (Party) regime, and very sadly the health sector has been predated upon more than others,” he said.

The Jubilee Party did not respond to a request for comment on this story in time for publication.

Public Officials Prosper

While Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission has been pursuing the case of the hyper-inflated, non-operational portable clinics for five years now, police have made no arrests and no one in power has been officially implicated in the $10 million scheme.

“It is totally out of the question that they would get the contract without the involvement or assistance of a public official. It just doesn’t work like that in Kenya,” said Githongo, who blew the whistle on another public procurement embezzlement scheme in 2002, which is still under investigation.

In the leaked data, reporters found previously undisclosed business links between the obscure company that supplied the clinics, Estama Investment Limited, and public officials, including a charity headed by Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta called Beyond Zero. They also discovered two former members of parliament in the company network, and a current lawmaker who is under investigation for money laundering in a separate embezzlement scheme.

The director of Estama and Beyond Zero both declined to comment on the investigation. The Ministry of Health did not respond to questions.

This isn’t the only suspect procurement process exposed in the leak.

An earlier investigation revealed that board members of a government corporation were awarded tenders worth millions of Kenyan shillings related to the construction of two dams, intended for one of Kenya’s most water-stressed regions. Reporters showed that their companies continued to benefit even after being outed by Kenya’s Department of Criminal Investigations.

In another, reporters identified two obscure companies belonging to a niece of a powerful MP, Rachael Nyamai, who had oversight of the health ministry’s spending at the time the contracts were awarded. The companies, which had no history of delivering medical supplies, appear to have been paid $240,000 to do just that. One of the companies, Tira Southshore, was also awarded a mysterious $43 million agreement to supply hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system. Reporters were unable to confirm whether the money had been paid, and Nyamai declined to answer questions.

A separate investigation showed numerous contracts belonging to companies owned by Frank Mithika Linturi, a controversial senator from Kenya’s Meru County (more on this below).

Kenya’s legal anti-corruption framework doesn’t ban public officials from doing business, and has very broad standards for what could be considered conflict of interest when it comes to public tenders. For example, a public official can hold shares in a company that wins a government contract, but cannot have a controlling interest.

“They played around with the law quite interestingly,” said Harriet Wachira, a program coordinator at Transparency International-Kenya, referring to the loopholes enshrined in the 2013 Leadership and Integrity Act.

There are several efforts now underway that would strengthen the legal framework around conflict of interest and other corrupt practices. Last year, Kenyan authorities started collecting beneficial ownership information, which will be accessible to law enforcement agencies. Senator Farhiya Ali Haji recently introduced lifestyle audit legislation that would target unexplained wealth. And the Attorney General’s office is actively reviewing a draft bill that would significantly strengthen conflict of interest standards, according to a 2019 version seen by Transparency International-Kenya.

“If all these laws come together the anti-corruption landscape would change completely,” said Wachira. “It would make very serious strides in sealing the loopholes.”

Middleman Money

A peculiar phenomenon of Kenya’s procurement system is the awarding of contracts to companies that don’t produce the goods they promise to deliver, and have no track record of providing the services required. Inexplicably, they are paid by government agencies to procure goods and services from other companies.

This was the case with Estama, which purchased the shipping containers from a Chinese company, as well as the two companies owned by Nyamai’s niece, neither of which produce the medical supplies they were paid for.

It was also a red flag in the controversial $630 million Managed Equipment Service government project that was meant to get much-needed medical equipment to Kenya’s 47 counties. Using the leaked data, Africa Uncensored revealed that the government paid obscure Kenyan companies to procure the medical equipment from foreign suppliers.

Linturi, the controversial senator, is linked to at least 14 companies, whose services range from insurance to pharmaceuticals to furniture supply. One of his companies, Atticon Limited, which started as a construction firm, was awarded a $1.1 million contract by the Office of the Deputy President in 2016 to supply honorary medals.

Former employees told reporters that the senator’s company received the inflated contract and then procured the medals from Dubai. They also said the senator employed fraudulent tactics to win the tender, using multiple companies he owned to bid against each other, creating an illusion of competition.

Linturi, who did not respond to questions from reporters, was briefly detained, reportedly on fraud charges, three weeks after the Africa Uncensored investigation was published.

The issue of middleman companies winning public tenders “for things that they’re not remotely qualified for, or have the capacity to supply” is “something that we have seen over and over again,” said TI-Kenya’s Wachira, citing various procurement scandals, including recent headline-grabbing stories about COVID-19 supplies fraud.

Current regulations require the awarding agency to do due diligence on the companies bidding for tenders, but there is no independent oversight or enforcement, according to Wachira.

In the case of the honorary medals, Linturi used multiple companies to bid on a tender from an office where his romantic partner was the chief of staff. Mariane Kittany told reporters that it’s possible he used their relationship to influence the tender.

“If you really want to award the work to a friend of yours there is no law that they can come after you with, to say that this person has no capacity,” said Wachira. “Legally there is no penalty for not conducting due diligence.”

‘Blanket’ Purchasing Powers

The majority of questionable contracts reporters identified in the leaked data were so-called “blanket purchase agreements,” which are typically reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.

But blanket purchase agreements in Kenya appear to provide fast and vague transactions, with minimal scrutiny.

“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” said Kenya’s former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.

The leaked data lists more than 2,000 such agreements, however, committing about $1.7 billion to non-competed, single-supplier contracts in the span of 42 months. Among these were the contracts awarded to Nyamai’s niece, and the inflated contract to Estama for portable clinics.

“Procurement laws require that BPAs [blanket purchase agreements] be used in very selective circumstances,” said Kwame Owino, a Kenyan policy expert. “These contracts are kept out of the public space so we can’t see whether the price is reasonable.”

Leaked data analysis indicates that the Ministry of Health has issued more blanket purchase agreements during public health emergencies, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2015.

An audit of contracts awarded during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic also concluded that the Kenyan Health Ministry’s procurement agency engaged in multiple irregular procurement methods, including issuing retrospective single-source contracts, and choosing companies with no history or qualifications.

Steering the Software

In July, Kenya’s Auditor General Nancy Gathungu and Controller of Budget Margaret Nyakang’o appeared before the senate to confirm yet again what has been flagged by watchdogs for years: The government’s procurement software system is prone to “fraud, error and non-disclosure of revenue.”

Gathungu went further, alleging that the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMIS) is manipulated “deliberately to hide information” from auditors at the close of the financial year.

Nearly two decades after IFMIS was implemented in Kenya to improve efficiency and reduce corruption in public procurement, the system that was championed by President Kenyatta in his previous position as head of Treasury, as well as the World Bank, has become an efficient vehicle for the theft of public funds.

Red flags raised by a previous auditor general identified numerous problems with the system that could be exploited by unscrupulous procurement employees and ministry officials. As early as 2016, auditors found duplicates of the same vendor, each potentially with a different bank account, duplicate and ghost login IDs, and remote access for some system users.

Reporters’ analysis of the leaked data also revealed problematic patterns, like people accessing the system outside of working hours, as well as hundreds of duplicate transactions.

Last year, the government quietly moved to overhaul IFMIS, according to TI-Kenya’s Wachira, who follows the developments on the civil society side. Advocates say there’s been a notable shift at the National Treasury on anti-corruption efforts since 2019, when its former leadership was dismissed in connection with a procurement scandal.

It’s unclear when the overhaul will be completed, and the results of a re-engineered procurement portal remain to be seen. Ironically, the tender awarded to a consortium of companies for technical work on IFMIS is being challenged as an unqualified supplier.

As always in Kenya, a lot will depend on political will –– the “soft system” as the World Bank calls it –– to use the software without corrupt intentions.

“There is a human element to the system,” Kenya’s previous top auditor Ouku told reporters. “If the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”

This article was originally published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

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