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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Dominic Ongwen: LRA Victim or Perpetrator?
Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander who was put on trial at the ICC, is appealing his conviction and sentencing. A question that persisted throughout his trial was whether Ongwen was a victim or a perpetrator in the northern Uganda conflict.
All sides involved in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen agreed that he did not voluntarily join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and that he was subjected to the group’s violent initiation rituals to force him to submit to the LRA.
What they disagreed on is whether Ongwen’s brutal induction into the LRA meant that he was himself a victim throughout the 27 years he was a member of the LRA, that he was always submissive and incapable of making his own decisions, including whether to escape the group.
Ongwen’s trial covered only a fraction of the time he was with the LRA— the period between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005. In 2002, Ongwen was 24 years old, well past the age of 15 years, the upper limit for him to be classified as a child solider under the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding law.
Ongwen’s lawyers advanced the “once a victim, always a victim” argument. The prosecution disagreed, pointing to the testimony of multiple former LRA members who, just like Ongwen, were abducted and forced to join the group but later chose to escape the LRA despite the threat of death if they were recaptured. Lawyers representing the victims said their clients had shared a similar a experience of their LRA superiors “beating the civilian” out of them but they later chose to leave the group at great risk to themselves.
The three judges of Trial Chamber IX agreed with the arguments of the prosecution and the victims’ lawyers when they unanimously convicted Ongwen of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on February 4 this year.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt and Judges Péter Kovács and Raul C. Pangalangan also considered similar arguments when determining what sentence to give Ongwen. They sentenced him to 25 years imprisonment in a 2-1 decision issued on May 6.
The duress defence
In their 1,077-page judgement, Judges Schmitt, Kovács and Pangalangan explained why they concluded that when Ongwen committed the crimes he was charged with he was not under “a threat of imminent death” nor was he under threat of “continuing bodily harm.” These are the two elements Ongwen’s lawyers needed to demonstrate in their argument that their client was under duress when he committed the crimes he was charged with.
“In fact, based on the above, the Chamber finds that Dominic Ongwen was not in a situation of complete subordination vis-à-vis [LRA leader] Joseph Kony. The evidence indicates that in the period of the charges, Dominic Ongwen did not face any prospective punishment by death or serious bodily harm when he disobeyed Joseph Kony. Dominic Ongwen also had a realistic possibility of leaving the LRA, which he did not pursue. Rather he rose in rank and position, including during the period of the charges,” said the judges.
The judges further addressed the issue of Ongwen being a victim because of his abduction when he was nine years old and concluded,
“The Chamber has duly considered the above facts underlying these submissions [by the defence]. In addition, and while acknowledging that indeed Dominic Ongwen had been abducted at a young age by the LRA, the Chamber notes that Dominic Ongwen committed the relevant crimes when he was an adult and, importantly, that, in any case, the fact of having been (or being) a victim of a crime does not constitute, in and of itself, a justification of any sort for the commission of similar or other crimes.”
Dominic Ongwen also had a realistic possibility of leaving the LRA, which he did not pursue.
One reason the judges reached the conclusions they did about Ongwen was that dozens of witnesses who testified before them described having suffered similar experiences to what Ongwen underwent in the LRA. They testified about their abduction at a young age. They testified about their brutal initiation into the LRA. They testified about their constant fear of being killed on suspicion of wanting to escape but, in many cases, they overcame that fear or resigned themselves to the possibility of being killed and chose to escape anyway.
In their majority decision on Ongwen’s sentencing, Judges Schmitt and Kovács said they took into account Ongwen’s abduction by the LRA when he was nine years old and what he went through as a child. They said they weighed that against the gravity of the crimes for which they convicted Ongwen. Judge Pangalangan said he agreed with their reasoning regarding Ongwen’s sentencing but he disagreed with the sentence itself. In a partially dissenting opinion, Judge Pangalangan said he would have sentenced Ongwen to 30 years in prison. All the judges were agreed, however, that they would not sentence Ongwen to life imprisonment as the lawyers for the victims had asked.
Another issue Judges Schmitt, Kovács and Pangalangan determined in their February 4 judgment was Ongwen’s age and the year he was abducted. After analysing the different testimonies placed before them, the judges concluded that Ongwen was abducted in 1987 and that he was nine years old at the time.
The judges decided to make a determination on Ongwen’s age and the year he was abducted because, as Ongwen’s case proceeded, different people gave Ongwen a different age at the time of his abduction. They included Ongwen himself who said he was 14 years old when he was abducted. He said this on the first day he appeared before the ICC in January 2015.
In 1987, when Ongwen was abducted on his way to school, the LRA was known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces before it later changed its name to the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the period during which he committed the crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced, Ongwen was a commander with the LRA’s Sinia Brigade. Between 2002 and 2005, Ongwen was first commander of the Oka battalion of Sinia Brigade and was later promoted to other command positions before being named overall brigade commander.
The crimes for which Ongwen was convicted and sentenced include his role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people in the Gulu and Lira districts of northern Uganda. Ongwen was also convicted of murder, persecution, pillaging, torture and attacking civilians in the Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok IDP camps. The attack on Pajule took place on 10 October 2003, the Odek attack on 29 April 2004, Lukodi on 19 May 2004 and Abok on 8 June 2004. These IDP camps and others in northern Uganda have since been closed and the people have returned to their villages, especially after the LRA left northern Uganda as part of the Juba-mediated peace process that ran from 2006 to 2008.
Ongwen was also convicted on 11 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes he committed himself. These include forcefully marrying five women identified in the verdict by their pseudonyms P-099, P-101, P-214, P-226 and P-227. Other sexual and gender-based crimes for which Ongwen was convicted include rape, torture, sexual slavery, enslavement and forced pregnancy. He was convicted of committing these crimes against seven women.
The former commander in the LRA’s Sinia brigade was also convicted of indirectly committing sexual and gender-based crimes against other women. Ongwen was also convicted of two counts of conscripting children under the age of 15 into the LRA and using them to participate in attacks.
Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is a record at the ICC. It is unlikely that Ongwen would be holding such a record had he not surrendered himself in January 2015. The ICC issued an arrest warrant in July 2005 but Ongwen evaded capture for close to 10 years. By the time he surrendered himself to a rebel group in the Central African Republic in January 2015, there had been an unsuccessful multinational effort in that country to capture Kony and other LRA commanders. So, what led to Ongwen’s surrender in January 2015? Ongwen did not testify during his trial so the reasons for his surrender remain unclear.
A prosecutor comes calling
But how did the northern Uganda conflict that Ongwen was part of end up at the ICC? The obvious answer would be that in December 2003 Uganda asked the ICC to investigate the atrocities committed in the region. This was the first such request to be received at the ICC after it began work in July 2002. The request led the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to investigate the atrocities in northern Uganda and request judges to issue an arrest warrant for five LRA commanders, including Ongwen. The arrest warrant was issued in July 2005 and, almost 10 years later, Ongwen surrendered to a rebel group in the Central African Republic and was later handed over to the ICC in January 2015.
However, it turns out that the ICC’s involvement in Uganda was not that straightforward. Uganda did not simply seek the ICC’s intervention—the official ICC line on the issue. On the contrary, the ICC’s first prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, actively encouraged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to seek the ICC’s intervention in northern Uganda. The mid-2003 discussion between Moreno Ocampo and Museveni did not seal the deal; Museveni referred the matter to the Ministries of Justice and Defence and there was debate on the pros and cons before Uganda sent the ICC a referral request.
According to Phil Clark in his 2018 book Distant Justice, Phil Clark says that it is Moreno Ocampo who first broached the subject. In short, Moreno Ocampo did what in legal circles is sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.
According to Clark, Moreno Ocampo reached out to the Ugandan government in London in May 2003. He based his information on an interview with an unnamed Ministry of Defence official that corroborated a 27 July 2009 report in The EastAfrican.
At the time Moreno Ocampo made that initial approach to the Ugandan government, the ICC was almost a year old and it had no case to its name.
In his book, Distant Justice, Clark argues that the Office of the Prosecutor actively pursuing cases in the early days of the court underlined, “a view within the Court—and particularly within the OTP—that, as a new global institution with substantial financial and diplomatic backing from State Parties, it needed to open investigations and prosecutions quickly to be seen as a legitimate actor on the world stage.”
Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is a record at the ICC.
This is echoed by an unnamed ICC official Clark interviewed in 2006. “What use is a court without cases? We wanted to hit the ground running and show the world that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” the official told Clark.
When Moreno Ocampo initiated discussions with Uganda on a possible referral, he found a government thinking through what the court meant for world politics. Lucien Tibaruha, Uganda’s Solicitor-General of at the time, told Clark in a March 2006 interview that after Moreno Ocampo got in touch with Museveni, the issue of an ICC referral was passed on to both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. Tibaruha told Clark that it was the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that followed up on the issue with the ICC.
“They started talking to the Court and they kept us informed. MoD is in charge of day-to-day ICC affairs. . . . In our referral we told the ICC the LRA is out of reach by the Ugandan government. We asked the Court to go get them. It’s clear we’re unable to prosecute the LRA because they’re currently outside the jurisdiction of Uganda,” Tibaruha told Clark.
A Ministry of Defence official who spoke to Clark on condition of anonymity gave him a similar account of how Moreno Ocampo initiated the discussions with Uganda.
“In all truth, it was a blessing because we’d tried everything against the LRA—[peace] talks, military operations, amnesties. We needed a new approach and here was something new, something unexpected,” the Ministry of Defence official told Clark in August 2011.
The Ministry of Defence official also told Clark that Museveni thought going the ICC route, “would be a good way to get rid of Kony and the [other LRA leaders] but he wanted to know what we in [in MoD] thought.”
“We said it was the right approach but some in the government, like the Ministry of Justice, weren’t so sure. They thought the ICC could be turned around and used against the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force). . . . Ultimately, the President agreed with us,” said the Ministry of Defence official.
What former Ugandan Solicitor-General Lucien Tibaruha told Clark about the military taking the lead in dealing with the ICC was in evidence during Ongwen’s trial. To corroborate witness testimony against Ongwen, the prosecution relied on Ugandan intelligence and police intercepts of LRA radio communications.
The UPDF and the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) recorded their intercepts of LRA radio communications. The UPDF and ISO members who were assigned to intercept LRA radio communications also took notes at the same time as they were recording the broadcasts. Separately, members of the Ugandan police force took notes of LRA radio communications they intercepted but they did not record those broadcasts. During Ongwen’s trial, it emerged that the UPDF had been intercepting LRA radio communications since 1995 and the ISO since 2000.
In total, the prosecution disclosed 600 cassettes of recordings of intercepted LRA radio communications and 22,000 pages of notes and other material related to those intercepts.
During the conflict in northern Uganda between the LRA and government forces, LRA commanders talked to each other and to their superiors via two-day radio. Former LRA radio operators who testified during Ongwen’s trial said some of the radios they used had been seized during attacks on the compounds of aid agencies working in northern Uganda.
The former LRA radio operators also said they used a cipher to communicate sensitive information over radio because they were aware that Ugandan security agencies were listening in on their conversations. They said the cipher changed regularly.
Moreno Ocampo did what in legal circles is sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.
In addition to the cassettes and other material the Ugandan government handed over to the OTP, eight members of Uganda’s intelligence agency, military, and police testified during Ongwen’s trial. Four of them told the court about their routine as they intercepted LRA communications and described the cipher the LRA used while communicating sensitive information over radio. They said they learnt about the cipher from notebooks and materials seized by the Ugandan military during attacks on LRA positions.
Among the Ugandan military officers who testified was the top lawyer for military intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Nabaassa Kanyogonya. He told the court that the different intercept programmes had not been started with the aim of building a court case, but rather to aid the military in its fight against the LRA. Kanyogonya did say, however, that over time they also investigated LRA commanders and gathered evidence on 15 of them, including Ongwen. He said this evidence was handed over to the ICC.
Other LRA atrocities
Ongwen’s trial was limited to a three-and-a-half-year period and to attacks on four places in the districts of Gulu and Lira. His trial did not cover the span of the 20 years during which the Lord’s Resistance Army killed, brutalised and abducted tens of thousands of people in northern Uganda.
But it is easy to think Ongwen was being tried for all the atrocities committed in the name of the LRA. After all, three of the senior LRA commanders indicted by the ICC together with Ongwen are dead. The fourth—long-time LRA leader Joseph Kony—has evaded arrest to date despite a six-year multinational hunt for him and other remnants of the LRA in the remote areas of Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan.
Outside the ICC, it is only in Uganda where a former LRA commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, is on trial. The proceedings against Kwoyelo began in 2011 at the High Court and his trial is ongoing.
To corroborate witness testimony against Ongwen, the prosecution relied on Ugandan intelligence and police intercepts of LRA radio communications.
Apart from the court cases, an amnesty programme for former rebels has also been in effect in Uganda and from the time the amnesty law came into force in 2000, more than 13,000 former LRA members have been given amnesty for their roles in the rebel group. Most were rank-and-file LRA members and, like Ongwen, a number were former senior or mid-ranking LRA members who were either his superiors or were his equals between 2002 and 2005. Some of them testified during Ongwen’s trial.
During the period between 2002 and 2005 when Ongwen committed the crimes for which he was convicted by the ICC, foreign news agencies regularly quoted 20,000 as the number of children abducted by the LRA, an estimate that was attributed to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Going by that estimate and subtracting from it the number of former LRA members granted amnesty by the Ugandan government, this means that as many as 7,000 people are unaccounted for in the northern Uganda conflict. How many of these are people who were killed during the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda? How many of them are people who survived the conflict but have not been able to return to their families?
These are not just academic questions. A clansman of Ongwen’s who was abducted together with him testified about these issues during the trial. Joe Kakanyero told the court that throughout the 27 years Ongwen was with the LRA the family was never sure whether he was alive or dead. Kakanyero, who testified for the defence, said it was only when they saw Ongwen on television making his first appearance at the ICC that they knew for sure he was alive and where he was.
Ongwen has been tried, convicted and sentenced and his family knows he is at the ICC Detention Centre. Thousands of survivors of the 20-year northern Uganda conflict do not know whether their sister or brother, mother or father, aunt or uncle is alive or dead.
Tom Maliti covered Dominic Ongwen’s trial for the International Justice Monitor from when it opened in December 2016 to when the judgment was issued in February this year.
Uganda’s COVID Response a Failure to Build Back Better
For a brief moment in history, everyone was equally vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that moment has passed as recovery in developed countries outpaces recovery in Africa.
“Build Back Better” is Developmentspeak for a particular approach to disaster recovery. The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery defines it as “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” It looks forward to the post-COVID era and the potential to rebuild health, education and other human development systems in a fairer, greener and more robust way to minimise the likelihood and impact of future disasters.
The leaders of the USA and the UK use it frequently, Joe Biden more often than Boris Johnson. Unicef, which has mopped up Africa’s vaccine loans, has also adopted the phrase and has used it to signal better vaccine supply systems in the future. But BBB has been ridiculed in British social media and some Americans are irked by Biden’s “my Build Back Better Agenda” refrain repeated with every new policy announcement. African leaders have not yet adopted the mantra and there is hardly a trace of BBB on African social media.
At first, it sounded like more of the “revival of Empire” talk that accompanied the Brexit saga. A year into COVID, it is clear that what is being built back is the previous relationship between the developed world and developing countries before it was levelled out by the pandemic—for a brief moment in history, everyone was equally vulnerable. That moment has passed as recovery in developed countries outpaces recovery in Africa. Despite the far fewer deaths in Africa, the continent was more vulnerable to the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Recovery therefore requires more of that which was lacking in economic development prior to the onset of COVID: strong, accountable governance able to make and implement hard decisions.
According to the recently deceased Dr Anthony Mbonye, Uganda began to fail the governance test right at the beginning. The National COVID Task Force set up after the detection of Patient 0 in March 2020 excluded eleven doctors with experience of managing Ebola Virus Disease (of which Uganda has had five outbreaks), Yellow Fever and Cholera, in favour of some chosen on grounds irrelevant to the problem. This may explain why decision-making came to be dominated by the local World Health Organisation representative. Where a Ugandan may have understood the implications of contagion in Uganda, especially along truck routes through the poorest-served regions, the WHO representative was instrumental in lobbying to keep the borders open to truck drivers before their test results were known. During his mission, the representative was accompanied on media platforms by the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health. In his book Dr Mbonye singles out the permanent secretary as part of the problem plaguing Uganda’s health sector. Since then, the rehabilitation of regional hospitals has failed to respond robustly to the Second Wave.
Whatever the development goals, recovery from the pandemic will require money, which is in short supply, with nearly all countries maxed out. Uganda’s public debt increased from 32 per cent to 37.5 per cent of GDP (an increase of ten percentage points since 2015). The current account deficit rose from US$1,999 million to US$3,205 million between 2018 and 2019. Debt repayments increased by US$17 million in the same period. The current account deficit that grew by US$740 million was plugged with funds from the World Bank’s Uganda COVID Response and Emergency Preparedness Project (UCREPP) and the US$300 million IMF Rapid Credit Facility in 2019/2020.
In order to put together a COVID Response, Uganda and many other African countries resorted to massive borrowing through the pro forma Emergency Response, Rapid Credit Relief and Economic Recovery programmes designed by the World Bank. Within weeks of Patient 0’s detection, the country was close to a billion dollars in COVID debt (bi-lateral debt not included). Under UCREPP, US$300 million was released by the World Bank for among other things, medical supplies, tax relief for businesses in key economic sectors like tourism and industry and to provide relief for the vulnerable. The IMF formed a joint framework with the Bank and added a credit facility of US$491 million. The African Development Bank chipped in with US$31 million to support the medical response, social protection and maintenance of macroeconomic stability and economic activity. The following year the IMF added another US$700 million while the World Bank has continued to lend under existing programmes.
On the face of it, there are elements of better development solutions within the COVID response. For example, in order to bypass the global shortage of protective gear, funds were made available to build local manufacturing capacity for face shields and masks. The simplicity of it was astounding. Where these items have been imported since Independence in 1962, a solution was found and implemented within weeks.
The main candidate for the Build Back Better approach is the health sector. Prior to the emergency, there were active health sector loans of a combined US$468,360,000 and a history of loan-funded interventions dating back at least twenty years. Still, the stock and quality of health infrastructure was in need of improvement, human resources needed to be enhanced and service delivery to be made more efficient and effective. Every major disbursement related to the COVID Response has been accompanied by a public outcry about irregular procurement methods and the incompetence that led to ICU beds remaining uninstalled for months after delivery. The climax came when over 30 patients died in one day and it was discovered that the new oxygen plant acquired by the national referral hospital was not fit for purpose. The seven USh7 billion (US$1,883,587) contract had been handed over to the daughter-in-law of ruler Yoweri Museveni and her twin sister, a newly elected member of parliament. They are the daughters of disgraced former minister of foreign affairs Sam Kutesa.
A budget of USh32 billion (US$8,996,240) to procure cloth masks from local manufacturers quickly ballooned to over USh70 billion. Awards of contract followed the usual pattern—the government paid a price four times the production cost, contracts were awarded to people within the President’s Office and to a firm in the entertainment industry and to other entities not connected to garment manufacturing. To produce the masks would therefore entail sub-contracting, with the attendant price inflation. Whole districts did not receive any cloth masks.
Every major disbursement related to the COVID Response has been accompanied by a public outcry about irregular procurement methods.
A challenge that has existed since 1995—when I first encountered it—is the storage and distribution of essential drugs and medical supplies. Over the years, massive amounts of expired drugs have either been destroyed or remain in stores. At the same time, stock-outs of essential drugs are a widespread annual occurrence across health facilities. Symptoms have persisted throughout the pandemic. Some quarantine centres were shut down after being in existence for some time without the means to manage patients. Hospitals have lost patients for lack of oxygen. Health workers have been on strike over Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Rivalling Mulago Hospital’s oxygen debacle for incompetence, the medical stores lost an entire donation of half-a-million face masks. COVID test kits and drugs were later discovered being off-loaded from a truck onto private vehicles by a side-road.
The IMF is on track for BBB having reignited a lending relationship with Uganda that has been dormant since 2006. The World Bank has consolidated its dominance especially through its Hands-on Enhanced Implementation Support mechanism or Bank Facilitated Procurement through which it has supported the suppliers of its choice, and captured the African pharmaceuticals market. In this way, any possibility of Uganda cooperating with countries outside Europe and North America on vaccine acquisition and technology transfer has been extinguished. As a result, European and North American vaccine-supplying countries will also Build Back Better, financed by COVID outflows from countries like Uganda.
The easy borrowing under UCREPP was made possible by simply reopening or extending existing projects that were closed or closing in 2020/21: Uganda Health Systems Strengthening Project, East African Public Health Laboratory Networking Project, Agriculture Cluster Development Project (ending in 2021), and the Uganda Multi-Sectoral Food Security Nutrition Project.
New loans unrelated to the pandemic were sought and granted: Roads and Bridges in the Refugee Hosting Districts/Koboko-Yumbe-Moyo Road Corridor Project (US$130m); Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers (US$300 million additional financing); Securing Uganda’s Natural Resource Base in Protected Areas Project (US$2.7 million); and the Uganda Digital Acceleration Project—GovNet (US$200 million).
The IMF is on track for BBB having reignited a lending relationship with Uganda that has been dormant since 2006.
In the meantime, repayments of multi-lateral loans continue uninterrupted. For example, since the pandemic was detected in Uganda in March 2020, an amount of US$8,222,820.93 has been repaid to the World Bank on the 2006 Transport Sector Development Project and US$988,160.75 on the 2011 East African Public Health Laboratory Project.
Appointed by the World Bank’s Assisted Procurement, Unicef has done better than Uganda’s entire COVID Task Force and members of the cabinet. It has carried out its biggest procurement assignment yet under the most stringent conditions. Individuals within Unicef and WHO have added key contacts to their address books, and pandemic management to their skillsets.
By surrendering their responsibility, Ugandan government representatives are now unable to say on any given platform what brand of vaccine would serve the country best, or why and when it is arriving. Tragically, while Iran and Vietnam have tested Cuban vaccines and are building for future pandemics by reaching technology transfer agreements with Cuba’s Finlay Institute of Public Health to create domestic production capacity, Uganda has not taken delivery of a single paid-for phial of vaccine. All the doses received a year and four months since COVID-19 made landfall have been donations.
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.
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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