Hiding Africa's looted funds: The silence of Western media
While the Western media is vociferous in highlighting how corrupt African leaders are, it is strangely silent on the role played by Western financial institutions and corporations in facilitating the transfer and laundering of such stolen loot, says Lord Aikins Adusei.
IN May, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain told Queen Elizabeth II that he was inviting the leaders of some 'fantastically corrupt countries', including Nigeria and Afghanistan, to attend an anti-corruption summit. Cameron's comment about Nigeria and Afghanistan, though not surprising, undoubtedly hides the truth and is pregnant with hypocrisy and double standards.
The response by President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, that he would not demand an apology from Cameron but rather would demand the return of the country's looted assets, brings to light the true nature of corruption in Nigeria, Africa and the developing world and the indifference of Western politicians, institutions and corporations, in particular the media, in fighting corruption.
The tens of billions of dollars that leave the shores of Africa and other poor regions every year are not the making of these regions alone. Britain, France, Switzerland, the United States and other developed economies are not only deeply involved but actually provide the avenue, incentives and the legal and institutional infrastructures in promoting corruption in the developing world. The cities of London, Paris, New York, Washington, Geneva, Zurich and Monaco serve as home to the billions of dollars that leave Africa each year.
David Cameron pointing accusing fingers at Nigeria and Afghanistan is nothing new. Quite often when you read the newspapers, listen to the radio and watch television in the West, you learn how poor Africans are and how corrupt African leaders are. But you will never watch, read or hear anything in these media outlets about the role being played by Western banking institutions, property development and real estate companies, big corporations, and the Western political and business elite in promoting corruption in Africa. When it comes to Africa and the developing world, the Western media pretend to be doing a good job only when there is an embarrassing story or a scandal, which undermines their credibility as the watchdog of the state.
It is common to see poverty-stricken Africans in poor living conditions in Western documentaries and movies but the same documentaries and movies are always silent on the role played by the institutions in the West. Bribery, as we all know, involves a giver and a taker, but it is often only the taker who is reported on in the media. In many instances bribes are offered in order to secure a contract or an official favour or to influence a government decision. In other instances corruption is facilitated because of the existence of favourable conditions as can be seen in most Western countries with their banking secrecy laws.
The media in the West tend to ignore the role of Western institutions for many reasons. One main reason is the interlocking shareholding and other corporate and financial links between the media companies and these organisations. Another reason has to do with the fear of losing advertising revenue from the corporations involved.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, BBC, ABC, CBS, ITV, Fox, Sky News and other media houses assiduously portray Africa as poor and undeveloped but do not show the same zeal in reporting about the role Western banking and other institutions play. They fail to tell the world that the proceeds from the looting that makes Africans poor are indeed sitting in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and the offshore enclaves (e.g., Jersey, British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man, Monaco) controlled by the West. They fail to tell the world that Africa would be a different place if all the stolen monies are returned, but would they ever raise a voice in support of such a laudable idea? Why would the media change the way they report when for centuries they have been the source of misinformation and misrepresentation of non-Western affairs?
Corruption in Africa is facilitated by banking institutions in Europe and North America, especially the US, Switzerland, Britain, France, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and many others, which accept money from African leaders without questioning the source of the money. According to the UN, around $148 billion is stolen from the continent every year by political leaders, the business elite and civil servants, with the collusion and connivance of banking industries in Europe and North America.
Even though it is common knowledge that Western banks are acting as safe havens for looted funds from Africa, very little is done by the Western media to expose them. The media tend to focus their attention on the corrupt leaders, with little or no mention at all as to where the monies they have stolen are being kept. There has not been any concrete effort to expose the banks and the law firms that collude and connive with these corrupt leaders who are impoverishing the people. No decisive move has been made by the political elite in Europe and North America to force the banks to return these stolen monies to the poorest of the poor. They talk about corruption because it is embarrassing to them but they have no agenda to fight it.
In the five years of his reign (1993-98), Sani Abacha of Nigeria was able to stash abroad $5 billion, according to official figures (the unofficial amount is estimated at between $12 billion and $16 billion). After his death in 1998, investigators in Nigeria, Europe and North America found over 130 foreign bank accounts where some of the money stolen was kept.
The banks that received Abacha's stolen funds are: Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), Frankfurt branch; ANZ, London; ANZ, New York; Bank Len, Zurich; Bankers Trust Company, Frankfurt; Bankers Trust Company, London; Bankers Trust Company, New York; Banque Baring Brothers, Geneva; Banque Edouard Constant, General; Banque Nationale de Paris, Basel; Banque Nationale de Paris, Geneva; Banque Nationale de Paris, London; Barclays Bank, London; Barclays Bank, New York; Citibank NA, London; Citibank NA, Luxembourg; Citibank NA, New York; Citibank, Zurich; Credit Lyonnais, New York; Credit Suisse, General; Credit Suisse, New York; Credit Suisse, Zurich; Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, Jersey; First Bank (Schweiz) AG, Zurich; First Bank of Boston, London; Goldman Sachs and Company, Zurich; Gothard Bank, Geneva; LGT Liechtenstein Bank, Vaduz; Liechtenstein Landesbank, Vaduz; MM Warburg and Company, Hamburg; MM Warburg and Company, Luxembourg; MM Warburg and Company, Zurich; Merrill Lynch Bank, Geneva; Merrill Lynch Bank, New York; Midland Bank, London; National Westminister Bank, London; Paribas, Geneva; Paribus, London; Royal Bank of Scotland, Leeds; Standard Bank London Limited, London; UBS AG, Geneva; UBS AG, Zurich; Union Bancaire Privee, Geneva; Union Bancaire Privee, London; and Verwaltungs Und Private Bank AG, Vaduz (source: Tell Magazine, 7 October 2002).
Since his death in 1998, various Nigerian governments have attempted to retrieve Abacha's loot scattered across Europe and other jurisdictions with very limited success. Switzerland has repatriated $723 million to Nigeria and signed a letter of agreement with Nigeria to repatriate a further $321 million. Liechtensteinhas also repatriated some $227 million. The US has agreed to return to Nigeria more than $480 million hidden in US banks. However, the total amount returned falls far below the official estimated figure of $5 billion stolen by Abacha and his family.
It has been the Nigerian governments (past and present) that have been working hard to get the looted funds returned. The Western media (and the politicians, banks and law firms) have turned a blind eye to Nigeria's effort to recover its stolen wealth.
In February 2009, a French court had the then Gabonese President Omar Bongo's nine bank accounts containing several millions of euros frozen. In confirming the court's decision, lawyer Jean-Philippe Le Bail said, 'This concerns Credit Lyonnais, in which the president of Gabon has two current accounts, two savings accounts and a share account, and BNP, in which he has two checking accounts, a savings account and a share account.' Before his death in June 2009, Bongo together with his family had 70 bank accounts in France the money from which was used to purchase several properties worth millions of dollars. His wife Edith had over $75 million stashed in banks in Monaco.
According to French police investigations, Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou Nguesso and his family have 112 bank accounts in France. It is believed that these accounts contain hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned from the coffers of his resource-rich but economically impoverished country.
According to a secret 110-page report prepared by international risk consultancy firm Kroll and exposed by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi and his family have banked 1 billion in 28 countries including Britain, but the media in the West will not expose the banks involved.
These are the banks whose shady dealings with the political and business elite in Africa continue to impoverish African countries but which the media refuse to tell the world about. The banks know these corrupt leaders have stolen the money but pretend not to know until there is a scandal, after which they begin to act as if they are responsible institutions. Most of the above banks have also been implicated for receiving billions of dollars of looted funds from a number of other current and former African leaders, yet Western media are silent about where the funds are being kept.
Apart from the banking sector, the property sector (particularly real estate and vehicles) in Europe, North America and Australia has also been the beneficiary as Africa's political and business elite spend their ill-gotten gains. It has been revealed that several African leaders and public officials have bought luxury mansions and expensive cars in Europe and North America using the monies stolen from their poor countries.
It is on record that the late Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo had bought several villas in France, Switzerland, Belgium and many other European countries. A French police investigation established that Omar Bongo and his family owned at least 33 luxury properties in France. In Paris alone Bongo owned 10 luxury mansions including a 21,528 sq ft villa located at Rue de la Baume near the Elyse Palace, bought in 2007 for _18.8 million. Bongo was spotted greeting then French President Nicolas Sarkozy in this villa. Another four of the 10 houses are on the exclusive Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe.
Bongo bought a fleet of limousines, including a 308,823 Maybach for his wife Edith in February 2004. Payment for some of the cars was directly taken from the treasury of Gabon. Bongo's daughter Pascaline used a cheque from the same account for part-payment of 29,497 towards a 60,000 Mercedes two years later. Bongo himself bought a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti F1 in October 2004 for 153,000.
The current President of Gabon Ali Bongo, Omar Bongo's son, purchased a luxury housing estate costing _100 million. The building, which covers a space of 4,500 square metres with the garden covering 3,700 square metres, is located in Paris' University Street and has been described as 'one of the most beautiful' in the heart of the city. French satirical newspaper Le Canard enchain reported that 'the _100 million does not include other expenditure to be made for the renovation and maintenance work which could take a third of Gabon's GDP'. In June 2001, Ali Bongo bought a Ferrari 456 M GT for 156,000. French police investigations indicate that this lifestyle of profligacy was supported by leading French banks, housing developers and vehicle dealers.
It has recently come to light that Kenya's Moi and his family bought several multi-million-pound properties in London, New York and South Africa and a 10,000-hectare ranch in Australia. While the majority of Kenyans live in slums and in rural areas, with little roofing over their heads and lacking water and other basic necessities of life, Moi's family live in a 4 million home in Surrey and 2 million flat in Knightsbridge in Britain, yet the media will not expose the real estate companies involved.
The Panama Papers leaks have revealed how Nigeria's political elite and public officials use money stolen from their people to buy expensive homes in London. The Speaker of Nigeria's Senate, Bukola Saraki, bought a 5.7 million property in London's Belgravia area and registered it in his wife's name to hide the true ownership of the property. Folorunsho Coker, a former head of the Number Plate Authority of Lagos State and currently a business adviser to the state governor, bought a property in London worth 1.65 million. Mallam Bello Gwandu, a former director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, bought a flat in London's affluent Maida Vale district. He also bought a property at St George Wharf in London for 450,000. Yet again the companies selling the villas and luxury mansions were never exposed by the media. They will not be exposed by the media. Why would they?
Another area often ignored by the Western media is the role played by Western corporations in encouraging corruption, bribery and thievery in Africa. It is very common for Western companies to pay bribes and kickbacks to induce officials to award them lucrative contracts. For example, in September 2002, Canadian firm Acres International was convicted by a High Court in Lesotho for paying a $260,000 bribe to secure an $8 billion dam contract. In 2002, Halliburton, a company once controlled by former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, was accused of establishing a $180 million slush fund with the intent of using it to bribe Nigerian officials in order to secure a $10 billion liquefied gas plant contract in Nigeria. Achair Partners, a Swiss company, and Italian firm Progresso have been accused of bribing Somalia Transition Government officials in order to secure contracts to deposit highly toxic industrial waste in the waters of Somalia. Such corrupt practices by Western companies seeking contracts in Africa are one of the reasons poverty and disease are rife in the continent.
The catastrophic environmental damage being caused by petroleum, mining and timber companies such as Shell, BP, Mobil, Total, Elf, Texaco, Mittal and Anglo-America Corporation in Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Senegal rarely makes the news in the West. How often do we hear about the huge environmental price Africans are paying to satisfy the West's insatiable appetite for precious metals, energy and technology? Apart from the huge profits being made by these conglomerates, which we often hear about in the news, do we also hear about their complete disregard for environmental protection: the pollution of rivers, lakes, streams, wells and land?
In October 2002, after a three-year investigation a UN panel of experts implicated Cabot Corporation (Boston, US), Eagle Wings Resources International and OM Group (Ohio, US) in arming rebel groups and collaborating with them to traffic from the Democratic Republic of Congo gold, diamonds, timber and, most importantly, coltan (columbo-tantalite), a precious ore essential to videogame consoles, laptop computers and cellphones. Coltan is often spirited out of the DRC to US, Swiss, Belgian and German clients by Ugandan and Rwandan army officers, rebel groups and through a network of criminal syndicates. In all, 85 companies were implicated in the report.
Beyond the wars and the desperate faces of hungry refugees, do these illegal activities by the corporations make the news in the Western media? Definitely not. Even when local journalists and writers seek to document these for broadcast in the Western media, they are refused because it does not serve the media's interests in the wider scheme of things. This, then, is the hypocrisy and the double standards of the Western media. They want the world to know how poor Africans are, but fail to tell the world that Africans are poor because Western banking institutions, housing developers, car manufacturers, defence companies and defence contractors, and oil, mining and technology corporations are major stakeholders in promoting Africa's poverty and underdevelopment.
Corruption and bribery in Africa and indeed the developing world could be substantially reduced if the media for once put aside their pick-and-choose journalism and reveal the degree of involvement by Western capitalist institutions in keeping Africans poor.
Lord Aikins Adusei is a political activist and anti-corruption campaigner.
*Third World Resurgence No. 309, May 2016, pp 21-23