Former oil trader accuses Congo’s President Sassou Nguesso of receiving bribe

A former employee at global energy trader Gunvor Group, Pascal Collard, who was found guilty of corruption, said he paid bribes to the president of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, to win oil contracts in the Central African country.  According to a Swiss prosecution document, the bribes were paid through a presidential aide and Semlex, a Belgian biometric data company.

Collard was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence after he admitted to bribing public officials to secure oil cargoes from Congo and Ivory Coast. As part of a deal with Swiss prosecutors, which saw him admit to the crime, the Belgian agreed to testify against others involved in the deals so as to avoid jail time and fine.

Reuters reports that Collard’s plea bargain authored by Swiss federal prosecutors Gerard Sautebin and Anne-Claude Scheidegger, among others showed “corrupt agreements with foreign public agents” relating to Gunvor’s business in Congo and Ivory Coast.

Although the document did not give a full breakdown of amounts paid per recipient, it described payments as bribes. The document further showed that Collard paid more than $15 million to secure Congolese oil deals. Beneficiaries listed include Congo’s president and his family members, through intermediary companies, including Petrolia E&P SA, a firm owned by Congolese presidential aide Maxime Gandzion, and Semlex.

According to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Congolese president Sassou-Nguesso and Swedish billionaire Torbjorn Tornqvist, co-founder of Gunvor go way back. They were introduced by Maxime Gandzion, a former Total executive, who had become a special adviser to the Congolese President, when Tornqvist was searching for new source of crude oil in 2006. Gandzion has also been an advisor to late Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who faced series of allegations of corruption. Bongo’s third marriage was to Sassou-Nguesso’s daughter Edith.

Gandzion reportedly arranged a lucrative deal for Gunvor, with the company founded in 2000, making about $2.2 billion from 22 tankers of crude it was able to purchase from Congo between September 2010 and June 2012. More than 20 percent of the company’s global profits — $327.9 million — in 2011 was from Congo.

The OCCRP reported that Gunvor’s operation in Congo was illegal as it violated Congolese law, with shipments purchased without a required public tender. An analysis by Public Eye, an anti-corruption organization also noted that the deal was possible because of payments made to government officials after the company had charged the Congolese state oil company inflated loan fees. Proof of the company’s unwholesome dealings was uncovered by journalists for the OCCRP and the Belgian magazine Medor, who sighted leaked contracts, invoices, court records, emails and other documents.

Gandzion was also reported to have introduced Tornqvist’s Gunvor to Semlex, a company whose founder Albert Karaziwan, he (Gandzion) and his son, Yoann, had previously done business with.

Eventually, Semlex became a crucial player in Gunvor’s African operation, helping it to buy oil, albeit illegally. The reporters discovered Semlex used shell companies and offshore accounts to oversee the payment of $48 million, after which Gunvor won favorable trade deals in three African countries, including Ivory Coast.

According to the OCCRP, payments were listed as shipping fees, in order to veil the true relationship between Semlex and Gunvor. Documents seen by the reporters show Gunvor’s middlemen used Semlex’s shell companies to move funds around.

The investigation of journalists for the OCCRP and the Belgian magazine Medor lays credence to Collard’s testimony.

“The details in the document aren’t something new. Pascal agrees he did this but others in the company, including top executives, were aware. The deal opens the door for these other people in the company to be indicted,” Collard’s lawyers Matteo Pedrazzini and Delphine Jobin said in August.

Collard’s plea bargain is part of a money laundering investigation that began in 2011, a year before he was fired after Gunvor accused him of fraud and embezzlement with regards the firm’s Congo dealings.

A Gunvor spokesman said “No member of management knew of the ex-employee’s corruption scheme or his efforts to defraud the company.”

He said the firm had since overhauled its compliance controls and no longer did business in Congo and Ivory Coast.

Congo, where Gunvor made $327.9 million in 2011 is one Africa’s poorer countries. The country, which was rated as the one of the most corrupt countries in the world last year, has not benefited enough from its oil wealth, with corrupt deals denying the country of petrodollars that could have developed the economy. With public officials enjoying proceeds of oil sector corruption, the government has focused on oil while non-oil revenue contracts and increase in oil GDP has not been able to off-set the contraction of non-oil activities.

The other country indicted by Collard has improved in recent years. Its Corruption Perception Index score increased by nine points from 2013 to 2017, ranking 27th on the index from 36th in 2013. President Alassane Ouattara has committed to fighting corruption in the country, passing a law on the prevention and repression of corruption, setting up a national anti-corruption authority and pursuing compliance with some international initiatives, like the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).

Reuters reports that the Ivorian government’s spokesperson declined comment when asked to speak about Collard’s plea. However, Congo Communications Minister Thierry Moungalla described Collard’s allegations as “baseless”, stressing that he “was not able to provide any evidence.”