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France new claims about corrupt relations with African dictators

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FRANCE: New Claims About Corrupt Relations with African Dictators

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Feb 16 (IPS) – The possibility that French foreign minister
Bernard Kouchner might have misused his public position in France to
boost his profitable private business with prominent African dictators
arises at a time when the local authorities are dealing with numerous
corruption affairs.

The accusations against Kouchner are summarised in a new book ”Le
Monde selon K.” (”The world according to K.”) by investigative
journalist Pierre Péan.

In the book, Péan alleges that Kouchner, co-owner of IMEDIA andAfrican Steps, obtained profitable contracts from the governments ofGabon and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) at a time when he wasexecutive director of a public health cooperation agency in Paris.IMEDIA and African Steps are two political counselling companies.

The governments in Gabon and the Republic of Congo – both oil-richcountries – are notorious as two particularly corrupt dictatorships.Omar Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1968 and Denis Sassou Nguesso hasbeen in power in Brazzaville since 1997 when his troops, supported byAngola, won a civil war against then president Pascal Lissouba.

Bongo and Sassou Nguesso have family links: Bongo is married to EdithLucie Sassou-Nguesso, Denis's daughter.

According to the claims by Péan, based on official documents from therespective African governments, the two companies were paid 4.6million euros by the governments of Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, foradvising their respective health departments.

Although Kouchner's activities as advisor were not illegal, severalcircumstances make the dealings with Bongo and Sassou Nguessoproblematic. On the one hand, Kouchner was at the time of the dealingspresident of Esther, a French health cooperation agency which mainlyengages with African countries.

On the other hand, the last payments by the Gabonese government toIMEDIA came when Kouchner was already serving as foreign minister. Ina letter dated Aug 2, 2007, Eric Danon, executive at IMEDIA and closeto Kouchner, urged Bongo's government to pay bills which had beenoutstanding since 2006.

Finally, in January and March 2008, the Gabonese government settled the bills.

IPS possesses copies of the letter by Danon, as well as of thetransfers from the Gabonese treasury to IMEDIA. As foreign minister,Kouchner appointed Danon and his other business partner JacquesBaudouin to important posts at the foreign ministry.

And finally, the dealings contradict the image Kouchner has alwaystransmitted of himself. ''What I find reproachful is that Kouchner hascultivated an image of an immaculate knight whose behaviour is firmlyrooted on ethics,'' Péan told IPS. ''But this image does not fit hisbusiness dealings.''

Kouchner, who had been a former member of the Socialist Party sincethe 1980s until he left the party to become minister under right-wingpresident Nicolas Sarkozy, has denied any wrongdoings. ''Péan'saccusations against me are abominable and grotesque,'' he said duringa parliamentary debate on Feb 4.

Kouchner said that he was proud of having helped the two Africangovernments to improve their public health systems and announced thathe is pursuing a case of defamation against Péan.

Kouchner's dealings are also more questionable because they involvedictators who, despite presiding over some of the poorest people inAfrica, command huge fortunes, as evidenced by their vast propertiesin France.

According to a report by the Paris-based police agency againstorganised and financial crimes (OCRGDF, after its French name), Bongoand Sassou Nguesso, together with the president of Angola, JoséEduardo dos Santos, and that of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang,possess considerable fortunes in real estate and luxurious automobilesin France.

The OCRGDF report, consisting of 34 files and thousands of pages, wasopened in late 2007 after three French humanitarian associationslodged a complaint against the four dictators and the president ofBurkina Faso, Blasé Compaoré, under the charges of ''embezzlement ofpublic funds''.

In the report, the French police conclude that the African leadershave amassed a fortune in real estate in ''the neighbourhoods (in andaround Paris) of highest commercial value'' and presents anon-exhaustive list of properties. All African leaders investigatedare also owners of large fleets of luxurious sport cars and limousinesand control numerous bank accounts.

The list includes a luxurious mansion near the Champs Elysées, themost high-priced neighbourhood in Paris, bought on June 15, 2007 foralmost 19 million Euros (some 25 million dollars), by Omar Bongo's twochildren, Omar Denis and Yacine Queenie, who were 13 and 16 years oldat the time.

Bongo alone is owner of 33 luxurious real estate properties in Parisand in the south of France.

Similarly, Denis Sassou Nguesso and his relatives are owners of atleast five sumptuous mansions in and around Paris, for a market valueof at least 10 million euros.

The African dictators also own a large flotilla of expensive sportautomobiles and limousines, including Ferraris, Bugattis, AstonMartins and Mercedez Benzes. According to the OCRGDF report, TeodoroNguema Obiang, of Equatorial Guinea possesses 15 luxurious sport carsand limousines, worth 5.7 million euros.

Despite the evidence suggesting impropriety, the French authoritiesclosed the investigation without further consequences. But it had toopen it again last December, when the anti-corruption watchdogorganisation Transparency International presented a new claim againstthe five African heads of government.

And yet, few observers believe that the complaints will ever lead tojudgments or sanctions against the African leaders. As the dailynewspaper Le Monde put it recently, ''three of the five governmentsconcerned enjoy the unshakeable support of French president NicolasSarkozy''.

Another proof of this support: Jean-Marie Bockel, former French deputyminister for international cooperation, who in Jan 2008 had dared topublicly speak of the ''squandering of African resources'' by Africanheads of state, was soon after removed from office.

In his book, Péan claims that Bongo and Sassou Nguesso complained toKouchner about these ''unobliging'' remarks. Now Bockel is deputyminister in charge of French war veterans at the ministry of defence.