In the name of the father: financial crimes in Central Africa

2020-03-03

Senegalese President Macky Sall’s brother Aliou Sall resigned from his position as head of the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, a state-run savings fund, in June 2019 following accusations of corruption and nepotism, and strong civil society protests.

In Central Africa, such successful public pressure against a public figure and member of a ruling family would be incongruous. When they are accused of financial crimes, such officials seem immune to prosecution at national level. Even more so in a context where the lines between the executive, judiciary and legislature are blurred.

Presidential family members being involved in public affairs is not uncommon in Central Africa, with key government positions given to sons, daughters and other relatives of the ruling family. Some countries are even perceived as family businesses or dynasties.

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba succeeded his father Omar as head of state on the latter’s death in 2009. Ali held several ministerial positions during his father’s rule, including that of defence minister. His sister Pascaline was presidential adviser and director of cabinet. In Equatorial Guinea, another small oil-rich country in Central Africa, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s children are ministers and vice-president.

Frustrated citizens might see violence as the only means to break the power of seemingly self-serving family clans

The appointment of family members to high-level or political posts is not illegal. But with ruling families, often this appears to translate into a source of corruption and money laundering of public funds for self-enrichment.

Several cases against the Bongo family in France, initially closed in 2017, were revived early 2019 following new information on illicit transactions involving the clan. There are even more cases against Vice-President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mangue Jr. – Teodorin – of Equatorial Guinea. He is accused of money laundering and embezzlement of public funds in several countries and has been prosecuted in France.

In the Republic of Congo, two of President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s children, both members of parliament, are accused of money laundering. Denis-Christel is accused of laundering US$50 million in 2014 through offshore companies and daughter Claudia allegedly purchased a US$20 million private property in New York’s Trump Tower with public funds.

President Sassou himself recently had €19 million confiscated by authorities in the Republic of San Marino following an international investigation on money laundering.

Presidential family members being involved in public affairs is not uncommon in Central Africa

Unlike in Senegal where civic pressure seemed to have played a key role in Aliou Sall’s resignation, protests from civil society in Central Africa are at best ignored, and most often suppressed. Activist Alfredo Okenve Ndoho tells ENACT of his ordeal that included arbitrary arrest and beating for protesting against the stranglehold of the Obiang family on Equatorial Guinea’s governance. In July 2019, his organisation was revoked for alleged illegality.

A petition by a civil society platform to waive the parliamentary immunity of Denis-Christel and Claudia Sassou Nguesso in Congo has so far been ignored.

This context doesn’t augur well for peace and stability in Central Africa. Frustrated citizens unable to hold their leaders accountable through democratic avenues might see violence as the only means to break the power of seemingly self-serving family clans.

Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa

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