Concern is growing over the need to combat money laundering in Central Africa, but a key question is whether states in the region have the political will to do so.
The importance of prosecuting cases is underpinned by the fact that money laundering impedes the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Although money laundering is a criminal offence across the region, its definition is elusive and there have been very few, if any, prosecutions of money laundering cases. In countries like Gabon, no such cases have been prosecuted.
Lamenting this impunity, the Director for Legal Affairs and Litigation at the Task Force on Money Laundering in Central Africa (GABAC), Saturnin Bitsy, has expressed regret over the lack of legal action in Gabon.
In 2017, the president of Cameroon’s National Anti-corruption Commission accused public servants at various levels of money laundering. The situation is similar across countries of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), which share the same anti-money laundering strategy at regional level under GABAC.
On the other hand, many government officials have been brought to book for embezzling public funds or bribery. In Cameroon, citizens have joked about the creation of an alternative cabinet made up of former government officials in the Yaoundé Kondengui central prison. In Gabon, officials were arrested in early 2017 as part of alleged efforts to fight graft, dubbed ‘Operation Mamba’– although such cases often attract accusations of being politically motivated. Another example is the case of Blaise Wada, a former high-ranking member of the ruling party who was accused of embezzling public funds between 2009 and 2016. But money laundering, specifically, has seldom been the reason for convictions.
The impunity and absence of prosecutions created an environment in which transnational organised crime flourishes in Central Africa. Recently, links between money laundering and terrorism have attracted attention. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), money laundering allows terrorists to ‘sustain themselves and carry out terrorist acts’. But, as the UNODC stresses, terrorists are not concerned with disguising the origin of their money, but more with concealing its destination and the purpose for which it has been collected.
In contrast, public officials in Central Africa do not necessarily try to hide the destination of their money. Many officials are alleged to own real estate in major African cities and abroad. A public servant’s salary is far from sufficient to fund the construction or purchase of multi-storey buildings or other forms of high-value real estate.
Bitsy is right to raise the alarm about a worrying trend that requires urgent national and regional action. Anti-money laundering agencies such as GABAC can assist states in this endeavour. This is all the more important in a country such as Gabon, where the National Financial Investigation Agency, which has been without an operating budget since 2016, seems to be under threat of closure.
Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, ISS