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Luxury Lifestyle of the Congolese President's Entourage Attracts Attention of French Investigators

Denis Sassou-Nguessou, president of the Repubic of the Congo, left, boards his aircraft to leave the country. ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Washington D.C. a work of the U.S. federal government,- Public Domain

Julienne Sassou-Nguesso and Guy Johnson, the daughter and son-in-law of the president of the Republic of the Congo, are under investigation for money laundering of embezzled funds as part of the high-profile “Ill-gotten goods” inquiry. This development follows the investigation into Wilfrid Nguesso, the president's nephew.

Launched by the French justice system, the wide-ranging inquiry focuses on the assets of three African presidents, their families, and their entourages. The secretive way these funds have been accumulated and held outside the presidents’ own countries has attracted the attention of several anti-corruption bodies.

The French-language website Oeil d'Afrique summarised the background of the case:

Depuis 2010, des juges d’instruction français tentent de déterminer si les fortunes de trois familles présidentielles, celles de feu Omar Bongo (Gabon), de Denis Sassou Nguesso (Congo-Brazzaville) et de Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Guinée équatoriale), ont pu être bâties grâce à des deniers publics détournés de ces pays, avec l’aide d’intermédiaires et de sociétés offshores dans les paradis fiscaux.

Since 2010, inquiry judges have been examining allegations that three presidential families have built large fortunes by taking public money from their own countries and siphoning it through intermediaries and off-shore companies located in tax havens. The presidents in question are the late Omar Bongo of Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equitorial Guinea.

In this case, the judges also intend to probe links between Julienne Sassou-Nguesso and Guy Johnson and companies registered abroad, for example in Mauritius, the British Virgin Islands, Dubai and Hong Kong. The website afriqueexpansion.com explains:

Les enquêteurs cherchent à savoir si des sociétés offshores à l'île Maurice, aux Îles Vierges Britanniques, à Dubaï et Hong Kong ont servi à financer de nombreuses dépenses en France, selon une source proche du dossier. Entre 2008 et 2011 plusieurs dizaines de millions d'euros du Trésor public congolais auraient transité par ces sociétés.

Les investigations portent également sur la société congolaise de transports maritimes (Socotram), qui perçoit des redevances sur le trafic maritime et le fret pétrolier, et qui est dirigée par Wilfrid Nguesso : une partie de ces fonds auraient été détournés pour servir à l'enrichissement personnel de ce dernier et de son entourage, selon la même source.

De son côté, sa défense conteste le fait que la Socotram puisse percevoir des fonds publics…

Après des premières plaintes en 2007 et 2008, restées sans suite, une plainte avec constitution de partie civile de l'ONG Transparency international avait déclenché l'ouverture d'une information judiciaire en 2010 confiée à des juges financiers.

The investigators are trying to find out whether offshore companies in Mauritius, the British Virgin Islands, Dubai and Hong Kong have been used to fund numerous purchases in France, according to a source close to the case. Between 2008 and 2011, tens of millions of euros from the Congolese public purse are thought to have passed through these companies.

The investigations are also centered on Socotram — the Congolese Maritime Transport Association, which collects license fees from shipping and the transport of crude oil. Wilfred Nguesso is head of the organisation. The same source indicates that both he and his entourage may have benefited from the embezzlement of the association's funds.

Mr Nguesso contests this, denying that Socotram is able to collect public funds.

After the first accusations in 2007 and 2008, which were never followed up, the NGO Transparency International lodged a civil complaint. This led to the opening of a judicial investigation in 2010 by specialist financial judges.

Journalist Eunice Kaoumé has researched the affair closely. She reports that Julienne Sassou-Nguesso was once an insurance agent and that Guy Johnson practises law. Here follows what she has written for afrikmag.com:

D’après les investigations, plusieurs dizaines de millions d’euros en provenance d’entités publiques du Congo-Brazzaville, auraient été transférées depuis 2007 sur les comptes de diverses sociétés offshores basées aux Seychelles, à l’Île Maurice ou à Hong Kong, soupçonnées d’alimenter ensuite, en partie, le train de vie de certains membres du clan présidentiel, selon une source proche du dossier.

Les enquêteurs pensent que le couple aurait financé une partie des travaux par le biais d’une société seychelloise alimentée par le fruit de la vente des parts détenues par Julienne Sassou-Nguesso dans une société de télécommunications, qui serait liée à des “opérations de corruption”, selon la même source. Ils s’interrogent aussi sur le rôle du gendre du président, apparu comme le gérant d’une SCI qui avait acquis en 2007 pour quelque 19 millions d’euros, un hôtel particulier dans le cossu 8ème arrondissement de Paris, et dont des parts étaient notamment détenues par le clan d’Omar Bongo, ainsi que son épouse, Edith Lucie Bongo Ondimba, aujourd’hui décédée, qui était la fille aînée du dirigeant congolais.

La justice a déjà saisi plusieurs propriétés du clan des Sassou Nguesso ainsi qu’une dizaine de voitures de luxe.

According to the investigations, it is thought that several tens of millions of euros from public bodies in Congo-Brazzaville have been transferred to the accounts of different offshore businesses based in the Seychelles, Mauritius and Hong Kong since 2007.  A well-informed source says that these funds are believed to partly finance the lifestyle of certain members of the president's circle.

The same source affirms that investigators think the couple may have financed some of the work with the sale of Julienne Sassou-Nguesso's share of a telecommunications company thought to be linked to “corrupt dealings”. Funds are believed to have been siphoned through a Seychellois company. The role of the president's son-in-law, Guy Johnson, is also under scrutiny. He is the director of a private property company which bought a distinctive hotel for some 19 million euros in the well-heeled 8th Arrondissement of Paris in 2007. Notably, the shares of the property company were held by members of Omar Bongo's circle, as well as his wife, the now deceased Edith Lucie Bongo Ondimba, who was the eldest daughter of the Congolese President Sassou-Nguesso.

Judicial authorities have already seized properties belonging to the Sassou-Nguesso clan, as well as 10 or so luxury cars.

In a declaration reported by the website dac-presse.com, Lamyr Nguelé, president of the Congolese National Commission against Corruption, Misappropriation and Fraud (CNCCF), noted in July 2016 that corruption is a serious problem in his country:

les secteurs les plus corrompus sont les douanes, les impôts et le trésor. Il a, par ailleurs, rappelé que l’indice de perception de la corruption au Congo oscillait entre 2.1 et 2.3 dans les années 2015-2016, selon Transparency international.

Dans le secteur de la santé, la corruption perdure encore faute d’application effective des mesures de gratuité décrétées par le chef de l’Etat, sur les traitements contre la tuberculose, le VIH-sida, la césarienne, les autres soins obstétricaux et le traitement du paludisme.

Dans les hôpitaux en effet, des agents véreux continuent leur macabre besogne qui consiste à soutirer des médicaments des sacs des personnes souffrantes et de les leur revendre. Les membres des familles de ces personnes sont obligés d’acheter ces médicaments pour réserver la vie de leur patient. «Si on n’achète pas leurs médicaments, ils rechignent à traiter la personne malade pour punir ceux qui ont refusé d’acheter leurs médicaments », a confié un parent dont le fils souffrait de diarrhée et vomissement.

The most corrupt sectors are customs, tax collection and the treasury. Furthermore, Congo's perception of corruption index fluctuated between 2.1 and 2.3 in the years 2015-2016, according to Transparency International.

In the health sector, corruption endures despite decrees from the head of state to introduce free treatments for tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, caesarian sections and other obstetric procedures, and malaria.

Indeed, dishonest officials still practice their dark arts in the hospitals. Taking medication from patient's bags, they sell it back to relatives, who are forced buy in order to keep their loved-one alive. “If we don't buy the medication, they object to treating the sick person as a punishment to those who have refused”, confided a parent whose son was suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting.

But he admitted the commission's power is limited:

Lorsque les faits sont avérés, nous transmettons le ou les dossiers au procureur de la République qui engage des poursuites. La commission n’a pas compétence de les engager. Malheureusement, force est de constater qu’aucun de nos dossiers n’a fait l’objet d’une poursuite judiciaire.

When the facts come out, we send the file or files to the prosecutor to begin proceedings. The CNCCF does not have the power to do so. Unfortunately it must be said that none of our files has been the subject of a legal action.

That is tantamount to calling the institution an empty shell, with no other use than to create a smokescreen to the international community. Moreover, Transparency International's 2016 report ranks the Republic of Congo 159th out of 170 countries, according to its Corruption Perceptions Index.

To find out more about the “Ill gotten goods” affair in Africa, here are several reports for reference:

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