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Vol 62 No 24

Published 2nd December 2021


The bank at the heart of the scandal

Owned partly by the Bongo family, the BGFI was implicated in corruption before its Kinshasa operations were exposed

The bank at the centre of the Congo Hold-up consortium's revelations of state capture and grand corruption in Congo-Kinshasa, Banque Gabonaise et Française Internationale (BGFI), has been a key facilitator of the shadowy Françafrique system, which unites Francophone African leaders with top French politicians and business people.

Because of its presidential backing, BGFI is the biggest bank in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville and the fifth biggest in Congo-Kinshasa. In all three countries, BGFI hold accounts for the biggest state entities: the national oil company and major ministries, such as the public works ministry, in Congo-B; the national oil refinery and an account for receiving state oil dividends in Gabon; and in Congo-K, accounts for the Banque Centrale du Congo (BCC), the central bank and the state mining company Gécamines.

These BGFI accounts offer rich pickings for anyone able to divert public assets into private pockets.

BGFI was a creation of two presidents: Omar Bongo of Gabon – who died in 2009, his son Ali Ben Bongo taking his place – and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of neighbouring Congo-B. Strongly backed by successive French governments and oil companies, Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso have presided over a succession of national financial scandals.

In a brochure celebrating '40 years of shared history, ambition and passions', BGFI describes how its roots go back to 1971, when French bank Paribas opened a branch in Gabon, ruled since 1967 by the two Bongos. Paribas Gabon dealt 'only with big corporate clients, particularly oil companies, and a small base of relatively VIP customers', says the brochure.

But many of their loans went unpaid and had to be written off. By the early 1990s Paribas sold the majority of its shares to the Gabonese state and to 'private interests', and Paribas Gabon was renamed the Banque Gabonaise Française et Internationale (BGFI).

Prominent interests
BGFI has been coy about those 'private interests'. A report in 2001 in Gabon's L'Union newspaper names two as Delta Synergie (with 13% of the bank) and the Compagnie du Komo (with 25%), both linked to Bongo and his family. Delta Synergie was the Bongo family's holding company, through which it owned stakes in the oil industry, as well as media and mining.

The Compagnie du Komo is 15% owned by Delta Synergie. According to the latest available documents, the Bongo family owns 11% of BGFI's holding company in Gabon through these two companies.

In 2000, BGFI opened a subsidiary in Congo-Brazzaville. There, Denis Sassou-Nguesso seized power in 1979 and has stayed in charge, apart from a 1992-97 interregnum and civil war. In 1990, Bongo married Sassou-Nguesso's daughter, Edith, and so became the son-in-law of Congo-B's President, even though he was eight years his senior.

Beyond its ties to Paribas Gabon, it is BGFI's strong links to the French Intercontinental Bank (Fiba), that explain its role in state capture projects in the region.

Fiba was central in one of the biggest scandals of the 20th century: the corrupt system through which French oil company Elf siphoned money to French politicians at home, and to dictators and rebel groups in Africa. Founded in 1976, Elf merged with the country's other leading oil companies Total and Fina in 2003.

BGFI and Elf 
'The Elf case was the first to get close to the secret Republic,' wrote France's investigating magistrate Eva Joly, in her book Justice Under Siege. 'The sums in question were of a size hitherto unknown in a criminal case.'

Set up in 1975, with its Paris headquarters on the chic Avenue George V, Fiba was meant to help Gabon make international investments, Fiba's first General Manager Pierre Houdray would tell French investigative magistrates in the 1990s.

From the start Bongo and 'those close to him' owned 51% of Fiba, alongside the 43% held by Elf. Of that 51% stake, just over 15% was owned by the president personally, and a further 19% by three of his children – including Ali Bongo, who succeeded his father as president – according to Stephen Smith and Antoine Glaser's landmark book on France's post-colonial African networks, Ces Messieurs Afrique.

Loïk Le Floch-Prigent, managing director of Elf from 1989 to 1993, described the company's role in frank terms when many of its executives faced trial in 2003. During that trial, which ended with 31 convictions for Elf executives and their associates, Le Floch-Prigent said: 'Let's call a spade a spade. Elf was created to keep Algeria and the negro kings in France's orbit, through oil.'

Within the Elf system, Fiba had the role of a 'a post-colonial bank', he wrote, in his book Affaire Elf, Affaire d'Etat. It created 'the legal and financial mechanisms through which the money was circulating, so as to make the system even more opaque.'

In Gabon and Congo-B, two of Fiba's most important customers were Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso, according to the 600-page Elf indictment. Joly and fellow investigating magistrate Laurence Vichnievsky raided Fiba's Paris offices on 7 March 2000. Documents, including cash transfers, were seized. Two days later, a break-in at the bank headquarters raised suspicions of wrongdoing, and by the end of the month Fiba was closed down.

BGFI's secret pact
Later that year, French-Africa insider publication La Lettre du Continent, reported that there had been a secret agreement, under which Fiba in Gabon and Congo-B had been absorbed by BGFI.

The BGFI brochure provides more details on the Congo-B part of the story. When BGFI set out to establish an operation in Congo-B,' it says, the country was emerging from a civil war and just one bank was 'functioning correctly in Congo: the Fiba, a bank of the Elf group, present in France, Gabon and Congo'.

It continued, 'On the 31st March 2000, Fiba has to close in Congo. This fact precipitates the opening of BGFI Bank in Brazzaville.' BGFI received its banking licence in Congo-B on 1 April 2000, just one day after Fiba closed its doors. BGFI was at first headquartered at Fiba's old offices, a single-storey whitewashed villa fronted by palm trees and croton bushes, and took on at least 80% of its customers.

A commercial agreement was 'signed with the directors of Fiba according to which BGFI Bank will be presented to its customers, with facilities for those wishing to transfer their accounts over to us', said Alain Mabiala Moussirou, in charge of setting up BGFI in Brazzaville at the time. He said this did not mean Fiba was acquiring Fiba, but all the evidence shows a remarkably strong continuity.

Business as usual
Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso had their hands free to continue business as usual after Fiba's closure. And, like Fiba, BGFI has left a litany of scandal in its wake.

In the United States, the Department of Justice went to court in June last year to seize a Miami penthouse as the proceeds of corruption, presenting evidence that it secretly belongs to International Cooperation Minister Denis-Christel Sassou-Nguesso, son of President Sassou-Nguesso, and that it was bought with funds stolen from the state oil company.

The complaint cited emails sent by Sassou-Nguesso fils directly to the CEO of BGFI in his country, instructing that over $116 million be transferred from the national oil company to offshore accounts.

He 'used the funds to purchase luxury goods, and to acquire assets in the U.S., France, and elsewhere', says the indictment. The case was settled in August, with the property being sold and the US confiscating most of the proceeds: $1.89m.

BGFI has cropped up repeatedly in a series of asset seizures in France known as the Biens mal acquis (ill-gotten gains) cases. These began in 2007, when French campaign group Sherpa launched a legal complaint, alleging that three presidential families – the Sassou-Nguessos, the Bongos and the family of Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema – had amassed a fortune of corruptly acquired properties and luxury cars in France.

Conflicts of interest
Internationally, BGFI is riddled with conflicts of interest, making it open to corruption. This has not only been the case in the Congo-Kinshasa – where former President Joseph Kabila's adopted brother was CEO, and his sister was a 40% shareholder – but it's evident in Congo-B, where intelligence chief Jean-Dominique Okemba is chairman.

As well as the 11% of the shares in the BGFI holding company, the Bongo family owned a 15% stake in the Congo-B branch – 10% held by Delta Synergie, and 5% by 'Mme Bongo', according to a 2009 World Bank document seen by Congo Hold-up and marked 'for restricted distribution'.

Another 25% of BGFI in Congo-B is owned by a mysterious company called Scipa SA. A May 2014 'partial audit' - led by the current CEO of BGFI in Congo-K, Francesco De Musso – says that the Gabon headquarters had no documents showing who owned the company. BGFI headquarters did not respond to questions on this and other matters.

Bongo's millions
At the same time, branches in these countries also manage personal transactions for their respective presidents. Historical documents from BGFI Gabon show that Omar Bongo held a long-term deposit there for the equivalent of $20.6m in 2009, the year of his death. 

In December 2008, Omar Bongo was listed as benefitting from a $7m loan, managed by Henri-Claude Oyima, who has headed BGFI internationally since the start. Conflicts of interest at the Gabonese branch are still a risk: sitting on the board of the holding company is Pascaline Bongo, the late President's daughter, who served as his foreign minister and then as the Director of the Cabinet of the President in the 1990s and 2000s.


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