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Africa Confidential presents a Special Report on the Breton tycoon’s growing influence in Africa. Far from quitting the continent, Vincent Bolloré’s business and political interests in Africa are deepening – even as he faces trial in Paris for grand corruption in league with two West African leaders. By Andrew Weir and Nicolas Vescovacci
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Billionaire Vincent Bolloré, who has built up monopoly control over some of the biggest container terminals in Africa, is heading back to the French courts with two of his top executives to face charges of bribery.
They are accused of helping Presidents Faure Gnassingbé of Togo and Alpha Condé of Guinea in their election campaigns in 2010 in return for special favours in their country’s major ports.
Bolloré and his colleagues admitted bribery in a plea bargain with Paris prosecutors under which the company paid a €12 million fine and the Bolloré executives €375,000 each. But a Paris judge stunned defending lawyers and prosecutors by throwing out the deal in February 2021. The offences were too grave to be covered by a plea of guilty and a fine and ‘compromised the sovereignty of Togo by altering the proper function of its institutions,’ she said (AC Vol 62 No 7, SPECIAL REPORT: How Vincent Bolloré won control of Ghana's biggest port).
The trial will take place just as the Breton tycoon is set to add €5.7 billion to his already immense fortune once regulators approve the sale of his Bolloré Africa Logistics, one of the largest companies on the continent, to its former rival, the MSC Group.
But the sale to MSC does not, as many assume, mean Bolloré is leaving Africa. The same influence networks that won him commercial supremacy in the world of logistics are now working for him in new media, digital telecoms, internet service provision, media and public relations in Africa, our research shows.
There is concern Bolloré will use his new cash mountain to replace his monopolistic dominance of African trade with a much larger one over books, newspapers, radio and television in France and beyond. He is notorious for editorial interference in the media he controls in France, and many fear this is a foretaste of greater political influencing and censorship to come. But he denies this and says it is only business. 'This is a very profitable business,' he told a French Senate commission in January, saying his motives were only commercial.
The Bolloré-controlled worldwide media empire, Vivendi Group, established Group Vivendi Africa (GVA) as its Africa arm in 2015, investing in fibre-optics, internet service provision and other new and digital media, with GVA-Togo as its local subsidiary. We have focused on GVA-Togo as a microcosm of the Bolloré system of influence in Africa in action.
New evidence could indicate Bolloré has traded shares in GVA-Togo for political favours, in much the same way – and with many of the same people – he influenced to win advantages in logistics in Togo in earlier decades.
|This special investigation by Andrew Weir and Nicolas Vescovacci, supported with a grant from Journalismfund.eu, explains how Bolloré’s methods of rewarding unaccountable elites in African states in exchange for tax and contract favours in the logistics world have segued into the media and the digital communications sectors. We show how Bolloré’s carefully nurtured ties with Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé point to his plans to dominate the country’s media and digital communications business – and the implications of that for other countries in the region.
Bolloré comes to Lomé port
The story begins with Bolloré's ambition to add the strategic port of Lomé to his regional network of ports in the 1990s, then moves on to his role in helping the son of a military dictator remain president in a dubious election, and then, years later, to the development of the media and digital media interests in Africa.
For over 20 years Vincent Bolloré laboured to create a chain of 18 container terminals stretching down the West African coast – out of 24 on the continent overall – which gave him a near-monopolistic position. From Nouakchott in Mauritania down to Pointe-Noire in Congo-Brazzaville, no shipper could shop elsewhere, with obvious consequences for pricing.
But in the late 1990s, Lomé still eluded the Breton billionaire, leaving a gap in the chain. As the only deep-water port in the region Lomé raises Togo to a strategic importance few would imagine of a country with a population of just 5.5 million.
Bolloré's first step was to take minority shareholdings in the French companies operating in the port and then exploit them to launch boardroom coups. This tactic made him famous and led The Economist to describe him as a 'flawed exemplar of capitalism' who had 'ridden roughshod over the principles of modern corporate governance'.
He acquired shipper Delmas-Vieljeux in a hostile takeover in 1991, and bought other companies at Lomé, such as SCAC, Saga and others before they were all eventually folded into Bolloré Africa Logistics.
But Bolloré still faced obstacles, chiefly Jacques Dupuydauby, an equally well-connected French entrepreneur who had used his connections to the strongly Africa-focused French President Jacques Chirac to secure links to President Gnassingbé Eyadéma. Eyadéma was a veteran of France's colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam who killed Togo's civilian president and ruled the country as a dictator from 1967. Dupuydauby was soon on first-name terms with him.
At Eyadéma's right hand stood his French consigliere, Charles Debbasch, the gatekeeper all foreign business people had to pass before investing in Togo. In 2005 the authorities in France and Belgium tried to arrest him over frauds against a charitable foundation, and a French court sentenced him to two years in prison.
Dupuydauby has recounted how Debbasch was also the 'bagman' who collected bribes and kickbacks from Dupuydauby's business, and many others in Togo, for distribution to President Eyadéma and his family and entourage.
If Bolloré was to expand into Lomé he had no option but to work with Dupuydauby, and from 1999 on Bolloré provided Dupuydauby with €30,000 per month in exchange for shares and a growing role in the port.
Bolloré already had a well-connected local ally, Charles Kokoufi Gafan, whom he had hired as a young man in 1985, to whom Bolloré was a father-figure. Gafan grew in importance to the Bolloré empire and is now CEO of Bolloré Africa Logistics in Togo. A former cabinet minister told us Gafan was utterly devoted to Bolloré, and his 'right arm' in Togo, and ready to do anything for his boss. Gafan is to married one of President Faure Gnassingbé's sisters, according to local media.
Gafan has no political ambition, we were told, and his loyalty to the regime is matched only by his passion for his mentor Bolloré and his company. A former Bolloré executive called him 'the perfect apparatchik… he would crawl through mud for Bolloré.'
Dupuydauby and Bolloré set about dominating Lomé port, but they had to play by the rules. A former colleague of Bolloré's who wishes to remain anonymous said the corruption at the heart of the Togolese system was the 'Dupuydauby system' and it was thanks to that that business in Togo was 'rotten'.
Dupuydauby, on the other hand, claims Bolloré and his companies had no qualms about the bribery in Togo, which was not an invention of his but a simple fact of life in Togo. 'The president, his family, key members of his entourage, politicians, police and military all benefited from all sorts of bribes, jobs, or preferential business opportunities only the state could bestow,' Dupuydauby said.
As for Bolloré himself, Togo was his 'private domain, always run in conjunction with Charles Gafan', our source says, confessing it was 'for some reason I never understood'. Instead of Togo business going through normal Bolloré group channels, the boss always handled it himself. Neither Bolloré nor Gafan have replied to our questions.
In 2001 SE2M, the company headed by Dupuydauby, won the container franchise for Lomé. By November 2004 Faure Gnassingbé, one of President Eyadéma's sons, then Minister of Equipment, Mining, Posts, and Telegraphs, signed an agreement for the construction and operation of a new container terminal with Terminaux Conventionnels de Lomé, a newly registered company owned by Dupuydauby and Bolloré.
This was the prize Bolloré was seeking.
Then, events took place which Bolloré was able to exploit to remove his partner Dupuydauby from the scene, a fate that has befallen practically every business partner Bolloré has ever had.
The baton passes
On 5 February 2005, President Eyadéma, then Africa's longest-ruling head of state, died unexpectedly, aged 69. His entourage of senior military and police officers belonging to his ethnic group, the Kabye, decided their best chance of preserving the status quo was to pick Faure Gnassingbé, the ablest of all their former leader's several children by different women, as the successor (see box: Son of the putschist).
Competition among Eyadéma's children can be rough. Faure’s half- brother, Kpatcha Gnassingbé, once ran the Free Port and served as defence minister and interior minister under his father. But when Faure became president they were continually at odds and in 2011 Kpatcha was convicted of plotting a coup and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he remains today.
Dupuydauby and Bolloré also fell out. Relations got so bad that in February 2006 Dupuydauby launched an ill-advised power play when, at his instigation, four top Bolloré executives on a visit to Lomé were thrown into prison as they were about to leave the country. Bolloré got his friend President Nicolas Sarkozy to call Faure on their behalf and they were freed 36 hours later.
Bolloré was anything but intimidated and the company said the men had been 'taken hostage'. It was now open war between the former allies and Bolloré accused Dupuydauby of defrauding him of €20m.
By Dupuydauby's account, recounted, he said, to Paris investigating magistrate Serge Tournaire, demands for bribes from Faure, Debbasch and the Togolese elite had become so onerous, he had to leave the country.
'Their ever-increasing demands had become incessant,' he said, adding that Debbasch came personally to collect the cheques for himself and the President, much as he had for the President's father. Dupuydauby once said that Debbasch took €255,000 from him in a two-year period. A 'gangster regime', he said, had extracted €12m from him in all. (Bolloré, incidentally, was careful enough to employ a daughter of Debbasch, to whom he was also close, between 2014 and 2016.)
Dupuydauby also claims President Faure Gnassingbé told him that, much as he regretted it, Faure had to transfer control of Lomé port to Bolloré because President Sarkozy had told him in 2007 it would be a friendly gesture.
This was also reported by Le Monde and the satirical French weekly, Le Canard Enchainé. In the weekly's version, Faure dumped Dupuydauby in favour of Bolloré because his re-election was due in early 2010 and the friendship and support of Bolloré – known to be very close to Sarkozy – would be invaluable. The good will of the French president could also help protect Faure from growing regional pressure to institute democratic reforms. The fashion for military dictatorships in mufti had passed.
During three tumultuous days at the end of May 2009, the Togolese state charged Dupuydauby with fraud and other crimes. His shares in the port companies were transferred to Bolloré, and he fled the country. During that quick transition Bolloré also won a 35-year concession at Lomé port. (This contract remains secret. The opposition asked questions about it in parliament in 2018 but never received an answer.)
Dupuydauby was not only, like so many partners of Bolloré, out of the business, but an outlaw. He was later convicted of fraud and stealing investor funds in Togo and in Spain. He denies wrongdoing and claims he was a victim of conspiracies by Bolloré and his Togolese allies.
In June, Gafan became deputy general manager of the port companies, soon to be renamed Bolloré Transport and Logistics, and Rear-Admiral Fogan Adégnon, state director of the port administration, the Port Autonome de Lomé, joined the board. Adégnon was mayor of Lomé and the partner of Faure's mother, Sabine Mensah. Bolloré's networks had linked up and his lock on the port was now complete.
Havas and payback time
Now that Bolloré had seen off Dupuydauby, secured the tax breaks, port concessions, and the right to build a third container terminal, he had to repay the favours. This is documented in evidence from the French prosecutor's investigation of Bolloré's alleged bribery of Faure in 2010, and the Guinean President, Alpha Condé.
It was Dupuydauby – out of revenge no doubt – who had filed the accusations of bribery in Paris which launched the investigations. Much of the prosecutor's dossier was leaked to the press earlier this year.
Charles Gafan, according to what Bolloré's own colleagues told the French investigators, went as Faure's trusted emissary to Bolloré and told him that he must repay Faure's favour by helping him win re-election in March 2010.
Gafan reportedly contributed generously to Faure's re-election campaign, including providing helicopters, on top of his usual role of distributing largesse to members of the presidential entourage, none of which is against Togolese law.
Colourful extracts from transcripts of the recordings by the French judicial investigators of Bolloré's phone conversations have been published. In one call Bolloré protests that €400,000 is too much for the Havas campaign that the political consultancy was running for Faure. They should make it €300,000 and get Faure to contribute €100,000. This was done.
The investigating magistrate, Serge Tournaire, finally arrested Bolloré in 2018. Bolloré admitted to the bribery, in the form of Havas's campaign for Faure, in the plea bargain thrown out by the Paris court in February last year.
Havas's campaign centred on the idea that Faure had embedded democracy and the rule of law, making Togo a safe, just and fair society. Freedom House, the international monitor of democratic standards, calls Togo 'partly free' saying, 'Opposition calls for constitutional and electoral reforms have been harshly repressed'. Freedom House especially criticises the presidential electoral system, to which it gives its lowest international rating (see box: Son of the putschist).
Havas is no ordinary consultancy, as shown by in materials the Paris magistrates seized from Bolloré's headquarters. During Faure's campaign, Havas wrote to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner asking him to make a statement condemning violence during the polls, which he duly did, three days before polling day, asking voters to make the vote a 'peaceful expression of democracy'.
Kouchner's appeal for calm, however, effectively endorsed an already questionable election, Faure's legitimacy and a flawed electoral process, critics said. The record of Kouchner's statement has since disappeared from the archives of the foreign ministry.
Faure won the poll with 71% of the vote, which was roundly rejected as fraudulent by the opposition. All election observers, apart from those of regional African organisations which approve polls other authorities call dishonest, had been deported beforehand.
Havas's generosity to the Togolese elite did not stop there. After the election Bolloré created a local subsidiary, Havas Media Togo, and appointed Patrick Bolouvi, the President's half-brother, to the board on a salary and benefits package of €8,500 a month.
Bolouvi never went to the office, answered emails or did anything at all for the company, complained Havas colleagues. Bolloré had to write a letter to staff insisting that Bolouvi did add value as managing director but without mentioning his influential relative.
One report said that Bolouvi's main role was to spread favours and cash around the elite and the president's entourage, using Havas as a hub. Despite this, Bolouvi was made CEO of Havas Media Togo six months after he joined.
Havas's persuasion of the local electorate and, arguably more importantly, the international community, of Faure's legitimacy had already been accomplished when Bolouvi was appointed and Havas Media Togo created as a subsidiary. The impression is hard to avoid that Bolouvi's job was created as a favour to the President, and to further Bolloré's influence. Havas Media Togo lost $240,000 in 2013. (Havas says that it has not been involved in political consultancy since 2013, partly because of controversies like this.)
The ubiquitous Charles Gafan was also made a director of Havas Media Togo, representing Bolloré Africa Logistics. By now, Gafan was not only the CEO of Bolloré Africa Logistics in Togo, he was connected to the director of the port of Lomé, a director of the local Havas subsidiary. Later he would have a role in Vivendi's expansion into Togo.
Vivendi comes to Togo
Group Vivendi Africa, the subsidiary leading the media, entertainment and digital investments for the French parent group, is fast establishing itself across Africa.
It started in the Francophone countries with strong Bolloré links and weak to no democratic credentials, such as Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Côte d'Ivoire, Rwanda, Togo, and Burkina Faso.
GVA invests in broadband services, internet service provision, fibre-optics, streaming television, and premium cinemas.
In several of those countries digital services have been shut down by the government at times of protest to prevent debate and stop the opposition communicating news and monitoring the polls, Togo being no exception.
From 2015 GVA started to develop the digital environment in some of the above countries and in Togo these moves involved Bolloré companies all the way.
A key figure has been Cina Lawson, Togo's Minister of Digital Economy and Transformation, who has held this portfolio, with minor changes in name, since 2010. She supervised the privatisation of Togolese telecoms (see box: Three sisters with connections).
Cina Lawson is one of several women at the heart of Togo's government with close links to the President. She was 36 when he gave her the portfolio, which he had held while serving his father. She had had a brilliant academic career, then served with the World Bank, and held important posts with Alcatel and then Orange telecoms companies specialising in policy.
Cina Lawson consulted Dominique Taieb of the Polyconseil consultancy in early 2011 on the architecture of the digital environment for new media, and fibre-optics, according to Togolese opposition media. Five years later, Polyconseil was again working with Lawson's ministry on tenders for fibre-optic services in Lomé, according to local media. Neither Cina Lawson, the ministry, Taieb nor Polyconseil responded to our requests to clarify these relationships.
Polyconseil is owned by the Bolloré Group and one of the winners of the fibre-optics contract was GVA-Togo. The timing of the advice and then contract awards suggests Bolloré companies were involved all through the process and benefitted from it.
The role of Bolloré's companies in this process can hardly have escaped Cina Lawson. Her sister Cathia Lawson-Hall is a senior Vivendi executive of long standing who heads its audit committee.
When it came to awarding contracts for fibre-optics and internet service provision, Cina Lawson's ministry issued a tender document in August 2016 specifying that only two contracts would be issued. The call for tenders went out in October and the initial deadline for bid submission was November, later postponed to December.
This was postponed again, with a final deadline for submission of the bids being set at 10 February 2017. Yet, GVA-Togo was only formally incorporated in Lomé on 15 February, five days after the deadline passed.
On 31 May Cina Lawson declared that the fibre-optics award had gone to GVA-Togo (while the second contract went to Teolis SA), and a ceremony followed a week later.
Opposition critics suggested the tender deadline was extended so frequently because the decision to award GVA-Togo the contract had already been made but the new company was not ready.
If there were any doubt that at the centre of all this activity stood Bolloré, it was dispelled when, 10 days after the formal issue of the awards, Gafan, the CEO of Bolloré Africa Logistics in Togo, entered into the capital of GVA-Togo with 14% of the shares, while 1% went to Richard Aquéréburu (who happens also to be the uncle of Cina Lawson, and her sisters Cathia Lawson-Hall and Sonia Lawson – see Box: Three sisters with connections).
In September 2017 Gafan's and Aquéréburu's shares in GVA-Togo were altered from A shares into B shares. This meant that neither Gafan nor Aquéréburu would be required to pay for further increases in capital of the company, and they would retain their equity and voting rights even if more capital were raised. These 'special benefits', the company documents say, are only for Gafan and Aquéréburu and would cease if the shares were sold. The dividend for the shares will be limited to 1.05% of the of the overall company dividend.
These shareholdings look much like gifts, but none of the parties involved commented.
Aquéréburu's status as a privileged member of the Bolloré network is also indicated by the fact he was made chair of the board of directors of Canal Plus Togo, another part of the
Gafan attended the ceremonial openings of both the CanalOlympia cinemas, the premium cinema chain part of the Vivendi empire that is spreading across Africa, that were opened in Lomé in 2017 and 2018, in the company of the President and of Vincent Bolloré.
President Faure Gnassingbé's elite network of influence converges with Bolloré's and provided the natural starting point for the Frenchman's control of media in Togo once his Havas advertising and political agency had helped Faure's re-election in 2010.
Such networks exist in all the countries in which Bolloré operates and as the digital world becomes ever more important and the tycoon spends his seventies acquiring more and more networks, his influence in Africa in particular will grow, not diminish, the media experts say.
Later this year, Bolloré and his colleagues Jean-Philippe Dorent and Gilles Allix will go on trial and defend themselves against the charge of trading Havas's campaigning expertise in helping Faure get re-elected in exchange for favours in port contracts, i.e. bribery. These are crimes in French law and punishable in France, but many Togolese and other African oppositionists say it is their people and their sovereignty who have been offended against and that this kind of influence should end.
Son of the putschist mounted a legal coup
When his military dictator father died in 2005, Faure Gnassingbé was favoured by his father's Praetorian guard of military and police loyalists, who also protected the regime against political reform. These kingmakers were determined to see Faure become president, even though it ran counter to the democratic trend then running strongly in Africa, and which was putting pressure on Togo.
Faure found succour in the indispensable advice, as had his father, of Charles Debbasch, who died aged 84 in January. Debbasch has acted as the right-hand man of several Francophone African leaders but ended up settling down with President Gnassingbé Eyadéma for the last part of his career and life, counselling him on how to best resist western calls for reform while extracting bribes from foreign businesses.
A constitutional lawyer by training, Debbasch was a specialist in devising legalistic trappings that gave heads of state who had taken power by force the appearance of accountability.
Under the constitution in force in 2005, when the head of state died, the speaker of parliament would act as president until elections could be held in 60 days. This timing did not appeal to the Lomé elite, anxious about the growing public hunger for democracy, and Debbasch had parliament convene.
The ruling party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, now UNIR, Union pour la République) elected Faure speaker, having first taken the precaution of preventing the plane of the sitting speaker, who was abroad when the President died, from landing in Togo.
The chamber then passed a further motion enabling Faure to serve out the rest of his father's term, until 2008. Pressure from neighbouring countries, the street, and the region became too strong and Faure stood down and put himself up for election in April 2005. He was elected in a widely discredited poll on 24 April. Mass protests by a furious public broke out and about 500 people were killed by the security forces in the course of brutal suppression.
Debbasch went on to devise constitutional amendments, duly passed by parliament and by referendum according to the rules, by which Faure was able to stand for a third and then a fourth presidential term. He was last elected in 2020.
The legislation which enabled Faure to stand yet again ostensibly limited presidents to two terms, something civil society had been demanding for decades. However, the regime made the bizarre claim that the law could not be retrospective, meaning Faure could restart the clock on his presidential terms from scratch in 2020. Thus, he may stand, legally, in another two elections and so only be obliged to leave office in 2030. Many believe that as he will only then be 63, he will pass more laws so he can stay on.
Three sisters with connections
Telecoms and Digitisation Minister Cina Lawson has courted controversy for being the responsible minister when the government shut down the internet in September 2017 as part of an effort to curb anti-government protests (although GVA Togo was not yet providing internet services then). A new opposition dubbed 'Togo Debout' (Stand up Togo) demanded a return to the 1992 constitution and the reintroduction of maximum two presidential terms.
The spark had been parliamentary debate of legislation, which was later passed, to extend Faure's right to stand in two further elections on top of the three he had already controversially won.
For six days the government shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS and mobile internet, later earning strong criticism from the Economic Commission of West African States (Ecowas), which ruled that access to the internet is a human right. The protests were eventually shut down with extreme violence by the state.
Last year, Togo was reported to be one of Israel's most important security 'customers' in Africa. The state carried out surveillance on hundreds of political opponents with the NSO Group's Pegasus smartphone spyware because the state had been so rattled by the 2017 protests. Research by Canada's Citizen Lab indicated the spyware had been ordered in 2017 and had been in continuous use on independent Togolese clergy, journalists and opposition members ever since.
Raised and educated in France, Cina Lawson has been the darling of awards ceremonies for African women in business and government. In 2013, Jeune Afrique magazine named her one of the '25 most influential women in business in Africa', one of many garlands she is awarded on a regular basis.
Cathia Lawson-Hall has had an equally distinguished career and is another link in the network tying the ruling elite of Togo to Vincent Bolloré. She is head of the audit committee of the Vivendi Group, and a senior director of the French bank, Société Générale, having had a distinguished career there. She is also a non-executive director of the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the main aid-giving body of the French government.
The third of the Lawson sisters, Sonia Lawson, is also much favoured by the regime. In 2014, over an alleged breach of contract, the French Accor hotel group had the luxury Lomé Sarakawa hotel wrested from it and given to a state-owned company for Sonia to run.
Accor went to court to get the hotel back, with Togo government lawyers fighting them every inch of the way. French courts ruled the expropriation to be arbitrary and by December 2017 the Togolese state had been ordered to pay Accor €4 million in compensation.
But the bill still went unpaid and in December 2021 Accor was permitted to seize a luxury mansion in Paris owned by Togo to sell if it still received no compensation. The fact the state was prepared to go so far, and at such expense, to defend the arbitrary plunder of an asset for the benefit of a member of the ruling elite was regarded by the opposition as characteristic of how Togo is run in its elite's interests.
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