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Sunday, 17 May 2009

African leaders to be investigated over French personal fortunes

Paris investigation into whether three leaders embezzled state funds to build up fortunes including luxury homes and cars

Three African leaders are to be investigated in Paris over whether they embezzled state funds to build up staggering personal fortunes in France, including luxury homes in Paris and the Riviera and fleets of sports cars.

The independent anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International brought a case calling on the French justice system to examine how the leaders of Gabon, Congo Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea and their families could afford to acquire assets worth tens of millions of euros.

The assets include scores of vast apartments and villas and dozens of French bank accounts and cars ranging from Ferraris and Maseratis to a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

The anti-corruption group said the assets were worth several times more than the African leaders officially earned, and the battle to open an investigation has become known in France as "the case of the ill-gotten gains".

In a landmark decision this week, a preliminary investigation was launched by an independent French financial magistrate, setting a precedent for anti-corruption campaigners worldwide to tackle sitting presidents.

Daniel Lebeguè, the head of the French arm of Transparency International, called it a "historic decision to end the impunity of corrupt leaders in the world".

But the French state prosecutor, overseen by the government, could launch an appeal next week to prevent the case being opened. The public prosecutor has twice previously ruled that the complaint by the anti-corruption activists was inadmissible.

France has important economic and strategic interests in the three oil and gas-producing countries.

If the case is blocked, questions will be raised about Nicolas Sarkozy's promise to end France's colonial tradition of self-interest, opaque deal-making and turning a blind eye to abuses in Africa as part of its special "Francafrique" relationship.

The three African leaders flatly deny all accusations of building up vast personal assets through embezzlement, money-laundering and the misuse of public funds.

Gabon's Omar Bongo is – apart from the British and Thai monarchies – the world's longest-ruling head of state. At one time he owned more Paris properties than any other foreign leader.

A police report revealed that he and his close relatives own more than 30 properties in France, mostly in exclusive districts of Paris and on the French Riviera.

He and his family also have 70 French bank accounts and at least nine luxury cars in France, including Ferraris and Mercedes worth a total of €1.5m (£1.3m).

Bongo, who came to power with French help in 1967, has been close to all French presidents including Sarkozy, who telephoned him to thank him for his election advice.

Gabon is strategically important to France not only for its oil but also as a military base to coordinate intervention in Chad and the Central African Republic.

Bongo's father-in-law, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, is the president of Congo Brazzaville, another former French colony.

He and his family have 112 French bank accounts, 13 luxury cars in France and 24 properties, including a mansion in a rich Paris suburb.

Sassou-Nguesso's daughter Edith – who was Bongo's late wife – and other members of the ruling family of Congo bought a mansion in the rich eighth arondissement of Paris for €18.9m - the single biggest transaction mentioned in the police file.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema is the leader of Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony and currently sub-Saharan Africa's third biggest oil producer.

Along with family members, he has eight luxury cars, worth a total of €4.2m, in France. His son, a government minister, owns an apartment in an exclusive area of the capital.

William Bourdon, a lawyer for Transparency International, said that if the French public prosecutor launched an appeal "aimed at putting a lid on this investigation", it would "make a mockery of Sarkozy's commitments at the G20 against tax havens, financial crime and international fraud".

He called on prosecutors to resist any pressure linked to French interests in Africa and allow the investigation to proceed.

The French company Total is the leading oil producer in Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, and many other French firms, public and private, have long-term contracts in the two former colonies.

After a meeting with the French president in July 2007, Sassou-Nguesso denounced what he called an inquiry "that smacks of neo-colonialism".

"In France all the leaders of the world have chateaux and palaces, whether they come from the Gulf, Europe or Africa," he said

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