South Africa’s Gupta siblings, Nigeria’s Diezani…Africans wanted for corruption charges

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: The 20 most wanted Africans…

By Camille Lafrance, Farid Alilat, Franck Foute, Loza Seleshie, Matthieu Millecamps, Vincent Duhem
Posted on Monday, 4 October 2021 15:55, updated on Wednesday, 8 June 2022 12:11

From Nigeria's Diezani Alison-Madueke, known as the Queen of Spades, to South Africa's Gupta siblings, we explore the first round of Africans accused of embezzling billions in our series.

This is part 1 of a 4-part series

South Africa – The Gupta siblings are in the spotlight 

Will Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta’s escapades end soon? The three Indian-born brothers – aged 55, 53 and 42 respectively – were at the head of a sprawling industrial empire worth $780m (€695m) and were employing 8,000 people in businesses ranging from IT and mining, to logistics and media. Originally from Saharanpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, they moved to South Africa in 1993, a year before apartheid came to an end.

Close to former president Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign in 2018, the brothers are accused of having – with his complicity – plundered public resources. Police estimate that the siblings embezzled €2.5bn, a large-scale siphoning of public accounts from which the country is still struggling to recover. The Gupta siblings, who are wanted by the courts, have gone into exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where they enjoy the authorities’ protection. Dubai has always served as their base, even when they were operating in South Africa. They now reside in a mansion valued at €25m, located near the marina.

In June, South Africa finally announced an extradition agreement with the UAE; and a month later, Interpol issued a Red Notice for two of the Gupta brothers – Atul and Rajesh. This wanted notice is related to a case involving a R25m (€1.48m) contract that was paid to a company linked to the Guptas, Nulane Investments, to carry out an agricultural feasibility study. The third brother, Ajay, is not involved in this case.

In 2019, the US Treasury froze their assets under the country’s jurisdiction and prohibited, among other things, international banks with operations in the US from doing business with them.

Tunisia – Leïla Ben Ali, the fallen regent

Ironically, the last known address of Leïla Ben Ali (née Trabelsi) on Tunisian justice documents remains the Carthage Palace. However, in 2011, the wife of the late Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left the gilded palace in a hurry and without her passport. The 64-year-old continues to live in exile in Saudi Arabia – at the expense of the kingdom, which refused to extradite her – with her son Mohamed, who is still a minor. Her defence team also denied rumours that she has married a Saudi prince.

The woman who recounted her role as former first lady of a fallen authoritarian regime in her 2012 memoir, My Truth, has done her utmost to shed her image as an instigator of mafia-style governance; but this has all been in vain. Last April, she was sentenced to a new prison term in absentia, as well as another 50 years in prison and multiple fines for corruption and embezzlement. Her assets, just like those of the ‘Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan’, were frozen abroad and seized by the state.

She made a half-hearted request for forgiveness in her book, but never demonstrated any evidence of self-reflection. According to her lawyer Maha Charfeddine, Ali felt that her charges were politically motivated. She confided this to her intermediary: “I suffer in silence, I have reached out to all the country’s presidents and continue to do so for my children’s sake.” In particular, she pleads the case of her daughter Halima, who was a minor at the time of the events and who has just finished her law studies in Dubai but is still being prosecuted.

Ali also filed a defamation complaint against one of her late husband’s former lawyers – Mounir Ben Salah – in January, claiming that he does not represent her. The latter asserts that he is writing a book based on recordings made by the ex-president, who had given him permission to do so, and is awaiting the green light from his family.

Algeria – Chakib Khelil, the art of escaping the worst of the crisis

 

Had it not been for a life-saving phone call, Chakib Khelil (Algeria’s minister of energy between 1999 and 2010) would be behind bars today, just like former prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, as well as several ex-colleagues who are serving long prison sentences.

Back in April 2019, Abdelaziz Bouteflika relinquished the power he had held for 20 years. In the wake of the former president’s fall, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, then head of the army, launched a vast anti-corruption operation targeting members of the presidential clan, including Khelil. The latter, who was tucked away in his luxury duplex in Algiers, was informed of his imminent arrest by one of his friends. Khelil immediately jumped on a plane to the US, where his wife and their two children were also hiding to escape justice in Algeria.

Since then, Bouteflika’s former friend and protégé has been the subject of an international arrest warrant for, among other things, corruption, abuse of office, money laundering and criminal association. Khelil is a dual symbol. He is a symbol of corruption – which has plagued Sonatrach, the oil company that “feeds” the country – and impunity.

In 2013, when he was a refugee in the US, he was charged by an Algerian judge and a warrant issued for his arrest. Three years later, he made a thunderous return to Algeria, where he was cleared of all charges thanks to a simple phone call made by the minister of justice, Tayeb Louh, who is now languishing in prison. Since he is not a US citizen, Khelil is hardly safe from extradition. Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, the former head of Sonatrach, also thought that the judges couldn’t reach him. However, he was extradited from the UAE at the beginning of August and placed under a detention order in El Harrach prison. Kaddour and Khelil are both being prosecuted in the same case related to the oil group’s management.

Benin – Komi Koutché, hit but not sunk

44-year-old Komi Koutché appeared on screen in a brightly coloured shirt and sunglasses. In this video that was shot in Washington, where he has lived since April 2019, the oppositionist urged Beninese to “form a sacred union” against Patrice Talon. The video dates back to 5 April 2020 when the ‘president-patron’ was preparing to run for a second term. However, Koutché’s message was in vain as Talon was re-elected. Since then, Koutché and the ‘radicals’ of the opposition in exile have stopped focusing their attention on Reckya Madougou and Joël Aïvo, candidates from the last presidential election who are now behind bars.

Both of them are being prosecuted by the Cour de Répression de l’Enrichissement Illicite et du Terrorisme (Criet) for ‘terrorism’ and ‘attempted destabilisation’, while Koutché has ‘fallen’ for economic crimes. On 4 April 2019, he was sentenced – in absentia – to 20 years in prison for ‘misappropriation of public funds’ and ‘abuse of office’ in the case involving Fonds National des Micro-Crédits, where he served as a director from 2008 to 2013. He insists that he is innocent and has appealed against his conviction from his place of exile in the US.

He was arrested in December 2018 in Spain, following an arrest warrant issued by Benin. However, in April 2019, a Madrid judge rejected the extradition request. During this process, Interpol had also decided to withdraw the arrest warrant; but Koutché was not off the hook. “Once the conviction was pronounced in April 2019, a new warrant was issued and it is still pending at the moment,” says the Criet prosecutor.

Koutché, who has been discreet in recent months, has nevertheless stated that he wants to continue to influence the Beninese political scene. “Things are being prepared,” says Koutché, who has a postgraduate degree in finance. He says that his consultancy firm is fully operational, thanks – in particular – to a “partnership with a large group” whose name he refuses to divulge. He only gives assurances that he is travelling the world, from Haiti to Qatar, via Europe: “I haven’t had the slightest problem with an arrest warrant anywhere.” However, the one destination that remains off-limits to him is Cotonou and it doesn’t seem like this will change anytime soon.

Nigeria – Diezani Alison-Madueke, Queen of Spades

Diezani Alison-Madueke’s international ‘saga’ is entering its sixth year. The 60-year-old former minister of petroleum resources (2010-2015) is being prosecuted in Nigeria, the US and the UK for having “stolen no less than $2.5bn” of public funds, according to Ibrahim Magu, former head of the Commission des Crimes Financiers et Economiques (EFCC). This amount could be as high as $6bn, according to US sources. It was embezzled through a number of dubious oil contracts – including one that was awarded to an obscure Nigerian company called Atlantic Energy, which is valued at $1.5bn, in return for various properties and other bribes.

Ever since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power, Alison-Madueke has been residing in London. She was briefly arrested by British police in October 2015 and then released on bail. However, Nigeria issued an arrest warrant against her in late 2018. “She has a Dominican diplomatic passport. Therefore, lengthy negotiations would be required to make sure that she appears at her trial. Should we pursue an international court case – with significant costs – or assess the recoverable amounts and negotiate a plea?” says Dr Uche Igwe, a researcher at the prestigious LSE in London. Moreover, “Nigerian jurisprudence does not allow prosecution in absentia,” says Emmanuel Ogbuefi, a lawyer at Ogbuefi & Associates.

In the meantime, recovery and extradition attempts are increasing rapidly in Nigeria as well as in the UK and the US. In 2017, they had already managed to get their hands on $144m worth of New York real estate and – in Nigeria – $40m worth of jewellery, $153m that was seized from bank accounts and no fewer than 80 residences across the country. The EFCC is currently trying to locate at least another $480m in assets.

Cameroon – Essimi Menye, the unfortunate big money man

He has not set foot in Cameroon since 2015; and for good reason. Essimi Menye is serving four life sentences for embezzlement, convictions which were pronounced in 2020. Targeted by a judicial procedure of the Tribunal Criminel Spécial (TCS) since 2013, he was dismissed from the government in October 2015 and fled in the wake of a much commented on ‘exfiltration’ at the time. Menye took advantage of the aftermath of a stroke – for which he was first hospitalised in Yaounde – to obtain permission to leave the territory in December 2015 to receive treatment in the US and never return within the reach of the TCS warrants.

He was prosecuted in several cases for mismanagement of public funds. In March 2020, he was finally sentenced in absentia for having paid a chartered accountant 2.5bn CFA francs (€3.8m) to cover up a 46bn CFA franc scandal, which was discovered during an audit of the activities of the Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS). The TCS also found him guilty of diverting 9.1bn CFA francs, as well as unlawfully charging interest on the sale of a 200-hectare plot of land for 27.5m CFA francs, instead of 200m CFA francs, which was estimated to be the real value at the time of the Société Camerounaise de Tabac (SCT)’s liquidation.

In the US, where he has been living since his departure into exile, the former minister of budget (2006), finance (2007-2011) and agriculture (2011-2015) has taken up residence in Virginia, where he lives with his family. The 71-year-old former World Bank consultant has stated that he will never return to his native country, where the judiciary has issued several unsuccessful arrest warrants against him since 2017, as Washington has refused to extradite him. Despite several attempts, he has not managed to return to the IMF, where he served as an advisor to Cameroon’s executive director until he was appointed budget minister in 2006.

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