A constellation of Israeli firms, businessmen and consultants with a long-standing foothold in Africa are leveraging their connections to local corridors of power, to indirectly serve the interests of their country. This brand of back-channel diplomacy is thriving – and thoroughly devoid of transparency.
This is part 3 of a 4-part series
It’s midmorning and Philippe Mbarga Mboa is not serene. The minister, who works as a project manager with the presidency of the Republic, exceptionally decides not to go to his office at Etoudi Palace.
Instead, he remains at his home in Yaounde. It is there, in the cozy villa near the national security buildings and the governor of the Centre Region, that he sometimes tackles his most difficult files. The visitor of the day, Ignace Atangana, a teacher by profession, arrives at 10am. A former advisor to the ministry of national education, he is a member of the family – his uncle raised Mboa as his son – and thus, the minister would have preferred to receive him in a warmer setting.
In 2017, Atangana was a dissatisfied man. Representing the Mvog Mbia Tsala and Mvog Ela families, he intended to defend the rights of these founding families of Yaoundé over land located in the centre of the capital, opposite the Palais des Sports. As early as 2011, Roger Semengue, a teacher and businessman, had hoped to build a shopping centre there, approaching the South African ShopRite before turning to the French group CFAO (Carrefour). Plans were drawn up. Visits were made… But the project is no longer progressing.
For years, the state, which does not want to be left out of this large-scale project, has been seemingly doing everything it can to slow down the project, such as not granting the necessary building permits. At the Etoudi Palace, the secretary general of the presidency, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, has taken over the project. As for Atangana, he wrote to the head of state, Paul Biya – with whom, as a privilege of family connections, he has direct contact – to express his discontent. At the beginning of 2017, when he received his interlocutor, Mboa was asked to play the mediator, but the discussions would turn out to be long.
Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh and discreet expropriation
Atangana is sure of his rights and that of the communities that hold the land permits for the coveted land. When the minister called on him to find an amicable solution with the state, he remained inflexible. Unlike Mboa, he was unaware that the presidency had already made a surreptitious move intended to be decisive.
On 9 November 2016, Ngoh sent a letter to the office of Prime Minister Philemon Yang. This letter, classified as confidential, contains a “draft decree” of expropriation “for public utility” applying to a little more than seven hectares of land located opposite the Palais des Sports.
On 14 November, Yang signed the agreement, but his act was not published in the journal officiel (the official journal of the Republic of Cameroon). In return for compensation that the aggrieved communities claim they never received, the state expropriated the Mvog Mbia Tsala and Mvog Ela families.
In complete secrecy. Atangana only learned of the decree several months later, when he was summoned to the ministry of state property. The teacher immediately decided to take legal action to invalidate the act. On 27 November 2020, the administrative court annulled the decree for part of the land titles concerned and will be considering a similar move for the rest of the land in coming months. Nevertheless, the state has not had its last word on the matter.
Reserving the right to challenge the court’s decisions before the Supreme Court, the state has remained active since its November 2016 decree. In 2017, it sold the 7 hectares of land to two companies: CFAO and Tandyl Development. The latter was awarded half of the site for 100m CFA francs per year ($171,198), as part of a 99-year long lease signed on 22 December 2017.
In negotiations with the state since the beginning of 2017, the company plans to build a “high standard hotel complex and a business centre” adjacent to the CFAO shopping centre. No doubt due to the legal battle in the administrative court, no work has yet been carried out on the site, and it seems unlikely that a hotel complex will soon be built. If the project did exist, it is now dormant, like Tandyl Development.
From Tandyl Development to Eran Moas
A one-person real estate company with a capital of 500m CFA francs, this company was only included in the Yaoundé trade register 10 months ago. The head office doesn’t look like much: a post office box – number 35.588 – in the Bastos district of the capital. As for its manager, Emmanuel Urbach Guido, he is unknown in Yaounde.
According to information that we were able to collect, it is actually Emanuel Urbach Guido, with only one ‘m’ (contrary to the spelling of the 22 December 2017 lease). The 49-year-old Swiss lawyer, who specialises in contract law and practices in German, English and Hebrew, worked at Kohli & Partners, before adding his name to the Zurich-based law firm in 2018 to form Kohli & Urbach.
Contacted by us on 30 September and 6 October, the former student of Zurich, Jerusalem and New York universities, did not respond. Tandyl Development’s telephone numbers and email addresses were not obtained, but the name Kohli & Partners did not fail to attract our attention. It is not the first time that this firm, specialising in offshore arrangements, has invited itself into Cameroonian circles. Its name appears on a document dated 13 April 2018 and originates from the General Secretariat of the presidency of the Republic – the same institution behind the expropriation decree of November 2016 in Yaoundé.
On this occasion, Ngoh ordered the director general of the Port autonome de Douala (PAD), Cyrus Ngo’o, to sign a contract with the company PortSec SA for the “securing of the perimeter and control of access to the port” for a little more than 25bn CFA francs to 31bn CFA francs after an amendment – over a two year period.
The administrator of this company, registered in Panama – another tax haven – by the Panamanian firm Icaza, Gonzalez, Ruiz & Aleman, is none other than Kohli & Partners, the Zurich firm. Several transfers were executed in October 2018 and January 2019 by the PAD to an account managed by the firm in Liechtenstein.
The Moas system in the sights of Paul Biya’s intelligence
The manager of PortSec SA, Tsafir Tzvi, is unknown to Cameroonians, though he shares a commonality with Kohli & Partners and Tandyl Development: Eran Moas, one of the Israeli advisors to the staff of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR, special forces).
Tsafir Tzvi is a close associate of the latter, who was also behind the creation of Tandyl Development, according to sources who have been in contact with the company. Moreover, Moas, who presents himself as an independent consultant, has already used Kohli & Partners services. In 2016, the firm handled the acquisition of a villa worth 6.5bn CFA francs in Los Angeles, United States, and the name of Eran Moas is associated with other real estate companies in California, such as Crown Royal Developers, which he chaired in the early 2010s.
Is the BIR adviser, who is a favourite interlocutor of Ngoh at the presidency, playing the role of luxury sales agent for his community? Several of our sources clearly indicate this, and the list of Israeli participation in Cameroonian companies, from telecommunications to events management, is long. The Israeli, whom we contacted on 6 October, did not answer our questions about Tandyl Development, though he may have to answer to more ‘persuasive’ authorities.
According to a security source, suspicions of favouritism and corruption have attracted attention at the highest level of the state, with Biya having instructed the national intelligence agency, and their boss, Maxime Eko Eko, to look into the matter.
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