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Senegal searches for crisis communication strategy after Petro-Tim exposé

By Manon Laplace, in Dakar
Posted on Thursday, 11 July 2019 19:31

Senegal's future oil-related revenues are estimated at $23bn. REUTERS/Stephen Eisenhammer

Shaken by the Petro-Tim affair that was revived by the BBC at the beginning of the year, the Senegalese presidency is looking for a crisis communication strategy that will limit the damage once its gagging order is lifted.

“Oil is like cinema, it creates fantasies. But there are no secrets.” At a national consultation meeting on implementing local content legislation in the hydrocarbons sector, in Diamniadio on 2 July, President Macky Sall gave his first hints of a public response to the BBC’s investigation into the Petro-Tim case, which was broadcast on 2 June.

Entitled The $10 Billion Energy Scandal, the documentary revived the embers of the Aliou Sall-Frank Timis affair. In 2012, the government controversially allocated two gas blocks to Petro-Tim, part of Romanian-Australian businessman Frank Timis’s corporation. Timis’s company later hired presidential brother Aliou Sall, paying him large sums of money including secret payments from an offshore trust, raising suspicions of corruption and conflict of interest that have plagued the presidency for years.

Transparency as a charm offensive

The head of state took the opportunity to stress his desire to “protect Senegal from convulsions symptomatic of oil and gas exploitation in certain countries,” using transparency in the hydrocarbons sector as his leitmotif.

Speaking to private-sector actors in the oil sector, civil society representatives and local and national elected officials at the workshop, he outlined the measures taken under his mandate, from “Senegal’s adhesion to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2013” to the “constitutionalisation of the people’s right to own their natural resources during the referendum of March 2016”.

President Sall also mentioned “the systematic publication of mining and oil contracts since September 2016”, as well as the “creation of the Strategic Orientation Committee for Oil and Gas (COS-Petrogaz), extended to civil society and the opposition”.

Shambolic communication

The meeting, which was “long planned” according to the Senegalese president, nevertheless comes after a series of gaps in government communication. After the government’s press conference on 5 June, during which spokeswoman Ndèye Tické Ndiaye Diop denounced “a fabric of untruths […] designed to manipulate public opinion and discredit the government and the state of Senegal”, communication from the executive was indeed shambolic.

Twice in June, the minister-counsellor for communication, El Hadj Hamidou Kassé, put the head of state and his brother Aliou in an awkward position, to the delight of the local press.

Kassé has since been replaced by the former government spokesman Seydou Guèye and moved to the less exposed public role of minister-counsellor for culture. According to Kassé, this new assignment had been planned since March, but his two recent gaffes undoubtedly accelerated the process. “As long as I am in politics, I will not comment on the subject,” he said when questioned.

Shadowy areas

Since then, communication from both the government and Sall’s Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) coalition has been blocked. “We’ve been instructed to stop speaking on this case, which has been in the hands of the prosecutor since 10 June. But obviously, we’re not pleased with Kassé’s comments,” says a BBY member.

The silence has left several key questions unanswered.

Such as, what criteria motivated the allocation of the two blocks to Petro-Tim, a recently created company which had no experience in offshore exploration, instead of more experienced oil companies such as British firm Tullow Oil or the Nigerian company Oranto Petroleum? “Everything was done in compliance with the petroleum code,” says an official at the petroleum and energy ministry.

Overvalued royalties?

Another point crystallised by the dispute is the amount of royalties that Australian-Romanian businessman Frank Timis could receive following the sale of his shares to BP in 2017. In its investigation, the BBC put forward an amount ranging from $9bn to $12bn over 40 years. But according to Géraud Moussarie, CEO of BP Senegal, “the BBC’s allegations on the amount of royalties that could be paid to Timis Corporation are absurd”.

On this issue, the president’s entourage refers to the confidentiality agreement on a contract between two private entities. However, BP envoys were sent to Ousmane Ndiaye, the permanent secretary of COS-Petrogaz, and his deputy, Mamadou Fall Kane, to provide explanations to the authorities.

According to several sources within BP and COS-Petrogaz, the royalties to Frank Timis’s holding company will not exceed 0.7%-1% of future oil-related government revenue – estimated at around $23bn – which means royalties of less than $230m and nowhere near the the $10bn mentioned by the British media.

New measures

While waiting for the time when it can shed light on these grey areas, the government is continuing to look for an international communication strategy, while constantly reminding the local media of the measures that have already been taken to ensure transparency in a sector that is the object of so many ‘fantasies’.

New measures are also being prepared, such as the systematic award of hydrocarbon blocks by tender, as provided for in the new petroleum code adopted in January; or the upcoming national assembly vote on a transparency law regarding the use of future revenues from oil and gas exploitation.

As for the unanswered questions about the blocks already granted to Petro-Tim that were handed over to Kosmos Energy and BP, “only the justice system will give the people answers”, according to the members of the president’s inner circle.

This article was first published in Jeune Afrique.

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