Cameroon to Côte d’Ivoire… After millions spent on bribes, Glencore faces questions

By Olivier Holmey
Posted on Thursday, 25 August 2022 10:15

Glencore's headquarters in Baar, Switzerland, in 2020. © Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP

The Anglo-Swiss company Glencore admits that it paid bribes in six African countries. Will we ever know the identity of those responsible? A look back at a resounding affair with still-present grey areas, which has tarnished the mining industry, particularly on the continent.

“I want to make sure that Glencore’s life is a living hell,” Akere Muna says from the outset. The Glencore affair is just beginning for this criminal lawyer and influential anti-corruption activist, who was briefly a candidate for the Cameroonian presidency in 2018. In any case, he intends to fight to keep it in the headlines, he tells us. And so he should. In recent months, after several years of legal investigations in the UK, the US and Brazil, the Anglo-Swiss commodities brokerage and extraction company has admitted that it bribed influential people in eight countries, including six African countries, in order to secure lucrative business deals.

The company also admits to stock market manipulation. After long denying any wrongdoing on the continent, Glencore now admits that it secretly paid more than $100m in bribes between 2007 and 2018 in Cameroon, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, DRC and South Sudan.

Corruption as a corporate culture

In Nigeria alone, Glencore admits to having paid $52m to bribe Nigerian officials, including the government and the national oil company, NNPC. In DRC, the company concedes that it paid out $27.5m to DRC officials to have their accounts validated and ensure a favourable outcome to a commercial dispute. $10.5m was paid to officials at the National Hydrocarbons Company and the National Refining Company to curry favour with them. Glencore says it also bribed Ivorian officials, including at the Société Nationale d’Opérations Pétrolières and the Société Ivoirienne de Raffinage, to the tune of €4.7m.

“Corruption was at the heart of this company’s culture,” Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a press conference in May. Following Glencore’s confession, the company was fined more than $1.1bn in the US and $40m in Brazil. Glencore expects to be fined around $150m in the UK, where a court decision is expected in early November.

These convictions highlight the illegal methods that Glencore used to gain market share in Africa, where the company has been operating since it was founded in 1974 and its network of influence extends from Morocco to South Africa, via Chad and the Republic of Congo. However, many grey areas remain.

Deadline in November

By pleading guilty, Glencore has avoided a lengthy trial that would have brought the whole story to light. Moreover, to avoid impinging on possible future legal proceedings, neither the Glencore officials who arranged the payments nor the individuals who benefited from them are named in the court records made public by the UK and US authorities. Only Anthony Stimler, Glencore’s former West African market trader, is mentioned, as he confessed last year to distributing bribes on the company’s behalf.

Akere Muna denounces this opacity. According to him, it is inconceivable that the African populations, who have suffered the most from these crimes, are unaware of the identity of the culprits. The Cameroonian lawyer plans to write to Glencore, on behalf of a working group which deals with illicit capital movements that he chairs within the Pan-African Lawyers’ Union, to urge the company to publish the names of all the people it has bribed. Given that Glencore has not cooperated fully with Western investigations, as the US authorities indicate, it seems unlikely that the company would be transparent with a union that has no judicial power.

There are other ways of getting to the bottom of this case. The governments of the countries mentioned can in principle ask the Western investigators to hand over all the information they have. If they commit to respecting the accused’s fundamental rights, there is no reason why the British Serious Fraud Office (SFO) or the US Department of Justice should refuse to provide this information, according to British and Sierra Leonean lawyer Lloydette Bai-Marrow, who was the SFO’s corruption investigator until 2017. “These governments could then publish the names of those responsible,” she tells us.

African authorities also have until November to file civil suits with the SFO. In this instance, many of the case’s confidential elements would be made public in order to convince the London court to order Glencore to pay financial compensation to African states, in addition to the fine to be paid to the British Treasury. It remains to be seen whether African governments will want to open this Pandora’s box.

New investigations

If those who received bribes are still in key positions, any revelations about them could embarrass the powers that be. In principle, the DRC government has a smaller stake in the matter, since the corruption dates back to the Kabila presidency, before the current president, Félix Tshisekedi, came to power. The presidents of Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon were already in office at that point.

According to our information, the executive secretary of DRC’s National Financial Intelligence Unit, Kisula Betika Yeye Adler, reportedly asked the country’s justice minister in June to obtain a copy of the US investigation report as well as to initiate internal investigations for corruption and money laundering against the officials involved and the Glencore group’s Congolese companies.

An investigation is already underway in Cameroon, according to a letter dated 20 June addressed to Akere Muna from Dieudonné Massi Gams, president of the country’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (Conac), in response to a question from the lawyer. According to Muna, however, it might be difficult for Conac to complete its investigation. The Commission has been placed under the authority of President Paul Biya, whose secretary-general, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, is also the chairman of the board of directors of the National Hydrocarbons Company, which is implicated in the case. Without making any accusation against Ngoh Ngoh, Muna notes: “there is no compartmentalisation.”

In Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea, there is no indication that investigations have yet been opened, or that the ruling parties consider this case a priority. This silence contrasts with the often outraged reactions in the press and civil society. “Glencore represents the worst of the oil and gas industry,” said the Africa Energy Chamber on 29 May. The African Energy Chamber went so far as to exclude the company from an annual conference, African Energy Week, which will be held in Cape Town at the end of October.

No apologies or regrets

Patrick Bond, an economist at the University of Johannesburg who specialises in the damage caused by extractive industries, would like to see all African countries where the company operates conduct investigations into Glencore. In particular in South Africa, where Eskom’s former CEO Brian Molefe accuses Glencore of having used suspicious schemes to harm the ailing electricity giant, which the Anglo-Swiss company denies. “What has come out about Glencore seems to me to be the tip of the iceberg,” Bond tells us.

Judicial investigations in the Netherlands and Switzerland, which are still ongoing, may also indict Glencore. In addition, the SFO can still prosecute Glencore employees who have allegedly bribed African officials, with the prospect of lengthy, open trials and fines or even prison sentences for anyone found guilty. “It would be good to prosecute individuals involved in this case,” says Bai-Marrow, noting that it is often difficult to prove the guilt of the heads of large multinational companies. “The higher you go, the less evidence you find,” she says. Yet it seems unlikely that $100m was paid without the approval of senior Glencore executives, according to this expert on corporate corruption.

“Convictions against company executives would have a stronger deterrent effect than even a large fine since large groups have the means to do so,” says Frances Murray, a partner specialising in financial crimes at the London law firm Russell-Cooke. For its part, Glencore has expressed neither regret nor apology for the crimes of which it is guilty. Kalidas Madhavpeddi, the company’s board chairman since July 2021, said only: “Glencore is not the company it was when the unacceptable practices that led to these failures took place.” However, the latest publicised corruption cases date from only four years ago.

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