Republic of Congo: Gunvor, the Kremlin, oil and corruption

By Charles Bouessel du Bourg
Posted on Monday, 20 November 2017 16:10

The government in Brazzaville is in the midst of a major corruption scandal relating to its relationship to Geneva-based commodities trader Gunvor after a Swiss non-governmental organisation (NGO) unconvered evidence of corruption.

“Between September 2010 and June 2012, Gunvor secured [two] untendered contracts to export 22 tankerloads of crude valued at about $2.2bn,” says the NGO Public Eye as part of its findings following a two-year investigation into the world’s fourth-largest independent oil trader and its operations in the oil-rich Republic of Congo.

In exchange for these contracts, Gunvor signed six pre-financing agreements with the Congolese state-owned oil company, the Société Nationale des Pétroles Congolais (SNPC), each worth €125m ($149m).

The deals involve some of the most powerful officials in Congo. Public Eye’s report entitled ‘Gunvor in Congo: Oil, Cash Payments and Embezzlement’ exposes the main players at the centre of the billion-dollar bribery and corruption scheme.

Gunvor offered other sweeteners as part of its Congolese activies. Gunvor co-founder Gennady Timchenko has close ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and the firm assured Congo it would sign an economic cooperation agreement with Russia – one was duly signed on 31 Aug­ust 2011 – and get political support from the Kremlin on the international scene.

The Geneva-based company also paid substantial sums, as much as $31.9m, to intermediaries suspected of corrupting Congolese officials. Initially intended for the development of new oil infrastructure, the funds from the pre-financing deals financed public procurement contracts “valued at more than $1bn, whose award led to various suspicious payments,” claims the Zurich-based NGO in the 68-page report published in September.

The report further explains that a Brazilian construction com­pany known as Asperbras, which was the main beneficiary of the government contracts, “billed its services to the Congolese state at prices up to 10 times higher than charged in other countries for similar services”. Asperbras also paid Gunvor commissions for help in winning the contracts.

President’s son

According to the NGO, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso – the son of President Denis Sassou Nguesso and the official responsible for all the SNPC’s crude oil sales – is at the heart of the deals with Gunvor.

Four legal proceedings in Switzerland have already been opened to investigate any potential crimes linked to those transactions. In video footage obtained by Public Eye and dating back to 2014, someone presented as a person close to Denis Christel is seen complaining to a Gunvor director that the president’s son is not receiving enough money for the exercise of his influence.

In the same video, a Gunvor representative explains that the Swiss oil trader is willing to pay commissions via a Russian company, which will be a discreet way of avoiding any “trouble”.

Contacted by Public Eye, the president’s son, who signed the agreement with Gunvor, said that “Congo is a sovereign state that has the legal standing to choose who it does business with, as all countries do, all of which is done in a thoroughly transparent and legal manner.”

For its part, Gunvor said it could not comment when it was contacted by the French online investigative journal Mediapart, which co-produced the report. The reason given was that legal proceedings are still ongoing. The Swiss trader has since ended all business dealings in Congo.

From the November 2017 print edition

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