News | Sunday, 02 May 2010

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Late Gabon President Omar Bongo had €7 million Malta bank account

US Senate investigation finds money was wire-transferred by US lobbyist for purchase of US armoured cars and cargo planes, and deposited in Bongo’s Malta account

The Ministry of Finance is conducting ‘verifications’ on whether the late Gabon president Omar Bongo’s global financial network had spilled into Malta, where an account he held was used to funnel millions in payments on an arms deal back to him.
The ministry was not formally handed any information by the United States government on the allegations, the outcome of an investigation by a US Senate committee on foreign corruption inside the United States.
But Tonio Fenech informed Labour MP Leo Brincat, who brought the matter to the parliament’s attention, that the government was looking into the allegations of how the 73-year-old Gabonese premier, who died in 2009, received millions in illicit US money through a Malta account.
The 330-page report by the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, exposes how Bongo and other African rulers used the services of US lawyers, lobbyists, property and escrow agents to enhance their illicit funds.
Bongo, for 41 years the longest serving African head of state until his death last year, and his eldest son, defence minister Ali Bongo, are shown to have amassed substantial wealth while in office, amid the extreme poverty of their citizens.
In 2006, $18 million (€14m) in funds from Gabon were wired to the bank accounts of a US lobbyist – Jeffrey Birrell – who then distributed the funds within the United States and across the globe as directed by President Bongo in connection with two projects to support his regime: buying American armoured cars and C-130 military cargo planes.
Birrell secured permission from the US government for Bongo to buy six vehicles and six military cargo planes from Saudi Arabia. The money was wired from Gabon into US bank accounts held in the name of The Grace Group, a corporation formed by Birrell.
After the cargo plane deal fell through, Birrell later transferred $9.2 million (€7m) of the funds provided by the African ruler to a foreign account held in the name of President Omar Bongo – not in Gabon – but in Malta.
The transfer was paid into a Fimbank account under the name ‘The Gabonese Republic (H. E. Omar Bongo Ondimba)’, whose contact was Francois Meyer – Bongo’s personal lawyer in France.
The report said that by accepting Bongo’s wire transfers, Birrell “allowed his corporate accounts to be used as a conduit for millions of dollars in suspect funds.”
Birrell was paid something close to $1 million for his efforts on the transactions.
Several other transactions were made in a similar fashion, using other foreign accounts, to transfer money to Bongo’s advisors and cronies. “Such transactions must be viewed as suspicious, since they enabled President Omar Bongo to divert substantial funds from Gabon, move the funds through the international wire transfer system to accounts not openly associated with him, and make it difficult to trace the movement of such funds from Gabon through the United States to their final destination,” the US Senate report states.

Rule of Papa Bongo
This is not the first time that Bongo is mentioned in connection with his suspicious global financial network.
In a startling claim concerning France’s murky past ties with African leaders, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing said he had broken off ties with Bongo when he allegedly helped fund Jacques Chirac’s bid for the presidency.
Bongo was also being investigated by a French magistrate on the assets he held in France, which included some 30 properties and nine luxury cars and cash in more than 70 bank accounts.
Bongo was cited in recent years during French criminal inquiries into hundreds of millions of euros of illicit payments by Elf Aquitaine, the former French state-owned oil group. One Elf representative testified that the company was giving €50 million per year to Bongo to exploit the petrol lands of Gabon.
Bongo took power at the age of 31 after the death of Gabon’s first president Leon M’ba in 1967. ‘Papa Bongo’, as he is known, held close ties with France as oil-rich Gabon became the symbol of ‘la FrançAfrique’ – the cradle of French interests and shady deals inside the continent.
Under Bongo’s rule, French companies were able to dominate the Gabonese economy, particularly the oil sector, where a culture of kickbacks and bribes for the country’s elite was widespread.


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