British oil major BP paid $100 million to cancel a shipyard construction project in Angola only for a third of the money to be promised to a Panamanian company run by a powerful and allegedly corrupt Angolan official, according to whistle-blower documents seen by Finance Uncovered.
The documents shine new light on the enormous influence of oil executives at the top of Angola’s state-owned oil company Sonangol, who have for decades acted as gatekeepers to Sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest hydrocarbon reserves.
After cancelling an order for floating oil platforms from the Paenal shipyard in Angola, BP wired its cancellation fee in November 2011 to SBM Offshore N.V., a specialist construction company that had been developing the yard and preparing to lead the build.
Two months later, SBM signed a contract agreeing that, after deducting certain costs, the remaining $70.3 million would be shared, on an equal basis, between it and a secretive Panamanian company called Sonangol International Inc (SII).
There is no suggestion this agreement was reached with BP’s knowledge or consent.
The 50-50 split had been verbally requested by Baptista Sumbe, who was then a top executive at Sonangol, according to SBM documents. Sumbe was also president, chief executive, secretary and treasurer of SII, as well as being the sole signatory for at least one of its bank accounts, according to filings on the Panama corporate register.
More concerning still — and initially unbeknown to SBM’s newly promoted chief executive Bruno Chabas — SBM had been quietly paying millions of dollars in “commissions” to a second Panamanian company run by Sumbe, called Mardrill Inc, without anything in return. This shocking revelation, which later featured in multiple court cases, was discovered by SBM’s lawyers conducting an internal investigation in early 2012 following an unrelated tip off.
This history of bribes to Mardrill had for years been kept a closely held secret, known only to former SBM chief executives and few, if any, others inside SBM, papers in a Swiss court case would later explain. In January 2012, Chabas (left) did not know about it when he signed the agreement to pay $35 million to SII — though he found out days later.
At that point, having learned that Sumbe was suspected of corruption, the SBM boss could have halted the payment and torn up the contract with SII.
Finance Uncovered asked SBM whether, despite its concerning discoveries, it still went ahead and paid $35 million to SII in 2012. The company declined to answer.
In a statement, SBM said Finance Uncovered was asking about “dated issues… the company has long put behind it”. It added: “[Our] legacy issues have been widely reported on for years and have been resolved with multiple authorities around the globe. In 2012 a complete new management team took over.”
The trail of money and promises, leading from BP to Panama, was unearthed in a collaborative investigation involving: Finance Uncovered, De Telegraaf in the Netherlands, Expresso in Portugal and The Telegraph in the United Kingdom.
The investigation was based on hundreds of pages of confidential files provided by Jonathan Taylor, a former SBM lawyer turned whistle-blower. The documents include emails, contracts, legal advice and corporate intelligence reports. Journalists also had access to hours of secret audio recordings of SBM crisis meetings.
Taylor has separately passed documents to the Serious Fraud Office and has said he is willing to share the same files with prosecutors in other countries.
Together, these files provide a front-row view of SBM’s tortuous deliberations as it was forced, on the one hand, to face up to a past built on bribes, while, on the other hand, seeking to remain in favour with some of the most corrupt regimes in the world.
Sumbe’s request that SBM share half the money received from BP sounded simple enough, but it sent the $3.3 billion construction company, listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, into a spin. Without a written contract that entitled Sonangol or SII to those funds, Chabas and the SBM legal team feared such a payment could look like a bribe.
Justifying the payment
SBM decided it needed to come up with a justification before handing over the funds — a rationale that could be set out in a formal contract.
Whistleblower documents reveal executives explored multiple proposals, consulting with three law firms and hiring corporate intelligence firm Kroll to carry out background checks. Finally, a summary of the planned payment was sent to non-executives on SBM’s audit committee for sign off.
The result was a January 2012 contract, signed by Sumbe and Chabas, which, at first glance, appeared to be one of the most polished and scrutinised agreements SBM had contemplated in years.
But investigations by Finance Uncovered and its media partners have cast the agreement in a different light.
One of the main justifications SBM put forward for its decision to pay SII was that the Panamanian company was being reimbursed for money wasted on developing the Paenal yard in preparation for BP’s oil platform order. But whistleblower documents show SII did not incur any meaningful expenses at the shipyard; much of the costs were instead financed by a loan from SBM.
SBM also argued that the money from BP ought to be evenly shared with SII because the Dutch construction firm had regularly split joint venture income with Sonangol companies in this manner since the 1990s. However, the Paenal yard was not a 50-50 joint venture. SBM and SII each had only one-third stakes in the holding company that controlled Paenal. The remaining one-third was owned by Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Co.
A spokesperson for DSME told Finance Uncovered she was unable to find evidence that the Korean company knew of the $100 million from BP, or SBM’s plans to split it with SII.
As well as putting forward seemingly misleading justifications for the planned £35m payments to SII, SBM appeared not to have heeded warnings contained in early legal advice. For example, lawyers from Berwin Leighton Paisner, now part of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, recommended SBM should take steps to ensure funds not reach Sonangol or its executives.
One BLP lawyer wrote: “From the materials we have reviewed, it is not clear what (if any) financial or other risk Sonangol itself has taken in connection with Paenal Yard which would justify its receipt of any portion of the [BP cancellation fee].”
He added: “Absent a clear, contractual entitlement to these funds, any payment made to Sonangol itself would risk being perceived (at best) as an unjustified ‘windfall’ and (at worst) as a payment which may have some corrupt intent given the recipient, the power it wields in Angola and the risk that these ‘windfall’ funds could be paid onwards to government officials.”
Confronting the past
Days after Chabas signed the agreement to pay SII, SBM received news that plunged the company into crisis. One of its customers, the U.S. gas company Noble Energy, had found emails on a laptop suggesting that a former SBM sales executive, who had left years earlier to set up a consultancy firm, knew about suspicious gifts which could amount to bribes — and could be linked to SBM.
Worse still, discreet investigations by SBM’s legal department, codenamed “Project Pandora”, quickly found that concerns raised by Noble were the tip of an iceberg. Bribery at SBM was widespread. And one of the hotspots was Angola, where the inquiries suggested SBM had channeled millions of dollars in bribes to Mardrill, one of the Panamanian companies run by Sumbe.
Despite these revelations, however, Chabas appeared to see no reason to tear up SBM’s contract with SII and break its promise to pay $35 million.
Secret audio recordings reveal how he pressed SBM’s general counsel and head of compliance Jay Printz to ensure the money was swiftly wired to SII. During the fractious meeting, Chabas said: “I thought this [the agreed payment to SII] was signed off … We need to progress. I’m concerned about the relationship with Sonangol, so that’s something we need to progress quickly.”
Printz, who taped the meeting, would quit SBM the following month.
On the recording, he is heard telling his boss: “I’m worried, you know, to be blunt, that … you’re going to have a hard time doing the right thing, which could involve shutting down a lot of business in Angola.
“I mean, these guys are going to have to stop being paid bribes, and they’re not going to like that,” he said. In a later U.S. settlement with prosecutors, SBM would later admit it had bribed at least nine Sonangol executives. Printz added: “And I know perfectly well what’s going to unfold here.”
Three weeks later, the troubled lawyer drafted a resignation letter to Chabas in which he complained of the “inappropriate resistance” he had encountered while leading Project Pandora. “SBM is unlikely to comprehensively remediate its widespread bribery practices,” he wrote. “I remain concerned that further offences are likely to be committed.”
Finance Uncovered was unable to reach Printz or confirm that the draft resignation letter was sent. After he left SBM, Chabas asked another member of the legal team, Jonathan Taylor, to take over Project Pandora. Taylor also grew concerned and resigned two months after Printz.
SBM’s payments to Mardrill would later feature in the settlement of criminal cases in the United States and the Netherlands, which together cost the company $478 million. They were also used as key evidence in the Swiss prosecution of Didier Keller, one of Chabas’s predecessors as SBM chief executive.
By contrast, Chabas’s decision to authorise a $35 million SBM payment to SII has never featured in a criminal case. In fact, prosecutors have mostly praised Chabas for his cooperation and for the steps he took to clean up SBM’s culture of corruption.
SBM would later boast that remedial measures taken by the company in 2012 left it “the white swan in a pitch-black pond.”
When asked a series of questions about SBM’s dealings with Sumbe, and about payments to the Panamanian companies he operated, Mardrill and SII, the Dutch construction company declined to give specific answers.
Finance Uncovered and its media partners identified several similarities between SII and Mardrill that might have given SBM cause for concern: both were registered to the same address in Panama, though neither had operations in the country; both used accounts at a bank in Portugal where Sonangol was the largest shareholder; and the two companies had two directors in common.
Another warning sign that might have troubled SBM was the fact that the exact ownership of both Mardrill and SII was shrouded in mystery. Though both companies presented as part of the Sonangol empire, neither were named on a list of subsidiaries companies published in Sonagol’s 2012 annual report. Meanwhile, filings at the Panama corporate registry showed both were set up in the late 1990s with “bearer shares”.
Companies that issue bearer shares are popular with people looking to hide their control of bank accounts and other assets. Such firms do not keep a register of shareholders, instead granting ownership rights to the person — the “bearer” — in physical possession of share certificates. The use of bearer shares has been restricted or outlawed in many countries in recent years.
SBM said it had carried out additional inquiries into SII’s ownership in 2012 and was eventually satisfied that it was owned by Sonangol. It did not respond to questions about the ownership of Mardrill.
Sonangol also told Finance Uncovered that it is the owner of SII. This is confirmed in Sonangol’s recent annual reports, where the Panamanian company is now listed as a subsidiary company.
BP thrives in Angola
The trail of evidence running through the whistleblower documents raises questions not just about decisions at SBM, but also about BP’s anti-graft efforts in notoriously corrupt Angola, Africa’s second largest oil producer.
Finance Uncovered asked BP whether it knew that part of the cancellation fee it paid to SBM was later promised to a secretive Panamanian company run by allegedly corrupt Angolan official Sumbe. BP declined to answer directly, but hinted that it took no interest in what SBM did with the money.
In a statement, it said: “BP paid the contractually required sum to settle the … liability to SBM under the terms of the contract. It did not have any intention for, or control over, the future use of the [cancellation fee] in the hands of the payee.” BP said the cost of paying the fee was shared with co-investors in its Angolan operations.
BP’s code of conduct suggests the company is committed to a more pro-active approach to combating corruption. It says: “We do not tolerate bribery and corruption in any of its forms in our business …. [W]e work to ensure our business partners share our commitment.” As part of anti-corruption efforts, the code says, BP follows “counterparty due diligence procedures,” though what these entail is not specified.
The fineprint of BP’s original contract with SBM contained clauses giving the British oil giant the right to inspect SBM’s books and records if it became concerned that payments had been used to fund bribes. Asked if it had exercised these inspection rights, BP declined to answer. It said: “BP completely rejects any suggestion that it acted improperly in the payment of the [cancellation] fee to SBM.”
Asked why, in 2011, it chose to abandon plans to build oil platforms at the Paenal yard, BP said it had “encountered various technical and commercial challenges” at three deep water reservoirs in Block 31, many miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, directly westwards of the mouth of the Congo River.
It said the decision was taken collectively, with its consortium partners, and the cost of cancellation was shared. BP said it had wanted to delay construction work at the Paenal yard rather than cancel it, but SBM refused to grant a contract extension.
Not everything went badly for BP’s Angolan operations in 2011. In December that year, BP signed a new deal with Sonangol that dramatically expanded its interests in Angola, providing access to five new deep water exploration and production blocks covering 24,200 square kilometres. Soon after, BP described Angola as one of its four target countries for investment and growth.
Finance Uncovered has seen is no evidence to suggest a connection between BP’s $100 million cancellation fee payment and the oil major’s transformative deal with Sonangol a month later. For the avoidance of doubt, BP confirmed in a statement that no such connection existed.
In 2012, BP began pumping oil from other Block 31 reservoirs, using a oil platform built in Singapore by Modec, a competitor to SBM.
Sumbe’s Texas mansion
Records disclosed last year as part of the Swiss prosecution of former SBM chief executive Didier Keller show, in detail, what happened to some of the corrupt payments the Dutch oil platform company made to Mardrill.
Prosecutors described how, during a two and a half year period spanning 2006 to mid-2008, $4.7 million was paid from an SBM bank account in London to an account owned by Mardrill at Banco Comercial Português, now called Millennium BCP, in Lisbon, Portugal.
And during the same period, Mardrill made 45 transfers, totalling $2.9 million, from its account at Millennium BCP to accounts controlled by Baptista Sumbe and his wife Rosa Sumbe. Prosecutors said the couple made extensive personal use of this money.
Four years later, in May 2012, SBM whistleblower documents show, SII, like Mardrill, requested money be sent to an account at Portuguese bank Millennium BCP.
Sumbe knew this bank especially well. Not only did the two Panamanian companies run by him own accounts there, but Sonangol was the bank’s largest shareholder, with a stake of 11 percent at the end of 2011.
In February 2012, Sumbe secured a seat on one of the Portuguese bank’s board committees and by the end of the same year Sonangol had increased its stake in Millennium BCP to more than 19 percent — welcome support for a bank struggling in the face of the sovereign debt crisis gripping many European countries at the time.
Millennium BCP told Finance Uncovered it could not comment on specific customers, but added: “In all cases, regardless of the bank’s possible relationship with the parties involved in a transaction, Millennium BCP carries out its duties of analysis and reporting of all entities and transactions with the same rigor.”
Another Sonangol executive who once sat on a Millennium BCP board committee was Sumbe’s boss, Manuel Vicente, who served as president of Sonangol unitil January 2012. Vicente was also a director of SII until 2014.
According to Swiss court documents, Vicente is alleged to have played an early role in encouraging SBM to make payments to Mardrill. According to Keller’s evidence to Swiss prosecutors, the SBM boss had initially attempted to resist pressure from Sumbe to start paying Mardrill in 2001. Keller told prosecutors he thought it suspicious that Sumbe wanted “commission” payments wired to a company set up in Panmana, so he queried the scheme with Vicente. But Keller’s questioning was not well received, according to Swiss court documents, and Vicente criticised him for not trusting Sumbe, his right-hand man.
After this uncomfortable episode, the Swiss court found, Keller knew the commission payments were very likely bribes but authorised them nonetheless. The judge later gave Keller credit for his admissions of guilt, and for cooperation with ongoing criminal investigations, handing him a fine and a two-year suspended jail sentence.
Finance Uncovered’s efforts to contact Sumbe, who no longer works for Sonangol, were unsuccessful. Similarly, Rosa Sumbe could not be reached. For many years, the couple lived with their children at a $1.3 million mansion within the Royal Oaks Country Club gated community in Houston, Texas. The large house has a swimming pool and views over the 16th hole of the club’s golf course. In January this year, Rosa posted a picture on Facebook which appears to show her and her husband at the Houston mansion, suggesting the couple may still live in the area.
Despite the Sumbes and Vicente being named in court proceedings in Switzerland, there is no record of them ever being arrested or charged in relation to Mardrill payments. Nor is there evidence that they personally benefited from funds belonging to SII.
Although the U.S. Justice Department has extensive powers to prosecute companies and individuals responsible for paying bribes, there is currently no specific offence of benefitting from corrupt payments. President Joe Biden’s administration is currently looking to strengthen U.S. law in this area.
Vicente stepped down from Sonangol in January 2012 to start a political career, soon after becoming Angola’s vice-president, a role he held until 2017. Though he remained a director of SII until 2014, a spokesperson for Vicente said he had nothing to do with activity at the company after moving into politics.
Sumbe’s controversial boss
Vicente is no stranger to corruption allegations. In 2010, Angolan anti-corruption campaigner and journalist Rafael de Morais published a report alleging that a U.S. oil exploration company called Cobalt International Energy had gone into partnership with a front company secretly owned by Vicente and two other top Angolan officials. U.S. authorities began investigating the matter in 2011, and the following year Vicente confirmed his involvement to the Financial Times newspaper. Cobalt and Vicente denied wrongdoing but the front company nevertheless ended its partnership with Cobalt. U.S. investigations into the matter petered out.
Vicente was again linked to bribery allegations in 2017, this time in Portugal. The former Sonangol boss was charged with corruption and money laundering after allegedly paying €760,000 ($810,000) to a prosecutor for dropping an investigation into his dealings in Portugal. After the investigation shut down in 2012, Vicente, who sat on the board of Millennium BCP, allegedly asked a colleague at the Portuguese bank to offer the prosecutor job, which he did.
In 2018, the former prosecutor was convicted of bribery offences and sentenced to six years and eight months in jail. Vicente denied the charges, which were thrown out by an appeal court after the Angolan government successfully intervened in court proceedings and argued that the case against the country’s former vice-president should be referred to prosecutors in Luanda.
Anti-corruption campaigners at Transparency International have expressed concern that Angolan prosecutors may never take up the case against Vicente.
Under president João Lourenço, who came to power in 2017, Angola has been aggressively pursuing allegations of past corruption linked to certain former Sonangol executives — most notably Isabel dos Santos, daughter of former president José Eduardo dos Santos. Some media articles allege that Vicente has enjoyed a more favorable relationship with Lourenço, reportedly acting as one of the president’s advisers.
In March this year, Dos Santos filed papers in a London court case alleging Lourenço is pursuing a “personal vendetta” against her. The allegations are based on secret recordings of Angola’s business and political establishment, including Vicente, which were made by Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube, according to the court filing.
Black Cube is well known for deploying undercover private detectives to inveigle their way into the confidences of unsuspecting individuals before secretly taping conversations. Its most famous client was the former Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, who hired Black Cube as part of an unsuccessful effort to fight off accusations that he had used his position to launch multiple sex attacks on women.
Taylor in limbo
Jonathan Taylor, the SBM whistleblower, is currently fighting extradition from Croatia. He had travelled there on what was supposed to be a family holiday 10 months ago, but has been prevented from leaving because of an extradition request from Monaco. He is wanted for questioning over allegations of extortion in Monaco, where SBM’s head office was formerly located. Taylor denies any wrongdoing.
* Written following a research collaboration with Edwin van der Schoot and Micael Pereira
This article was first published by Finance Uncovered.
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Moving or Changing? Reframing the Migration Debate
The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.
Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?
That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.
A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.
“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.
He moved along quickly.
“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:
Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.
Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.
More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.
The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.
It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.
Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.
A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.
We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.
Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.
For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.
All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.
In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.
Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.
While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.
The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.
And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.
Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.
European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.
Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.
Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.
This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.
To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.
I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.
There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.
A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.
It starts even with naming.
The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.
With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.
According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.
This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.
This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.
And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.
Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.
Human migration was not always like this.
Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.
There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.
Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.
Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.
With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.
The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.
Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.
Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.
International Monetary System
Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.
Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).
Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.
Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.
The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”
Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.
In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”
When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”
Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”
Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.
As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”
The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.
In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?
In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.
While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”
This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.
Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).
It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.
Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.
As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.
Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.
After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”
At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.
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