PARIS, 1 March 2021 – French industrial group Bollore reached a settlement Friday on a decade-old case of bribery and corruption in Togo, a judge in Paris ruled.
Under the deal, the Bollore conglomerate will pay $14.5 million after admitting guilt in the financial crimes case.
The judge tossed out an earlier plea deal under which three top company executives were sentenced to pay a fine of only $450,000.
The judge decided that the crimes alleged were too serious and shedding light on the exact financial crimes too important for the case not to proceed to full discovery and trial.
Bollore and two co-accused had admitted guilt in the case which alleged that they bribed an official in Togo a decade ago in order to win a contract for the management of the Port of Lome.
The Bollore Group has been under criminal probes in France ever since 2016, when French police searched the gorup’s headquarters in the Paris suburb of Puteaux.
Investigators were looking for links between Bollore and Francis Perez, the president of the Pefaco Group, which operates hotels and casinos across Africa.
Perez had been linked to Dorent, who was in charge of Conde’s 2010 election campaign.
The probe revealed that Dorent also worked on the communications strategy of Togolese President Gnassingbe, who succeeded his father Gnassingbe Eyadema upon the death of the latter in 2005.
After Gnassingbe’s re-election to a second term in 2010, the Bollore Group won the 35-year Lome port contract a decision also challenged by a rival.
Although his group had been under investigation since 2013, a French judge did not put the tycoon owner of the group under formal investigation until April 2018 over allegations that his company – masquerading under one of its media and advertising affiliates – undercharged for work on behalf of the presidents of Guinea and Togo in return for the port contracts.
France’s financial crimes unit looked specifically into criminal wrongdoing in communications work done by Dorent for the election campaigns of Guinean President Alpha Conde and Togolese President Faure Gnassinge.
The court was intrigued that just a few months after becoming president, Conde had summarily terminated the contract of Conakry port’s operator a subsidiary of French shipping company NCT Necotrans and had turned the contract over to Bollore.
A French court had ordered the Bolloré Group in 2013 to pay Necotrans $2.4 million (two million euros) in compensation for its lost investment in the Port of Conakry but cleared it of having a hand in the president’s decision.
The compensation of $2.4 million (in the case of financial crimes in Conakry) and the $14.5 million in fine ordered (for financial crimes in Lome) both failed to award compensation for the real victims of these crimes – the citizens of these African countries – swindled by their own so-called leaders in corrupt deals with foreign corporations.
Media reports in Benin and Cameroon, flagging possible bribery and corruption in the award of port contracts to the Bollore Group have not seen any action from the financial crimes unit in Paris.
The Bollore conglomerate, which specializes in transport, construction, energy, media, advertising, shipping and logistics has contracts to manage ports, port terminals and railway corporations in many African countries.
“All Africans who care for the wellbeing of their people should question how the Bollore Group won any contracts to manage ports, port terminals, railway concessions, etc. in their country,” said Andre Kwame, a Lome-based Togolese journalist.
“We must all ask how much Bollore paid in birbes to our very corrupt leaders to take over the very nerve centers of our lives,” Kwame added.
Accusations of bribery and corruption have been levied against the Bollore conglomerate in almost every African country where it has won contracts.
“The charges of corruption of foreign officials, breach of trust and complicity in the breach of trust brought against Bollore in the Port of Lome case could be made in many ports across Africa,” said Liz Beckham, a member of Transparency International who is digging into cases of port corruption across Africa.
Without a full investigation and trial, the facts uncovered in the recently concluded case in Paris would not have been brought to light.
And by extension, Bollore would not have been found guilty of undercharging the government of Togo for consultancy work in return for a contract to manage the Port of Lome between 2009 and 2011.
Victims of some of the worst abuses by the Bollore Group across Africa continue to await and cry out for similar justice.
“We are still waiting to know what our parents and loved ones did to die miserable deaths in the train accidents that the incompetence and criminal negligence of the Bollore Group caused,” said Jean-Pierre Mbouck [not his real name], who lost loved ones on a train in Eseka in Cameroon managed by the Bollore Group.
Observers fear that the large footprint of the Bollore Group across Africa may have been paved not by competence but by the kind of skillfully masked bribery and corruption which allowed the group to cheat its way into “winning” the port contracts in Lome (Togo), and Conakry (Guinea).
Besides the Ports of Lome and Conakry, Bollore holds management contracts for the free ports and/or container terminals in Freetown (Sierra Leone), Monrovia (Liberia), Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire), Cotonou (Benin), Tincan (Lagos, Nigeria), Kribi (Cameroon), Bangui (Central African Republic), Owendo (Libreville, Gabon), Port Gentil (Gabon), Pointe Noire (Congo-Brazzaville), Moroni (Comoros) and Port of Terma (Ghana).