News / Africa

Investigations Underway into Corruption and Embezzlement in West Africa

Equatorial Guinea's long-time, autocratic President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, April, 4, 2012.
Equatorial Guinea's long-time, autocratic President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, April, 4, 2012.
Anne Look
— So-called "ill-gotten gains" investigations are underway into several current and former ruling families from West and Central Africa.

Senegal's new government has launched a landmark investigation into several key figures from the former government, while justice officials in the United States and France continue to investigate the foreign assets of African heads of state and their families who are accused of embezzling money from public coffers back home.  
 
Dakar has reportedly filed a complaint with a Paris court to investigate the origins of assets held in France by an undisclosed list of high-profile figures associated with the former Senegalese government.
 
The complaint recalls those filed by French and African anti-corruption NGOs (non-governmental agencies) beginning in 2007 that sparked on-going investigations in France into the wealth of sitting presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo and their family members. They are alleged to have used embezzled public money to bankroll at-times lavish lifestyles in France.  
 
Teodorin Obiang, the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, in particular, has made headlines since 2011 as French and American authorities have seized tens of millions of dollars of his assets abroad. A display of wealth that one analyst told VOA went far beyond Obiang's government salary and was "so obscene" it could not be ignored - luxury cars, mansions, a jet, $2-million dollars of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
 
France issued an arrest warrant for Obiang after he failed to appear for questioning in July. Equatorial Guinea has, in turn, taken France to the International Court of Justice to stop the corruption case and named Obiang as second vice-president in what some observers say was an attempt to provide immunity from prosecution.
 
What's different about the move made by Senegalese authorities in France is that it comes as part of concurrent investigations by authorities within Senegal.
 
Maud Perdriel-Vaissière of Sherpa, one of the French NGOs behind complaints filed against those three other presidential families, says collaboration between the two jurisdictions involved -- in this case, Senegal and France -- is "ideal."
 
She says the simple fact that a foreign public official has a certain asset on French or American soil does not necessarily mean that it was obtained illegally. That must be proven, something that she said is already difficult but is made even harder when French authorities do not have the cooperation of the official's home country, as is the case with Equatorial Guinea.
 
And the more time that goes by, she said, the harder it is to find assets and track down proof of any wrongdoing.  
 
In Dakar, Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, has met with Senegalese investigators a total of four times since his father lost a March 24 run-off election.
 
He emerged from one marathon interrogation session at a military police station in Dakar on November 15 amid a crush of supporters.
 
It was after this meeting that authorities kept him from leaving Senegal pending further investigations.
 
Karim Wade is one of seven prominent figures from the Wade government being questioned as part of efforts by the new government of Macky Sall to increase accountability and crackdown on corruption.

Senegal's Justice Minister Aminata Toure says the government is trying to find out what happened with public money in the course of this past 12 years.

"Because we do know of a lot of financial scandals that occurred over the years so definitely there is a big demand from the people to know how public spending occurred and what happened with public money," said Toure…. "This is also a good lesson for the incumbents -- I'm one of them -- that we have to handle public money very carefully if we don't want to find ourselves in the very same situation."  
 
A banker by trade, Karim Wade held several high-profile positions during his father's 12 years in office.  
 
President Wade put his son in charge of a "super-ministry" that included air transport, infrastructure and international cooperation. Senegalese jokingly referred to him as "the Minister of the Earth and the Sky."
 
Investigations into members of the former government are being conducted by a special anti-corruption court called the Court for the Repression of Illicit Enrichment that was voted into law in 1981 and revived by the new administration.  
 
Justice Minister Toure said they are still in the "investigation phase." No charges have been filed.
 
"When the prosecutor does have strong leads that corruption might have occurred they can call anyone to explain so that person can explain herself or himself," Toure said. "That's where we are. On the other hand, the prosecutor would collect information to build his case like in every court. The specificity for this law is that the person who is called has one month to justify that his or her assets were legally acquired … after that month, if the explanations are not convincing, that person can be indicted for illegal enrichment."  
 
Supporters of Wade and the former ruling PDS party have denounced the investigations as a political witch hunt. Former president Wade has said they are unfair and threatened to retaliate with legal action of his own.
 
Some Senegalese say that they just don't see the point of digging into the past.  
 
Mamadou Souleymane says so maybe Karim Wade or others stole, but why get into all of this and why aren't they also looking into the current president, who was part of the former government for a while? He says other problems are more important. He says they are still waiting on the jobs the new government promised but instead it's just audits, audits, audits.
 
Anti-corruption watchdogs said that high-level corruption investigations currently going on in Senegal, France and beyond are meant to send a message that no one is above the law.
 
Experts say the actual investigations can drag on for years. They are complex and costly. Money must often be tracked through countless offshore bank accounts and shell companies and then directly linked to evidence of corruption.
 
The ultimate goal is often asset recovery -- returning embezzled or illegally obtained wealth to public coffers where it can fund the schools, hospitals or roads for which it was intended. That's not only another long, complex and costly process but expert say authorities must also weigh whether returned assets won't just be stolen again.

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