Bonny Channel Dredging Contract Scandal: When Silence Is Not Golden

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Bonny Channel Dredging

Bonny Channel Dredging

Dredging contracts have generated huge controversies in Nigeria for years while the importance of deeper channels to facilitate effective port operations remains a major issue. Any scandals associated with such contracts, therefore, must be investigated with dispatch. The case involving Bonny channel Management Company is in focus, writes Izuchukwu Ozoemena.

For three months, the scandal has remained in the public domain and the authorities have carried on as if it does not matter.

Allegations of a massive dredging contract bribery deals were reported. Fingered in the sleaze were former top officials the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) who, working in liaison with some foreign companies and a former presidential aide, allegedly collected huge bribes to approve phoney dredging contracts. But beyond the revelation followed by denials of involvement by the personalities fingered, there have been no news on the matter; no further action has been taken by the authorities.

Who did what? What is the level of involvement of each of the Nigerian officials fingered in the deal? What is the repercussion? What action is being taken on the matter at least to serve as a deterrent to officials who may want to indulge in such acts in future to the detriment of Nigeria? Since the whistle was blown, no action is being taken to assure the public that the government is interested in getting to the root of the matter.

It became public knowledge early in June. A company and some of its top officials in Switzerland were convicted following complicity in a massive foreign bribery scandal where some former top officials of the Nigerian Ports Authority and a former special presidential adviser were allegedly involved.

Dredging International Services (Cyprus) Ltd was sentenced to a fine of one million Swiss Francs and asked to refund 36 million Swiss Francs illegal profit after it was indicted for allegedly making illicit payments to a former Managing Director of the NPA, Adebayo Sarumi; a former General Manager of NPA’s Eastern Ports, Felix Ovbude; a former Executive Director of Finance at the NPA, Abba Murtala Mohammed; and Daniel Afam-Obi, a former executive assistant to Sullivan Akachukwu Nwankpo who was ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s special adviser on technical matters. As investigators alleged, Afam-Obi acted on behalf of Mr. Nwankpo.

While, as alleged, Messrs Sarumi, Ovbude and Mohammed jointly received $2.6million in kickbacks, Mr. Afam-Obi was said to have been paid $157,000 for unknown reasons. Another $18million dollar was passed to companies in which some yet unknown Nigerian officials have interests.

Dredging International Services (Cyprus) Ltd is part of a consortium which formed The Bonny Channel Management Limited that in turn entered into a joint venture arrangement with the NPA to form The Bonny Channel Company. The company is saddled with the responsibility of “creating and maintaining a safe navigational passage for all marine users to and in the Eastern Ports of Bonny Island, Onne, Okrika and Port-Harcourt”.

PIX 1: Bonny Channel Dredging

The NPA holds 60 percent equity in the JVC while The Bonny Channel Management Limited consortium (comprising Dredging International, Vinci, IPEM and Dapesa Limited) has the remaining 40 per cent.

Each year, NPA awards the company contracts worth $70million without any open or competitive bidding as required by Nigerian law, and the firm is believed to have so far cornered jobs worth at least N717 billion. Dredging International is a subsidiary of the Belgian group, Dredging, Environmental and Marine Engineering NV (DEME), which specializes in petroleum infrastructure and dredging, and has a turnover of two billion euros and employs 4,600 people worldwide. The French company VINCI is one of its main shareholders.

In an indictment dated May 1, 2017, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPC) said between 2006 and 2011, the company wired huge bribes to the companies in which Mr. Sarumi and his colleagues were beneficial owners.

In addition, according to the document issued by Federal Prosecutor Alice de Chambrier, Dredging International, through its agent, transferred more than $18 million to nine offshore companies whose real beneficial owners are yet unclear. The companies are Noble Gate Projects Ltd., Liam Engineering Nigeria Ltd., Nianza Fze, Alfonsor Trading Corporation, Monogate Ltd., FIFC Management And Development Ltd., Reinex Bureau of Change Ltd, Annacro Ltd., and Agro Systems Ltd.

Dredging had through two of its executives – Alexandre Maes (Chief Financial Officer) and Christian Van Meerbeeck (Chief Legal Officer) – entrusted the treasury of its Nigerian project to a Geneva-based asset management company, Driancourt & Cie, and its director, Alain Driancourt. It was this asset management company and its director that executed the complicated foreign bribery scheme on its behalf.

In arranging the illicit scheme, Mr. Driancourt of the asset management firm, documents show, set up three offshore companies: Berndale Trading Ltd, with accounts with Credit Suisse and EFG Bank in Geneva, as well as Bayhill Finance Ltd and Dacklin Trading Ltd, each with an account with EFG Bank. The accounts were regularly funded by Dredging International. The payment orders were given by Alexandre Maes and Christian Van Meerbeck, then executed by Alain Driancourt.

The bribe payments, investigators said, began in 2007 after the NPA refused to pay Dredging International $43 million for dredging work already done. To recover this amount, the company elaborately organized the payment of several million dollars to executives of the NPA and other officials in the hope that that would push them to act.

PIX 2: Chief Adebayo Sarumi, fmr. NPA MD

And for five years, as indicated above, more $20million were wired to companies in which the named Nigerian officials are believed to be beneficial owners as well as to firms whose real beneficial owners are yet to be determined (also listed above).

As required by Swiss laws, the bank Credit Suisse alerted authorities to these suspicious transfers in 2011, and an investigation immediately commenced. The investigation was initially entrusted to Prosecutor Félix Reinmann and then to Olivier Thormann.

Dredging International tried to justify the payments, with its lawyer, Marc Henzelin, telling investigators, “Our clients admit to having engaged intermediaries close to the government in 2007 to ensure the security of the local personnel in the Delta when there were serious threats to their lives (kidnappings, attacks and immobilizations of boats etc.).

“At the same time, our customers found themselves in a situation of near-constraint when the Nigerian Port Authority, contractually obliged to pay nearly $ 50 million to operators, blocked the payments due. DISC regrets that it chose this solution at the time and has fully cooperated with the Swiss criminal authorities.” The subsidiary of the DEME group has since set up an “OECD” compliance system since the beginning of the criminal procedure in 2011.

PIX 3: Mr. Felix Ovbude, frm. GM, Eastern Ports

Despite that explanation, the Swiss Prosecution Office indicted the company, and mandated it to pay a fine of 37million Swiss Francs. The company’s officials directly involved in the bribery scheme were also convicted, with authorities saying Alexander Maes and Christian Van Meerbeeck failed to “verify the economic background of the payments they were ordering, even though the company operated in a country where the risk of corruption was notoriously high.”

Christian Van Meerbeeck received a bonus of 800,000 euros over the period, of which 40,000 was in connection with the Bonny Channel project. He will have to reimburse 56,000 francs out of this sum, and pay 5,000 francs in procedural costs. He is also sentenced to 12 days fine of 210 francs with suspended sentence.

Alexandre Maes received €2.7 million in bonuses, including € 136,000 for Bonny Channel. He was ordered to pay 197,000 francs, plus 5,000 francs in procedural costs. He also received a 12-day fine with suspended sentence.

The asset management company, Driancourt & Cie, had earlier in August 2015 been ordered dissolved by regulatory authorities in Switzerland for its insufficient controls in view of the risks of corruption in Nigeria. Its director, Alain Driancourt, was also prohibited from practicing as financial intermediary in the country.

The public prosecutor’s officers decided not to issue compensatory fine against Mr. Driancourt in view of the bankruptcy of his company. He was however sentenced to 60 days fine of 150 francs per day with suspended sentence, and will have to pay 1000 francs of procedural expenses.

Switzerland said it sought assistance from Nigeria and that the then Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke replied that there was no case for criminal prosecution. Mr. Adoke has been out of Nigeria since the end of his tenure in May 2015. However, he says everything he did while in office complied with Nigerian laws.

However, sources at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) confirmed the anti-graft agency received a request from Switzerland on the matter. “We interrogated the named individuals, did other investigations and then forwarded our findings to the Attorney General’s office for onward passage to the Swiss embassy,” one of the investigators who handled the matter said.

“The difficulty we had then was that the companies into which the monies were paid were offshore ones, and they had no bank accounts in Nigeria. However, we sent our report to the Attorney General but we had no idea what he told the Swiss. We also did not hear back from the Swiss since then.”

The Managing Director of NPA, Hadiza Bala Usman, said she was not aware of the case, and that no one or agency had discussed the matter with her since she assumed duties at the Authority on July 18, 2016.

Sounding evasive, Mr. Ovbude, (one of the ex-NPA top officials mentioned) maintains innocence. “I don’t know what they are talking about.” But told that the company which paid the bribe had confessed, the former NPA official said, “I worked and many people worked. It’s one thing to say you are specifically in charge, but issue can come up and you are exonerated.” When told that he was specifically mentioned in the charge and that Dredging International had been convicted, he said, “I am not told, I am not aware.”

In his reaction to the news of his alleged involvement, former NPA managing director, Chief Adebayo Sarumi said: “As far as I’m concerned, I am not aware of the matter you are talking about. I hope we were not named just because we represented NPA on the board of the joint venture company.”

Mr. Afam-Obi is yet to respond to the allegations of his involvement.

Operations in the eastern ports have remained prostrate for years now owing to shallow approach channels. The Calabar Port is mostly affected. Speaking to BMWA recently, Moruf Adedayo Balogun, managing director, Ecomarine Terminals, the operators of the Calabar Port, revealed that the terminal’s story is pathetic because of government’s failure to dredge the Calabar channel.

“The most critical limiting factor affecting cargo traffic in Calabar outside other factors is the limitation imposed by the non-completion of the dredging of the channel to the advertised draught of ten metres.” For the Calabar Port particularly, it is critical considering that over the years, one channel dredging contract or another has been awarded and payment made. At the end of the day, the intended purpose has not been achieved. Therefore, the onus of probing the various dredging contract deals lies with the government: the public expects action. Credits BMWA

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