Liberia: Conflict of Interest, Money Laundering Fears Dogging Weah’s Billion Dollar Scheme
MONROVIA – A Liberia legislative joint committee will this week begin scrutinizing two key pieces of financial documents submitted by President George Manneh Weah. The first, a US$536 Million Loan agreement between the Government of Liberia and the Eton Finance PTE Ltd. The second, a separate Pre-Financing Loan Agreement in the tone of US$426 Million entered into between the Government of Liberia and Group EBOMAF.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Both loan arrangements are generating immense interests in the court of public opinion. Supporters of the CDC-led government are convinced that road constructions should be carried out at all cost even if it means breaching every existing law and code of conduct regulation on the books. Critics counter that while development of roads, particularly in the southeast is crucial, moving away from international best practices is not the best approach to secure loans likely to pile unnecessary debt on an already struggling post-war nation.
Eton Draws Broadway Comparison
This week’s debate at the capitol comes in the wake of a damning recommendation from a Special Presidential Committee set up to probe the NOCAL-ExxonMobile alleged bribery saga that officials who were mentioned to have received monies in the form of bonus/honorarium for signing the sale of Oil Block-13 be made to restitute the amounts into government’s coffers.
The controversy of Block 13 started in similar fashion as what is unfolding with the Eton Financial Private Limited. Broadway, like Eton was a little-known company with no financial history or even a website when FrontPageAfrica then unearthed the scheme.
Broadway would later change its name to Peppercoast Petroleum. The National Oil Company of Liberia then decided to auction some of Liberia’s 17 offshore oil blocks and BCP put in a bid for one of these licenses. By its own admission the company did not “have a specific track record of petroleum agreements.”
Broadway even acknowledged that it had no money of its own, only “firm commitments from investors.” Nonetheless, in June 2005, NOCAL signed a contract with BCP for a license called Block 13.
Similarly, a recent FrontPageAfrica query of the Singaporean Business Registration Portal (www.bizfile.gov.sg) using the Unique Entity Number obtained from the Eton Finance Private Limited, 200510984K, showed that on September 5, 2016, Eton had been dormant since its formation.
Elton Finance Private Limited with the unanimous consent of all the Directors of the Company and all the shareholders of the company filed an “Application for Striking Off” under its Unique Entity Number 200510984K, essentially delisting and/or dissolving itself as a company. The reason given by the company in its dissolution was “company has not commenced trading since the date of incorporation”. The company claimed further in its “Application for Strike Off” that the company (a) has no outstanding tax liabilities owing to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) and is not indebted to any other Government Agency; (b) is not involved in legal proceeding within or outside Singapore; and (c) has no existing assets and liabilities as at the date of application and no contingent assets and liabilities that may arise in the future.
With so many glaring similarities to a deal that came to bite the Sirleaf-led government less than a year out of power, many financial analysts say the current administration risks triggering familiarities of old.
According to the Memorandum of Understanding, the US$536 million ETON project aims to connect Liberia’s coastal corridors and county capitals of Buchanan-Cestos City-Greenville, Barclayville Road, the Barclayville-Sasstown Road, the Barclayville-Pleebo Road, the Medina-Robertsport Road, the Tubmanburg-Bopolu Road, Rest Stops and Roadside Service Areas, the construction of mini-soccer stadiums in Harper, Maryland County; Barclayville, Grand Kru County; Greenville Sinoe County; Cestos City, Rivercess County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County; Robertsport , Grand Cape Mount County and Bopolu.
Conflict of Interest in EBOMAF Deal
The US$420,810,000 EBOMAF project, according to the Loan Agreement document in possession of FrontPageAfrica will be financed by Eurobond, wherein, the Republic of Liberia “shall issue a fixed interest Eurobond with a face value of US$420,810,000 at an interest rate of 6.5% to finance the loan. The full terms and structure of the Eurobond, according to the Loan Agreement, “shall be agreed upon by both Parties upon at the time of issuance”.
The loan, according to President Weah’s office and posted on the Executive Mansion website (www.emansion.gov.lr), when ratified will be used for the construction of 256.2 kilometres of paved roads and bridges in Monrovia and major corridors of the interior of the country. Group EBOMAF will begin pre-financing the road project within three months after the agreement is ratified. The roads to be constructed upon ratification through this agreement are as follows: The Sinkor to Kesselley Boulevard elevated Road, Zwedru to Greenville, Toe’s Town to Ivorian Border, and Tappita to Zwedru.
In the Loan Agreement document, however, the itemized list of roads sums up to be 323.7 kilometers of road, a whopping 67.5 kilometers more than what is reported in parts of the same document and on the Executive Mansion website. The Agreement lists the following roads to be constructed along with their respective distances in kilometers:
Somalia Drive via Kesselly Boulevard to Sinkor, Monrovia “16 km” Tappita – Zwedru Road: “112 km” Toe Town to Cote d’Ivoire Border: “10.2 km Zwedru to Greenville: “185.5 km”
EBOMAF credits amongst its projects in Burkina Faso, the Presidential Palace and Residence of Kosyam, the Zone of commercial and administrative activities (ZACA), the Place de la Nation and the extension of the Boulevard des Tensoba in Ouagadougou and the Koudougou-Dédougou road.
EBOMAF’S interest in infrastructure and road construction is raising new interest in the company’s decision to make one of its planes available to the Liberian President, particularly in the wake of the government’s plans to construct what it describes as a coastal highway in the southeast region of Liberia.
In addition to the construction company, Bonkoungou also owns the airline, Lisa Transport International from which the Dassault Falcon 900 Ex Easy plane was borrowed to the Liberian President.
The airline, according to its website, offers carriers for emergency or scheduled business trips and has in its collection a range of aircrafts including helicopters.
With the acquisition of this pre-financed agreement, coupled with the agreement to pave 503 kilometres of roads connecting the coastal cities as well as parts of Western Liberia, the Weah-led administration says it is poised to construct more kilometres of paved roads within his first term as President than the entire kilometers of paved roads that have been constructed by all previous administrations combined; within the over 170 years of Liberia’s existence as a sovereign nation.
While the President’s office has said that the decision to secure the loan has the full endorsement of the cabinet and that “Liberia stands to gain great deal of economic growth through the creation of jobs as well as a significant increase to Liberia’s GDP”, many skeptics are not so sure.
The announcement at the weekend that the deal has been submitted to the national legislature for swift passage was preceded by controversy.
Just last week, President Weah was embroiled in a stinging controversy regarding a plane he has been using for presidential travels.
Speculations were rife that the plane had been purchased by the President with some putting the tally at US$30 million.
Under fire, President Weah, in a news conference last week, said that the noise over the plane was much ado about nothing and “no big deal”.
While pledging never to keep Liberians in the dark about anything regarding government, the President fell short of naming the owner of the plane but hinted for the first time that he was a businessman from Burkina Faso with no mention that he had a construction company. “The plane that they talking about, I got a friend in Burkina Faso, the managing director of EBOMAF. He said George I have a plane. I see you take the Republic of Cote d’ivoire – that’s good but you also when you going to meetings, you need to also build your prestige. He said when you ready to travel just tell me and I will send the plane to you – and that’s the plane when it comes one day it stays, that’s the plane, that’s the plane they say we buying US$30,000 – I mean US$30 million”.
A FrontPageAfrica investigation would later uncover that the businessman in question was Mr. Mahamadou Bonkoungou, a Burkinabè businessman friend of President Weah.
Both President Weah and Mr. Bonkoungou have denied reports that a string was attached to the gift of a plane for the President’s travel amid concerns regarding conflict of interest and a serious breach of the Code of Conduct.
Section 9.1 of the Code of Conduct states: “Public Officials and Employees of Government shall not receive nor encourage the giving of any form of bribe or casual gift in connection with the performance of his or her official duties, whether for himself or herself or members of his or her family or any other benefits that could have any influence on his or her professional approach to issues and the discharge of his or her official duties. This shall not include gifts given during traditional ceremonies and celebrations, and fees paid for Lobbying. The Legislature shall enact laws for the regulation of lobbying activities.”
The US FCPA forbids to the giving of gifts of any value to foreign officials of government, as means to obtain favors or influence the official actions of foreign government officials. The US Congress enacted the FCPA to bring a halt to the bribery of foreign officials and to restore public confidence in the integrity of the American business system.
In his denial over concerns regarding potential conflict of interest, Mr. Bonkoungou, in an interview with the West African Democracy Radio last Monday dismissed suggestions linking his gift of a plane to President Weah as a premise for getting a road construction contract.
Said Bonkoungou: “Mr. Bonkoungou does not need planes to build roads, building roads is the main activity of the EBOMAF group and it has nothing to do with the friendship between President George WEAH and us. The plane is no longer with him; he had two trips to make so we put it at his disposal so he could make them for free. After his journey, the plane left for other destinations.
Mr. Bonkoungou said there are no strings attached to his gift, insisting that “the context is a friendly one”.
Pressed whether there were any plans in place to sell the plane to the Liberian president, Mr. Bonkoungou said: “The intentions were friendly. I just told you that he is my friend and that I voluntarily lent him the plane for his trips.”
The businessman said when asked whether he would again make the plane available to the Liberian President said: “Mr. George WEAH is a model for Africa and whether by the means of a plane or by other means, provided we have them, we will support the actions of President George WEAH in Liberia. And besides, our friendship is not new, it goes as far back as well before he was president, and he can count on the support of the EBOMAF group and mine.”
Bonkoungou vs. Zinsou Highlight Election Promises
But even more troubling for President Weah as FrontPageAfrica recently uncovered is a legal wrangle between Mr. Bonkoungou and the former Prime Minister of Benin, Lionel Zinsou. Mr. Bonkoungou has accused the former Prime Minister of refusing to repay him money loaned Zinsou for his failed 2016 Presidential bid in Benin.
Both men are suing the other.
Bonkoungou, according to the West African Newsletter recently brought charges of fraud against Zinsou. He lodged a formal complaint with the Beninese public prosecutor on April 11 in hopes of exerting maximum pressure on Zinsou, now a banker and the current chairman of the Fondation AfricaFrance pour une Croissance Partagee and the Terra Nova think-tank, with the aim of recovering the €20 million he lent him for Zinzou’s 2016 election campaign.
According to the report, the money has not yet been paid back. Following his complaint, Bonkoungou was interviewed in Cotonou on April 26. Other personalities, including former president Thomas Boni Yayi, who presented the Burkinabe to his protégé, Zinsou, were also expected to be interviewed as part of the investigation.
The report noted that the Burkinabe businessman, Bonkoungou was angry for the fact that the mediation process ordered by the Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) in Paris in March 2017, which had been intended to enable the two parties to reach a negotiated settlement of the dispute, has now been completed.
While Bonkoungou’s suit was going on, Mr. Zinzou filed a counter suit in Paris, France, where he holds a French citizenship. According to the West African Newsletter publication, on May 14, 2018, the former Beninese prime minister countered with legal action of his own against the EBOMAF boss, who had earlier filed a lawsuit against him seeking €20 million from him in relation to a loan contracted in 2016 to finance Zinzou’s election campaign.
The report cataloguing dozens of legal papers have been submitted to the High Court of Paris alleging ‘signatures and financial advantage obtained with menaces, attempt to defraud, and forgery’.
The report notes that Mr. Zinzou, represented by the Fondation Africa-France pour une croissance partagee and of the think tank Terra Nova, is seeking to contest this loan, which Zinzou claims was imposed on him under duress.
The legal wrangle miles away from Liberia validates concerns many expressed over the Liberian President’s acceptance of a gift from the Burkinabe businessman which many see as a clear breach of the Code of Conduct although it is unclear what arrangements Mr. Bonkoungou had with then candidate Weah during the heated 2017 presidential elections or what promises, if any were made.
Sovereign Guarantees Required in Both Loans
Both loans- the EBOMAF US$420 million loan and the Eton US$536 million loan require sovereign guarantee prior to first disbursement within 50 banking days. However, the EBOMAF deal, according to the agreement will be instrumented through Eurobond as stipulated in the EBOMAF loan agreement.
The Eurobond market is the market for long-term debt instruments issued and traded in the offshore market. The Eurobond market is a parallel market to the onshore markets for domestic and foreign bonds.
The Eurobond market brings together the bond issuer and the bond investor through intermediaries that fulfill some or all of the following services including, lead financial management, underwriting, and bond sales.
In the case of a “Bought” deal, the lead financial manager approaches the issuer with a proposal to raise funds under specific terms including: the size of the bond, the denominated currency, the maturity date of the bond, interest payment and other features that may enhance the volume or price of the bond.
Once the lead financial manager agrees to raise funds on the agreed upon terms, the lead financial manager assumes all the underwriting risks for the issuance of the bond.
Underwriting risk reflects the probability that the sales price of the bonds may not match the price promised to the issuer.
For the Liberia-EBOMAF scenario, EBOMAF as Lead Financial Manager is committing to raise US$420,810,000.00 (Four Hundred and Twenty Million Eight Hundred and Ten Thousand United States Dollars), but by this agreement (Article 1), is mandating the government of Liberia to “arrange and guarantee” said amount by the issuance of a fixed interest Eurobond at an interest rate of 6.5% and fees of 1%, and to grant unto EBOMAF exclusive and single-source rights as the Project Contractor.
In essence, EBOMAF, acting in the capacity as the Lead Financial Manager would attempt to raise the funds for the project. While Liberia, the Issuer of the Eurobond, will still be on the hook by the issuance of the sovereign guarantee to be issued by the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) before first disbursement if EBOMAF, the Lead Financial Manager, cannot fully raise the US$420 million and Liberia would therefore still be obligated to EBOMAF acting in the capacity as the Project Contractor.
Financial analysts say while this may seem to be a “Bought” deal, where, in a typical “bought” deal, the Lead Financial Manager assumes all risks in raising the funds, in the current scenario, EBOMAF, is also the Project Contractor and has asked for a sovereign guarantee to ensure that it is paid in full whether or not EBOMAF, the Financial Manager, is able to fully raise the US$420 million.
Also worth noting, financial analysts say, are other interesting aspects to this deal.
EBOMAF, for example lists The ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development (EBID), the financial institution established by the 15 Member States of the Economic Community of West and the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) which finances and promotes intra- and extra-African trade, as its partners. But neither is a party to the agreement.
Money Laundering Fears
This, financial analysts say raises a lot of concerns. One financial analyst asked, “wouldn’t one of the two partnering banks to EBOMAF be better suited for the function of Lead Financial Manager? Another said, “a major deal of this type where the Lead Financial Manager is also the exclusive project contractor cannot pass the smell test”. “This is not an arm’s length transaction”, she asserts.
Moreover, neither EBID nor AFREXIMBANK has the capacity to service a loan of this size. As for AFREXIMBANK, the type of infrastructure being proposed- roads, and the tenure of the loan period are outside the scope of its offerings.
The bottom line, financial analysts say, as in the case of the Eton Loan, the sovereign guarantee remains the most important instrument with which the so-called financiers could use on trading platforms to raise funds whether the loan agreements materialize or not.
Most importantly, Eurobonds are not registered securities but rather are bearer instruments. In addition, this is a “bought” deal in which the Lead Financial Manager is also the Project Contractor. Under such an arrangement, it is easy for bearers of these Eurobonds to launder money through such a scheme.
For the immediate future, it remains unclear how the administration will handle the mounting concerns regarding the financial and political risks of its ambitious road construction agenda.
For the foreseeable future, fears are rising over the potential debt ceiling on the horizon should the legislature give a greenlight to both loans.
At the start of the Sirleaf era, international stakeholders all agreed that waiver of the country’s huge external debt was necessary to help it recover from war.
Sirleaf, at a conference of donors and financial experts in 2006 lamented that it was unable to pay back Liberia’s external debt arrears of US $3.5 billion.
Former Finance Minister Dr. Antoinette Sayeh made the case that: “There is a need for a debt waiver for Liberia, and in order to do this the government must carry out a reform of its economic and monetary programs and constantly engage our international financial partners to assist us in putting together policies and programs that would qualify us for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiatives.”
Pledge of reforms and the putting in place of key financial monitory structures paved the way for a whopping US$4.6 billion dollar in loan waiver by the international community for Liberia. On September 16, 2010, Liberia reached the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Completion point which facilitated the cancellation of 96% of the US$4.9billion external debt that had been accumulated, serviced, over two decades.
By the end of her tenure, the debts were piling up again.
In March 2016, Sirleaf informed Senators about the alarming local and international debts which had accrued under her administration, pleading for immediate actions that would rescue the country’s economy.
The President feared at the time that the situation could render the nation ineligible to access international loans to finance development programs and projects.
Sirleaf said at the time that while Liberia had reached the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Completion point, certain loans on the debt schedule did not qualify for cancellation. “This comprised sixteen loans valued at US$415 million of which US$156 million represented reconciled restructured external debt and US$259.3 million accounted for validated restructured domestic debt largely owed to the Central Bank of Liberia as Government’s capitalization of the Bank.”
As of December 2015, a total of thirty-two (32) loans amounting to US$802 million had been contracted of which twenty-six (26) represent loans sourced from external creditors with a value of US$792 million and six (6) sourced from domestic creditors at a value of US$10 million.
To date a total of US$315 million of external loans have been disbursed leaving an undisbursed balance of US$477 million. The US$10 million domestic borrowing has been fully disbursed.
Sirleaf explained at the time that there were several issues regarding the debts that needed to be taken into account. “First, the external debts have an average maturity, including grace period of 30 years with an average rate of 1.5%. The bulk of this debt is sourced from our partnership with bilateral and multilateral institutions. Second, the proceeds of the debt have been channeled into projects and activities that will contribute to our economic growth and development goals. This ensures that the debt can be repaid on maturity. Third, the debt has a significant concessional element ensuring sustainability.”
Today, Liberia is currently consumed by massive external and internal debts.
The Annual Debt Report put undisbursed loans to around US$611.42 million and outstanding disbursed loans including post-HIPC disbursed loans and restructured debt amounted to US$848.99 million.
The debt stock includes pre-HIPC restructured debt of US$331.41 million and post-HIPC debt of US$517.58 million.
In the Recast budget for Fiscal Year 2017/2018 recently passed by the legislature, US$16.498 million was originally appropriated for servicing the country’s foreign debt while US$15.068 is now proposed for payment in the recast budget.
The amount of US$9.434 million was originally appropriated in the 2017/2018 budget to service domestic liabilities. That amount was, however, sliced to US$3,846 million in the recast budget.
Both loans – in the two submissions on the legislative floor this week, would likely surpass the two budget-year totals.
The recast budget submitted to the 54th Legislature by the Executive Mansion is US$536,200,130 million from US$563,563,432 million originally appropriated for this budget year which ends on June 30. Just half of the nearly one billion in new loans on the horizon for the Weah-led government trumpeting a pro-poor agenda.
Mysterious Shaw in the Shadows
As the legislature weigh in on the matter this week, the Weah-led government appears to be racing against time in a quest to get two major road projects underway. But with many questions lingering over the two loan arrangements, Liberians remain widely divided over whether the risks are worth taking for a country with a long history of bad governance, corruption and greed.
More importantly, would those funds be used for the purpose intended even as many are unsure whether Eton has the ability to deliver on obtaining the US$536 million in fifty banking days.
In the shadows is Emmanuel Shaw, a controversial figure and political persona many say has been behind the rise and fall of several past presidents including William R. Tolbert, Samuel Kanyon Doe and Charles Ghankay Taylor.
The slight omission is former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who upon the urging of the U.S. government was forced to withdraw Mr. Shaw’s appointment as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Liberia Airports Authority (LAA).
Sirleaf would later explain that her desire was to bring an experienced financial and aeronautical professional to assist in developing the plans for modernizing Roberts International Airport and to guide the process for correcting the continued difficulties found in International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) assessments of the airport safety and operational adequacy.
The cost of such an appointment was even for Sirleaf a huge political gamble and a major concern for international partners – with Mr. Shaw who is still under US Treasury Department sanctions and previously on both United Nations Travel and Assets freeze list.
It is a risk the current President Weah appears to be willing to live with – even at a huge risk for his own political stakes. Win or lose, the ball is now in the court of the legislature as Liberia and its international stakeholders wait with baited breadth to see how much, if any resistance the documents will encounter.
Passage of the two loans could prove pyrrhic for a government venturing into unchartered territory of trying to secure loan from private sources – and a football legend turned politician putting it all on the line in what could inarguably be the biggest game of his political life.