Liberia: Presidential Jet Explanation Backfires; President’s ‘Wealthy Burkinabe Friend Uncovered
Monrovia – A FrontPageAfrica investigation has identified the mystery wealthy Burkinabè businessman friend of President George Manneh Weah but the revelation has been eclipsed by a damning report that businessman Mahamadou Bonkoungou is currently embroiled in a nasty legal wrangle with the former Prime Minister of Benin, Lionel Zinsou, whom Mr. Bonkoungou has accused of refusing to repay him money loaned Zinsou for his failed 2016 Presidential bid in Benin.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
JEUNEAFRIQUE, the French-language pan-African weekly news magazine, recently describe Mr. Bonkoungou, who is President and CEO of the construction company Ebomaf, as one who has forged close ties with many heads of state in West Africa.
Ebomaf has presence and has been involved in road construction projects mainly in French-speaking West Africa – Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast and Guinea, according to the company’s website.
EBOMAF was founded in 1989 and Bonkoungou inherited the company from his late father Zind-Naba.
Many candidates running for the presidency in the region turn to Bonkoungou for financial help with reports that they are expected to deliver in return in case they are lucky enough to win.
‘No Strings Attached, Plane Owner Says
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.
Bonkoungou confirmed this to the West African Democracy Radio(WADR) Monday but insisted that no strings were attached and 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.
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 mean 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.”
During the 2017 presidential elections, Weah, was seen flying around with a Max Air mini jet, from the Nigerian charter airline headquartered in Kano Airport. But Mr. Bongounkou said Monday that he too also made his plane available to candidate Weah. “The same plane was loaned several times to President George Weah before he became president.”
The airline, according to its website, offers carriers for emergency or scheduled business trips and has in its collection a range of aircraft including helicopters.
The Falcon 900 borrowed to the Liberian President is a French-built corporate jet aircraft made by Dassault Aviation. Improved models include the Falcon 900-B, featuring improved engines and increased range, and the Falcon 900EX featuring further improvements in engines and range and an all-glass https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_cockpitflight deck. The Falcon 900C is a lower-cost companion to the Falcon 900EX and replaces the Falcon 900B.
Weah Admits Plane Causing ‘Trouble’
During a program at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last Saturday, President Weah, acknowledged that the reports of him allegedly purchasing a US$30 million presidential jet was causing him problems. “This buying plane business is causing trouble,” the President said as he explained that he has a lot of wealthy businesspeople he considered a friend, including one from Burkina Faso but did not reveal the name.
Said President Weah: “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”.
President Weah’s office has been reluctant to name the donor of the plane which has taken him on a number of trips on the African continent since his inauguration.
Presidential Press Secretary Sam Mannah went as far as to state that the President was under no obligation to disclose the name of the donor of the presidential jet. “The President is not under any obligation to inform the public about someone’s private property. He does not own the plane. The President is only obligated to notify the public if he uses taxpayers money to get a plane. The plane is not owned by the President.
Added Mannah: “I have no idea but it is a friend of the president. I don’t know who the friend is, but what I want to convey to the public is that the President does not own the jet and everything that is reported by the media is all insinuations. the President cannot afford to spend US$30 million on a used jet. I don’t think used jet cost US$30 million. Our budget does not support that and everything else is insinuation. And I don’t think it’s a problem for the President of the Republic to be presented with a jet to facilitate his travel. I mean as Liberians we should be excited about that on account that we are not using the state’s money to purchase a jet without the country’s knowledge and I think we should be excited that our president is being afforded the opportunity to facilitate his travels.”
Both President Weah and his press secretary have failed to acknowledge that gifts of such significant value create an actual or potential conflict of interests, which could lead to awarding of government contracts or influencing of legislation that could directly or indirectly affect the financial material interest of the person providing the gifts, especially if such a person is a businessman who could have a potential interest in business from the government of Liberia.
Mahama Ties Unearthed
FrontPageAfrica has now learned that President Weah was first introduced to the Burkinabè businessman by Ghanaian businessman Ibrahima Mahama, the younger brother of former Ghanaian president John Dramani Mahama.
Ibrahima is the founder of Engineers and Planners, the largest indigenous-owned mining company in West Africa, and the owner of several other businesses in Ghana.
This is not the first time that the Mahamas have been involved in controversial gifts with businessmen from Burkina Faso.
In 2016, Burkinabè businessman Djibril Kanazoe, who runs a contractor company was involved in a major scandal after he was awarded a contract and used undue influence to get contracts and paid bribes to some Ghanaian officials in a bid to win a $US650,000 Ghanaian Embassy fence wall in Burkina Faso. Kanazoe was the the only African contractor who won part of the contract on the Eastern Corridor Road Project, one of the biggest road projects ever to be undertaken in Ghana.
“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.” – Mr. Mahamadou Bongounkou, CEO, Ebomaf Construction
According to Myjoyonline, a Ghanaian publication, in September 2014, when officials of the Bank of Ghana appeared before the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (PAC), it emerged that an amount of $656, 246.48 had been spent on the construction of a fence wall over a parcel of land belonging to the Ghana Embassy in Burkina Faso. PAC ordered the Bank of Ghana to investigative what it termed the “outrageous” cost of the project.
Weah Claims a Lot of ‘Wealthy Friends’
In dismissing reports that he had purchased a plane, President Weah promised that he will never keep Liberians in the dark. “I want you to understand that there’s nothing that will be done here by the leaders that you will not know. If we decide to buy plane which is, of course, is good for the country, if we decide to buy it, the first plane we decide to buy will not be a private plane, it will be a commercial plane that will take Liberians from here to Guinea, Ghana and Ivory Coast. We’ve been talking to a few people. We need Liberia to be a hub where people can catch a flight – because we are situated in the middle where everybody can come to us. We’ve been approached for our zones to be a hub. We are still in that discussion.”
The President said he has a lot of former adoptees including a 40-year-old woman who was 18-years-old when he reportedly adopted her, that have now become wealthy. “This is somebody who has so many friends. Most of my friends are wealthy and most of the children that I sent to school – from Cameroun, from Ivory Coast to France – all those kids are all wealthy kids. And you see during the campaign, I did not spend a dime to fly. The little boy that was living with me in Cameroun, George Waga and my daughter, you see – I adopted her when she was 18, now she is 40 something – she’s from Cameroun. So, it tells me that it’s not just only in Liberia that I work, around the world.”
EBOMAF also credits amongst its projects, 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 southeastern region of Liberia.
The Weah-led administration is currently locked in a controversial US$500,000 loan financing agreement with a questionable Singaporean firm, Eton Finance Private Limited.
According to the Memorandum of Understanding, the 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.
Singapore Loan Link
Critics have raised concerns that the MOU signed with ETON breached regulations of the Public Procurement Concessions Commission(PPCC) by naming contractors for the project without going through the PPCC.
The MOU lists JVC or Consortium Comprising MAEIL Liberia Construction Co., Ltd, described as a Chinese Engineering, procurement and construction company and subcontractor company comprising Liberian owned and operated construction and engineering which according to the MOU will be vetted and confirmed by the Ministry of Public Works in respect of their technical capacities.
A recent Investigation by FrontPageAfrica found that the MAEII Liberia Construction group is actually being run by two Koreans who have been in Liberia the past five years looking to score a contract for the Cape Mount road project under the terms of what is currently on the table with the Singapore arrangement. But sources say, the pair has been unable to identify the source of funding and encountered problems trying to get anyone in authority to buy into their plan.
One source confiding in FrontPageAfrica said Monday that EBOMAF has been looking to get in on the deal.
Of particular interest is the role of businessman Ibrahima Mahama, who is credited with introducing President Weah to the Burkinabe businessman. Mahama is said to be one of the brains behind the scenes of the Singapore loan arrangement along with businessman Emmanuel Shaw.
Burkinabè Businessman in Legal Wrangle
Despite the denial from the Burkinabe businessman, Bongounkou, a FrontPageAfrica investigation has found that he also worked behind the scenes of the failed Presidential bid of Zinzou, the former Prime Minister of Benin.
The case is gaining international traction with both men 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 countersuit 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 cataloging 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.
Additionally, the action by the President also breaches laws in some western countries, notably UK Bribery Act 2010 (the “Bribery Act”) and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
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.
Amid the denials from President Weah and the Burkinabè businessman, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whether the pair had any agreement prior to the elections.
Admission vs. Reality
What we do know for sure, in part due to Mr. Bonkoungou’s own admission, is that he did provide air transport service for George Weah, the presidential candidate in the 2017 presidential elections. What we don’t know is whether promises, if any, bear resemblance to what is now unfolding in a French Court between Mr. Bonkoungou and Mr. Zinzou, the former Prime Minister of Benin.
For watchers of the ongoing political saga, the lack of a clear-cut admission from either man could only mean one thing: That Mr. Weah’s promise not to keep anything hidden from the Liberian people could come down to the unexpected reality of a possible breach of whatever promise both men are now reluctant or refusing to divulge.
Questions are also being raised over the sudden appearances of so many wealthy friends of the president who some say were nowhere to be found when he needed them the most.
The only recorded wealthy friend surfaced during a June 2014 investigation by the Fifa Executive Committee when Mr. Weah admitted answering questions over allegations that he allegedly received US$50 000 for ‘school fees’ from the banned former FIFA’s Vice President Mohamed Bin Hammam.
At the time of the probe, Mr. Weah acknowledged that he was questioned as many as five times by a team investigating allegations of corruption in bidding to hold the World Cup. “I have a constitutional right to talk about anything outside football” with him, Weah said.
E-Mail Correspondence between Weah, his long-time friend, Lenn Eugene Nagbe, the current Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs & Tourism and Mohammed Bin Hammam’s assistant, which revealed that the Ballon d’Or winner requested US$50 000 in exchange for their support toward Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Assets vs. Gifts
Bin Hammam was banned by FIFA in 2012 for life for violating its ethics code with alleged conflicts of interest during his time as Asian Football ConFederation President and as a member of the FIFA executive committee.
Mr. Weah who in 2005 declared that his combined assets both in Liberia and the USA was more than US$2.8 million, reported to the Newton County Court in the U.S. State of George on April 18, 2016 after a warrant was issued for his arrest for child abandonment that he only made one thousand and ninety U.S. dollars as Senator in Liberia and that he has two other minor kids born in 2000 and 2012. He told the court that he could only afford to pay $US160 payment for his child with Meapeh Kou Gono, the mother of his out-of-wedlock daughter.
Mr. Weah declared on his 2005 assets declaration as required by the National Elections Commission that he realized US$335,000 on properties both in the United States and here in Liberia in 2005 alone. Real estate in the USA valued US$250,000, US$60,000 from a supermarket in the USA, while he said to earned US$25, 000 from his real estate in Liberia.
FrontPageAfrica recently obtained financial disclosure documents out of the US state of Miami indicating that the Florida supermarket – Flavors West Indian Supermarket and Restaurant – which is registered in his wife’s name has been inactive.
The president has been under fire since his ascendancy to the presidency with the construction of several private properties including what is said to be a hotel construction at his 9th Street Sinkor property. That property was valued in 2005 at US$150,000. Two other properties of a purported dream house is said to be under construction and his Jamaica Resort is undergoing a transformation.
Information Minister Eugene Nagbe has said the that President is using his own money to undertake the projects.
For now, the drumbeat over calls for President Weah to declare his assets is playing out into a stubborn policy by the administration toward transparency and accountability, even as the country’s key stakeholders gauge the unfolding developments with keen interests and intrigue as new developments unfold into the mystery of the presidential jet.