Treasure Islands: An Offshore Awakening

Treasure Islands An Offshore Awakening

(Image: Palgrave Macmillan)

One night in September 1997 I returned home to my flat in North London to find that a man with a French accent had left a message on my answering machine. Mr. Autogue, as he called himself, had heard from an editor at the Financial Times (whom I was writing for) that I was to visit the oil-rich country of Gabon on Africa’s western coastline, and he said he wanted to help me during my visit. He left a number in Paris. Curious as hell, I rang back the next morning.

This was supposed to be a routine journalist’s trip to a small African country: I wasn’t expecting to find too much to write about in this sparsely populated former French colony, but the fact that English-speaking journalists almost never ventured there meant I would have the place all to myself. When I arrived, I discovered to my surprise and alarm that Mr. Autogue had flown out to the capital of Libreville with an assistant on first-class Air France tickets and they had booked themselves into the city’s most expensive hotel for a week—and their sole project, he cheerfully admitted, was to help me.

I had spent years watching, living in, and writing about the curve of oil-soaked African Atlantic coastline that ranges from Nigeria, in North Africa, through Gabon and down to Angola, farther south. Today this region supplies almost a sixth of U.S. oil imports1 and about the same share of China’s; and beneath a veneer of great wealth in each place lies terrible poverty, inequality, and conflict.

Journalists are supposed to start on the trail of a great story somewhere dramatic and dangerous. I found my story here unexpectedly, in a series of polite if unsettling meetings in Libreville. Lunch with the finance minister? No problem: Monsieur Autogue arranged it with a phone call. I drank a cocktail in a hotel lobby with the powerful half-Chinese foreign minister Jean Ping, who later became president of the U.N. General Assembly; the estimable Mr. Ping gave me as much of his time as I needed for my interview and asked graciously about my family. Later, the oil minister clasped me by the shoulder and jokingly offered me an oil field—then withdrew his hand, saying, “No: these things are only for les grands—the people who matter.”

Never more than five hundred yards from foul African poverty on the streets of Libreville, I spent a week wandering about in a bubble. Mr. Autogue’s attempts to keep my diary full made me determined to find out what it was that he might be wanting to hide. My new best friend had opened for me a zone of air-conditioned splendor: I was ushered to the front of queues to meet with powerful people, who were always delighted to see me. This parallel, charmed world, underpinned by the unspoken threat of force against anyone inside or outside the bubble who would disrupt it, is easy to miss in the affluent and easy West. In Africa the jolt was enough to begin to shake me from my sleep.

I had stumbled into what later became more widely known through a scandal in Paris as the so-called Elf affair.

The scandal began in 1994 when U.S.-based Fairchild Corp. opened a commercial dispute with a French industrialist, triggering a stock exchange inquiry. Unlike in more adversarial Anglo-Saxon legal systems, where the prosecution jousts with the defense to produce a resolution, the investigating magistrate in France is more like an impartial detective inserted between the two sides. He or she is supposed to investigate the matter until the end, when the truth is uncovered. In this case Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born investigating magistrate, found that every time she investigated something new leads would emerge. Her probes just kept going deeper. She began receiving death threats: A miniature coffin was sent to her in the post, and on a raid of one business she found a Smith & Wesson revolver, fully loaded and pointed at the entrance.

But she persisted: Other magistrates became involved, and as the extraordinary revelations began to accumulate, they began to discern the outlines of a gigantic system of corruption that connected the French state-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine with the French political, commercial, and intelligence establishments, via Gabon’s deeply corrupt ruler Omar Bongo.

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Bongo’s story is a miniature tale of what happened when France formally relinquished its colonies. As countries in Africa and elsewhere gained independence, the old beneficiaries of the French empire set up new ways to stay in control behind the scenes. Gabon became independent in 1960, just as it was starting to emerge as a promising new African oil frontier, and France paid it particular attention. France needed to install the right president: an authentic African leader who would be charismatic, strong, cunning, and, when it mattered, utterly pro-French. In Omar Bongo they found the perfect candidate: He was from a tiny minority ethnic group and had no natural domestic support base, so he would have to rely on France to protect him.

In 1967, aged just 32, Bongo became the world’s youngest president, and for good measure France placed several hundred paratroopers in a barracks in Libreville, connected to one of his palaces by underground tunnels. This intimidating deterrent against coup plots proved so effective that by the time Bongo died in 2009, he was the world’s longest-serving leader.

In exchange for France’s backing Bongo gave two things. First, he gave French companies almost exclusive access to his country’s minerals, on highly preferential terms that were deeply unfair to the people of Gabon. The country became known as French companies’ chasse gardée—their private hunting ground. But the second thing Bongo provided was more interesting. He allowed his country, through its oil industry, to become the African linchpin of the gigantic, secret Elf system—a vast, spooky web of global corruption secretly connecting the oil industries of former French African colonies with mainstream politics in metropolitan France, via Switzerland, Luxembourg, and other tax havens. Parts of Gabon’s oil industry, Joly discovered as she dug deeper and deeper in Paris, had been serving as a giant slush fund: a pot of secret money outside the reach of French judicial authorities in which hundreds of millions of dollars were made available for the use of French elites. An African oil cargo would be sold, and the proceeds would split up into a range of bewildering accounts in tax havens, where they could be used to supply bribes and baubles for whatever the unaccountable elites who controlled the system deemed fit.

From Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited