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Hundreds of millions evaporate: The hazy pattern of corruption in Gaz du Cameroun

Gaz du Cameroun

The Cameroonian subsidiary of the British company, Victoria Oil and Gas (VOG), already threatened with suspension of its activities in Cameroon, has faced new challenges, including the cancellation of a major contract, delays in approving new concessions and lawsuits from former employees alleging fraudulent payments, sexual harassment and forgery of signature.

GDC fails

In early February, the American publication 100Reporters reported that the State of Cameroon has threatened to terminate its contract with Gaz du Cameroun (GDC) after finding that the Cameroonian subsidiary of VOG, which generates several million dollars in annual revenues in exploitation of Ndogpassi’s natural gas, has failed in its social and fiscal obligations.  In addition, GDC has entered into two gas concessions in violation of the Cameroonian Petroleum Code which provides that a production sharing agreement between two private companies is valid only after obtaining a license from the State. The first is GDC’s takeover of 75 per cent of Glencore Exploration shares in the Matanda block, a gas concession sixty times larger than Ndogpassi’s. The second concerns the acquisition from Bowleven Plc of 80 per cent of the Bomono block, with an area of ​​2,237 square kilometers.

For more than a year, the gas company has been waiting for government approval. It stated in its 2017 interim financial report that it was ready to give to the State between 5 and 25 per cent of Matanda block shares and 10 per cent of Bomono block shares once the concessions were approved. In the latter case, GDC and Bowleven had agreed that if by the end of June 2017, the State did not agree, the contract would have to be abbrogated, said the local representative of Bowleven Plc in an interview.

GDC however, convinced its partner to continue to wait for the reaction of the authorities. “I know why the negotiations (between the state and GDC) have remained blocked but I can not tell you,” said Eric Arah Taku, also CFO of Euroil Limited, a local subsidiary of Bowleven.

Already, GDC which has plans to issue shares worth £100,000 and make royalty payments of $20 million in the Bomono block alone, has other concerns, starting with the loss of a major customer. Last January, Eneo-Cameroon S.A, a company producing and distributing electricity, suspended its gas supply contract with GDC. Eneo attributed its decision to financial difficulties. “VOG believes that this is a temporary problem and expects a resolution in the short and medium term,” commented Kevin Foo, founder of VOG, in a note to investors emphasizing that Eneo has represented 53  per cent of GDC’s natural gas sales revenue in 2017.

Suspicious transactions and law suits

Meanwhile, the gas company has spent money on suspicious transactions and lawsuits filed by some of its former employees. Four sacked Cameroonian executives lodged a complaint against GDC and even one of its expatriate directors for unfair dismissal and sexual harassment. Legal action by former staff members also include allegations of wrongdoing ranging from overcharging of contracts and undue payments for unfulfilled work to conflicts of interest and the bribing of government authorities by company executives.

Alain Akoa

Alain Frank Akoa Akoa II is one of those who pursued this company successfully. After being sacked in July 2016, the former project controller and staff delegate dragged GDC to court for “unlawful dismissal”. About eight months later, the Littoral Court of Appeal in Douala upheld the pending judgment that forced GDC to reinstate Akoa and pay him XAF 6 million, representing his salary arrears since November 2016.

But this decision of the judges does not seem sufficient. “I am a little disappointed by the decision of the court because these people have not been punished for all the harm they have done me,” reacted Akoa, 43, adjusting his clear glasses. “The position I held was canceled after my departure, so whether they reinstate me or not, I will initiate a suit for compensation for material, moral and intellectual damage caused by the management of Gaz du Cameroun”.

This former employee of the reinstrumentation and extension projects of the National Refining Company (Sonara) was recruited by GDC in June 2013 in the new position of project controller. His job, he said, was to plan, budget and ensure the evolution and validation of the Ndogpassi gas project. It is from this strategic position that he says he later came across strange movements of money between the gas company and some subcontractors.

“It all started when I came back from vacation in 2015 and the finance department asked me to produce and sign the work completion certificate certifying that a company called Imegap has done electrical work at the gas plant”, said Akoa, who however insists that the work, was instead done by another subcontractor. He said  he had even searched his office and the security guard registry to see if Imegap staff had entered the gas plant during his absence.

“Imegap was never involved in this project but the management asked me to validate the payment of more than XAF 8 million to this company for imaginary work,” said Akoa. “The case of Imegap caught my eye and I began to gather compelling evidence of this fraud at GDC because previously I had heard rumors of fraudulent payments without evidence,” added the former project controller, currently consulting in project management and professional research since his dismissal.

Akoa says as he opposed this payment, GDC had another employee sign the slip that allowed Imegap to receive the XAF 8 million. On July 20, 2016, Akoa, who also denounced the poor working conditions of Cameroonian employees at the gas plant, was dismissed for “repeated insults and defamatory statements against your employees,” wrote Mark Wilson, GDC General Manager at the time, adding that “on several occasions (…), you have described the GDC management as” liar “and circulated such accusations in writing to incite a riot”.

A few weeks later, Akoa filed a case at the Wouri High Court in Douala. Then, he complained to the British High Commission in Cameroon, the National Agency for Financial Investigations (NAFI), the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Cameroonian branch of Transparency International, denouncing the “Fraud and Violations of the Cameroonian Law” at GDC. To this end, he drew up a table summarizing, according to him, the doubtful payments between GDC and Abaapcam Engineering Ltd, Imegap and Global Marine Engineering S.A, three local subcontracting companies.

Evidence Descriptions Amounts Observations
       
Global Marine Engineering Invoice Pipe Fitting & Welding Services rendered in March 2016   XAF62,621,300   Service never  rendered
Global Marine Engineering Invoice Pipe Fitting & Welding Services rendered in April 2016 XAF53,489,785   Service never rendered
IMEGAP Invoice Bill for Water Treatment Plant XAF8,703,750 Service never rendered
Abaapcam Invoices Civil Works for Drilling Campaign XAF639,687,370 This amount is made of XAF327,995,180 which is the initial & overestimated overall budget for all works. All other costs (XAF311,692,190) are certainly not for the project.
       
TOTAL   XAF764,502,205 Effective loss of XAF436,507,025  between February and July 2016

Source: Alain Akoa documents

In total, GDC reportedly paid more than XAF 436 million in five months to three local subcontractors for uncompleted work, according to Akoa’s calculations. When GDC management was contacted, officials repeatedly refused to comment on the allegations.

Imegap describes itself as an SME specializing in construction, maintenance, engineering and labor services. Its CEO had initially promised to provide his staff’s attendance sheet to GDC to prove that the work had been done. Later, Emmanuel Mbui said he wanted to identify the source of information about his company before giving his version of the facts.

The accountant at Abaapcam Engineering Ltd acknowledged that his employer has benefited from multiple payments from GDC. However, “some payments were made for additional work such as maintenance that was not on the contract and in this case, we made order forms,” ​​said John Ayuk before adding that “GDC never pays for work not done “.

It has not always been the case. In March and April 2016, the subsidiary of VOG paid more than XAF 116 million to Global Marine Engineering (Glomae) for piping and welding, as evidenced by internal documents. However, the Glomae CEO said in an interview that he is not aware of this work and payments since at the time Glomae and GDC were not yet partners.  “I’m confused when you tell me about the payments that date back to 2016 because it’s only since January 2018 that we’ve been making small pipe and solder connections to the gas plant,” Chris Ngu Akong said on the phone. A version of the facts were later confirmed by Daniel Fru, deputy general manager of this company. Chris Ngu was also surprised to learn that the money had to be transferred to a Glomae bank account opened at United Bank for Africa (UBA) in Douala. He said Glomae never opened an account in this bank and that he no longer has news of his colleague Ben A. Kolling, director of operations, who made the demands for payment.

Contacted later, Ben Kollinz said he could not know if the work was actually done because he had never visited the gas plant, but he admitted to having prepared the requests for payment on instructions from his general manager. “It’s Mr. Ngu Chris who asked me to make the bills,” he said on the phone. “The money has been transferred to the company’s bank account at UBA and Mr Ngu is one of the signers of this account, I do not know what he is talking about.”

Curiosities do not stop at these divergent opinions. The completion certificate of this work, a document confirming the effectiveness of the work, was signed two months after the payment of the invoices.

For Christian Penda Ekoka, a consultant in economics developpment and adviser to the Presidency’s civil cabinet, if the contracts were not executed, it means that there was complicity between the managers of the Gas company and the beneficiaries. “There could have been payments of retro commissions, we must denounce these practices of tax avoidance and money laundering”.

Ben Kollinz said the funds disbursed by GDC were transferred to UBA. A few weeks earlier, the gas company had already awarded a large contract to Ekoko Mukete, the bank’s general manager in Cameroon, according to GDC documents. Son of Chief Nfon Mukete, oldest member of the Cameroonian Senate, Ekoko Mukete, also vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Crafts of Cameroon, obtained in February 2016 via his company Universal Logistics Sarl (Unilog) the exclusive contract to transport condensate from the Ndogpassi gas plant to Sonara in Limbe. Akoa said the transport of this natural gas derivative was assured without incident by various private operators dismissed in favour of Unilog.

“The prices of Unilog are higher than those of the old carriers, and it is curious that the trucks supposed to belong to Unilog bear the colors of GDC,” said Akoa.  

The Honorary Consul

In October 2016, Ekoko Mukete became the GDC government and public relations  officer after signing a contract as a consultant with Ahmed Dik, VOG Director General of Turkish nationality. Under the terms of the contract, Ekoko Mukete, who is also the Honorary Consul of Turkey in Douala, was charged with “resolving problems with the government and ministerial departments, advancing requests and licensing, addressing issues raised by the SNH and put pressure on the government. ” In return, GDC pledged to give its consultant a monthly salary of $50,000 (XAF28 million), business class air tickets on international flights and even hotel costs for the duration of the contract.

Under the terms of the contract, Ekoko Mukete, who is also the Honorary Consul of Turkey in Douala, was charged with “resolving problems with the government and ministerial departments, advancing requests and licensing, addressing issues raised by the SNH and put pressure on the government.

Mukete was a consultant when the National Hydrocarbons Company  (SNH) threatened via a bailiff to terminate the contract between the gas company and the State of Cameroon for non-compliance.  In one year, GDC has awarded four major deals to this businessman. In addition to condensate transportation and the consulting position, Ekoko Mukete and William Bill Egbe, then deputy general manager of GDC, signed in December 2016 two sub-lease contracts for Unilog premises in Bekoko, on the outskirts of the economic capital. The first stipulated that GDC should occupy an office on the first floor, have security personnel, watchdogs and surveillance cameras for a monthly rent of more than XAF 1, 300,000  to be paid to Unilog. The second contract said that Unilog was to hand over to GDC a yard of 5,000 square meters, security personnel, watchdogs and surveillance cameras for more than XAF 650,000 of monthly rent. In these two sub-lease agreements, the VOG subsidiary did not mention the reasons that led it to look for new premises.

Mukete was contacted as part of this investigation. He refused to give his version of the facts.

Sexual harassment allegations

More than a year and a half after being contacted, NACC reacted to Akoa’s complaint, just to say to the former project controller that the facts he denounces fall within the competence of judicial courts. In addition to Akoa, other Cameroonian executives have dragged GDC to court for “unfair dismissal”, including Honoré Mbouombouo Dairou, former Deputy Director General and Henri Serge Job, former director of business development. Brigitte Grace Bayemi, former head of business development, has in addition to the complaint of unfair dismissal against GDC, accused Mark Wilson of sexual harassment.

Mark Wilson liked to do things in secret. In July 2015, he granted William Egbe, then Director of Legal Affairs of GDC, a loan of XAF 20 million, in violation of Article 450 of the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA) uniform act and at a time when GDC claimed to have financial problems and refused to pay taxes and royalties to the state. William Egbe knew a lot about financial transactions at GDC, according to former executives who, in an email dating back to March 2017, told NACC that William Egbe was taking “huge sums of money in briefcases to go to Yaoundé to (obtain) various facilities of the high central public administration “.

In London, some shareholders of VOG had already mentioned the scandal of bribes paid to the Cameroonian authorities by some leaders of GDC. Micheal Taylor, a major shareholder of VOG, has even advanced amounts. “We were also informed of significant cash withdrawals in 2016, totaling approximately $ 100,000 (XAF55 million), taken by Mark Wilson, William Egbe and Ahmet Dik during trips to the capital, Yaounde, but for unclear reasons … ” said Micheal Taylor in an email to VOG’s lawyers in January 2017.

Contacted on the phone, William Ebge had promised to respond to multiple requests for information but he remained silent. Ahmed Dik and Mark Wilson did not comment on Micheal Taylor’s allegations.

Where did all the money go?

A lot of money was coming out of GDC for unclear services. Other internal documents of the gas company reveal that in April 2016, BlackWood General Trading LLC, a company associated with Ahmed Dik, received from GDC approximately $1,370,000 (XAF 774 million ) for the supply of pipes of various diameters used in the extension of the natural gas pipeline. Akoa said the prices of this company based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates were three times higher than those of the Ghanaian and Indian companies that supplied this type of pipe to GDC.

GDC’s supply chain has expanded to South Africa. Between August 2014 and November 2016, the

Eric and Heilie Friend

VOG subsidiary spent 397,088 rand (XAF16.5 million) for the purchase of shirts, boots, caps and seat belts from A-Call-Away (ACA), a South African plumbing and electricity company headed by Heilie Friend, the wife of Eric Friend, the current Managing Director of GDC. The same internal financial documents reveal that GDC paid in the same period the sum of 184,553 rands (XAF7.7 million) to Contractors Equipment Store (CES), another South African company based in Cape Town as ACA, for the provision of costumes, coats and safety shoes. In these two markets, the representative of ACA and CES is Ruhan Lombard, director of CES and brother of Heilie Friend, the wife of Eric Friend.

GDC was making these expensive purchases at a time when about thirty of its Cameroonian employees had been fired on the grounds that the gas company wanted to reduce costs. Another employee currently in court against his former employer for unfair dismissal says he discovered that his signature was forged. Dismissed on September 26, 2017 after an accident with a GDC car, Eric Fokam dragged his employer to court for unfair dismissal. The former driver said the defense presented at a court hearing an alcohol test report he allegedly underwent after the accident. “I did not do any alcohol tests after the accident,” Fokam said in an interview. “They wanted to imitate my signature to give credibility to the false document; I cannot let that happen. ”

Eric Friend did not comment on allegations made by former staff members. However, some VOG shareholders informed of the allegations, including GDC’s former chief executive, Jonathan Scott Barrett, demanded an independent investigation to “produce enough evidence for all executives to be immediately dismissed and without any chance of waiting for a long disruptive investigation,” Scott Barrett said in an internal email.

After some hesitation, the VOG Audit Committee selected Price Waterhouse Coopers Nigeria to hear Akoa’s allegations and conduct an internal audit of GDC. VOG later warned investors in an email that after reviewing the report, the audit committee would select the information to share with shareholders and authorities. The former GDC project controller said he was heard in early 2017 but the PriceWaterhouse Coopers had not yet audited GDC. Price Waterhouse Coopers has not commented on this allegation.

As a listed company on the London Stock Exchange, VOG has a duty to report important information to its shareholders. Contacted, Iain Patrick, chairman of VOG’s audit committee, said any questions regarding the group of companies should be directed to the company’s general management or PR advisors. But senior GDC and VOG officials, including Kevin Fo’o, remained silent on all requests for information.

By Christian Locka

This story was written as part of Wealth of Nations, a pan-African media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. More information at www.wealth-of-nations.org.

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