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Africa is like an island: who controls the ports holds the continent
By Thomas Deltombe, Le Monde diplomatique, September 2023
Sep 19, 2023 - 3:31:13 PM

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In his African businesses, Vincent Bolloré’s reach is impressive, from ports and transportation to communications and media. But the man once known as an ethical entrepreneur has lost his old magic as his group has become implicated in African politics and scandals

Vincent Bolloré has been the darling of the French media for years. Back in the 1980s he was called the “prince of cashflow”, “new capitalism” incarnate, the ethical entrepreneur who knew how to blend social harmony with financial profit. Journalists jostled for interviews when the head of the leftwing CGT trade union in Bolloré’s paper mill in Brittany swore that the union agreed to “play the profit game” and preferred “modernity to class struggle”.

But the portrait of the Breton golden boy from those rich years is becoming rather tarnished. First the flurry of stockmarket operations in the 1990s, which targeted the Bouygues group, gave Bolloré a reputation for being a corporate raider, ratcheting up dividends over the bodies of one-time friends. More recently there was his insolently proclaimed familiarity with the newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy, against a backdrop of luxury yachts and private jets. Suspicion, treason and collusion have transformed the angelic millionaire into something of a demon, at least for some of the press (1).

Now, yet another facet of Bolloré is emerging: his business activities in Africa. Away from the media spotlight, they have become a mainstay of the group’s activities over the past 20 years. Africa may only account for a quarter of the group’s official turnover ($1.89bn out of a total of $8.66bn in 2007); but with 19,000 employees and 200 branches spread over 43 African countries, as well as control of highly strategic areas such as ports, transport, and plantations, Bolloré behaves like an emperor in Africa. And his choice of weapons are those of political and media influence.

The battle which gets the most media attention is that for African ports, the keystone of his African transport and logistical network. The Bolloré group owns several companies that made their fortunes during colonial times in transport, transit and import-export logistics with Africa. The two main companies are SCAC (Société Commerciale d’Affrètement et de Combustibles), acquired in 1986 and later merged with other branches of the group to form SDV; and SAGA, its sister company, acquired after numerous intrigues in 1997. In addition, Bolloré has benefited from the wave of privatisations imposed on African countries by international financial institutions, and obtained strategic infrastructure concessions, also inherited from the colonial era. These include Sitarail (Société Internationale de Transport Africain par Rail) in 1995, a railway connecting Burkina Faso to Côte d’Ivoire, and Camrail in 1999, the Cameroon railway company which is vital to opening up landlocked Chad and Central African Republic.

In just five years, through subsidiaries and sometimes in partnership with other operators, Bolloré has bagged concessions for managing container terminals in the ports of Douala (Cameroon), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Cotonou (Benin), Tema (Ghana), TinCan-Lagos (Nigeria), and more recently Pointe-Noire (Republic of Congo).
Triumphant press releases

With 200 agencies in some 40 African countries, and with its railways, thousands of trucks and millions of square metres of warehousing, the Bolloré group has an impressive hold on the continent. Under the umbrella brand of Bolloré Africa Logistics, established in September 2008, the group has become “the leading logistics network integrated in Africa” (2). But behind the triumphant press releases, the wars being waged around African ports are political as much as economic.

In 2007, Bolloré used all his influence to acquire the Dakar container terminal in Senegal. In addition to rubbing shoulders with Sarkozy, he marshalled the former minister, Alain Madelin, and the rightwing politician, François Léotard, to support his claim, and mobilised French businessman Arnaud Lagardère to dissuade his main competitor, the giant United Arab Emirates conglomerate, Dubai Ports World (DP World) (3). He also devoted a special programme to the president of Senegal on his group’s TV channel Direct 8, and printed a double lead story in his so-called free newspapers, Direct Matin Plus and Direct Soir, with a touchingly sober headline, “Abdoulaye Wade: a great man of Africa” (Direct Soir, 20 March 2007).

Despite these efforts, he failed and the Dakar port terminal management finally went to DP World in October 2007. Behind the scenes Bolloré contests this, but for the press he’s keen to demonstrate his sense of “fair play”, pointing out that his failure in Senegal is proof that his group engages in healthy competition, in spite of what some people might say. Wasn’t it proof that Senegal, like other African countries, was not the exclusive preserve of French multinationals (4)? “Win some, lose some,” he said philosophically (5). It was a good way to defuse the controversy over the attribution of ports from which he has himself benefited, such as Douala, in Cameroon, or Abidjan, granted to Bolloré in 2004 by an Ivory Coast government in the throes of war.
No gentlemen’s hobby

Bolloré’s forced smile after the Dakar snub may be explained by another ongoing war, more silent and more deadly, which has pitted him against one of his main competitors, Progosa. This fratricidal confrontation has lasted for years against a backdrop of battles between political and business networks. Progosa’s boss, Jacques Dupuydauby, is the former head of SCAC and was sacked when Bolloré took over the company in 1986. After moving to Bouygues, he briefly rejoined Bolloré before opposing him in port-management contracts, notably in Togo.

The fierce competition between the two men rapidly turned into a legal battle in both Europe and Africa – and then into a war of clans. Bolloré is deemed to be close to Sarkozy, whereas Progosa is full of former president Jacques Chirac’s supporters. And now, in this curious blend of media war and political and economic espionage, a former gendarme, working for the economic intelligence agency Géos, claims he is investigating a member of Dupuydauby’s staff at Bolloré’s request (6). “Lies, defamation, and fraud”, say Bolloré’s people. Clearly, business is no gentleman’s hobby.

African ports are so coveted because they are invaluable sources of political and economic power. Countries can fill their coffers through them (thanks to customs). Ports also control vital information about flows entering and leaving Africa. “Africa is like an island, connected to the world by sea,” explained a former Bolloré group employee in 2006. “Whoever controls the cranes holds the continent.” The stakes are all the higher since the arrival of new players, led by China, giving a new lease of life to any company providing logistics, warehousing and transport for merchandise.

Bolloré is well established in this sector and regularly publishes record results. “In west Africa our market share in raw materials is between 50 and 70%,” said Dominique Lafont, CEO of the group’s Africa division. “In east Africa it’s closer to 15-30%, but we are the leading operator everywhere.” The group is also acquiring a growing number of contracts in oil, mining and industrial logistics including with Total in Angola, Cameroon and Congo; and with Areva for uranium in Niger, gold mines in Burkina Faso and an electric power plant in Ghana.

In all his African businesses, Bolloré plays on his networks to acquire markets. “We know all the ministers there,” said Gilles Alix, the group’s CEO. “They are friends. So to be perfectly honest, from time to time, when they are no longer ministers, we given them a chance to be a director of one of our subsidiaries. It’s a face-saving thing for them. And we know that one day they might well become ministers again” (7). In Gabon, where the group coveted the logistics for the Chinese iron ore project in Belinga, it placed President Omar Bongo’s daughter, Pascaline, at the head of its subsidiary Gabon Mining Logistics. With such numerous sources of support, Bolloré is able to develop his business harmoniously with friendly governments, in pure Françafrique (8) tradition.

In France, too, the group has been recruiting influential people for years. The best known is undoubtedly Michel Roussin, who has been a Bolloré “Mr Africa” for more than a decade. Roussin’s claim to fame was a book about Africa published in 1997 by a company owned by Bolloré’s brother-in-law, the former minister Gérard Longuet (9). But the reason Roussin is so interesting to Bolloré is that he previously held a high position in the French secret services, was close to Chirac and was minister for cooperation under President Balladur. Roussin is also vice-president of the international employers’ federation, Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Medef) International.

It is not easy to unravel the numerous connections that exist between the group (a worthy successor to the old colonial corporations) and Françafrique networks on one hand, and French politicians on the other. Like other conglomerates, the Bolloré group benefits from French government help in its market conquests on the African continent. The president and ministers are always willing to lobby on his behalf when they visit their counterparts in Africa. (And though Bolloré’s rightwing friends are well known, it’s worth noting that the Socialist MP Jean Glavany sits on the group’s strategy committee along with the economist and business guru Alain Minc.)

Bolloré’s African concerns benefit indirectly from a number of state aid programmes for infrastructure development, and directly from state contracts. In his official biography, Bolloré claims that these only concern “residual amounts”, and “only in sectors where nobody else wants to venture, such as transport in Africa, where we are the only ones. And that only represents a few dozen million euros, that is to say less than 1% of our turnover” (10). Residual that may be – but those state contracts, notably with the foreign or defence ministries, are usually a matter of strategic interest. When France transports troops to or from Africa, as in the case of Operation Licorne in Ivory Coast, it often finds the Bolloré group indispensible. The defence division of Bolloré’s 100% owned subsidiary, SDV International Logistics, writes in its prospectus (over a photograph of armoured vehicles): “All operations are processed under strict security and confidentiality”.

“The operator of choice in all aspects of transport in Africa” (as the group likes to style itself) is so well positioned that it can prosper both in war and peacetime. The United Nations frequently uses it for transporting UN forces and Bolloré was on hand for the European Union Forces (Eufor) mission in Chad. In oil-rich Sudan, ravaged by years of violence, the group admits to doing very well out of both humanitarian and oil logistics (11).
‘Business as usual’

While the group is ready to talk about the “humanitarian” side of its business (“quite a godsend” according to one SDV manager), it isn’t so transparent across the board. There was surprise at its excellent relations with President Denis Sassou Nguesso in the late 1990s when he returned to power in Congo Brazzaville after a coup and bloody civil war (12). There was also conjecture at the group’s connections with Liberia’s Charles Taylor. In 1998 people were wondering how the Belgian company Socfinal, in which Bolloré is a main shareholder, obtained a gigantic rubber-tree plantation concession in Liberia just after Taylor came to power, following another violent civil war.

Without mentioning Bolloré by name, Taylor remarked on the time when he was fighting in the jungle. There were no privileges, he said. “It just happened that some French businessmen came to see us before others. They took risks. That explains why they are a step ahead today… It’s business as usual. Because, basically, businessmen have no nationality. Whether they come from France or elsewhere, all they are interested in is Liberia’s wood, iron ore and diamonds; that’s quite natural” (13). When a reporter from the magazine Jeune Afrique asked Bolloré directly if he had met Taylor, he smiled and replied: “No, not me. I don’t do anything anymore, I’ve got managers in the group to do what needs doing for me” (14).

The relationship between Bolloré and the Liberian regime came up again in 2001 when several associations accused the group of taking part in wood trafficking, which the Liberian government was engaged in to finance its war of destabilisation in neighbouring Sierra Leone. And now that Charles Taylor is wanted by the Special Tribunal in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, you wonder if Bolloré is still smiling.

Though Bolloré “categorically” denies any connection between his group and the Taylor regime, Dominique Lafont seems less categorical when it comes to charges against Bolloré subsidiaries in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where a cross-border war is being waged. The charges come from a panel of experts who were asked by the UN Security Council to investigate illegal exploitation of natural resources in the region. The UN is concerned that this trade in raw materials is feeding arms trafficking. The resource in question is coltan (or colombo-tantalite), used to manufacture cell phones and video game consoles; world prices for this mineral shot up in the early 2000s.

The first report by the UN experts, “Facilitators or passive accomplices?” in April 2001, stated that SDV, a 100% owned Bolloré subsidiary, was one of the main links in the network for exploitation of resources which fuelled the war. Thousands of tonnes of colombo-tantalite have been loaded in Kigali or shipped via the seaport of Dar es Salaam (15). The UN experts repeated their charges in November 2001, before another report the following year placed SDV on a list of companies that “violate Organisation for European Cooperation and Development guidelines for multinational enterprises”. Yet another report in 2003 claimed that the group had not “acted on” the experts’ demands, “even though they had ample time to do so” (16).

It was not until the end of 2008, when the fighting in the east of DRC became news again, that we heard Bolloré himself on the subject. In an interview in the French weekly Marianne (17) (which used the 2003 report but forgot the previous ones, which were far more explicit), he at last agreed to comment – and promptly denied everything, brandishing the impeccable CV of the person currently in charge of that area for the group (who has only been in place for two years). On 25 January this year the educational TV channel France 5 broadcast a 52-minute documentary called “The Mines of Hell”, entirely devoted to coltan in eastern DRC, and contrived to mention the UN report without once mentioning Bolloré or any other western multinational.
Media arsenal

Profiting from the apathy of most journalists, the group has also gone into communications, investing massively since the early 2000s. The group now controls a veritable media arsenal, which ranges from advertising (with Havas) to television (Direct 8), polling organisations (CSA) and the free press (Direct Matin Plus, Direct Soir). This enables it to control the dissemination of any message from start to finish. The group’s numerous media divisions assist in the conquest of the African market with charm offensives targeting all the continent’s important decision-makers.

For instance, Direct 8 (whose director of programming happens to be Bolloré’s son, Yannick) broadcasts a monthly programme about Africa presented by Roussin in person (see Never named, always present). Similarly, the group uses the free press it distributes to millions of public transport commuters in France. Capitalising on general ignorance and lack of interest in Africa, Direct Matin Plus and Direct Soir tend the images of friendly heads of state, most of whom lack any electoral legitimacy and only remain in power by internal repression and exported propaganda. Bolloré’s media and advertising divisions provide them with the wherewithal.

Thus Direct Matin Plus (produced in partnership with Le Monde) drew up a flattering balance sheet of the 25-year reign of Cameroon’s head of state, Paul Biya. The Cameroon government, one might be surprised to learn, is working hard to “improve the purchasing power” of its people and “strengthen institutions that promote human rights” (Direct Matin Plus, 26 October 2007). The paper did not publish any denial in February 2008 when food riots were violently crushed, leaving some hundred dead.

Although the Bolloré group is especially well established in Cameroon, it is worried by a charge from its rival Progosa of “corruption and favouritism” relating to the Douala container terminal. Bolloré is taking great care to protect Biya’s international image – at no cost to him – using the group’s own free press and possibly getting a special deal for him from its advertising subsidiary Havas, whose chairman, Stéphane Fouks, apparently made an “interesting and fruitful” visit to the Cameroon president in February.

Nor do the group’s communications in Cameroon stop there. To cover its back, the group cosies up to local journalists. Six Cameroon newspaper editors were invited to an all-expenses-paid week in France in May 2007. And the same generous spirit led Roussin to visit Yaoundé in February 2008 to sign a partnership with the Chantal Biya Foundation, an opaque structure for “the fight against Aids” which enhances the humanitarian image of the president’s influential wife.

To be fair, when Bolloré is in political/ philanthropic mode, he does really spend money on good works, such as the Education for All in Africa Network (Réseau Education pour Tous en Afrique or Repta), led by Gabriel Cohn-Bendit (brother of Daniel). For years he supported Afrique Initiatives, Michel Rocard’s venture capital company with a “social” vocation, now defunct. He has also contributed to one-off operations such as an urgent humanitarian mission to Niger in 2005 by the association Réussir, which used to be chaired by the present foreign minister Bernard Kouchner.

Bolloré’s obsession with Nelson Mandela’s foundation is in the same vein. His free press has already devoted four lead stories to Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, including one double issue in Direct Matin Plus/Direct Soir in September 2007 when the former South African president visited Paris. “Bolloré, who wants to develop his business in South and West Africa, organised the event himself even lending his own aircraft,” revealed the weekly Télérama (18). “By devoting his media’s attention to the operation he was tending his African relations – as well as those in the Elysée Palace: President Sarkozy was delighted to shake his icon’s hand”. That was clear in the photograph in Direct Matin Plus, in which Sarkozy was all smiles on the tarmac at Orly airport, delighted with his friend Vincent Bolloré. And to make sure no feathers were ruffled, Kouchner’s photograph made Direct Soir’s Mandela pages.

Source:Ocnus.net 2023

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