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Why BBC’s Blockbuster Investigation in Senegal Ignites Suspicion over BP’s Oil Deal in Gambia

Across the border in Senegal, BBC on Monday exposed how British oil giant British Petroleum or BP allegedly promised up to $10 billion to Frank Timis, a Romanian-Australian mining tycoon whose business dealings gained international notoriety for alleged corruption, in exchange for a stake in gas licences off the coast of Senegal.

In a country whose 2018 budget stood at $6.3 billion, BBC Panorama program revealed that BP paid Timis $250 million up-front for a 30% stake in the gas fields in April 2017, and additionally promised him at least $9.3 billion in royalties over about 40 years.

Frank Timis ©Evening Standard

This information had already sparked public outcry and anger in Senegal where opposition supporters and activists in the past took to the streets of the capital Dakar to protest against a contract awarded to Timis and his company to exploit gas fields. An investigation by The Chronicle discovered that Timis, jokingly referred to as ‘The Emperor’ for the ‘soft power’ has been active all over Africa with his raft of companies. He is extremely well known in Sierra Leone, probably more than anywhere else in West Africa mainly due to his company African Minerals being probably the largest business/company in the country at some point, producing iron ore.

Some analysts who have been closely monitoring Timis’ personal and business activities over the years say he wouldn’t get past the ‘sniff test’ with any half reputable company. Maybe it was because of a previous conviction in Australia for heroin possession, some shady past stock market dealings, or being banned from running a company in Canada.

But what actually triggers public anger in Senegal this time around is not Timis’ dodginess, but the alleged involvement of President Macky Sall’s brother Aliou Sall in a shady multimillion dollar deal. According to the BBC, a secret payment of $250,000 was made by Timis to a company run by the younger Sall, an allegation he denied. It also alleged that Timis’s companies paid Aliou Sall monthly consultation fee of $25,000 for several years in the run-up to the BP deal.

Aliou Sall denies allegations of corruption ©PressAfrik

International NGO Global Witness suggests there is a risk that Aliou Sall used his family relationship to the president to further his and Timis’s business interests. Global Witness investigates and campaigns to prevent natural resource-related conflict and corruption, and associated environmental and human rights abuses.

Andy James (not his real name) who is familiar with the extractive industries and Timis’ activities in West Africa told The Chronicle that he was surprised that BP would venture into any sort of business with Timis who is notorious in Britain for alleged tax evasion.

Since the BBC program was aired, Gambians both at home and in the Diaspora have taken to the social media not to put their nose on Senegal’s affairs, but to bring the issue home. They are concerned about the potential for a similar scandal and shady deal in The Gambia when BP starts operations officially, though the company has denied any wrongdoing in Senegal.

BP was recently awarded the license to the A1 block to explore for oil and gas off the coast of The Gambia. It would be recalled that in 2017, the Gambian government stripped the A1 block and another block from Timis’ African Petroleum Corporation, saying the licenses had expired and that the company had failed to meet contractual obligations.

Gambian authorities and BP officials signing a contract in March

The famous investigative piece by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in March highlighted how bonus fees were paid by private oil companies to the Gambian government, ostensibly for training.

“African Petroleum, then owned by Frank Timis, a Romanian-Australian mining tycoon, paid $5 million in bonuses to the Ministry of Petroleum. At least some of these funds, as well as additional bonus payments from another company called Carnegie Mining, ended up in a special account the ministry held at Guaranty Trust Bank,” the report stated.

“Jammeh was a co-signatory on that account with then-Petroleum Minister Sirra Wally Ndow-Njie. In 13 transactions ranging from $100,000 to $520,000, $3.9 million was withdrawn, largely by Ndow-Njie, to be paid out in cash or to unknown beneficiaries between 2015 and 2016.”

Ndow-Njie told the Janneh Commission that she withdrew the funds on the president’s instructions.

Jeggan Grey-Johnson, Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Open Society Foundation’s Africa Regional Office in South Africa, said: “Gambians should be concerned not only by virtue of the fact that British Petroleum has been outed in perhaps what’s arguably the biggest bribery scandal in Senegal involving $10bn, but more importantly the bigger question is that the only reason why we know about this is because BP was caught.”

According to him, that speaks much more to the fact that in Gambia people need to be more vigilant. “Our leaders need to adhere to the principles of accountability and transparency. As it stands now in the extractive industries and the emerging petroleum industry in The Gambia, there’s a great deal of secrecy that’s happening, and this secrecy creates a lot of suspicion. This suspicion has been confirmed by a case like BP in Senegal,” Grey-Johnson told The Chronicle.

“The bigger question Gambians should ask is; how did BP get here? How were they awarded the contract? How much was it negotiated for? Was it competitive bidding? These are fundamental questions Gambians should ask. Gambians should also pressure their National Assembly members to basically perform their oversight role by not only asking about these questions, but also seeking clarification and verification on the answers they get from these questions that they pose.”

Jeggan Grey-Johnson

The Minister of Energy and Petroleum Fafa Sanyang has ruled out any chance of foul play by BP in The Gambia. “We went through a process. BP and other big companies applied for licenses. Our license terms are very clear. We also have our laws in place which are very clear.”

Sanyang told The Chronicle that under the BP deal there’s no private individual interest, adding that there’s not been any outside influence.

On theories linking BP’s contract in The Gambia to President Macky Sall and Senegal’s influence, and that of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sanyang said: “This is completely false. BP applied like many other big companies. The bidding process was followed and BP got the contract. There was no influence from anybody.”

BP is expected to start drilling within two years.

For Grey-Johnson, if BP can do a shady deal in Senegal, it can do it in The Gambia.

“The Gambia is extremely vulnerable. Senegal has had a consistent peaceful transfer of power from very many decades. Senegal has got a very strong civil society, very outspoken youth base on activism, a very vibrant music industry that actually espouses and promotes freedom of expression, and also a very strong media,” he said. “Compare that to The Gambia that’s recovering from two decades of tyranny. We’ve only basically been trying to exercise the principles of democracy over the last 24 months. Civil society has been decimated, so has the media. As a result we are struggling even to hold ourselves to account let alone our leaders. So if it can happen in Senegal, the chances are that it already happened here.”

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