June 15, 2024
Investigations Top Stories

How internationally connected Cameroon elites plundered US$ 656 million -and how a tax investigation was silenced after the murder of Martinez Zogo

Arizona Project Team

How tax cases involving hundreds of millions in payments from state coffers to questionable entities were snuffed out.

A list of 67 suspicious transactions scheduled for investigation by Cameroon’s tax agency shows a total equivalent to US$ 656 million in undeclared payments from state coffers to questionable business entities and individuals. The list, obtained by the Arizona Project team in Cameroon (see box at end of article), covers the period 2017 to 2021 and contains the names of beneficiaries with foreign connections, some real and some possibly fake.

However, the tax investigations, initiated by former tax agency Director-General Mopa Modeste Fatoing, seem to have been snuffed out. No results have been forthcoming and Fatoing was recently removed from his post by Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya.

This is another finding of the Arizona Project (See story: ‘The murder of Martinez Zogo’) investigation into the murder of journalist Martinez Zogo, which was conducted by Cameroonian and West African journalists in ZAM’s partner Network of African Investigative Reporters and Editors (NAIRE), together with the ZAM platform itself and international partners in Italy, Nigeria, Togo, and Equatorial Guinea (see credit box). There are no indications whatsoever that any one of the individuals named on the list -except for Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga, who is now jailed on charges in connection with the case- have anything to do with the murder of Martinez Zogo. But the journalist’s gruesome killing created a climate of terror and silence in which any and all corruption investigations in Cameroon, including the tax agency’s list of 67 cases, came to a standstill.

A terse letter

According to a letter written by former tax Director-General Mopa Modeste Fatoing, his office was put on the trail of the 67 cases by the state’s own anti-corruption agency, ANIF (L’Agence Nationale d’investigation Financière). ANIF investigates fraud and money laundering concerning state finances and is attached to the Ministry of Finance. The letter, which was attached to the Excel spreadsheet of the 67 transactions, is dated 5 July 2021. It is addressed by Fatoing to his revenue service’s “monsieur le chef de division des enquêtes, de la programmation et du suivi des controles,” i.e. the investigations divisions chief.

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Terse letter

The tone of the letter is terse. “I had already instructed you to follow up on (the list),” he wrote. “Up to today, these instructions have not been followed. ANIF needs dossier numbers to work with.” However, little has been heard from the tax office on the list of 67. Fatoing was removed and posted to an office position at the IMF in Washington on 26 January 2023, a mere four days after the murdered body of Martinez Zogo was found in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé.

The 67 transactions also include a substantial number of payments to companies connected to media mogul Amougou Belinga

Titled “état des dossiers programmables” (“status of cases to be scheduled”), the Excel sheet containing the 67 payment lines shows that the tax agency is, or at least was, concerned that individuals with access to Cameroon’s state budget paid out massive amounts of state money for mostly unclear services between 2017 and 2021 to, inter alia, foreign exchange and money transfer companies, mining and wood logging companies, tourist and transport companies, hotels and financial consulting companies. In twenty-nine of the sixty-seven cases, there was no indication of what the money was for.

The 67 transactions also include a substantial number of payments to companies connected to media mogul Amougou Belinga, who was arrested in January 2023 on charges in connection with the murder of Martinez Zogo and for which he is still awaiting trial (See story: ‘The life and trials of a media tycoon’). According to the spreadsheet, Belinga’s companies could have received payments amounting to the FCFA equivalent of US$ 125 million. But even though Belinga’s cases have largely been made public in Cameroon, were very publicly investigated by the tax authorities, and form the background of the current charges against him in the Martinez Zogo case, he is not the biggest fish to be found in the tax agency’s Excel sheet (1). That is an Italian called Eugenio Matarazzi, whose forestry company Société Industrielle de Mbang (SIM) appears to have received more than double that: over US$ 273 million for “wood logging” in one transaction alone. According to the spreadsheet, Matarazzi also received US$ 200,000 personally (see below for SIM’s and Matarazzi’s comments).

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The Italian link

Unrelated to the tax case, Arizona Project Team partner Edoardo Anziano of IRPI (Investigative Reporting Project Italy, https://irpimedia.irpi.eu/ found that Matarazzi’s company has a reputation for illegal logging in Cameroon. In 2004, Anziano reports, the NGO Global Witness found irregularities in forest concessions where SIM was subcontracted by another company. In one case, this company “through its sub-contractor SIM” was found guilty of “timber extraction out of the limits (…), of failure in marking the stumps and trees, and of abandoning the timber produced.” In 2005, the following year, the NGO Greenpeace claimed that “the Cameroonian-based timber company Société Industrielle de Mbang (SIM) is involved in large-scale illegal logging in Cameroon, both directly and indirectly.”

Reports from local communities allegedly affected by SIM’s logging operations align with these accusations. “In the Mbam et Kim region, this company now has a virtual monopoly on logging operations, which it has won with the active support of a highly influential local elite,” a senior official of the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife told the news site Cameroun24. According to the Association des Journalistes Africains pour l’Environnement (Association of Environmental Journalists) in Cameroon, other officials have defined SIM’s activities as “illegal plundering of forests.”

The forestry minister helped, forest communities protested

According to a Facebook post from 2015 about a visit to Italy organised by the “Cameroon-Italy Friendship Association (https://www.237online.com/cameroun-des-deputes-camerounais-en-visite-en-italie/”, both the Italian ambassador to Cameroon and Matarazzi were present at a dinner organised by Theodore Datouo, the deputy speaker of the Cameroonian parliament. But Datouo is only one of a number of influential contacts of Matarazzi in Cameroon. His principal ally is forestry minister Jules Doret Ndongo, who has extended many forest concessions to SIM and has, according to a reliable source, also been instrumental in granting public money to SIM after it threatened to declare bankruptcy and lay off hundreds of its staff unless it was granted government assistance.

In 2020, community representatives of the eastern region of Lom and Djerem in Cameroon wrote to Doret Ndongo to ask him to stop yet another concession to SIM “because our water comes from the forest,” according to news site Stopblabla.com https://www.stopblablacam.com/societe/1811-5470-region-de-l-est-les-populations-s-opposent-a-l-exploitation-d-une-foret-a-betare-oya.

We could not establish if the concession continued regardless.

Both Matarazzi’s contacts Datouo and Ndongo are reportedly close to Chantal Biya, the wife of Cameroon’s President Paul Biya.

In a letter sent in response to questions, SIM said that it does not ‘sell anything to the state of Cameroon’ and that it also ‘has never requested and does not receive state subsidies’, adding that Mr. Eugenio Matarazzi ‘has never requested or obtained money from the Cameroonian state.’ SIM attached tax certificates, dated 13 and 15 June 2023, declaring that neither it nor Mr Matarazzi owe any tax to the state of Cameroon. It also attached confirmation of a tax audit, dated 15 February 2022,, that covered the four years 2017, 2018, 21019, 2020, i.e. the same period as the list in ZAM’s possession. The tax audit confirmation letter reads, inter alia, that ‘envisaged adjustments were brought to the attention of the taxpayer.’  In its letter, SIM cites this, adding that ‘to our knowledge, this verification did not reveal the criminal acts which would have been reported to you.’ With regard to the reported irregularities in SIM’s forest concessions, the company said that “in Cameroon, forest concessions are awarded by the State and in particular the Ministry in charge of public procurement on the basis of objective criteria and following an open and transparent procedure. It is not uncommon for losers to cry out about “unfair competition” and “fraud”.” The company reiterated that accusations of irregularities, illegal logging, plunder and benefiting from elite connections are part of such “smear campaigns”.

Another major recipient of state money on the list of 67 is a foreign exchange company based in Maroua in the far northern part of Cameroon, which borders Chad and Nigeria: it received the equivalent of US$ 227 million for unspecified services. A third recipient, a company that goes by its abbreviation, FINEX, received US$ 38 million for “transport.” This appears to show that the government paid the real bus company First National Express FINEX for travel, which it provides between Cameroon’s two main cities Yaoundé and Douala. However, close scrutiny through the Orbis company database reveals that the FINEX beneficiary listed on the spreadsheet is a different company. The one on the list has (among other numbers) a Mauritanian phone number, is in shipping, and is represented by a person whose phone number is in Yaoundé but whose email address appears to be from within the French multinational construction company Bolloré network.

“No road like that”

Also in the top ten, in 6th and 7th place respectively, are two directors of companies in Nigeria, who were paid the equivalent of US$ 13 million and US$ 7 million respectively. The first director’s company could not be traced to its registered address at 10 Market Road in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria’s South-South. Colleagues from the Nigerian online news platform the Premium Times (PT) www.premiumtimesng.com, who went to check in Uyo, were told that “it does not exist”  by local residents, cab drivers and other transport operators. The Chairperson of the Uyo Local Government Area, Uwemedimo Udo, told the team in a text message, “No road like that to my knowledge, please.”

The PT team also could not find the second director’s company at its registered address of Plot 3, block 38, Yinka Bello street off Admirality Way 12 in Lekki phase 1, Lagos. “The occupants of the building in the said address are Lagos Bridge Hotel,” the PT team reported. “An official of the hotel said they have occupied the space since 2006, three years before the incorporation of (the company you are looking for).” Neither of the two companies seem to have a website, and an extensive search shows that they don’t have an online presence on social networking platforms. “All efforts to retrieve contacts for the individuals or their company ask them for comment proved futile,” reported the PT team.

A person listed in 9th place is based in Jaipur, India and received US$ 5,6 million for unspecified services. We could not find any functional contact details for the businessman, but a person matching the name and the Cameroonian company registration is listed as chairing a company in “raw farm products” with headquarters in Singapore, which does not appear to have a website, nor a contact address or email. It shares its Singapore address with a shipping company.  The same individual is also listed as a director of a travel company with offices in Abuja and Kano in Nigeria, but there was no response at either of the two listed office telephone numbers when the Premium Times team tried to call. No contacts could be found for two other companies registered to the same person in Benin either. In 10th place is a company in Yaoundé, which received US$ 5,5 million, also for unspecified services. According to its Yaoundé registration, the entity does market research into “wellness,” but no response was obtained from emails and phone calls to the listed contacts.

Foldout or box 

The case of Baba Danpoulo and his friendship with the president 

The payment amounts for the last seven entries on the tax agency Excel sheet are left blank, which means that one cannot assess how much these entities received from Cameroon state budgets. Most remarkably, among these seven entries is the name of Baba Danpoulo, a multi-millionaire reputed to be one of Africa’s ten richest men and a personal friend of President Paul Biya. Danpoulo, who claims to be worth at least US$ 940 million, stands accused by South Africa’s First National Bank of defaulting on loan and interest repayments to the extent of US$ 165 million, for which FNB has attached buildings he bought with his loans in South Africa, including the Thibault building in Cape Town and a 32-storey high rise in Johannesburg.

In response and amid much outrage in Cameroon government circles, a Cameroon court froze https://www.commsupdate.com/articles/2023/06/16/mtn-funds-seized-in-cameroon-amid-dispute-between-businessman-and-fnb/ the bank accounts of two South African companies operating in Cameroon, the mobile network MTN and Tiger Brands subsidiary Chococam, in November 2022. The two companies recently approached a higher court in Cameroon for leave to appeal this action. This retaliation has been called “ridiculous” by an anonymous “advocate who specialises in international law” in Cameroon. The advocate published an in-depth analysis of the wrangle in Cameroonian media, agreeing with South Africa’s foreign affairs minister Naledi Pandor that such acts “damage international relations.” “And we are not even asking where Baba Danpoulo got all his wealth from,” the advocate commented https://fr.allafrica.com/stories/202306230374.html.

Baba Danpoulo’s lawyer Aggée Mbanzehe said in response to questions that “these are very sensitive and I need to discuss with my client.” When approached again four days later, Mbanzehe reiterated that “Mr Baba is not around and I need his special authorisation to give any information about those sensitive issues.”

A money transfer company with offices in Equatorial Guinea as well as in Cameroon, features in 23rd place on the list

Among the next twenty listed beneficiaries from payments ranging from US$ 4,5 to 1,5 million are: a mining company registered in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, that does not appear to have a website or a functioning email address; a construction company registered in Oman; an import-export company registered in Nigeria under a Nigerian representative but with a Cameroonian married couple as directors and a person with the same name as a director of a previously sanctioned Belgium-based diamond buying company which does much business in Central Africa. Phone calls to the company’s listed office in Antwerp, made to ask for comment on its inclusion on the tax agency list were left without response and an email bounced. A travel company with branches in Togo, whose director, according to our investigative partner in Togo https://www.icij.org/journalists/k-pierre-claver-kuvo/ , is from Benin, would have received close to US$ 2 million from Cameroonian state coffers. The director, who was reached by phone, denied this, saying he or his companies had never received any payment from the state of Cameroon.

A money transfer company with offices in Equatorial Guinea as well as in Cameroon, features in 23rd place on the list and has, according to the tax agency’s spreadsheet, received over US$ 1,5 million. Colleagues from the Equatorial Guinean Diario Rombe https://diariorombe.es/, which operates from exile in Spain, knew of this company as connected to ruling circles in that country.  Upon investigating, they discovered that, on the business site ZoomInfo, the company is listed at a New York address with a number of US-based representatives. However, the same people appear on several similar-looking websites with what are probably stock photos, exactly the same every time, while the contact phone number listed on ZoomInfo is still Cameroonian.

“Customers left high and dry”

The same money transfer company has recently been the target of much outrage in Cameroon. A local colleague reports, “It stopped paying out money that came from (the diaspora in) Europe. It even closed its doors. It is rumoured that some Africans in the diaspora with a base in Strasbourg, France have accumulated money abroad and customers in Cameroon have been left high and dry.”

A phone call by the local colleague to the company’s branch in Akwa, Douala, was answered by a security man and later by an administrative employee, but neither of these responded to the question whether operations were ongoing, or where the Cameroonian CEO who has reportedly not been seen for a while, might be reached. All other efforts to contact the company or its representatives for comment on the current situation as well as on its inclusion on the tax agency’s list, whether by email or phone, also remained fruitless.

The company’s website seems only intermittently functional, but its Facebook page still lists Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Strasbourg as its areas of operation. A recent posting on its page by a dissatisfied customer called “Stella Alexis” says “Tsuippp, agence fausse,” which roughly translates as “you are a damn fake agency.”

USA fronts

A number of other companies that feature on the list are ostensibly registered in the United States, but these registrations may, like the money transfer company’s New York registration on ZoomInfo, be fronts for individuals who are resident in Cameroon or Central Africa itself. These individuals may also be using the names and logos of other people, or other real companies, without their knowledge.

A Cameroon-based man, for example, 24th on the list and the recipient of around US$ 1,5 million, is using the logo of a financial consulting company CBIZ based in Cleveland, USA, on his LinkedIn profile, claiming that he is a “documents controller” for CBIZ. A spokesperson for CBIZ in Cleveland told us that they did not know this man, nor have they worked with any Cameroonians.

Another Cameroonian, who according to the tax agency document was paid around US$ 670,000 through his Cameroon-based company for “cellulose products,” mentions on his LinkedIn profile that he lives in Chicago, US. A ZoomInfo page mentions the same man as a co-founder of an identically named company in California, USA.  Like CBIZ in Cleveland, the California-based company said in response to questions that they did not know the man, nor have they worked with any Cameroonians.

Our investigations into the cases on the list did not include Amougou Belinga’s companies, since payments from state coffers to him were widely investigated and published in Cameroon, inter alia by Martinez Zogo, already. (To find out more read ‘The murder of Martinez Zogo’).

Foldout 

Our correspondence with the International Monetary Fund

On 14 June 2023, ZAM wrote to the IMF in Washington, asking to be connected to former Cameroon Directorate of Taxation Director-General, Modeste Fatoing. Fatoing had been pushing to investigate the 67 cases, but was transferred by President Biya to an IMF post in Washington on 26 January 2023, four days after Martinez Zogo’s mutilated body was found in a suburb in Yaoundé. No response to the email was received. ZAM emailed a second time on 20 June 2023, this time including more detail, saying that it was “very important that (Modeste Fatoing) is made aware of questions relating to his posting to the IMF, four days after the murder of journalist Martinez Zogo in Cameroon.” Our email continued to say that our working hypothesis was that “both the murder (of Zogo) and Mr Fatoing’s posting (were) connected to illicit financial flows that the Cameroon revenue service was investigating under the leadership of Mr Fatoing” and that “this investigation appeared to have come to a halt after the murder of Zogo and the removal from Cameroon of Mr Fatoing.” Our email asked that, “in the case that Mr Fatoing is not able or willing, or cannot be enabled by you, to give his views on the above,” the IMF itself answer the following questions:

  1. Were or are you aware that Mr Fatoing was posted to the IMF by Cameroon’s president days after the murder of journalist Martinez Zogo?
  2. Were or are you aware that Martinez Zogo had forcefully denounced high level corruption, particularly illicit payments to a businessman, Amougou Belinga, who stands accused of having externalised millions of dollars in Cameroon state money towards personal business ventures in France?
  3. Were or are you aware that Mr Belinga is now in jail in Cameroon on charges of the murder of Martinez Zogo, whose mutilated body was found on 22 January 2023 in Yaounde?
  4. Were or are you aware that the Cameroon revenue service under the leadership of Mr Fatoing was investigating no less than 67 illicit financial outflows from Cameroon state coffers (including ones who benefited Mr Belinga), many of which seem to have ended up in European countries as well as in the United States?
  5. Were or are you aware that this investigation has come to a standstill after Mr Fatoing’s departure from Cameroon to the IMF?
  6. What is your comment on the current situation, where it appears as if the IMF is sheltering a corruption fighter who has been sidelined from Cameroon?
  7. Protective as such shelter might be to Mr Fatoing, how does the IMF envisage proceeding vis a vis Cameroon, where monetary and financial policy appear not to be in good order and corruption fighting institutions, as well as the revenue service, are noticeably silent after the murder of Martinez Zogo and the removal of Mr Fatoing?
  8. Does the IMF aim to encourage good financial governance in countries like Cameroon and if so, how does it do that? Our email ended with the sentence that “we would very much like to include your and Mr Modeste Fatoing’s comments for our publication.” 

To this email, an IMF spokesperson responded on the same day, 20-6-2023, that:

* The issues concerning the work done by the tax agency in Cameroon are best dealt with by the relevant institutions in Cameroon. It is not in the IMF’s purview to comment on this.

* To clarify, the employment of IMF staff is based on a rigorous and impartial recruitment process that is driven by IMF guidelines and international best practices for recruitment. Modeste Fatoing Mopa was competitively selected to the position of Head of TADAT secretariat in our Fiscal Affairs Department in a process that attracted several internal and external candidates. Modeste started his functions at the IMF on February 6, 2023.

 

Credit box

The ZAM and NAIRE Arizona Project

The Arizona Project model dates back to 1976, when Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, who had been working on stories about land fraud and the Italian-American mafia in Arizona, was blown up in an explosion caused by TNT that had been placed under his car. In response to the murder, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in the US put together a team of 30 reporters who gathered in Phoenix to finish Bolles’s story. It was the first large-scale collaborative investigative journalism project in history.

After the murder of Martinez Zogo, the Network of African Investigative Reporters and Editors (NAIRE https://www.zammagazine.com/investigations/1610-a-new-network-of-african-investigative-reporters) initiated a discussion with ZAM on the possibilities of carrying out an Arizona Project in Cameroon in order to assist colleagues under siege in that country and retrieve important information. ZAM agreed to use its office as a base for the coordination.

The decision to send colleagues into Cameroon was not taken lightly. It would be risky because of the danger of violence, detention, and torture for which Cameroonian security forces are known. However, NAIRE found members willing to go regardless. They were Selay Kouassi from Ivory Coast, David Dembélé from Mali, and Bram Posthumus, also based in Ivory Coast. They were to work in close contact with Cameroon-based colleagues, who had access to information but could not be exposed for their safety. These colleagues, as much as ZAM and NAIRE would like to credit them in full, cannot be named for the same reason.

Investigations editor Evelyn Groenink worked full-time in the ZAM back office to coordinate the project, serve as liaison, and edit the results.

When the team discovered that illicit financial flows from Cameroon to foreign countries were a crucial factor in the murder of Martinez Zogo, international partners in the Global Investigative Journalism Network (www.gijn.org) were also ready to help. These were:

  • The Investigative Reporting Project Italy https://irpimedia.irpi.eu/, in particular reporter Edoardo Anziano, who dived into the case on the Italian side.
  • Premium Times www.premiumtimesng.com reporter Kabiru Yusuf, who, in spite of the investigative publication’s heavy workload, was made available by his editors to work on the Nigerian and USA fronts of the story.
  • Diario Rombe https://diariorombe.es/ (Equatorial Guinea/Spain), which investigated a money transfer agency link between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
  • Pierre-Claver Kuvo https://www.icij.org/journalists/k-pierre-claver-kuvo , editor of De Cive in Togo and coordinator of the Togolese Consortium of Investigative Journalists “Togo Reporting Post”, who focused on the links to Togo and Benin.

ZAM and NAIRE extend their greatest thanks to these colleagues, who worked with (other) African investigative journalists in solidarity.

The project also owes thanks to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) www.cpj.org, which provided crucial and much-needed advice.

 

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