Pandora Papers: How investigative journalists uncovered fraud and scams in West Africa

Across the African continent, the Pandora Papers investigations, organised by IMS partner CENOZO, have caused populations and governments to take action. In the Congo Brazzaville, government authorities have banned local media from talking about the Pandora Papers.

Can you first describe how CENOZO became involved in the Pandora Papers?

Since CENOZO was founded we have had a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who are based in Washington DC, USA. This partnership enabled the implementation of collaborative investigative projects like “West Africa Leaks” (2018), which brought together 15 journalists from 11 West African countries, and “FinCen Files” (2020), which mobilised more than 400 journalists around the world, including 20 in Africa under the coordination of CENOZO. It is thanks to this partnership with ICIJ that CENOZO was involved in the Pandora Papers.

Can you describe the process? How did you work on this project?

The work on this project started at the end of 2020, with informal contacts with journalists who have the profile and experience to investigate economic crime topics and ICIJ databases. These journalists were also selected according to the countries concerned with the project. At this stage, out of caution for security reasons, none of the journalists contacted knew much about the project, let alone its scope. In January 2021, CENOZO and ICIJ officially launched the project. Between February and April 2021, the journalists who were identified were invited to participate in online sessions on project information and methodology. From then on, some of them started working on data related to their country.

In June 2021, the journalists involved in the project were invited to a face-to-face meeting in Lomé, Togo. This meeting was the final push for the Pandora Papers in Africa. As in the FinCEN Files project, CENOZO ensured the coordination, mentoring and legal editing of the journalists involved in the project in Africa. In the framework of this project, CENOZO also negotiated a partnership with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to provide legal assistance to the journalists who benefited from the project in case of post-publication prosecution.

Can you tell us about some of the most important stories you have done for the Pandora Papers?

In Ivory Coast, the Pandora Papers revealed that in 1998, Jérôme Patrick Achi, the current Prime Minister of the country, created Allstar Consultancy Services Limited, an offshore consulting company based in the Bahamas. To conceal his identity, he used the company Rendor Overseas S.A. as a nominee. In 2006, he asked Overseas Company Registration Agents Limited (OCRA), the service provider, to transfer the management and administration of his company to the law firm Aleman, Cordero, Galindo & Lee Limited. The practice appears to be legal but conceals tax evasion and money laundering.

In Congo Brazzaville, the Pandora Papers revealed that President Dénis Sassou-Nguesso was the owner of the company Inter African Investment Ltd, which controlled diamond mines that are among the country’s most valuable assets. Established in the British Virgin Islands in 1998, during Sassou-Nguesso’s second term as president, the company held an account with the London branch of Banque Espirito Santo and owned another BVI company, Ecoplan Finance Ltd. One of Sassou-Nguesso’s daughters, Julienne, sits on the board of Ecoplan, which held a majority stake in Escom Congo, a construction and real estate company that holds the rights to diamond mines in the country.

In Niger, the Pandora Papers revealed “incestuous practices” by Russian businessmen in the mining sector. In 2007, through the Russian bank Gazprom Bank, Russian businessmen Sergey Matveev and Dmitry Bakaev created the offshore company Semmous Lion Mining Ltd. which benefits, through the transfer of skills, from 10 mining licenses obtained by the companies Atepa Group Russia, [owned by] Senegalese businessman Pierre Atepa Goudiaby and River Universal Tradings.

In Senegal, the Pandora Papers revealed that Ibrahim Abou Khalil, alias Bibo Bourgi, his brother Karim Abou Khalil Bourgi and Mamadou Pouye are the owners of several companies established in tax havens. With the assistance of the law firm Alcogal, they are at the head of three offshore foundations: Alteos Foundation, Alteos One Foundation and Pifor Foundation. These were used to secure the property and assets for which the Senegalese justice system found them guilty of being nominees for their childhood friend, Karim Wade.

Nigerien journalist Moussa Aksar (to the left) next to Senegalese journalist Momar Dieng (to the right). Both worked on the Pandora Papers.

What was it like for you and your colleagues at CENOZO to be part of the Pandora Papers?

The Pandora Papers project is the largest collaborative investigative project that has ever existed. For CENOZO journalists, it is an important step in their careers as investigative journalists to participate in such a project.

How have people in the region reacted to the Pandora Papers stories after you published them?

Reactions to the publication of the investigations are still tentative, diverse and mixed. In Ivory Coast, several citizens were indignant on social networks about the involvement of the Prime Minister in the Pandora Papers. At the same time, internet users have targeted the journalist who conducted the investigation, accusing him of being manipulated by foreign powers to sully the image of the Prime Minister. In Senegal, businessman Pierre Atepa Goudiaby, implicated in Russian “incestuous practices” to obtain mining permits, issued a press release to justify himself and attack the ICIJ. In the Congo, government authorities have banned local media from relaying any information from the Pandora Papers that talks about the head of state. At this time, it is difficult to make an exhaustive assessment of these reactions to the investigations that have been published.

What is the role of investigative journalism in the West African region?

Investigative journalism plays a pioneering role in the West African region. It alerts [the public] of human rights violations, bad governance, economic crimes and environmental crimes. Investigative journalism also plays a role in regulating legislation in West African countries. Investigations that are broadcasted can cause reforms that lead to the adoption of new laws to correct inequalities.

More on how IMS works with investigative journalism