Champagne, disposable shirts and corruption in the Republic of Congo

Over the past decade, Christmas apparently came early and often for the ruling family of the Republic of Congo. New details stemming from a years-long French investigation into alleged corruption by the ruling families of three African countries – the Obiang family of Equatorial Guinea, the Bongo family of Gabon, and Sassou-Nguesso family of Republic of Congohighlight obscene spending that contrasts sharply with the grinding poverty endured by the majority of their countries’ citizens. 

For example, French investigators claim that Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the president of the Republic of Congo for more than two decades, spent 1.18 million euros on suits and shirts between 2005 and 2011 at a boutique clothing store in Paris.

In total, French authorities believe that President Sassou-Nguesso and his family spent 60 million euros on luxury items and property in France over that period.

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President Sassou-Nguesso got into hot water in 2007 when it was revealed that he had spent $400,000 on hotel bills during two visits to New York. Members of his entourage, which on one occasion took up 44 rooms in the historic Waldorf Astoria hotel, reportedly drank Cristal champagne and charged tens of thousands of dollars of room service.

Who picked up the tab? Effectively the citizens of the Republic of Congo did, since public money was used to pay the bill. 

It appears that corruption may very well be a family business in the Republic of Congo. Credit card statements for President Sassou-Nguesso’s son, Denis Christel, detail the lifestyle of a man with expensive tastes. His monthly credit card statements between 2004 and 2006 reveal that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on high end fashion, furniture and shoes, including substantial purchases at famous designers like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. Thanks to the diligent investigative work of Global Witness, which obtained and published the monthly statements, you can peruse the long list of purchases here.

According to French authorities, Denis Christel spent nearly 474,000 euros on shirts alone. In a revelation that poignantly highlights the disconnect between the extravagant lifestyles of the President’s family and the daily struggles of the country’s impoverished citizens, a former family aid noted that Denis “changes shirts three or four times a day and boasts that he never washes them and uses them as Kleenexes.”

Should Congolese people be paying for their leaders’ Louis Vuitton clothing?

Meanwhile, back home in the Republic of Congo, more than half the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. While the country earned more than $5.5 billion from oil in 2011, that money disproportionately benefits the country’s elites, and judging by the evidence, is used to finance the extravagant lifestyles of the president and his family and friends.

Strong evidence suggests that members of the president’s family and inner circle are diverting public money into their own pockets. Lawsuits in the UK and US have accused the government of the Republic of Congo of relying on a network of shady shell companies to intentionally shroud its oil sales in secrecy. In one case, the judge ruled that Denis Gokana, the head of the country’s state oil company, had used “sham” companies to “conceal the true facts” of a £20 million oil sale.

Offshore companies in Hong Kong and Anguilla helped funnel the country’s oil money into an account controlled by the president’s son, Denis Christel, which was then used to pay his personal credit card bills.

Sadly, examples of corruption like these are far too common in many African countries, and steal money away from efforts to improve the wellbeing of ordinary Africans.

That is why ONE is pressing governments to pass transparency laws that would make it more difficult for corrupt African government officials to steal money. One important step is to require oil, gas, and mining companies to report the payments they make to governments. This first, commonsensical, step toward greater transparency will help enable citizens in Africa and beyond to hold governments accountable for the ways in which money from oil and minerals get used.

The US passed such a law in 2010, demonstrating true global leadership in the fight against corruption. Sadly, some oil companies intent on preserving the status quo of secrecy are shamelessly fighting to weaken the law, temporarily delaying its implementation.

ONE, with your help, is pushing back against this brazen attempt to keep African citizens from accessing information critical to curbing corruption. We are calling on the US government to not be bullied by Big Oil.

Add your voice to the fight. Sign our Big Oil petition to end corruption.