Fiacre Salabe

The tax collectors of Nola | How foreign companies’ money is gobbled up by a ‘mafia system’

For years, hundreds of millions of CFA Francs have been sent to the municipal authorities in Nola, a town in the south of the Central African Republic (CAR). This money, from taxes and levies paid by timber companies operating in the densely forested area, is intended for public services like the construction of hospitals, schools, market buildings and new roads connecting the rural areas to the town. Between 2015 and 2020, the municipality received well over FCFA 726 million, US$ 1.3 million from one company alone. But the local population has seen no results.

The story is the same in other parts of the CAR. Timber, which accounts for half of the CAR’s export earnings, provides elaborate opportunities for the country’s political elites to divert these to their own pockets. What is the way forward when large international extraction companies pay their taxes, but a kleptocratic state continues to siphon off these funds?

‘Social tensions will continue to mount and people may well turn against the authorities.’ An investigation into the perverse legacy of a ‘concessionary’ system.

Diamonds, gold, timber and armed rebellions

Whenever the Central African Republic (CAR for short) is in the news, this is invariably for all the wrong reasons. Megalomaniac ruler Jean-Bédel Bokassa, installed by France in 1965, crowned himself Emperor twelve years later in a ceremony that cost the country’s entire annual national budget. After Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, also by France - that sent in troops to send him packing -, the country licked its wounds until more or less democratic elections in 1993. Since then, coups, counter coups, strife and armed rebellions have punctuated life here, culminating in the horrifically destructive raids by opposing armed gangs (the notorious Seleka and Anti-Balaka) that laid waste to the lives of many of the country’s five million inhabitants. A 2015-16 presidential election restored some semblance of normality in the capital, Bangui, but insecurity remains rife in many parts of the country, despite the presence of (yet another) UN peacekeeping mission and Russian mercenaries.

Diamonds have been the CAR’s best-known commodity, if only because of the legendary parcel of diamonds former French president Valérie Giscard d’Estaing once received from ‘Emperor’ Bokassa.  Gold mining also happens in various parts of the country. But the mainstay of the CAR’s export economy is timber.

Nola, 457 kilometres from the capital Bangui, is the principal locality in the densely forested southern Sangha-Mbaéré prefecture, which borders Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (1). Two big rivers, Kadeï and Mambéré, cut the town into three parts. If you come from Bangui overland – a hard slog on unpaved roads – you need to cross the river to get to the part of town that is home to the civil administration. There is supposed to be a ferry but most of the time you will find that there is an open wooden boat (known as ‘pirogue’) waiting for you. There are no bridges, even though one was promised by the central government back in 2018.

Selling out

Nola also lacks paved roads and electricity. Those who can afford it buy expensive electricity generators, which are then fuelled by relatively cheap diesel smuggled into town from Kenzou, in nearby Cameroon. Those who can afford it, ie the folks who are likely to live in one of the more fancy houses in Nola, make their money either from artisanal gold mining or from selling out the region’s timber.

The last census, held in 2003, puts the population of the town at 85 000; it is likely to be much more today. Most people in this region live off the land or the rivers. Agriculture and fisheries are the main activities, next to animal husbandry and using whatever can be gathered from the forests: mushrooms, leaves that can be used for cooking, edible caterpillars that fetch a good price on the market. Some inhabitants are gainfully employed by the forest companies (2) that operate in the zone and some work in the gold mining sector. The latter falls squarely in the artisanal category; only one semi-industrial mine is operated by a Chinese company.

As far as amenities go, there’s little to write home about. Schools and hospitals, such as there are, are in a very poor state. Often, clinics can only offer the most basic of services because they lack both the equipment and the medicines to do anything beyond that. (Do not make the mistake of getting into an accident in Nola.) In schools, classes are unmanageably large, with up to eighty students crammed into one room, sometimes more. Markets, by definition the principal economic exchange in places like these, are held in the open air, with no protection against sun or rain for the vendors –mostly women – and their goods.

There was funding for the market.

Yet, there was funding for a proper building for the market. And for a number of schools, clinics, and roads, which were all to be constructed by the Nola municipality, with ample budget to do so.

Timberland

The Timberland company, a relative newcomer on the scene in the CAR, was created in 2015 and has been a prominent player in the Nola area for the past five years. Its concession is vast: 228 836 hectares, according to the company’s own forestry management plan, seen by ZAM. The plan says that the ‘useful acreage’ amounts to 166 357 hectares, in which it can cut trees for export. It employs close to three hundred workers, most in and around Nola but also on its concessions in Bilolo, twenty-four kilometres to the west, and Salo, at sixty-three kilometres south.

Timberland’s general director is quite proud of the company’s record. Augustin Agou, formerly a member of the country’s parliament for the First Arrondissement of the capital Bangui, says that ‘(Timberland) has been able to employ several women and youth in every place where we work. We think that employing women and young persons who were previously without work contributes to a reduction in unemployment (in these areas).’

The company also wants to let it be known that, at the request of the village chief, it has constructed a school in the village of Komassa, and that it did the same in two other localities in the Nola community, Mbiya and Monguiza. Remarkably, they financed these schools separately, in addition to money they also paid to local municipal authorities, for this same purpose. It is the Nola municipal authority that was actually supposed to build the schools. Where the money paid by Timberland to the Nola municipal authority went, is a question that will remain unanswered.

It is not known where the money paid by Timberland went.

Lofty language

There is a Forest Code, adopted in the Central African Republic in 2008. The text contains lofty language, inter alia about reconciling the exploitation of forest products with the demands linked to the conservation of the nation’s forest heritage and biological diversity, and about protecting the forests in such a way that they can begin regenerating once the extraction operation is over. The law follows all relevant international treaties and agreements to which the Central African Republic is a signatory.

The Forest Code also provides for a forest management plan, which tells us the size of the acreage a forest exploitation society is allowed to operate in and where the boundaries of those areas lie. It furthermore stipulates the precise types of trees any given company is allowed to cut down and export. A version of the document given to ZAM by Timberland’s general director Augustin Agou gives us the local names of the trees the company is allowed to export, complete with their Latin descriptions such as Autranella Congolens and Pycanthus Angolensi.

This is not all that Agou shows ZAM. We also get insight into their financial records, which show that Timberland pays a monthly FCFA twelve million, over US$ 21 000, to the municipality of Ndola. This represents thirty percent of all the taxes and levies the company should pay the authorities; the rest goes to the national government. The local authorities should use their share to provide basic services, such as clinics and medication, new schools or the restoration of existing ones where needed, the construction and restoration of rural roads, which are in a terrible condition throughout the country, and the construction of market buildings. In five years of forest exploitation between 2015 and 2020, this has resulted in the transfer of just over FCFA 726.6 million or US$ 1.3 million by Timberland alone.

A road sign and an unfinished market

The road sign that was also funded by timber company taxes. Image © Fiacre Salabe

‘The municipal authorities here in Nola receive hundreds of millions from the companies that are exploiting the forests in our area but we never know where these funds go’, says Gatien Ngoma, the chairman of the local youth association in Nola. Ngoma does not hide his disgust at the bad management of these funds. ‘This municipality has an (annual) budget of something between FCFA eighty million (US$ 145 000) and FCFA hundred million (US$ 180 000). But again we have no idea what purpose is actually served by the money they collect. Look at the state of this town!’ He adds: ‘Nothing ever happens (to improve the area). Even the staff at the Mayors office find it difficult to get paid on time. As I am speaking with you now, salary payments have been delayed.’ He warns that ‘social tensions will continue to mount’ and that people may well ‘turn against’ the local authorities.

Walking around in Nola, what Ngoma says is clearly true. No public health service facility has been built-or-stocked, no school refurbished. The only three things that have been built in the past few years are a road sign at an intersection ten kilometres out of town (see photograph), a very tiny hotel (see photograph) and a half open air structure that is supposed to become a covered market for the local vendors, but is unfinished. Calculating the probable costs of these structures, ZAM found that the road sign and the inn (of just three rooms) were heavily overpriced and over-invoiced at FCFA forty million (US$ 72 000), which raises suspicions of padding for kickbacks for the commissioning officials. No trace of the remaining funding, allocated to the municipality by Timberland, could be found.

Villagers repair roads themselves, charging fees from commercial traffic.

This practice repeats itself across the country. Away from the Sangha-Mbaéré prefecture, en route to Bangui, we find the same situation at the Mambéré-Kadeï prefecture and its capital Berberati. Here, various timber companies like SEFCA (Lebanon) and SESAM (France) and again also the CAR’s own Timberland, hold concessions in Berberati’s forest zone. Here, too, they pay thirty percent of their taxes and levies to local municipal authorities. And here, too, schools and hospitals are in a dreadful state, markets remain uncovered and rural roads are haphazardly maintained by villagers, who, in order to make money for this work, set up improvised roadblocks where they charge fees from commercial traffic.

The story of national government, which after all receives seventy percent of taxes and levies paid by the forest companies, does not differ from what happens at the municipal layer. The facts that teachers all over the country are badly trained or not trained at all, that no medications ever even reach the rural areas, and that national roads are just as bad as the regional ones, is squarely on them.

A perverted legacy

National government in the CAR has historically been allowed to simply neglect any area (forested or not) outside the capital. A time-honoured ‘concessionary system’, once introduced by the French colonial power, literally outsourced the exploitation of the resources present in these zones to private companies, in this case, timber. Companies can take these resources out of the area as long as they pay ‘tax’ to the authorities. This tax is supposed to educate the children and care for the sick, as well as fund the construction of roads, markets and other infrastructure in the places where the companies work. But no one makes sure the local officials actually do this. It is this system that has perverted the state at all levels and turned the authorities supposedly governing the country into bodies that simply absorb money, but feel no duty to actually service citizens.

The concessionary position 

When France colonised the Central African Republic it embarked on a gigantic asset stripping operation. For this it did two things: it hired companies to do the asset stripping on behalf of France and it ensured that these companies paid the French Treasury for the privilege. This resulted in the creation of a violent system of merciless exploitation, whether it was the ivory that could be obtained before the industrial-scale hunt wiped out virtually the entire elephant population, or the diamonds and gold that were discovered, or the cultivation of cotton that was introduced in the first half of the 20th century, or making off with the country’s abundant forest resources. The ‘concessionary system’, as it was called, works until this day; only now, instead of paying the French Treasury the companies pay the ‘independent’ CAR government and its local authorities. Meanwhile, just like in the olden days of the colony, the local political elite that inhabits these structures, does little to nothing. The concessionary system has since been extended into non-exploitative areas, where outside institutions at least formally ‘take care’ of the CAR’s citizens. Peacekeeping and healthcare are two such areas, which are now mostly carried out by the United Nations, foreign mercenary outfits and – in the case of healthcare – by international NGOs.

Donors allow the siphoning off or look the other way.

Foreign players in the CAR participate in this system. Companies pay large amounts of taxes and levies to the different layers of government, which the authorities keep insisting on (in fact, it could be said that CAR’s authorities see their duties mostly in terms of collecting tax: observers regularly describe the government as ‘tax-obsessed’). At the same time, the companies also engage in what could be termed as social work, often at the request of community leaders like village chiefs, who see the presence of companies like Timberland as the last resort to get work done that their own government will not do. International development organisations and donors allow parts of the largesse they bestow on the country to be siphoned off or look the other way when their local ‘partners’ help themselves to resources that should benefit the population.

A paper committee

Remarkably, the national government sometimes goes through the motions of trying to appear to manage a public service. A ZAM search in Bangui’s government records unearthed an Interministerial Order (numbered 009/MISCP/CAB), which installs a nine-member Interministerial Committee tasked with approving or rejecting programmes supposedly financed by the taxes and levies from the forest companies. It is supervised by the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, which, on paper, delegates two representatives to the committee, as does the Ministry of Water, Forests, Hunting and Fishery. Further on the committee sit one representative from the Ministry of Territorial Administration, two from the local authorities (Nola in this case) and finally two from local organisations working in the municipality.

According to the Interministerial Order, the mission of this structure of heavyweights is to evaluate plans that are submitted for approval by local authorities (in this case still Nola). Again, according to the Order, the committee must write a report following each meeting, which must contain information about the programs that have been approved. It must then send these reports to the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security.

There is only one problem. No such committee seems to have ever been set up. No report from it can be found in the CAR government’s administration. Neither is there an account of any expenses made for the programmes that it was supposed to approve. ZAM searched for Timberland programmes in particular, but came up with zero. Spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, Emmanuel Pabandji, says that he has never heard of such a committee either. ‘No, I don’t think such a structure exists. For starters, what is the date of that Interministerial Order and who signed it?’ But those details are missing from order number 009/MISCP/CAB. An extensive survey of official documents at the Ministry of Water and Forests similarly yielded no trace of the activities or the existence of the elusive Interministerial Committee.

A ‘mafia system’

In Nola, and elsewhere outside the capital Bangui, the lack of monitoring from the central government is only one aspect of a situation where local governing elites simply grab the money that companies and donors bring. Ordinary citizens have no say in what these local authorities do, since these are not even elected, but appointed by the central government (3). As a result, local mayors and councillors must bend to the power that comes from their protectors and benefactors at the national level, with whom they share the taxes and levies paid by foreign companies.

They can only do what their masters want them to do.

One highly placed official in the Ministry of Water and Forests put it like this: ‘First of all, as you know, the mayors are not elected by the people but appointed. So, they can only do what their masters, who put them in place, want them to do. This is why those taxes and levies are not being used in the way they are intended. And this does not only apply to Nola; it’s everywhere’.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, added that local populations’ voices are simply ignored. ‘Do you know how often (they) denounce these fraudulent networks that are financed with the moneys of the forest companies? But no one at government level says anything, and so these activities remain unsanctioned. Everybody gets their part of the cake and the system runs from high to low. Local authorities like the one in Nola are always covered by those in Bangui’.

And so, the CAR’s citizens are forced to stand by and watch the trees go. In interviews with ZAM, representatives of various associations of youths and women in Nola have all confirmed that they are never consulted by their local state officials about the way the exploitation of the forests is done, let alone what happens to the revenues accruing from it. They all support the idea of a thorough audit of what comes in and what goes out of the municipal coffers, but have no idea whether such an audit will ever come about.

Even Timberland’s general director Augustin Agou finds himself powerless. The question is: what can he do, he asks, visibly upset, during our interview. He explains that he would be ‘entirely on his own’ if he would start publicly denouncing a ‘mafia system’ that everybody knows exists, but can do nothing about. The elites in Bangui are a small and very close-knit group, which will very rapidly close ranks against anyone exposing their shenanigans, he says. Publicly denouncing these malpractices will put him and his company at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the competition, which may be less scrupulous (4). Agou does not even want to contemplate a scenario where his company would stop tax payments until the government allows for accounting transparency. It will very simply be the end of Timberland’s license, he says, since this will be a violation of the 2008 Forest Code.

Questions put by ZAM to the local government offices in Nola were met with silence.

Notes

  1. The CAR is sub-divided into sixteen prefectures, of which Sangha-Mbaéré, only slightly smaller than the Netherlands, covers the extreme south-western part of the country.
  2. The companies that work in the forests are referred to in this article as either forest companies, forest exploitation companies or timber companies.
  3. When democracy came to the CAR in 1993 with the very first open presidential and parliamentary elections after thirty-three years of independence there was one notable absentee on the electoral roll: the local authorities.
  4. For example, a July 2015 report from the London-based resource misuse investigating NGO Global Witness accused the Lebanese SEFCA company of having paid Seleka militias for protecting their facilities in 2013, after some of these had been looted and vandalised. SEFCA has never responded to these allegations.

This article was translated, amended, and contextualised by Bram Posthumus.

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