“Orion Oil Affair”: holistic approaches needed in sub-Saharan Africa due diligence

Last week Aperio wrote about the Orion Oil Affair, in which UK-registered oil & gas firm Orion Oil Ltd and its owner Lucien Ebata are alleged to have embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in Congolese state funds. The funds, reportedly stolen from state-owned oil & gas monopoly SNPC, are thought to have subsequently been distributed to leading business and political figures in the country including President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

The Orion Oil Affair is emblematic of Françafrique corruption scandals. Denis Sassou Nguesso has been a steadfast ally to French political and business interests since the 1970s, which likely helps explain why successive French governments on both sides of the political aisle have maintained close relations with him over his multiple decades in power. Few French politicians have openly condemned Sassou Nguesso’s violent repression of political opposition or the high levels of corruption in the Republic of the Congo, despite multiple members of his close family having been the target of corruption investigations in France and the US. Allegations that figures close to Sassou Nguesso were involved in discussions to provide up to EUR 2 million in illicit funding to the 2017 presidential campaign of former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls are also reminiscent of the alleged EUR 50 million of illegal campaign financing allegedly provided by the then-government of Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi to the successful 2007 presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy (for which Sarkozy was charged in March 2018 October 2020). On 22 January 2023 Valls announced that he had filed a defamation suit against Libération in relation to the claims made in its Orion Oil reportage.

Further digging into Lucien Ebata

From an investigative standpoint, the Orion Oil Affair is the latest corruption scandal to illustrate the status of France and particularly Paris as a destination for embezzled funds originating from Francophone African countries. While Ebata was mostly based between Brazzaville and Kinshasa, he regularly flew to Paris and is the owner of significant real estate assets in France, maintaining a luxury flat in Neuilly-sur-Seine which French authorities raided following his October 2021 arrest. Ebata also tellingly based many of his corporate interests in France and the UK, not least Orion Oil itself.

Libération’s investigation into the Orion Oil Affair contained extensive details, including non-public information derived from leaked French authorities’ files. A review of publicly available corporate filings helps substantiate and even add to information regarding Ebata and Orion Oil’s business ties and networks of influence.

UK Interests

Orion Oil is also not the only company established by Ebata in France or the UK. UK Companies House (UKCH) records list him as a statutory director of four companies in addition to Orion Oil, three of which share the Orion name: Orion Galaxy Ltd, Orion Group SA Ltd, and Orion Exploration and Development Ltd (Orion ED). While Orion Galaxy and Orion ED are both dormant companies, they have a number of statutory directors in addition to Ebata. These include Sonia Monnens, described in one media article from 2018 as one of Ebata’s closest business partners, but also Sylvain Lekaka, Orion Oil’s corporate counsel and former counsel for Congo’s SNPC, Daniel Mulenda, a senior Democratic Republic of Congo-based academic who is also an executive director of Orion Oil, and Michael Kagwa, a London-based finance executive who otherwise appears to have no connections to Orion Oil. Orion Oil SA Ltd, meanwhile, was registered in the UK in April 2022, after Ebata had been arrested in October 2021 and indicted on corruption-related offenses and appears to serve as the holding entity for Ebata’s UK-registered Orion Oil companies. It is directly and wholly owned by Ebata.

Ebata’s fifth UK-registered company, Universal Group SA Ltd, was incorporated in February 2016. Its statutory directors include Lekaka and Ebata as well as Yves Cuipers, a Belgian finance executive based in the DRC who was previously Managing Director of Banque Commerciale du Congo, a former colonial banking institution in the Belgian Congo which is now part of Kenya-headquartered financial services multinational Equity Group Holdings Limited. In March 2022 Cuipers was appointed regional head for Equity in South and Central Africa. According to his LinkedIn profile, he also serves as a board advisor to Sofibank, a Kinshasa-headquartered bank. The two former directors at Universal Group are Jean-Michel Moiny, a Monaco-based financier and a director or former director at KBL Monaco Private Bankers (now Banque Richelieu Monaco); and Joel Marechal, who appears to be an executive at Luxembourg-headquartered wealth management group ParFi Group.

Additionally, Orion Oil, as a UK company, is required to file notice of its charges to UKCH. These documents, which reveal charges taken out by the company in March 2010, April 2012, October 2013, December 2015, and December 2018, provide information about the business ties the company maintained with prominent international banking and oil & gas companies. The filing for the most recent charge, dated 14 December 2018, confirms that Orion Oil had signed three lifting contracts for 920,000 barrels of Djeno crude oil each in that month with a subsidiary of oil & gas major Shell, with the African Export-Import Bank acting as the contracts’ agent and security agent. At USD 65 a barrel, these three contracts alone would have been worth over USD 179 million to Orion Oil. Other charge sheets filed by Orion Oil indicate that the company received financing from EBI SA, a subsidiary of pan-African banking group EcoBank, as well as France-headquartered banking multinational BNP Paribas.

French interests

In France, Ebata is or was the director and shareholder of two companies. The first, Orion Group SASU, was incorporated in 2013 as a subsidiary of UK-registered Orion Oil Ltd. The company does not appear ever to have had significant commercial activity, although it opened a bank account with CIC Bank in Paris upon incorporation. It was dissolved and struck off the corporate registry on 21 October 2021, shortly after Ebata was arrested and indicted.

Ebata also remains the 100 percent shareholder and a statutory director, alongside Sonia Monnens, of a company named F. Media Afrique SASU (“FMA”). This company published and managed Forbes Afrique, the francophone edition of Forbes Africa, which it launched in Brazzaville in 2012. FMA itself was incorporated in June 2012. It remained operational well after Ebata’s first arrest, in October of that year (when he was stopped at Roissy airport while trying to board a flight carrying over EUR 180,000 in undeclared cash), reporting revenue of EUR 2.2 million in 2015. That revenue subsequently more than halved in 2016 and was negligible for 2018 and 2019 – the most recent years for which the company filed any annual financial reports –, with media coverage indicating that financial difficulties had led to the magazine ceasing print. FMA, however, remains an active company according to the French corporate registry, with Ebata continuing to own 100 percent of its shares.

Closing thoughts

From a corporate intelligence perspective, the information available relating to Ebata’s corporate interests in Europe, accessed using only free and publicly available data sources, is key for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the importance, when conducting due diligence focusing on sub-Saharan Africa-based subjects, of taking into account the likely investment destinations for funds, be they legal or illicit. As evidenced by the Libération report, understanding the nature and extent of Ebata’s business interests and political networks in Congo and the DRC is key to establishing his professional trajectory and consequently his source of wealth. However, an investigation into Ebata which would take into account only this African angle would miss much of the picture, including information pertaining to his personal networks in Europe which is freely available in the public record, and would not need to be gleaned from conversations with well-placed human sources.

Second, the availability of corporate information in the public record is essential to the continued ability to conduct effective due diligence, both in a commercial setting such as the one Aperio operates in, but also for wider public interest investigations. While the above findings are based on a limited amount of research, organisations such as the #Sassoufit citizens’ collective have carried out extensive public record research into the assets acquired by figures in Denis Sassou Nguesso’s inner circle. Their investigation has used many of the same techniques outlined in this article, including relying on corporate and land registry filings in France and the US. Keeping as much of this public interest data freely accessible as possible is especially key as the public access to information is under threat, as exemplified by the recent November 2022 European Court of Justice ruling on 4AMLD.  

Pierre le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, Head of Africa Practice