Saturday, October 11, 2014

Narcotics links tarnish Frelimo

A US-sanctioned narcotics kingpin's finance for the governing party complicates commercial and diplomatic relations

The appearance of Mohammed Bashir Suleiman – designated a 'drugs kingpin' by the United States – at the banquet of a local business association on 18 September has infuriated friends of Filipe Nyussi, presidential candidate of the governing Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (AC Vol 55 No 5, Frelimo picks a candidate). This is because the Confederação das Associações Económicas de Moçambique (CTA), the organisers of the banquet, invited Bashir to the event and placed him at the top table, just a couple of seats away from Nyussi. As the CTA banquet at the Indy Village complex in Maputo turned out to be a fundraiser for Frelimo's election campaign, Bashir's attendance sent a clear message: that he remains an important financier of the party, despite US reports that his fortune derives from drug smuggling, and that he has strong endorsement from a powerful faction within Frelimo (AC Vol 53 No 2, Maputo shuns US concern & AC Vol 54 No 23, Abductions fuel anxiety).

The USA was unequivocal in its June 2010 designation: 'Mohammed Bashir Suleiman is a large-scale narcotics trafficker in Mozambique and his network contributes to the growing trend of narcotics trafficking and related money laundering offences across Southern Africa,' said Adam J Szubin, the Director of the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets' Control. Bashir's conglomerate Grupo MBS Limitada, which includes retail stores and a shopping mall in Maputo, were placed under US sanctions. Beshir has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing.

The business people at the CTA banquet were doubly surprised. Firstly, at the way in which it turned into a fundraiser for Frelimo. Secondly at Bashir's presence: since the US designated him as a drugs kingpin, President Armando Guebuza has publicly distanced himself from the wealthy businessman. Bashir's presence and the party fundraising was also awkward for two executives attending the banquet from the US oil company, Anadarko, which is building Mozambique's multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas plant. The US State Department has said it will respond to questions fromAfrica Confidential about the legal implications of Bashir's financing of Frelimo and participation in the CTA meeting.

Nyussi nonplussed
For now, Nyussi's leading supporters fear that Bashir's association with his campaign will undermine his efforts to establish himself as a credible reformer with the voters ahead of the presidential elections on 15 October (AC Vol 55 No 19, Frelimo turns the screws). Nyussi was meant to have been the main attraction at the CTA banquet. Although he has become better known and liked in recent months, he lacks the political stature or experience of his predecessors.

His friends say Nyussi wants to reform the party and government. He was clearly unhappy that a supposed business gathering had turned into a somewhat vulgar party fundraiser: as Frelimo supporters and others enthusiastically joined in the auctions, bidding vast amounts for objects of little value, Nyussi remained subdued, according to some of the other guests. One said he spent most of the evening dealing with texts and emails on his cellphone, although he spoke briefly to other Frelimo notables and even had a very short exchange with Bashir.

Known for his huge donations to Frelimo, especially at election time, Bashir has been a key party supporter. In return, he has developed political connections helping the growth of his business empire. Sources close to the party say Bashir's donations to Frelimo have given him a degree of protection. Although he was kept a distance, at least publicly, after the US designation, it seems he is keen to ingratiate himself with presidential candidate Nyussi. The enthusiasm doesn't appear entirely mutual.

Bashir is nonetheless a long-time party donor and Frelimo certainly needs funds. CTA officials confirm that Bashir has been giving money to the party while business people say that he has recently paid for many other public meetings. Associates of businessman Silvestre Bila, who played a key role in winning Nyussi's nomination as Frelimo's candidate, say that he opposed Bashir's invitation to the CTA banquet. CTA DirectorRogerio Manuel appears to have been behind the invitation, aiming to boost party funds. Perhaps he had not thought through the diplomatic consequences. Bila is understood to have warned that any association between Frelimo and drugs money would prove politically disastrous. Despite confusion about who actually issued the invitation to Bashir, we hear that it was approved by President Guebuza.

Symbolic pen
Also at the top table at the banquet, along with Nyussi and Bashir, were several other guests of honour including Frelimo's First Secretary Hermenegildo Mateus Infante and businessmanAdriano Weng. Also in attendance was Alvaro Massingue, another wealthy businessman and Frelimo financier. For the astonishing price of just over 2 million meticals (US$65,000) he purchased the pen with which Nyussi will sign the official documents if he becomes president. The pen purchase seems to have become a symbolic gesture of support, accompanied by a hefty party donation. When Guebuza was candidate, it was Bashir who purchased the presidential pen for a similarly inflated sum.

Guests at the banquet say there was no warning on the invitation that the CTA event would be a Frelimo fundraiser and the more apolitical attendees expressed frustration with the organisation's close ties with the governing party. Yet the following week the CTA held another dinner at which it gave a brand new Mercedes Benz to President Guebuza. Embarrassed at the gesture, especially in the run-up to an election in which Frelimo's commitment to fighting corruption is a key issue, Guebuza immediately returned the gift.

In October 2009, Mozambican media questioned the independence of the national electoral commission after Massingue's company Sotux, alongside another company in which Guebuza was a shareholder, won contracts to supply equipment for the elections (AC Vol 50 No 22, A dominant party, not a one-party state). Newspapers reported that the fact that Massingue had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars of bad debts was ignored because of his high-level connections in the party. Earlier that year, Massingue had escaped any censure in theBanco Austral scandal: the bank was accused of making reckless loans to politicians and well-connected business people that were never repaid. Massingue was one of Banco Austral's top three officials at the time but the government took no action against the bank or its management.

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