07 Aug 2020
By Mark Anderson, Khadija Sharife and Nathalie Prevost, OCCRP, 6 August 2020
OCCRP — As militant groups spread across the Sahel, the West African nation of Niger went on a U.S.-backed military spending spree that totaled about US$1 billion between 2011 and 2019.
But almost a third of that money was funnelled into inflated international arms deals – seemingly designed to allow corrupt officials and brokers to siphon off government funds, according to a confidential government audit obtained by OCCRP that covers those eight years.
The Inspection Générale des Armées, an independent body that audits the armed forces, found problems with contracts amounting to over $320 million out of the $875 million in military spending it reviewed. The U.S. contributed almost $240 million to Niger’s military budget over the same period.
The Inspection Générale’s auditors said more than 76 billion West African francs had been lost to corruption, which is about $137 million at the current exchange rate.
They discovered that much of the equipment sourced from international firms – including Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese state-owned defense companies – was significantly overpriced, not actually delivered, or purchased without going through a competitive bidding process.
“The rigged bidding process, fake competition, and inflated pricing in these deals is astounding,” said Andrew Feinstein, a leading arms expert and author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.”
The Nigerien authorities are investigating the findings of the audit, which have caused a scandal in the country after some details were reported in the press earlier this year.
The country has become a key ally for the United States in fighting groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State West Africa Province, better known as Boko Haram.
The surge in spending over the last decade helped Niger become one of the most formidable military powers in the region. The country – one of the world’s poorest – bought arms ranging from attack helicopters and fighter jets to armored vehicles and automatic rifles.
In addition to cash it provided to Niger’s military, the U.S. spent $280 million building a massive air base near the ancient trading city of Agadez in the north of the country. The base, which reportedly costs $30 million a year to run, allows U.S. forces to launch drones for both surveillance and air strikes.
American forces are also training Nigerien soldiers and fighting alongside them. In 2017, four U.S. Special Forces officers were killed in an ambush in the country’s frontier with Mali and Burkina Faso, reportedly by fighters associated with the so-called Islamic State.
France and the European Union are also major donors to Niger’s military, which receives further aid through its membership in G5 Sahel, a regional joint military force. The audit report raises the possibility that some of the military aid ended up in the pockets of unscrupulous private individuals and corrupt government officials.
At the center of the network of corruption are two Nigerien businessmen who acted as intermediaries in the deals: the well-known arms dealer Aboubacar Hima, and Aboubacar Charfo, a construction contractor with no previous experience in the defense sector. Auditors allege that the two men rigged bids by using companies under their control to create the illusion of competition for contracts.
Their success points to the opportunities available to a small clique of well-connected insiders with close ties to Niger’s government.
“As far as the audit is concerned, I don’t think there’ll be any prosecutions,” said Hassane Diallo, head of Niger-based Centre d’Assistance Juridique et d’Action Citoyenne, an anti-corruption group.
“All the economic actors mentioned in the audit belong to the ruling party. They come from the same region as the president.”
Hima’s lawyer, Marc Le Bihan, declined to answer reporters’ questions, saying that his client could not be reached and adding that he was not being prosecuted in connection with the auditors’ report.
Through a handful of companies connected to him, Hima, who goes by the nicknames “Style Féroce” and “Petit Boubé,” handled at least three quarters of all the arms purchases scrutinized by the Inspection Générale. Together the deals were worth $240 million.
It is unclear exactly how Hima, the son of a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, rose to such prominence in Niger’s political and business circles.
One key moment was likely his 2005 marriage to the daughter of former President Ibrahim Bare Maïnassara, who was killed in a 1999 coup. The marriage is likely to have brought him closer to Niger’s political establishment, since the party that Maïnassara once led now “supports the current regime,” according to Diallo.
In 2003, Hima set up Imprimerie du Plateau, a printing business that remains active today. By 2010 he had made the leap into the arms business in neighboring Nigeria, where he established companies that would play key roles in the deals auditors scrutinized in his home country.
Most of Hima’s deals were signed under a 2013 national security law that allowed for some of Niger’s defense spending to be carried out in direct negotiations with any company, rather than putting it to public tender. Niger scrapped that law in 2016, replacing it with one requiring a more transparent process. But by that point, much of the damage had been done.
Most of the sales identified in the audit had bypassed oversight bodies within the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Finance whose input was required under the 2013 law. The tenders also did not include key documentation, such as the prices offered by the various bidders.
In one deal facilitated by Hima in 2016, Niger’s Ministry of Defense bought two Mi-171Sh military transport and assault helicopters from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned defense company. The purchase, which also included maintenance and ammunition, cost Niger 55 million euros, or $54.8 million – an overpayment of about $19.7 million, according to the Inspection Générale. The auditors noted that the prices had been inflated by fraud and corruption.
Nigerien auditors visited Moscow early this year in search of information about the helicopters and other purchases that had been facilitated by Hima on behalf of Niger’s defense ministry. But the auditors were left in the dark about the terms of the deals. Rosoboronexport refused to provide any information, telling the Nigerien government auditors that the agreements were “confidential.”
“[Rosoboronexport’s] failure to explain the pricing difference on this clandestine deal can only mean one thing: corruption,” Feinstein said. “The Russians clearly colluded with Nigerien officials to sell overpriced arms in a deal that was obviously illegal.”
Read more at OCCRP
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