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Chuck Your Bloody Constitution In The Dustbin

  • PublishedNovember 4, 2009

“For the most part, the areas which the British state does not want examined are still left alone by our serious [news]papers. The result is that an entire dimension of politics and the exercise of power is usually left out of standard reporting and analysis” – Seumas Milne, in his 1994 book, The Enemy Within – The Secret War Against the Miners.

Something happened in Britain in mid-October that outraged both Parliament and the media. The British-based international oil company, Trafigura, that had been alleged to be at the centre of a toxic waste dumping scandal in Côte d’Ivoire – an exercise that had caused untold suffering and death to the Ivorians living in the immediate vicinity of the dumping – succeeded in getting a “super injunction” in the British High Court to stop anyone from reporting that a Labour MP, Paul Farrely, a member of the Commons Culture and Media Committee, had asked a question in Parliament about Trafigura’s first “super injunction” stopping The Guardian from printing further reports on the waste scandal.

Interestingly, Britain’s Bill of Rights of 1689 protects all parliamentary proceedings from libel lawyers, and thus, as The Independent reported on 14 October, “the idea that commercial interests can get gagging orders that apply even to what is said in Parliament runs counter to the 1689 Bill of Rights”. But Trafigura’s lawyers still got a “super injunction” in the High Court on 11 September banning anyone from reporting that Paul Farrely had stood up in the House of Commons and asked Justice Secretary Jack Straw, about  “what assessment he [Straw] has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by … Trafigura [and its] solicitors on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura?”

According to The Independent: “Trafigura’s ‘super injunction’ meant that those served with it [The Independent, The Guardian and others, who were investigating the company] were not only banned from writing about its subject matter, they were also not allowed to report that they had been gagged. “Among the first to find out [on 13 October] that there was a gagging order covering Mr Farrely’s question was Mr Farrely himself, who rang the Speaker of Parliament, John Bercow, in a fury. He later stood up in the Commons and asked the Speaker ‘to consider whether [Trafigura’s lawyers’] behaviour constitutes potential contempt of Parliament’.” That same afternoon, just when another court was about to hear an application to have the terms of the “super injunction” changed, Trafigura’s lawyers issued a statement, saying their client, “did not want to prevent what was said in Parliament from being reported”, although the original injunction gave them that power. 

To cut a long story short, the British government is now planning to involve the judiciary in a consultation intended to bring down the use of super injunctions. Welcome to the club, Dear Britain. There are people, even including Africans, who accuse New African of complaining too much about the way Western governments and their multinational companies treat Africa, such as dumping toxic waste anywhere they want on the continent. One such person, Nandi Opio, writing from South Africa (Letters, NA Oct), said he had “realised that most of your writers (you inclusive, Mr Ankomah) have fallen into the habit of constantly blaming the West for everything that is wrong in Africa…”
First, we don’t blame the West “for everything that is wrong in Africa”. That would make us fools or at best ostriches! Africans are responsible for some of the things that are wrong in Africa. And we say that loud and clear – in New African. We also don’t shy away from saying, equally loud and clear, that the West is to blame for some of the things that are wrong in Africa.

When I was a younger journalist and did not fully understand the workings of geopolitics, I thought African leaders were the worst species of human beings God ever created. And so, those of you who have followed this column, Baffour’s Beefs, from its early days in 1988 to date, will know that in its early years I used to rail a lot against African leaders. But as I grew and learnt more about geopolitics, I changed my tune. Readers like Nandi Opio, who may not have taken the trouble to study and observe how the modern world works, will always accuse those who have studied the inner workings of geopolitics, of “constantly blaming the West for everything that is wrong in Africa”.
But consider this: In October 1997, President Pascal Lissouba of Congo Brazzaville was overthrown in what was a coup in all but name and fled to London where he granted me an exclusive interview about what had happened (see NA, May 1998, pp. 12-13).

Soon after coming to power in 1992, Lissouba had renegotiated a better oil deal for the country from the Western oil companies operating in the country. The new deal had taken the nation’s share of oil revenue, the main source of national income, from 15% to 33%. As Lissouba told me: “All the oil companies were happy with the deal, except [one major French oil company, name withheld] which deliberately set out to undermine it.” Days after Lissouba’s overthrow, the oil companies renegotiated the deal down to 20% instead of the 33%.

But wait for this: While Lissouba was yet president, the French oil company that did not like the 33% oil deal leaned on the then French president, Jacques Chirac, to intervene. So Chirac then calls Lissouba on the phone from Paris and demands that he appoints former President Dennis Sassou Nguesso as vice president and head of the national army. Lissouba tells him: “I can’t do that Monsieur le President, because our constitution does not allow it.” Then, according to Lissouba, “Chirac, in great fury told me (in French): ‘Chuck your bloody constitution in the dustbin’.” A couple of weeks later, Lissouba’s government was no more, Angolan troops and jet fighters had helped Nguesso to take over the capital, and Lissouba was on a plane to London and exile. He later sued the French oil company in Paris for being an “accessory to the destruction of democracy in Congo Brazzaville”. He accused the company of “wanting to operate a state within a state” and “actively mobilising support for Nguesso’s coup.”

In August this year, the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who is currently standing trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, told the Court how the American oil giant  Halliburton had dealt with him while he was in office. Those of you who still think Taylor is standing trial because America and Britain, who have been driving his prosecution behind the scenes, and their Western allies care so much about the protection of human rights in Africa, please think again. Like most West African countries, Liberia has huge oil reserves offshore, and the American oil giant wanted to get the rights to exploit them. But the deal it was offering Liberia, “less than 20 cents in an average dollar” did not appeal to Taylor and his government. And so the negotiations dragged on, until Taylor was indicted in 2003 by the Special Court on war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Taylor told the Court: “My government hired the US firm, TGS-NOPEC, based in Houston, Texas, for $6m to do a major survey and final mapping of our entire continental shelf and Liberia has been found to have vast reserves of oil offshore, at least at four principal sites.  In fact I now understand that since my incarceration, most of these blocks have been seeded off [allocated to exploration]… “Liberia started extensive negotiations with Halliburton to exploit those oil reserves. The deals that were being offered to Liberia I felt were virtually outrageous… In an average dollar, Liberia was being offered something under 20 cents… And I said to them, my great, great grandchildren would need the oil [so] I couldn’t give it away for less than 20 cents to a dollar. 

“Halliburton had been negotiating through their agent, a gentleman called John Douche… So the negotiations broke down, and up until I left office we were beginning to talk to a few more [companies]. Some of the individuals in the negotiations are now members of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s government.” Taylor remembers the last conversation with Halliburton vividly. He told the Court: “I remember in fact a very good friend of John Douche, Sir John Straum, the former prime minister of the Bahamas, who was also involved in these negotiations. I remember I was playing tennis and I got a call from Sir John. He said to me: ‘Mr President, we have to get these negotiations going. If we succeed, it will be as if nothing happened. If we don’t succeed, I’m afraid we can’t help you.’

“Then John Douche called me some time later and he said to me: ‘Mr President, I’m on my way to Southern Africa. I just got a brand new G5 [executive plane]. It doesn’t take me long to get into Liberia. I want to stop by and talk to you’ – because his representatives were still in Liberia negotiating. And then I jokingly said to him: ‘Well, listen, don’t stop by because I don’t want you to get upset because if the negotiations don’t change, you’re not going to get any results. You big oil companies have a way of overthrowing governments in small countries, so I’m afraid you may get upset and overthrow [my government]’. He said: ‘No, no, no, no, Mr President, there will be no such thing’.” Well, do we blame the West for “everything” that is wrong in Africa? Charles Taylor insisted on not giving up Liberia’s oil for a pittance. And so he is standing trial at The Hague! And people, like Nandi Opio, say, “you have fallen into the habit of constantly blaming the West for everything that is wrong in Africa”. Well, he has more to read yet.

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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