Corruption in Congo and Ivory Coast: Gunvor in the spotlight

Today, a former employee of the Geneva-based trader was sentenced to a suspended 18-month prison sentence for acts of corruption in Congo Brazzaville and Ivory Coast. Bribes of tens of millions of dollars were paid to public officials in order for Gunvor to obtain oil shipments. The facts documented by the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (MPC) confirm the findings of Public Eye’s investigation: the employee did not act alone. Even CEO Torbjörn Törnqvist gave his approval for a Congolese public official to be hired as an intermediary. This landmark case shows that Switzerland needs to regulate the Swiss commodities trading sector.

In Bellinzona (Switzerland), the sentence was handed down by the federal criminal court within the framework of a simplified procedure negotiated by the ex-Gunvor employee and the MPC. Pascal C provided details of five corrupt agreements that enabled the company to lay its hands on shipments of crude oil and petroleum products from 2009 to 2012. For Ivory Coast and Congo, our calculations put the total of commissions payed at 43 million dollars. Public Eye had already shed light on Gunvor’s dubious practices in Congo in a report published in 2017, which documented the implications of this sprawling affair. The confessions of the company’s former business developer have enabled the attorney general “to understand the scale of the corruption” that took place within Gunvor.

Ratified by the court, the facts detailed in the indictment undermine the Geneva-based trader’s line of defence; it has always claimed to be the victim of a rogue employee who acted without the company’s knowledge and to its detriment. The statement notes that the corrupt activities and transactions were undertaken “in collaboration with other Gunvor employees” and that the payments were approved by its finance department. “The employee worked in an atmosphere in which corruption appeared to be an accepted way of doing business”. This information led the MPC to widen its investigation to include possible “organisational shortcomings” in Gunvor in May 2017. Now it could lead to further indictments.

Our investigation revealed that the agent Maxime Gandzion, who was “a special advisor to the president of Congo”, received 10.5 million dollars in commissions through the Geneva-based bank, Clariden Leu, and that subsequently transfers had been made to half a dozen Chinese nationals. The indictment confirms what we suspected: part of these payments, specifically 2.1 million euros, “benefitted the presidential family, particularly the First Lady of Congo Brazzaville, Antoinette Sassou Nguesso, and the President Denis Sassou Nguesso”. The court concluded that the contracts signed by Maxime Gandzion’s son and Gunvor in 2010 and 2011 “essentially served as legal window-dressing to justify the corrupt payment channel”.

The indictment notes that Maxim Gandzion is a “Congolese public official”, meaning that the payments he received from Gunvor in Switzerland for his work as an intermediary – a total of 15 million dollars – constitute a corruption offence in themselves (Article 322septies of the Swiss Criminal Code). The prosecutor, followed by the court, highlighted that Gunvor’s co-founder and CEO Torbjörn Törnqvist had received an email informing him that he was part of a “circle of five people with real decision-making power in Congo”. According to our information, in November 2015 Törnqvist gave the prosecutor information about Maxime Gandzion’s services, explaining that the latter was listened to by the president of Congo and that he used him to “communicate his messages, expectations and hopes” to Gunvor. He acknowledged that he had “approved” him as an intermediary who, in his view, did not raise any red flags.

In light of these facts, the Swiss judicial system now has a responsibility to go up the chain of command within Gunvor. The government must respond to this affair, which typifies the business model of Switzerland’s commodities trading sector. It demonstrates that the arguments put forward by trading companies to oppose any regulation do not stand up to scrutiny of their activities. The federal authorities cannot continue to rely on the goodwill of companies. They must regulate this high-risk sector.

More information here or contact:
Marc Guéniat, Senior Researcher, 021 620 03 02,
Oliver Classen, Media Director, 044 277 79 06,