New revelations of luxury properties held by the Republic of Congo’s first family shed light on a regime running out of options.
On 21 September, a bombshell report revealed $32.5 million in assets held around the world by the President Denis Sassou Nguesso, his family, and senior regime officials in the Republic of Congo. Released by the #SassouFit Collective and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Assets Abound used open sources to uncover an array of luxury properties owned by politically exposed figures, from New York to Dubai.
These findings shed new light on the regime’s dynamics. They complicate Sassou Nguesso’s plans for succession. And they will likely inform ongoing criminal investigations in France and the US. The revelations, however, come at a cost: the safety of its Congolese authors.
Shedding light on the regime
The new report advances our understanding of the regime’s dynamics in three key ways.
Firstly, it shows how the Sassou Nguesso family and its allies have diversified their assets. A decade ago, this elite’s holdings were concentrated in France. But in this latest report, properties in Dubai account for nearly 60% of the uncovered assets’ value. This shift is likely driven by the criminal investigations by the French and US governments into Congolese officials, which recently led to a series of property seizures.
Secondly, these investigations notwithstanding, Assets Abound underscores the failure of Western governments to clamp down on individuals accused of corruption and human rights abuses. For instance, police chief Jean-François Ndenguet was arrested in France in 2004 on charges of crimes against humanity for his role in the killing of 353 repatriated refugees in 1999. He was later released on the order of then French president Jacques Chirac. In May 2014, Ndenguet purchased a €600,000 ($700,000) apartment in the stony Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Thirdly, the report points to the ongoing opposition to Sassou Nguesso. It is no coincidence that the findings were released on the six-year anniversary of the president’s announcement that he would stage a referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow him to extend his rule. Citizens may have been too scared to protest against the 2021 election, but the report’s release date reminds us that there is still widespread anger about the 2015 “constitutional coup”.
Complicating the succession
These revelations come at a pivotal moment for Sassou Nguesso’s regime. In February 2020, France’s Biens Mal Acquis (“ill-gotten gains”) investigation’s first conviction came against Teodorin Obiang, the son and presumed successor of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, for laundering some €150 million ($174 million). Many are now wondering whether investigators will turn next to the Bongo dynasty in Gabon or the Sassou Nguesso family in the Republic of Congo. Given the former family’s closer ties to French politicians and Ali Bongo’s failing health, the smart money is on the latter.
While several of Sassou Nguesso’s children, nieces, and nephews have been indicted, investigators may well target the president’s son and presumptive heir Denis Christel. Assets Abound makes this more likely. Of the $32.5 million documented, Denis Christel accounts for roughly 20%. His properties include a $2.4 million mansion in Coral Gables, Florida; a $2.4 million mansion in Biscayne Bay, Florida; a $270,000 condo in Aventura, Florida; a $1 million condo in Dubai; and office space in Dubai’s Yes Business Centre. The Florida revelations may also inform the US Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into Denis Christel, which may well go to trial in 2022.
This attention seriously complicates Sassou Nguesso’s succession plan. At 77 and having recently returned from a three-week “medical stay” in Switzerland, the president would likely be looking to hand over power to his son. But the Republic of Congo is too dependent on international creditors to consider doing this while Denis Christel faces trial for corruption in France or the US – or, worse, if he is ultimately convicted. With no back-up heir, Assets Abound makes it more likely that Sassou Nguesso will choose to grow old in power.
Activists on the line
The #SassouFit Collective was founded by Andrea Ngombet in 2014 as a protest against the impending “constitutional coup“. With the group now publishing this new report, Ngombet has consolidated his position as an activist leader among the Congolese diaspora and is therefore likely under greater threat.
The last activist to seriously threaten Sassou Nguesso was Bruno Jacquet Ossèbi. Between 2004 and 2009, he documented the regime’s extraordinary assets in the country. Given that Ossèbi was from Sassou Nguesso’s native Cuvette, the cousin of several prominent officials, and a French citizen, he was thought to be protected. But that changed when his findings threatened Sassou Nguesso’s bid for debt relief from the IMF and World Bank.
On 18 January 2009, Ossèbi and exiled dissident Benjamin Toungamni co-wrote an article accusing the president and his son of gross corruption. Three days later, their homes – Ossèbi’s in Brazzaville, Toungamani’s in Paris – went up in flames almost simultaneously. Ossèbi suffered second-degree burns on over 30% of his body and died days later. Before his death, he told his cousin he’d seen the Republican Guard flee his house just after the fire was set.
The parallels between Ngombet and Ossèbi are uncanny. Ngombet is about the same age Ossèbi was when he did his most important work. Ngombet is also from Cuvette, directly related to a current minister and indirectly related to Sassou Nguesso’s influential nephew Jean-Dominique Okemba. And he is also under severe threat from the regime.
Ngombet has been assaulted in Paris. His #SassouFit Collective has been flagged as a terrorist organisation and therefore prohibited from opening French bank accounts. He has been interrogated by French police. And he is accused in Brazzaville courts of conspiring to assassinate Sassou Nguesso by blowing up his airplane. Like Ossèbi’s family, Ngombet’s has left the Republic of Congo for their safety too. It is crucial the similarities between the two activists end there.
The power of transnational partnerships
A final way in which Assets Abound is a landmark is that it was made possible by a transnational network that connects Central African activists with the analytics tools developed by C4ADS. Moreover, the particular partnership between the #SassouFit Collective and C4ADS was arranged by Tutu Alicante, a lawyer and Equato-Guinean exile in the US whose efforts to raise awareness of Obiang’s crimes have been extraordinarily influential.
These kinds of collaboration showcase the potential of transnational cooperation and likely mean there will be many more revelations of massive government corruption to come. The Sassou Nguesso family and other corrupt dynasty’s headaches will not end here.
Brett L. Carter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern California and a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.