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BAT ‘proposed’ huge bribe for Mugabe to free jailed spies

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Cigarette production at the BAT factory in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Leaked documents have revealed that British cigarette maker BAT allegedly proposed a huge bribe to former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe ahead of his last election in 2013 aimed at seeking freedom for people jailed for collecting business intelligence on its rivals.

A joint probe by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, BBC Panorama and the University of Bath revealed that British American Tobacco (BAT) company could have paid between $300,000 (Sh33 million) and $500,000 (Sh55 million) to the late Mugabe’s Zanu PF party.

The alleged bribe, offered through a third party, was meant to get certain people who were caught spying for BAT in Zimbabwe released from jail.

BAT is one of the dominant companies in Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry and the deal was allegedly part of its efforts to cripple its rivals in the southern African country.

Leaked documents show that at the time, BAT was paying FSS, a South African private security contractor, to counter its rivals in Zimbabwe.

FSS agents were accused of spying on Zimbabwean company Savanna Tobacco, which was owned by Adam Molai, the husband of Mugabe’s niece Sandra Mugabe, and this forced the South African company to rope in a local company to continue doing its dirty work.

Arrested and jailed

By 2012, three directors of the local company were caught and charged with conspiracy to commit robbery.

A plan was allegedly then hatched with BAT’s knowledge to pay bribes to buy the directors’ freedom and protect the conglomerate’s image.

The man who brokered the deal told the journalists investigating the scandal that he had paid a chain of Zimbabwean government officials to secure meetings.

“I had to make it clear that they were going to expect a thick envelope of notes,” the man said.

“I would be given a lump sum of money as an operational budget and out of that I would always give a handshake and nice wodge of cash to the principals just to warm them to the idea.”

One of the documents says that a then top director in Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation told FSS boss Stephen Botha that “with the upcoming elections” a donation to Zanu PF would pave the way for negotiations to continue.

Charges withdrawn

The directors were released in January 2013 and by March their charges had been officially withdrawn.

Mugabe, who was in a coalition government with then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, went on to win the July 2013 elections under controversial circumstances.

The elections were the last for the Zimbabwean dictator, who was toppled in a coup in November 2017.

“Robert Mugabe killed 30,000 Zimbabweans in a genocide,” the whistle-blower is quoted saying.

“Absolutely beaten, destroyed, the soul of a nation rippled from itself.

“How on earth would you even consider doing business there and why would you rather, ethically, withdraw and make a statement to that?”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, BBC Panorama and the University of Bath said BAT did not deny the proposed payment to Mugabe and Zanu PF.

‘Combating illicit trade’

“Our efforts in combating illicit trade have been aimed at helping law enforcement agencies in the fight against the criminal trade in tobacco products,” BAT was quoted saying.

“In 2016, BAT made it public that it was investigating allegations of misconduct and was liaising with the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

“BAT fully cooperated with the SFO’s subsequent investigation, which included allegations relating to South Africa.”

In January this year, the SFO concluded that there was no sufficient evidence for a prosecution.

Mugabe and several Zanu PF leaders, as well as security chiefs, had been under European Union sanctions since the turn of the millennium for alleged human rights violations and electoral fraud.

Bribery claims in Kenya

The UK authorities also conducted a three-year-long probe into claims that BAT Kenya #ticker:BAT ran a systematic bribery syndicate in Nairobi.

SFO began investigating the cigarette company in 2017 after claims it bribed tax officials and legislators in Kenya to undermine anti-smoking laws as well as insiders in a rival company in order to undermine competition.

One of its employees told the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2015 that he had allegedly made such corrupt payments.

In January, SFO said the evidence gathered “did not meet the evidential test for prosecution as defined in the Code for Crown Prosecutors,” and ended the probe.