Scancem Bribery: Norwegian Minister 'Sad'
Staff Writer (August 8, 2007)
Statesman -- A 52-year-old Norwegian minister of International Development, Erik Solheim, has described as "sad" news that a Norwegian multinational company, Scancem, owners of local cement-producer Ghacem, has been heavily involved in bribing top Ghana government officials.
In an interview at the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Office on Tuesday, Mr Solheim said, "I'm saddened to hear what a Norwegian company did in the past in Ghana," the paper quotes the minister as saying.
He said he had followed the court case of the multi-million dollar bribe scandal as published in Dagens Naeringlsiv Magasinet of 21/22 April 2007 specifically between 1993 and 1998 as stated in a Norwegian court by two of Norway's most respected journalists, Geir Imset and Harald Vanvik.
The Norwegian minister was being interviewed by two Ghanaian editors, Asare Otchere-Darko and Kweku Baako, during their visit to Norway to investigate matters involving evidence before a Norwegian court that top people under the National Democratic Congress government received bribes of more than $4 million from Scancem with the purpose of consolidating the then Norwegian-owned firm's hold in the local cement industry.
When it was disclosed to Mr. Solheim that ongoing investigations by the Auditor-General in Ghana suggest there could be underhand dealings in very recent payments totalling $22,555.7836 ( 209.4 million) made by Ghacem from 2002 to 2004 alone, his answer was swift: "If any Norwegian company or individual is caught in malpractices in Africa or elsewhere we will not accept it. We will clamp down on them," adding that the country's anti-bribery law, enacted in 2003, will be allowed to take its course.
He said the fight against corruption was a "hard, long-lasting" one, and its difficulties more pronounced "if top leaders are involved in corruption." The Norwegian publication had boldly cited former President Rawlings and his wife and former top presidential staffer P V Obeng as allegedly being among recipients of from Scancem during the five-year period.
The journalists pushed the Norwegian minister, a founding member of the Socialist Left Party of Norway who, at 32, became the party's leader until 1997, to explain the seeming contradiction between his country's international political image as a champion of ethical politics and its historical inaction against the corrupt practices of its multinational companies.
His response was that the Centre-right coalition government of Norway has put in place a social corporate responsibility agenda for the country's firms operating abroad.
While saying he was not by any means justifying bribery, Mr Solheim said "In the past, the excuse was that everyone else was doing it." But, since 2003, under prime minister Jens Stoltenberg's administration, "the policy of the Norwegian government has completely changed."
He further stated that, until four years ago, Norway, a country that makes good governance and anti-corruption a major action plan in its development aid programme, allowed its companies to effectively claim tax exemptions for bribery monies paid to corrupt officials.
Mr Solheim has been instrumental in pushing an Oslo-Paris proposal to reform the immunity from prosecution that international organisations enjoy, as an effective weapon in the global anti-corruption artillery.
He recently told the UN, "Most important, politicians should commit themselves. Only strong, political will can hinder corrupt officials, politicians as well as businessmen and others, to be able to hide their illicit assets in safe havens.
"The Norwegian Government is strongly committed to this end, and urge upon other States Parties to put the issue of asset recovery, money laundering and safe havens high up on the political agenda - nationally, as well as in different regional, international and global fora. Together, we can make a difference."
But, the Ghanaian reporters, who expressed indignation at the hitherto silence of the Norwegian authorities on the Scancem scandal accused the Norwegian government of double standards.
Yet, the minister, who insisted that his country's attitude towards cross-border briberies have changed significantly, stressed that corruption was an international problem which was "illegal, immoral and caused social destructions," requiring the conviction of all to fight.
The journalists then read a portion of the Norwegian court's ruling on the civil case brought against Tor Egil Kjelsaas, a former Director of Africa of Scancem, for the recovery of NOK25 million ($4.3m) allegedly stolen by Mr Kjelsaas meant to bribe top African officials.
The judge, Trine Standal, held that "the two parties" in the case "agree that the bribery had not been contrary to Norwegian, Ghana or Nigerian law."
Though, the criminal laws in both Ghana and Nigeria have since the 1960s both been clear against corruption, this blatant untruth appeared to have been conveniently accepted by the Norwegian court to sidestep the illegality of the entire suit against the ailing Mr Kjelsaas. The law generally frowns against seeking compensation for an act of illegality.
Mr Solheim could not comment on this.
But, earlier at an Oslo business sector conference on development cooperation, in February 2006, Mr Solheim had described as "positive and important" the "engagement of Norwegian companies in developing countries."
He also told Norwegian multinationals that "We expect Norwegian operations to be ethical and hope that the examples you are setting will be followed by others," adding, "There is no doubt that these expectations can be challenging for Norwegian companies in some cases. We know that companies from a number of other countries are bringing with them a less ethical approach to their engagements in developing countries. The competitive situation can seem rather unbalanced at times, but this is not always the case."
But, the Ghanaian journalists told him it was difficult to see the continuing stranglehold that Ghacem has on Ghana's cement industry as positive to the locals. They said, though, the bribery might have taken place in the past, the consequences from that practice remained real and devastating, as shown in the recent near-doubling of cement prices Ghana.
Sounding critical of Scancem's activities in Ghana since 1992, when Government began selling its 75% stake in it to the Norwegians, the journalists who could not see any ethical examples worth emulating from that Norwegian company, demanded from the country €™s minister of international development what his government intends doing about the social impact of the imbalances that Ghacem's unfair industrial practices have had on Ghana.
Originally appeared in The Statesman.