08 December 2023 | 08:29 AM

Too good to be true – Malawi’s $6.8 billion jackpot?

Minister of Finance Sosten Gwengwe signing the agreement as Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera (right) and Bridgin executives look on. Photo supplied.

Key Takeaways

  • A shadowy Belgian foundation with undisclosed funders it claims are old Jewish philanthropists has dangled a ‘grant’ for Malawi twice the size of the country’s national budget.
  • Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera at the November signing ceremony described the offer as an “early Christmas”, but critics doubt Bridgin’s solidity and potential to deliver.
  • Now amaBhungane and its Belgian media partners have managed to question Bridgin’s elusive founder – and the answers are not reassuring.

Malawi was taken by storm in November last year when the government signed a deal purportedly worth US$6.8-billion at a high-profile state launch with a Belgian registered private foundation – Bridgin.

During the signing ceremony at State House in Lilongwe, President Lazarus Chakwera described the financial package, which is intended to fund major infrastructure projects, as an “early Christmas”. 

The grant is more than double the 2022/23 national budget and nearly 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). 

“Never in the history of this nation has there been a developmental program as momentous as the one we are embarking on today with the Bridgin Foundation,” roared Chakwera in his trademark American accent.

Chakwera was flanked by Bridgin Foundation President Tanko Mouhamadou and finance minister Sosten Gwengwe. 

Special executive assistant to the president, Sean Kampondeni told the gathering he had been receiving calls from many people who did not believe what they saw on flyers announcing the signing ceremony. “Many wanted to know if this was in millions . . . I told them it was billions,” boasted Kampondeni.

According to the announcement the US$6.8-billion would fund construction of major projects which include a power plant (US$3.3-billion) to produce 1 000 megawatts – three times Malawi’s current capacity – which would resolve the country’s intermittent power supply.

One billion dollars would go to a state-of-the-art teaching hospital and US$750 million to construction of the first high tech fertiliser plant.

Mouhamadou meanwhile told the gathering, “We thank government for accepting to have the country move out of its current situation and restore the dignity of every Malawian,” adding the investment would not only boost Malawi’s economy but also benefit western firms which will be contracted for the projects. 

But will it?

The country’s national budget has a deficit of almost 30 percent which came about after donors pulled direct budget support over nine years ago due to corruption.

Public debt is more than double the national budget. The development budget is far lower than what government pays to service debt. Forex shortages are persistent, making imports for strategic goods such as fuel, fertiliser and pharmaceuticals difficult.

Outside the state euphoria, there was also an air of scepticism; many were hearing of Bridgin for the first time, yet it was pledging what would be 12 times the combined contribution of conventional foreign donors to Malawi’s annual development.

Bridgin President Mahmodou Tanko signs the agreement

Bridgin’s cryptic existence

According to its certificate of incorporation, Bridgin Foundation was registered on 18 November2014 in Belgium as a private foundation under the management of four directors. 

Unlike other international foundations, which openly share their success stories, Bridgin has a scanty online presence with a single-paged website saying nothing about its own track record other than it claims to support governments through public-private partnerships. 

“For confidentiality and security reasons, this website is intentionally left without detailed content; should you need further information, please contact us using the button below” reads the instruction which has foundation President Mouhamadou’s name and email address.

Amabhungane’s efforts to contact Mouhamadou were ignored until we persuaded our Belgian media partners to reach out to him

He admitted to them, “I know that I have been contacted by several journalists in Malawi. They sent me emails, they contacted me on WhatsApp and I didn’t answer. I never answered.”

Red flags 

Amabhungane has established that Bridgin has not ever filed annual accounts with Belgian authorities as required by law. Annual accounts approved by the Board of Directors must be sent to the Registry of the Company Court for small foundations or to the National Bank of Belgium for large associations.  

Both the Court and National Bank of Belgium (NBB) confirmed that Bridgin Foundation has not filed these accounts since establishment. The Court issued an attestation letter dated 8 March 2023 confirming that it had never received annual accounts from Bridgin. 

The Bank too stated the same through its spokesperson Sarah Bonmariage. 

Presented with these findings, Mouhamadou, in a recorded interview with our Belgian partners, claimed they had filed accounts and promised to share copies, but ended up emailing a tax compliance certificate for 2018.

In a written response, a spokesperson for Belgian government finance office said the document from Bridgin had nothing to do with the filing of annual accounts but “simply confirms receipt of the taxpayer’s tax return”. 

Confronted with these facts, Mouhamadou said in a written response to amaBhungane, “BRIDGIN is currently in full compliance with the legal requirements for the filing of accounts. If this were not the case, BRIDGIN would be prosecuted by the Belgian Tax Administration and fined, which is absolutely not the case.”

Another red flag is that the official  address Bridgin gives for its offices is no more than a board room which it hires for meetings, according to the Belgian media partners who assisted amaBhungane with this investigation. The company that hires out this space also forwards incoming mail and provides other business centre services for Bridgin.

Mouhamadou, in the recorded interview, stressed that for security reasons Bridgin did not have to disclose where all its offices were and will likewise not share its number of employees.

In written responses, Mouhamadou also refused to provide a list of projects brokered by Bridgin and the companies involved.

He replied, “As our CEO mentioned in his interview, BRIDGIN is under confidentiality with its partners and is obliged to work with discretion for security reasons, which were discussed at length in the interview.

“Apart from our one-page website, BRIDGIN has never published anything online. BRIDGIN does not disclose the projects it funds also for reasons of confidentiality. Countries that wish to do so voluntarily and freely publish their collaboration with BRIDGIN on the internet. BRIDGIN does not advertise its funding.”

Mouhamadou’s claimed reason for all this secrecy and security is that Bridgin’s funders are Jewish.   

The mysterious aged Jewish donors

“Our donors are 100% Jewish,” he told our Belgian partners, while explaining that this did not mean they were Israelis, although “99% of people do not differentiate”.

He said these funders are advanced in age and did not really care about a return on their investment. 

“Our donors, they are aged between 73 to 95 years old. They are in a logic of we are going to die. And our money, we’re not going to the grave with it.”

Mouhamadou claimed the funding was provided in the spirit of Tikkun olam, a concept in Judaism, which refers to various forms of action intended to repair and improve the world. 

Amabhungane pointed out that Israeli diplomats had attended signing ceremonies with some countries and that Mouhamadou had stated it was largely “Western and Israeli” companies Bridgin linked up to governments. 

Mouhamadou confirmed this was correct, “The Israeli Ambassador’s mission is to reassure the governments of the countries where BRIDGIN finance that the Israeli companies that will do the work in collaboration with the local companies are robust and of high quality.

“The Ambassador receives the list of projects and makes sure to promote Israeli companies in the projects we finance. So, he is fully in his role as Ambassador. So having private donors is totally compatible with having private Israeli companies.”

“Threats”

In the interview Mouhamadou used this claimed Jewish/Israeli connection as justification for Bridgin’s lack of disclosure. 

“We cannot disclose our donors. There is a question of life in there. There’s my life in there because I’ve had a lot of death threats.”  

“This is a question that comes up consistently. The Palestinian question… again today in Malawi, I am telling you in Malawi, I have received emails where they say, ‘You are working with a Zionist state, a state that has implemented apartheid on the Palestinians’…

“I care about my life. And the Palestinian question, it still comes back to me today. And that’s why you see that I’m reluctant to talk about the Jewish nature of our donors. That’s why I’m extremely reluctant to talk about it…”

A grant or a loan – or what?

The Malawian government has described the proposed funding as a grant. The President said as much in his speech. 

A grant, under the Public Finance Management Act in Malawi,  is defined as a gift or financial contribution which does not require repayment.  

 But in this case, according to Mouhamadou, the Bridgin Foundation is expecting to recoup the money after a period of time without interest.

In written responses, Mouhamadou said a Funding and Governance Agreement (FGA) framework contract was signed for all projects. He said the FGA was always accompanied by an off-take agreement (such as a power purchase agreement) without which BRIDGIN does not finance a project. 

“This Power Purchase Agreement says If BRIDGIN you produce electricity, we, the government of Malawi, we will buy it.

Unlike other donors who provide grants to Malawi, Bridgin Foundation had its travelling and accommodation expenses paid for, prior to signing the contract.

In the interview Mouhamadou said, “We are not asking for a sovereign guarantee, we are not asking for a bank guarantee and we are not asking the State to pay us. On the other hand, when we arrived, the State accommodated us at the Presidential Villa in Lilongwe and that’s it. Our plane ticket, our accommodation – and it is written in the contract – are 100% fully reimbursed at the first project stone laid. We refund 100%… 

Mouhamadou explained that governments were expected to carry pre-signing costs: “You know why? Because there are countries that we go to and then we lose one or two or three years and we pay, we pay, we pay and then in the end they don’t sign.” 

Bridgin’s world of promises

The promise to Malawi is the latest and the largest in a list of at least eight other countries amaBhungane has traced. These include Liberia, Uganda, Nepal, Zambia, Nigeria, Ecuador, Ghana and Uzbekistan. 

In all these countries there is striking similarity in the foundation’s approach to business; Bridgin’s President Mouhamadou Mahmoud is a regular feature in negotiations which usually involve top government officials, presidents, ministers and diplomats.

Liberia

Liberia was one of the first to get an assurance of funding, in 2016 when Mouhamadou together with Israeli Ambassador to Liberia Emmanuel Deev Mehl met President Sirleaf Johnson, Bridgin promising an investment to fund 200 megawatts of power within a year according to a Liberian publication New Dawn. 

Two Liberian Journalists, we contacted , including one from New Dawn, said  there was nothing to show for this promised investment so far; neither was there any update from government. 

Liberian presidential Press Secretary Isaac Solo Kelgbeh, in response to inquiries from amaBhungane, referred us back to Bridgin.

Uganda

Uganda signed a US$500-million grant in April 2022 – following discussions which started in 2020. The grant signed at a ceremony presided over by President Yoweri Museveni would be used to establish four high-tech higher education centres, a including medical hospital for Makerere University  and construction of the headquarters for the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), a consortium of universities in Africa.   

While confirming, in an interview with amaBhungane that the funding is yet to be delivered, spokesperson for Uganda’s Ministry of Education Dr Dennis Mugimba said they are still optimistic. 

“We are too aware that the Bridgin model sounds almost too good to be true. With our ambassador in Brussels having worked with Bridgin for some years now, she can confirm that it is indeed for real and true. We have no doubt that it will deliver projects as promised,” said Mugimba.

Nepal

In June 2020, Bridgin signed a US$120-million “University Development Assistance Project” with Kathmandu University for a hydro-power project in a ceremony hosted by Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, according to online reports. 

In response to inquiries by amaBhungane the University’s Director for Global Engagement, Uddhab Pyakurel, said the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) expired after one year before the foundation could deliver. 

Pyakurel said: “We sent an email requesting them to work for an alternative project as we were ready to revisit our MoU, and plan for relatively small projects.   But the Foundation stuck on one of the clauses of the MoU [which] clearly mentions that the agreement will be invalid if the assistance amount is not transferred from Bridgin within a year from the date of signing. 

“We have no further communication with the Foundation”. 

Zambia

According to Diplomatic Bulletin, a publication of the Zambian Embassy in Brussels, for July to September 2020 Bridgin executives were in Zambia for discussions on possible investment. 

At the meeting the foundation committed to fund infrastructure development. 

While Zambian government officials have not been responsive, interviews by amaBhungane with Zambian Journalists show that nothing has taken place so far after these discussions. 

Nigeria, and others

Online reports also show that last October Mouhamadou and his team were in Nigeria where they met minister responsible for women affairs to sell their ideas on how they can support women economic empowerment. But amaBhungane has not been able to track progress on this development. 

Based on online publications it appears the story is the same in Ecuador and Uzbekistan.  

According to a news website Cuenca High Life, the Foundation in 2019 signed US$200-million agreement with the University of Cuenca in Ecuador for construction of a new research hospital. But we have not been able to find any reports of delivery.

In Uzbekistan the promise was to provide US$200 million towards agriculture, education and energy after discussions between the country’s envoy in Belgium and Bridgin in 2019, according to online press reports, but amaBhungane has not found any information online that this was delivered. 

Behind Bridgin

Apart from Mouhamadou other directors, appointed at the commencement of the Foundation, were Sébastien Bourgys , Florence Ruessmann, and Yves Jean Bastin. 

Bastin left in 2020 for unknown reasons and in a Whatsapp text to amaBhungane said he was not “interested for any discussion about Bridgin”. 

He was replaced by Christophe Prieels.

Mouhamadou, from his Linkedin profile, is a graduate with both Masters and PhD from a Belgium University – University Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) focusing on ethics and philosophy. In terms of work experience it is indicated that he has worked for the European Commission for 12 years as “Senior Strategy Analyst”. 

A scan through recent financial statements that we could trace for three of the directors’ companies shows relatively modest income.

Mouhamadou runs a private limited liability company known as Kaazabel which was incorporated in 2001 for business and other management consultancy. A financial statement for this firm shows that in 2020 it recorded a loss of €9,734.73, a €2,867.77 loss in 2019 and a profit of €1,556.89 in 2018.

Share this story:

INVESTIGATOR:

Suzgo Chitete

Your identity is safe with us. Email or Call us

KNOW MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS STORY OR ANOTHER?

Related Stories