Trafigura in Africa: A crime against humanity

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This week the controversial oil trading company Trafigura found itself in the limelight once again, following a revelation by the British press showing evidence that its involvement in a 2006 toxic waste disposal in Abidjan poisoned over 100 000 Ivorians. The company, which is still refusing to admit any wrongdoing, Wednesday agreed to a financial settlement in order to avoid a trial in London. But another trial, brought by Greenpeace, is already underway in Amsterdam. Again this week, Ivorian contractor Solomon Ugburogbu, who aided this treacherous act, was sentenced to a 20 year prison sentence.

“We will pay these guys to get rid of the shit.” Samples of internal emails to the British branch of Trafigura, published by the Guardian Thursday, throw more light on the questionable methods used in the treatment of toxic waste. A media frenzy has been whipped up against the world’s third largest trader in oil and metals after a financial settlement involving the victims’ associations was agreed to. Prior to the settlement the group had waged a war against the media as slapped multiple court actions against any mention of their involvement in the dumping of “slops” (oil waste) in Côte d’Ivoire. It is a severe backlash to Trafigura. To prove that the incessant denials from the oil company as to their involvement in the affair does not hold anylonger, BBC “Newsnight” went ahead and published the entire email.

500 tonnes of waste was dumped in Abidjan in August 2006. In one of the emails an official of the company suggests that for every shipload the company saves 7 million dollars. “Bloody cheap”, he exclaimed. In fact, for the three shiploads of cargo Probo Koala saved the company a total of $ 21 million (14 million euros) compared to European prices. After plans to treat the oil waste illegally in the Netherlands, the company deliberately chose to have them dumped in the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) capital, Abidjan. “It is sad to have arrived at this catastrophe! The population has been sacrificed and people have been affected both physically and morally,” said Claude Gohorou, spokesman for the Association of Ivorian victims. According to a UN report, Over 100 000 people have been affected by toxic fumes, and 18 of them have even died from overexposure.

Trafigura’s innocence in its cheque book

Wednesday, according to The Independent, Trafigura agreed to pay several millions in compensation to settle a complaint filed by a London based firm on behalf of 30 000 people. In 2007, the Ivorian government accepted an agreement by the oil company to clean up the various sites as well as a total financial compensation of 100 billion CFA francs (152 million euros). It was agreed that the Ivorian government would abandon any legal suits and also release the company’s executives who had been imprisoned for several months. In August, L’Inter noted that 73 000 people had received compensation.

The trial, which was scheduled to take place in October in London, would have been the biggest corporate suit in the history of Great Britain. The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), consisting of two Ivorian associations, denounced the agreement, condemning “the climate of impunity in this case.” But all is not over. Greenpeace will take Trafigura to court in the Netherlands.

Before the settlement, an Ivorian contractor Solomon Ugburogbu, who aided this treacherous act by agreeing to dump the waste in several areas in the Ivorian capital, is now serving a 20 year sentence. The big players in the case are yet to be held to account. “We are sending underlings to trial without trying their silent partner, Trafigura. For us, this trial has the bitter taste of impunity,” the president of the Union of Abidjan and Surrounding Areas’ Victims of Toxic Waste, Ouattara Aboubacar, had said at the beginning of the trial.

The case of waste in Abidjan is, reportedly, not the first shady deal in which the company has been involved. The Guardian gives a list of some of Trafigura’s fraudulent operations: smuggling oil when Iraq was under an international embargo, political corruption to gain access to the Jamaican oil market, fraud in Norway … Côte d’Ivoire is now on the company’s conquest list, to the great misfortune of the 100 000 victims. The profits of the company in 2008 amounted to 440 million dollars, 295 million euros. “What we see here is a poor country and its struggling people paying for the sins and comforts of richer ones (…) one should see the human wreck that has been caused to understand that this is a serious crime against humanity”, says Roselyne Kouamé, a health insurance expert in Abidjan.

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