Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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A week in the world

Bribes for dams, cash for questions

By Peter Snowdon

It was a bad week for Western building contractors. On Thursday, a string of companies, whose names read like a roll call of international infrastructure development, were charged with corruption by prosecutors in Lesotho. The charges are supported by the government of South Africa and, curiously, by the World Bank, too. The companies concerned have at some point over the last 10 years worked on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a ladder of reservoirs and pipes intended to bring water from the remote mountain kingdom to the parched plains of central South Africa. The project, which has been strongly opposed by civil society groups on both environmental and social grounds, will cost a total of $8 billion.

The prosecutors allege that a number of contractors, including the Swiss-Swedish group ABB, Spie Batignolles of France, Impregilo of Italy, Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners of the UK, Acres International of Canada and Concor of South Africa, paid a total of $2 million in bribes to Masupha Sole, former chief executive of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority. The companies involved have either denied the charges or refused to comment on them.

The World Bank, meanwhile, which has so far provided the project with $150 million of loans, announced it would be launching its own investigation, and that companies found guilty of bribery might in future be banned from Bank-sponsored projects. This sudden fit of conscience is all the more ironic, as the financial structuring of such development projects is itself usually something of an exercise in creative accounting. Aid money from the North is mixed with receipts from the sale of precious natural resources, before being channelled back to the coffers of the industrial countries via well-fattened contracts for everything a developing nation doesn't really need -- from environmental impact studies to guided missiles. Still, the Bank is making a stand, and I guess we should be grateful for that. Unless, of course, it is simply trying to improve its public image with activists in advance of the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation due to open in Seattle in 10 days time...

Meanwhile in the Congo, the much-feared renewal of hostilities between the government of Laurent Kabila and rebel forces appears to be only days away. The rebels have crossed the demarcation line laid down in the peace agreement signed in July, and advanced several hundred kilometres to the south. The government has countered by launching its own offensive, and commentators fear that the country is once again on the verge of civil war.

In Sri Lanka, peace seems remote too, as the presidential campaign got off to a singularly violent start. The first day of official campaigning saw gunmen opening fire on crowds in the capital Colombo, wounding dozens of activists. A week past Sunday, a bomb attack aimed at the main opposition candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, claimed the lives of a policeman and a bystander. The leader of the right-wing United National Party was quick to accuse the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga of trying to eliminate him.

To add insult to injury, Tamil Tiger rebel forces declared on Friday that they had taken a number of towns in the northern Wanni region, inflicting hundreds of casualties on the military. The Tigers had already captured most of the army bases in the region over a period of five days earlier this month, shortly after the elections were called. It had taken the army 19 months to capture the area during a long and bloody campaign through 1997 and 1998. The Tigers' latest advance is a further blow to Mrs Kumaratunga, who has been banking on her handling of the war to win a second term, having presided over a substantial slow-down in economic growth since her election in 1994.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was formally remanded in custody Friday, pending the lodging of formal charges against him. A complaint has already been registered against the deposed prime minister, however, alleging criminal conspiracy, hijacking and attempted murder in connection with an attempt to prevent a plane carrying General Pervez Musharraf from landing at Karachi airport last month during the coup which brought the army to power. These offences carry the death sentence. However, commentators generally agree that it would be political suicide for the military junta to hang Sharif, as General Zia-ul-Haq did when he seized power from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In Britain, a court appearance of a rather different kind brought reluctant Egyptian and wannabe UK national Mohamed (El/Al-) Fayed back into the media limelight. The controversial owner of Harrods department store and Fulham football club attained international notoriety when his son Dodi perished in a car crash in Paris in 1997 along with his lover, Diana, princess of Wales. Last week, the bereaved father returned to a more familiar role, as the taunter of a certain British establishment with which he has been locked in conflict for many years. Driven by the desire for revenge against a political class which he believes wrongly denied his application for British citizenship, Fayed has been conducting a one-man crusade for "standards" in public life, though often by somewhat dubious means. Having played a key role in the disgracing of former Tory cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, Fayed is now enjoying the discomfiture of the Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who has decided to sue him for libel. Fayed claimed in a 1997 TV programme that Hamilton had accepted cash from him as payment for asking questions in parliament.

Much of the early proceedings last week were taken up with attempts by Hamilton's counsel to discredit Fayed, who has been repeatedly accused of lying about his humble Alexandrian origins. The debate centred around Fayed's use of the particle "Al" in front of his surname, which has greatly exercised the British media over the years. Doubtless it takes a nation of snobs to see the full criminal intent possible behind such an attempt to upgrade one's moniker. On Friday, it was the turn of Desmond Browne QC to get his teeth into the niceties of Egyptian Arabic usage.

"In the Arabic world, [Al-Fayed] sounds a great deal grander than Fayed," he insisted. "It's like a German being called von Braun."

"In that case," replied Fayed, "I will call myself von Fayed."

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