The sacking of Paul Hopkins, a former Irish Special Forces, from his British American Tobacco (BAT) Kenya job, could amount to washing dirty laundry in public and a general public relations mishap, if sensational bribery accusations against the conglomerate being broadcast around the world are anything to go by.
In a market where BAT’s local operation stands accused of dirty machinations by competitors, reports in the British media could lend credence to competetitors’ claims that the conglomerate conducted industrial espionage and other illegal strategies to stay on top of the game.
BAT Zimbabwe (BATZ) competitors — Kingdom, Savanna Tobacco, Breco (Fodya), Cutrag, Trednet and Chelsea — lost cigarettes destined for South Africa valued at R100 million to armed hijackers in between 2011-12 and suspect the company was involved because none of its products were hijacked. Batz denied the charge.
Documents made available to businessdigest a few years ago showed that Batz had devised an espionage strategy as far back as March 2006.
“The thrust of this document is to enable BATZ as an organisation to have a formalised espionage strategy which enables the organisation to be proactive and not to be reactive to competitor movements, activities and strategies and not to be caught unaware,” the document read.
As part of its strategy, Batz set out to identify the company’s key contacts, people who could divulge strategic information and get sound marketing intelligence.
According to the document, Batz indentified service providers — advertising and ISF (Importer Security Filing) agencies, transport companies (eg Swift, Clan), what was only described as NPD teams, key contacts, competitor contract workers, mock interviews targeted at competitor employees, customer surveys, key contacts through-out the supply chain and buyers — as possible sources of information. The document did not, however, list hijacking as a possible strategy to beat competition.
And then there were sensational claims retired South African spies had been roped in to spy on the competition. But all this just sounded like a smaller player whining about its bigger and better competitor.
Now Hopkins, who claims he was a “commercial hitman” for BAT, has made salacious allegations that he paid bribes on behalf of the conglomerate.
The scandal has also sucked in former BAT Zimbabwe MD Gary Fagan, who as the group’s director for East and Central Africa, allegedly consented to payments of bribes to various people with influence. He denies consenting to bribery payments.
The allegations by Hopkins and whistleblowers from the company and supported by court documents, relate to the company’s operations in several African countries have blown the lid on the manner the corporation does business in Africa and other continents.
This comes after Hopkins claimed he broke the law for the tobacco firm on television.
“I was a commercial hitman,” he said in an interview broadcast on BBC One’s Panorama.
Commenting on the practice of bribery, Hopkins, who worked for BAT in Kenya for 13 years, said: “It was explained to me in Africa that’s the cost of doing business.”
Several individuals involved with the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) were allegedly targeted.
Bat in trouble
Under the UK Bribery Act, British companies can be prosecuted for bribery which takes place overseas.
And anti-smoking campaigners are demanding the United Kingdom Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launch a criminal investigation into BAT. This could also unveil some skeletons in Bat’s closet.
According to the documentary, Hopkins worked for BAT in Kenya for 13 years and claims he was led to believe that bribery was part of the cost of doing business in Africa (Corbis).
“BAT is bribing people, and I’m facilitating it,” claimed Hopkins, who no longer works for the group.
The documentary features another whistleblower Solomon Muyita, a former lobbyist in Uganda, who also claims he was told to pay off dozens of people and is suing the company for wrongful dismissal.
Court documents from his case claim that David Bahati, a Ugandan MP who proposed an anti-tobacco bill, had been recruited to spy on anti-smoking activists. The politician was in favour of “… having most of our views accommodated in the proposed tobacco law”, according to a record of a meeting between BAT and the MP.
Bahati did not respond to requests for comment from the BBC. Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO FCTC secretariat, accused BAT of “using bribery to profit at the cost of people’s lives”.
Action on Smoking and Health CEO Deborah Arnott said: “Panorama’s shocking evidence must be investigated without delay. If true, it is hard to imagine any more disgusting act for a British company than to pay decision-makers in Africa to prevent legislation being passed to protect children and young people from a future of addiction, disease and premature death caused by smoking.”
“We will be writing to the government to demand that a criminal investigation under the Bribery Act is launched at once.”
No to corruption
A BAT spokesperson said the allegations were from “former employees with a clear vendetta against us, whose employment was terminated in acrimonious circumstances and who present a completely false picture of the way BAT does business.”
They added: “Any proven transgression results in disciplinary action and may lead to dismissal. We will not tolerate corruption in our business, no matter where it takes place.”
According to reports, Hopkins was scheduled to meet with SFO investigators this week. A spokesperson for the SFO said: “We are aware of the general allegations but cannot comment further at this stage.
Before he left, he recorded conversations with his boss, Fagan, BAT’s director for East and Central Africa, and a company lawyer Naushad Ramoly, discussing bribes. In an exchange in 2013, the lawyer said: “That’s what we are going to be paying. Yeah, ok, fine. Anything else that you think we’ll need to be paying for?”
Ramoly, who no longer works for BAT, denies involvement in illegal activities. And Fagan denies giving permission for the payment of bribes.
Two FCTC representatives, Godefroid Kamwenubusa, from Burundi, and Chaibou Bedja Abdou, from the Comoros Islands, were both allegedly paid US$3 000 (£2 000), according to the Panorama investigation.
And Bonaventure Nzeyimana, a former FCTC representative from Rwanda, was allegedly paid US$20 000. All three deny accepting bribes. But in court documents, BAT describes the payments to the three as “unlawful bribes,” according to the BBC.
Another allegedly bribed was Kenyan former Trade minister Moses Watangula.
The tobacco company paid for a business class return flight for his wife to London. He denies having had dealings with BAT.
And Kasirivu Atwooki, a Ugandan MP who sat on a committee writing a report on a rival company, was allegedly given
£20 000 to make amendments and give it to BAT in advance.
He denies the allegations.
“BAT is bribing people, and I’m facilitating it,” claimed Hopkins.