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Swissleaks: the mysterious offshore accounts of the new cardinal of Mali

While Archbishop Jean Zerbo becomes the first Malian to be named cardinal by the Holy Seat in Rome, the elements made available by Swissleaks are a blow to the Catholic Church in Mali. But also to the cardinal, nominally quoted in this file which reports the opening, since 2002, in Switzerland, of seven offshore accounts by the Conference Mali Bishops (CEM).

Between 2002 and 2007, the CEM maintained seven bank accounts in Switzerland, a non-cooperative country in tax matters, which has been able to figure in the OECD’s black list. In five years, the portfolio generated approximately 12 million euros or 7 billion FCFA before mysteriously “evaporating”. What has become of these funds? Asked, the current leadership of the Church of Mali did not wish to make comments, fueling suspicions around this otherwise incredible affair. One of the central characters in this affair is not a stranger. It is the first Malian cardinal, the Archbishop of Bamako, Archbishop Jean Zerbo, appointed last week by the Vatican, was then chairman of the CEM Finance Committee.

The vicissitudes of a maneuver cleverly orchestrated

November 25, 2002 at 9:00 AM at the Crédit Lyonnais in Monaco. On that day, seven bank accounts were opened discreetly, threatening to create a thunderbolt in the Malian Catholic community. The documents reveal some IBAN CHS specific to Switzerland.

These non-Catholic accounts, as they say, were credited, according to documents from the Swissleaks, of … 12 million Euros (7 billion francs CFA) in 2007, the last known date from bank statements that we were able to obtain.

This incredible story mixes opacity, secret meetings between Malian clergy and business bankers, and suspicions of embezzlement. The facsimiles in our possession reveal the involvement of three key players in this affair: the three top CEM executives of the time. Archbishop Jean Zerbo, Archbishop of Bamako, in charge of CEM finances at the time of the events. For “services rendered” to the Church, he was, just 7 days ago, elevated to the rank of Cardinal by the Holy Seat.

The other protagonists, Jean-Gabriel Diarra, bishop of San and ex-number 1 of the Catholic Church of Mali, and Cyprien Dakouo, general secretary of the CEM from 2004. Three unavoidable characters in this obscure case, who are fleeing from us like the plague.

To date, no one in Mali, except for the three top leaders of the Malian episcopate of the time, has heard of these bank accounts credited in 2007 of … 7 billion francs CFA! Where does this gigantic sum come from? What is the donations money of Malian faithful placed in a bank with a sour reputation? Because before landing at HSBC, the troubled accounts of the CEM traveled. From Crédit Lyonnais du Rocher to Crédit Agricole (CA) after the acquisition of the first by the second. Then from CA to Crédit Foncier, now CFM Indosuez Wealth, which has since become a subsidiary of HSBC Private Bank, has been regularly the focus of international scandals in recent years.

According to internal HSBC documents, two agents have met on numerous occasions with the three Malian Catholic officials. The business banker Nen Khieu, HSBC Fixed Income Manager between 2000 and 2009, and his colleague (not mentioned in the documents) will not hesitate to travel to Bamako to meet our church men. Thus, from September 29 to October 18, they will meet at least three times with Bishop Zerbo, Diarra, and Dakouo who appears as the focal point for the trio concerning the management of the 7 bank accounts opened on behalf of the CEM. During these meetings, they agree on the remuneration rate in terms of interest: “5%”, according to the confidential documents of the bank that we have been able to consult. The two bankers rub their hands in letters: “the good management of the portfolio will allow us to obtain an increase of resource. “

From these meetings, it is also clear that “the Archdiocese and the parishes agree” to entrust the management of a part of the portfolio to the bank as well as the capture of “50% of the portfolio in order to optimize the profitability “. Information that some faithful of certain parishes of Bamako that we have contacted deny categorically. “We have never been informed of such an operation by the Episcopal Conference of Mali”, tells us a chorister of the Cathedral Parish

And this other youth leader of the right bank of Bamako to hummer the nail: “There is a great opacity in the management of the resources of our confession. It has been going on for years. And it’s starting to make us conscious. Taking advantage of the extreme passivity of the faithful they do everything want and do not account to anyone”. A lack of transparency which does not seem to surprise a senior official of the Catholic community of Mali especially “when it comes to Cyprien Dakouo”. “It is always a challenge for the Church, despite the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council (held from October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965, ed.) that the faithful should be associated with the management of the Church’s resources”, says our interlocutor who had been informed of the existence of accounts in Switzerland.

This close friend of the former parish priest of Sikasso recalls: “I remember that Cyprien received money from CFM Monaco”, he says. He admits not to know more even if he confesses to have been eaten up by the former “henchman” of the bishops of Mali.

The circus could not last. The “communion” between the bishops and their subordinates has shattered after six years of complicity around the funds of the Church. Gone on the tip of the toes, according to several interviewees behind the scenes of our investigation. Cyprien never responded to our e-mails.

Some accounts still active at HSBC Private Bank

Today, it is impossible to find traces of this money in the books of the CEM. The leaked documents of HSBC’s machines reveal, however, that customer codes for each of the three managers appear between 2006 and 2007, and show an equal distribution of 12 million euros. Is this a misappropriation of funds by our men who preach good faith and honesty? Have these amounts been declared to the Malian tax authorities? To these questions, the head of finance, Father Noël Somboro, kicks into touch: “I do not want to go searching through the archives to find out where the money comes from or whether the accounts still exist. I do not have that time”.

Between panic and aggressiveness towards us, Father Noël releases an astonishing phrase from a finance professional: “I do not know what an offshore account is or that Switzerland is considered a tax haven. Otherwise we have bank accounts everywhere”. He adds: “It is possible that the account existed, but I have no trace”. Mr. Noël also categorically opposes any attempt to extract from him figures on the wealth of the Church or whether these accounts are declared to the Malian tax authorities. He also compares these assets to the “nuclear code” that France would never be prepared to disclose to its citizens.

The person responsible for the taxation legislation is sure: “any account on behalf of the CEM in Switzerland is not declared at the level of the Malian tax authorities”, without however verifying the existence of such accounts. However, a simulation of a money transfer on two of the seven bank identification numbers enabled us to discover that the accounts still exist at HSBC Private Bank in Geneva. Even if the bank itself has not deigned to reply to our mails.

Between panic and denial

In the Malian capital, the main concerned characters flee our questions. On Saturday, May 14, at 7 am, we had to pass for faithful Catholics to attend the traditional mass of Jean Zerbo, now “Cardinal“. After an hour of preaching, he tries to fool us. “Me, an account in Switzerland? I am therefore rich without knowing it”, says the new Cardinal, while in 2005 a customer code in his name amounts to more than 4.5 million euros, according to the Swissleaks documents. Faced with our insistence, evidence to support it, he falls into contradiction: “it is an old account. This is a system we inherited from the Order of African Missionaries, which managed the Church”, he explains. However, he added that he never opened a “personal account” abroad because “cause of problem“. Hence the question: did the Malian dignitaries inherit a system of escaping with the money of the Malian faithful?

The secret documents tell us, however, that the accounts in question were opened in 2002. And Archbishop Zerbo had already taken the archdiocese since 1998. Archbishop Jean Gabriel Diarra, president of the CEM at the time of the events, also refuses to answer our calls and private messages.

As for Cyprien Dakouo, he is in France since his replacement in 2012 after a decried management. Since 2013, the former right-hand man of the bishops of Mali has joined the prestigious Lille I, where he is studying economics.

David Dembélé and Aboubacar Dicko

With the exclusive collaboration of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)