When Bridgin Foundation executives came to announce the K6.8 trillion agreements with government last November, poor Malawians paid for their travel and accommodation.
Bridgin Foundation’s president Mahmodou Tanko—whose organisation has a history of similar, but unconsummated nuptials in eight countries we have tracked—confirmed in an interview that the pact with Malawi required Lilongwe to foot the bills, which he said would be reimbursed at the start of project implementation.
He stated in the interview conducted in French: “When we arrived, the State accommodated us at the Presidential Villas in Lilongwe. [Malawi Government paid for] our plane tickets and our accommodation. And it is written in the contract that there will be 100 percent full reimbursement [once] the first project’s foundation stone is laid.”
Said Tanko: “You know why [It is stated in the contract]? Because there are countries that we go to and then we lose one, two or three years and we pay, we pay, we pay and then in the end they don’t sign. But if you are a non-profit foundation, where does the money for such expenses/losses come from?”
He, however, said the cost of lodgings borne by the Malawi Government was limited to days linked to the signing ceremony, after which the executives paid for their own accommodation in Blantyre at Ryalls Hotel.
Treasury spokesperson Taurai Banda has not responded to our questionnaire on how much government paid and why. Minister of Information and Digitisation Moses Kunkuyu said he has no information. Efforts to seek a copy of the agreement under the Access to Information law proved futile as Treasury’s designated information officer Chimwemwe Kaunda said he had not secured it.
Kaunda said: “The request for a copy of the agreement is hereby noted and when I get hold of the signed copy it will be shared with you. It seems only a few copies were signed and I currently have an unsigned copy and it will be unprofessional to share such a copy [with] you”.
Malawi’s Ambassador to Belgium Naomi Ngwira, who Bridgin says was their main contact for the deal, referred us back to Treasury.
Such is the nature of this deal which no one or institution is taking responsibility four months after Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Sosten Gwengwe signed the agreement at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe witnessed by President Lazarus Chakwera who dubbed it “an early Christmas present for the country”.
But for a public sector investment initiative that requires higher levels of transparency and accountability, the egg shell walks by officials raise red flags about the deal’s potential toxicity.
A well-placed source at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs confided that the deal lacks clear direction because a team of political appointees at State House and the Malawi Embassy in Brussels by-passed key institutions equipped with expertise and legal backing to handle such transactions.
Apart from the Debt and Aid Division at Treasury, said the source, the Public Private Partnership Commission (PPPC) is the government agency that should have been the running point for the agreement since Bridgin Foundation says it supports government strictly on PPP arrangements.
While the law in Malawi empowers the commission to lead in such projects, its chief executive officer Patrick Kabambe said the agency has not been involved.
He said in a written response: “The PPPC had not yet [been] formally advised to develop the projects in question. We understand that it is envisaged that the projects to be supported by the foundation will use the PPP approach. We are yet to receive full details of the projects so that we can initiate the feasibility studies as per requirement of the PPP Act.”
Since its establishment in 2014, apart from Malawi, to which it has made the largest offer of nearly half the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), Bridgin has had similar, albeit relatively much smaller pacts with Liberia, Uganda, Nepal, Zambia, Nigeria, Ecuador, Ghana and Uzbekistan with little to show for it.
While stories of the pledges, which include colourful pictures of signing ceremonies, are plenty online—there is blackout of information on where the foundation has delivered.
Its online presence is scanty, with their website saying nothing about their own track record. The website says this is for “confidentiality and security reasons”.
Liberia was among the first to be assured of funding in 2016 after the Bridgin Foundation president, together with Israeli Ambassador to Liberia Emmanuel Deev Mehl, met president Ellen Johnston Sirleaf and promised an investment of 200 megawatts of electricity within a year.
Two Liberian journalists, including one from The New Dawn which, in 2016, reported on the foundation’s intended support to that country, indicated that there is nothing on the ground.
Liberia’s presidential press secretary Isaac Solo Kelgbeh, in response to our questionnaire, referred us back to the foundation.
“Thank you for reaching out. I suggest you contact the foundation first,” was all he could say and did not comment on our follow-up questions.
Uganda signed a $500 million grant in April 2022—six months earlier than Malawi following discussions that started in 2020.
Among others, the grant, signed at a ceremony presided over by President Yoweri Museveni, would be used to establish four high-tech education centres including Medical Hospital for Makerere University and construction of the headquarters of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (Ruforum), the body that hooked up the Malawi Government with Bridgin.
According to Ugandan budget documents, under Vote 219 (Mission-Belgium) performance report for financial year 2020/21, these projects would be built in one year.
While confirming that the funding is yet to be delivered, Uganda’s Ministry of Education spokesperson Dr. Dennis Mugimba said they are still optimistic about the deal.
“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 BF [Bridgin Foundation] is indeed for real and true. We have no doubt that BF will deliver projects as promised,” said Mugimba.
In June 2020, Bridgin Foundation signed a $120 million University Development Assistance Project with Kathmandu University for a hydro-power project at a ceremony hosted by Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli at his official residence at Baluwatar.
In response to our questionnaire, the university’s director for Global Engagement Division Uddhab Pyakurel indicated that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) expired before the foundation could deliver.
Pyakurel said: “We sent an e-mail 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.
“In that case, we all had no alternative, except to wait for the expiration of the MoU. In other words, the agreement expired by June 24, 2021 and we have no further communication with the foundation”.
According to a July-September 2020 Diplomatic Bulletin, a publication of the Zambian Embassy in Brussels, Bridgin executives were in Zambia in 2020 for discussions on possible investment.
Attending the meeting was Minister of Works Sylvia Bambala Chalikosa, Zambia’s Ambassador to Belgium Professor Esther Nkandu, First Secretary for Economic Affairs Musenge Mukuma and Tanko. At that meeting the foundation committed to fund some infrastructure development.
While Zambian government officials have not been responsive, corroborated interviews with journalists show that nothing has taken place.
Last October Tanko 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.
The story is the same in Ecuador and Uzibekistan. The foundation, in 2019, signed $200 million agreement with the University of Cuenca, in Ecuador for construction of a new research hospital, which is yet to take shape, according to reports from that country.
In Uzibekistan the promise was to provide $200 million towards agriculture, education and energy after discussions between the country’s envoy in Belgium and Bridgin in 2019. We have not found any information that this was delivered.
When we presented this evidence to Tanko, he claimed that they provided support to Cameroon for establishment of a 3D printing facility and shared an article as evidence of delivery.
The said article only mentions an Israeli firm as a funder of the project and a South African contractor. There is no mention of Bridgin. We could not independently verify if the foundation had a hand in this.
Tanko also claimed that they have supported the Ghanaian military on some projects and that he would share contacts for our verification – but the information has not come through after days of waiting.
He stated that for security reasons it is their policy to keep a blackout of information where they have provided assistance or who their funders are.
Said the Bridgin executive: “We had a website (where) I put our sources of funds. The source is the donor, the age and all that. I don’t give the name because they want to remain anonymous. And then the banker does their due diligence to find out who the donors are and the money goes into a bank account. There is banking secrecy that exists, so they do their job and our donors are 100 percent Jewish”.
Link traced to 2019
At its 2019 annual general meeting in Cape Coast, Ghana, out of 17 countries present, Ruforum singled out Malawi and Ghana as those it will work with “to seek support from Bridgin Foundation for strengthening of higher education and health”.
Minister of Education, then, Susuwele Banda, attended this meeting, but when contacted he said he couldn’t recall any discussion on Bridgin even when this is contained in the meeting’s report.
Banda said: “I can’t recollect if the annual general meeting discussed the matter in reference. I can only remember the discussion on Master Card. Thanks for your inquiry and interest”.
Ruforum itself is yet to receive a $65 million grant for construction of its headquarters in Kampala, which is part of the $500 million grant promised to Uganda.
While Ruforum’s secretariat has not responded to our questionnaire, its former chairperson Professor George Kanyama Phiri confirmed to have been part of the negotiating team for the Bridgin funding to Malawi since 2019.
Kanyama-Phiri, a former vice-chancellor of Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), was part of the Kamuzu Palace signing ceremony last November and believes the foundation can deliver.
“I believe they have the capacity to deliver because the information I got is that this is a rich organisation with Jewish funders and it is well established in Europe,” he explained.
But for more information, he referred us to another Malawian, Dr. Mary Shawa, who sits on the finance committee of Ruforum and was part of the negotiating team. Shawa has not responded to our questionnaire sent about a month ago despite promises that she would do so.
What’s in it for Bridgin?
While Kanyama Phiri said what they negotiated for Malawi was a grant and does not know of any fee to be paid to Bridgin Foundation, we have established that the foundation gets 10 percent of the committed resources for administrative and operational purposes.
In the case of Malawi, this amounts to $680 million or roughly K700 billion should the deal come to fruition.
“Bridgin does not provide aid or free money to countries, but rather provides conditional grants where countries are expected to guarantee that the projects will generate resources invested in the project. Ninety percent of the revenue generated will be invested into the economy and 10 percent will be used for project administration by the Bridgin Foundation and other support institutions” reads Ruforum AGM 2019 report.
Director for Global Engagement Division for University of Kathmandu also confirmed that part of their agreement was to have them pay 10 percent of the investment to cater for the foundation’s operations in Nepal, including payment of salaries to staff.
Bridgin’s cryptic existence
Though registered as a private foundation, we were unable to locate their offices in Brussels where the institution says it is headquartered.
While the Foundation claims to have offices, Belgian journalists affiliated to the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) who have been helping with this investigation say they found none.
“It’s my life and that I’m not going to post logos everywhere to locate where our offices are and when we meet people, we have a whole measure in place. It’s a security process that we put in place before we open our doors” stated the Bridgin president.
“No sign of Bridgin at the entrance of Rond Point Schuman 2-4, 6th floor. Only sign of Servcorp. A visit of the 6th floor on 8 March 2023 we spoke to a lady at a reception of Servcorp, who said that Bridgin does not have an office there, but only rents a meeting room every now and then [some 3 times per year].
“That very day Bridgin had a meeting there, she said. She also said that Servcorp forwards incoming mail and provides other business centre services for Bridgin,” said the journalist.
On the mystery of their offices, Tanko said they do not have to disclose where they are nor share the number of their employees.
Tanko also said their (unnamed) funders are aged people with a Jewish background who do not want to die and leave behind idle funds.
“Our donors, they are aged between 73 and 95 years old [and not 25].
“They are in a logic of we are going to die. And our money, we’re not going to the grave with it,” claimed the Bridgin leader.
Apart from Tanko, other directors appointed at the start of the foundation, are Bourgys Sébastien Stéphane, Ruessmann Florence, Bastin Yves Jean and Christopher Prieels appointed in 2020.
Bastin left in 2020 for unknown reasons and in a WhatsApp text said he was not “interested [in] any discussion about Bridgin”.