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Socfin: Troubles in Guinea

Photo : Guinee7.com
ReAct Transnational | 18 May 2022

Socfin: Troubles in Guinea

In April 2022, Socfin’s Swiss subsidiary Socfinco FR announced it will stop providing managerial assistance to the state-owned Guinean rubber and oil palm company Société guinéenne de palmiers à huile et hévéas (Soguipah) by the end of 2022.[1] Apparently, the Socfin group took the decision to refocus on its core activities and its own plantations.[2] The company, however, has long-standing connections with Soguipah, including its heated history and troubled present. These will not be erased so easily.

Socfin's involvement in Guinea stretches back to 1979 when it was contracted to draw up a national blueprint for the development of oil palm and rubber plantations. This led to the formation of Soguipah in 1987, through a funding agreement negotiated between the Guinean military dictatorship of Lansana Conté and the Agence Française de Développement. Under this agreement, Socfin Consultant Services France SA (SocfincoFrance) was contracted to implement the project.[3] In 1995, again at the behest of the French agency, a new arrangement to run Soguipah was set up with two separate entities: the Société Guinéenne de Gestion Agro-Industrielle (Soggai), a company 85% owned by SocfincoFrance and 15% owned by the Guinean state; and Soguipah itself as a state-owned company. Soggai took full responsibility for the management of Soguipah's plantation operations. In 2012, the newly founded Socfinco FR took over SocfincoFrance’s contractual obligations.[4] Socfin has thus been deeply involved in the creation and management of Soguipah for over four decades.

It is not known how much Socfin was paid by Soguipah through these arrangements over these years. The costs for local people are clearer. Since 1987, Soguipah has forcibly occupied land traditionally owned by the people of Saoro District. People continued to resist, but in 2003, the Guinean government, under the presidency of Lansana Conté, transferred the community land to the company through an executive decree. Community members organised protests and have reported that the state’s response was brutal. In 2011, Soguipah started to demolish farmers’ rice fields and the protests became stronger. Then, community members reported that the government repeatedly sent police and soldiers to arrest and beat protesters, resulting in at least one rape and one death.[5]

The company was supposed to bring numerous benefits, but communities say it has failed to implement the social agreements it signed with them. In a public statement in 2014, they stated that “after twenty-seven years of intense activity [of Soguipah], it must be recognized that the hopes raised at the creation of this company are far from being fulfilled, especially on the socio-economic and environmental front”.[6] In December 2021, workers went on strike to demand better working conditions and higher wages, and they denounced their labour union for not supporting their demands and actions.[7]

Corruption is another issue that has plagued Socfin and Soguipah. In 2018, the Brussels Correctional Court sentenced Hubert Fabri, the majority owner of Socfin, to a 12-month suspended prison sentence and a €6,000 fine for corruption. The court found that Socfin had conspired with the Director of Soguipah to orchestrate a corruption scheme in the 2000s. Sogescol, a Swiss-based subsidiary of the Socfin group, bought palm oil from Soguipah and marketed it via West African Trading, another Socfin group company based in the UK tax haven of Guernsey. According to the Belgian court, cash was skimmed off of these sales and funnelled through West African Trading to be deposited into Swiss and French bank accounts. These accounts belonged to the director of Soguipah, who was then the Minister of Agriculture, and the money was distributed to numerous other high-level politicians in Guinea.[8] Fabri appealed the ruling and was later acquitted on the ground of lack of jurisdiction.[9]

Today, Soguipah workers continue to press for justice while the current director has been in and out of jail.[10] What kind of accountability will Socfin face when it leaves?

[1] Thierno Souleym, “Socfinco lâche la Soguipah : une rupture qui secoue mortellement « le palmier» Bémy”, Guinee News, 22 April 2022, https://guineenews.org/socfinco-lache-la-soguipah-une-rupture-qui-secoue-mortellement-le-palmier-bemy/
[2] According to the letter sent by Regis Helsmorteel and Hubert Fabri on 12 April 2022, available here:, https://twitter.com/FacelyKonate1/status/1516140272786284546?s=20&t=xaLnDanIgSUUtuwd5JJgmw
[3] African Development Bank, “Completion Report: Diecke (Soguipah) Oil Palm and Rubber Project, Republic of Guinea”, June 1995: https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Project-and-Operations/ADF-BD-IF-96-11-EN-SCANNEDIMAGE.140.PDF, p. 6-7
[4] Ministère de l’Agriculture, February 2019, “Présentation de la Société Guinéenne de Palmiers à Huile et d’Hévéas ‘Soguipah’”, https://docplayer.fr/136440958-Presentation-de-la-societe-guineenne-de-palmiers-a-huile-et-d-heveas-soguipah.html, p. 3-4
[5] "Marie Molmou & 114 Ors. v. Guinea", Judgement, ECW/CCJ/JUD/16/16, 17 May 12016, https://ihrda.uwazi.io/en/document/jx3vkhp3wv37p5oz1wyz7u8fr?page=1 and Frédéric Foroma Loua and Jonathan Kaufman, "Molmou v Guinea: The ECOWAS Court of Justice at the Service of its Member States", in Business and Human Rights Journal, 23 December 2016, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/business-and-human-rights-journal/article/abs/molmou-v-guinea-the-ecowas-court-of-justice-at-the-service-of-its-member-states/17372E73CCEDB26465CD38C16F409510
[6] Mémorandum portant sur la mauvaise géstion de la Soguipah des communautes de Diécké et Bignamou, 28 February 2014, https://www.ziama.info/2014/01/30/soguipah-les-communautes-de-diecke-expriment-leur-ras-le-bol-memorandum/
[7] Kounady, Moussa, “Diécké/Youmou : En grève, les travailleurs de la Soguipah menacent d’aller plus loin si…” in Guinee News, 8 December 2021, https://guineenews.org/diecke-youmou-en-greve-les-travailleurs-de-la-soguipah-menacent-daller-plus-loin-si/ 
[8] Quentin Noirfalisse et Cédéric Falet, “Le roi du caoutchouc”, in Médor, 27 February 2019, https://medor.coop/magazines/medor-14-summer-2019/socfin/ and Guinee7.com,  “Mariama Soguipah condamnée à 20 mois de prison à Bruxelles dans une affaire où Kassory est cité”, 2 July 2018, https://guinee7.com/mariama-soguipah-condamnee-a-20-mois-de-prison-a-bruxelles-dans-une-affaire-ou-kassory-est-citee/
[9] Socfin, “Corruption prétendue en Guinée – acquittement general en appeal”, 16 December 2020, https://www.socfin.com/sites/default/files/2020-12/2020%2012%2016%20Communique%CC%81%20Socfin%20-%20Corruption%20pr%C3%A9tendue%20en%20Guin%C3%A9e%20-%20acquittement%20g%C3%A9n%C3%A9ral%20en%20appel_0.pdf
[10] Mohamed Bangoura, “Urgent: le DG de la SOGUIPAH en garde-à-vue à la DCIJ-GN depuis 48 heures”, Miasique Guinée, 12 May 2022, https://mosaiqueguinee.com/urgent-le-dg-de-la-soguipah-en-garde-a-vue-a-la-dcij-gn-depuis-48-heures/

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