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Crime and Politics Make for Some Strange Bedfellows

As the issue of climate change becomes more and more pertinent, understanding those pushing what has come to be known as a “green agenda” is equally important. Instances of philanthropists exploiting important causes for their own good has become quite prevalent in recent years. One need not look further than the past decade, which alone saw the likes of the Sackler Family, who created the opioid crisis in the United States, pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and TV legend (and sexual predator) Bill Cosby, all serving as significant donors to causes close to their hearts. 

A less heard of but equally interesting case if that of former Seychelles President James Alix Michel. Resigning from office in 2016, only 10-months into his third term, Michel currently resides in the UAE, where he runs his James Michel Foundation. With the help of its charitable status, the foundation is focused on, according to its website, promoting sustainable blue economies and mitigating climate change. 

Interestingly, the foundation has a notable lack of transparency as to the source of funding for its ambitious operations. Reviewing its five-year strategic plan, one cannot help but notice the wording chosen, with a strong emphasis placed on the fact that, “The Foundation will source and mobilise funding and partnership opportunities”. No further information is provided.

One cannot help but wonder if the source of the foundation’s funding is perhaps the former President’s wealth, much of which is comprised of alleged ill-gotten gains. A 2014 investigative article by the reputable International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) discussed the issue of corruption during Michel’s reign in depth. 

Its report made headlines, specifically in reference to the way in which business on the island is conducted, noting in relation to corruption and the leadership, “that’s their business, that’s their livelihood, that’s how they’ve made their money…essentially [they’re] selling the jurisdiction’s reputation for personal profit”. Naturally, this expose drew the ire of the Michel’s government at the time, calling it “one sided” and denying all allegations of corruption against the president. 

The most prominent case of corruption coming back into the headlines recently, is the case of 50 million dollars donated by the UAE and which went missing while Michel was in office.  Although the current government has not (and likely will not) press formal charges against the former President, it is hard to imagine such a sum could go missing from the state budget without the approval of the highest echelons of government. 

That’s simply how the system works in places like the Seychelles. This, alongside keeping citizens in a constant state of fear ensures questions are not asked, and that alleged criminals like James Michel can pilfer astronomical sums and depart the country without repercussions. Quoting one of the island’s bloggers and human rights activists Isaac, the ICIJ article summarizes this well, stating, “People in Seychelles are afraid. People are miserable here. They don’t have money. They don’t have anything. They can’t do nothing”.

Michel taking up residence in the UAE subsequent to him departing office is also no coincidence. Crooks need all the protection they can muster. And what better locale than a country that has some of the most extensive financial interests in the Seychelles.

Specifically during Michel’s time in office, millions of dollars of infrastructure projects were carried out by the UAE. These included the electricity power supply to Barbarons, upgrading the water supply to La Misère, roadworks between Barbarons and La Misère and building a diagnostic centre at Victoria hospital.

These projects, carried out over the course of two years alone cost close to 40 million dollars, were certainly approved at the highest levels of Michel’s government, if not by Michel himself. Government payoffs associated with the approval of these projects were undoubtably similarly vast. Further investments during his time saw Emirates Hotels & Resorts investing a whopping 253 million dollars in the construction of hotels and villas.

Michel’s convenient presence in Abu Dhabi should be seen in this context; a way for the Emiratis invested in the Seychellsois economy to preserve their financial interests on the ground. Indeed, investments have not let up, with the airport, port and extensive energy projects, all taking place over the course of the last five years. 

The Abu Dhabi royal family itself has, according to Africa Intelligence, “stepped up investments as well as grants and gifts to the Seychelles, a favourite holiday destination of the royal family and Emirati oligarchs”. Ensuring a lasting connection to the island, during Michele’s time in office, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, even constructed for himself a palace at the highest point in La Misère.

However, in order for Michel to serve as the financial intermediary he has built himself up to be between the Seychelles and the UAE, two things are necessary; painting a picture of himself as an honest, philanthropic do-gooder and finding a fall-man for the still missing 50 million dollars. His foundation and public work related to the “blue economy”, including publishing a book, certainly assist in this delicate process of rebranding himself and whitewashing his past from corrupt strongman President to internationally renowned activist. 

Freeing himself of any and all responsibility for the missing 50 million dollars has come in the form of arresting nine individuals. Noteworthy among thoise arrested are the wife of the former Presdient Sarah Rene and her son Leslie Benoiton an officer of the Seychelles Defence Forces, Maurice Loustau-Lalanne a former public servant, Lekha Nair former director general of the Ministry of Finance, and a local businessman named Mukesh and Laura Valabhji. Mukesh Valabhji is one of the islands foremost businessmen and was wealthy in his own right before this gift ever came to the island nation. All the defendants are associated with the government of former President France Albert René.

Greed, however knows no bounds with Michel clearly aligning himself with the government of now President Rawel Ramkalawan. It was Ramkalawan who actually ended the almost 30-year rule of the United Seychelles party (the successor of Michel’s former SPUP party), with his October 2020 electoral victory. Instead of strengthening those who were and are still strong supporters of his party, and gunning to restore them to power in a future election, Michel has opted to ally with the opposition to ensure financial gain.

The situation is after all, a win-win for everyone. Scapegoating nine innocent people for his own misdeeds and thievery, Michel both successfully deflects responsibility for the money’s disappearance which happened whiloe he was VP and finance minister and secures his position vis-a-vis Abu Dhabi. President Ramkawan, as a candidate who ran on a platform which emphasized his commitment to combatting corruption and cleaning up the country, scores an equally important win and an opportunity to reiterate these promises. 

It also gives the President an opportunity to show the IMF, African Union and European Union, which recently removed Seychelles from its list of blacklisted non-compliant text entities, how committed he really is. As the adage goes, “Crime and politics does make for some strange bedfellows”.

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