President Xi Jinping’s crusade against anything and everything corrupt in China recently ensnared the head of the Agricultural Bank of China, the country’s third largest, high-ranking provincial governors, several generals, China’s long-time security chief, and at least 100,000 high-level and mid-level operatives. But nearly all of this anti-corruption activity focused on misdeeds committed in China until Sam Pa, a notorious Chinese wheeler-dealer in Africa and Asia, was unceremoniously marched out of a hotel in Beijing and jailed.
An arms dealer in the 1990s who went bankrupt, Sam Pa subsequently amassed a huge fortune by helping shady African autocrats sell their petroleum and minerals to China, assisting them in laundering the proceeds, and by investing in various exploitative projects alongside the political leaders who were his clients and partners. Ultimately, his Queensway Associates of Hong Kong and China gained large holdings in oil and mining projects, in infrastructural construction activities, in aviation, in leased agriculture, and in property.
Sam Pa became notorious for his close financial ties to President Robert Mugabe, First Lady Grace Mugabe, and Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe; his intimate moneyed links to President Eduardo dos Santos and his influential daughter in Angola; and his even more murky economic work with Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea.
Shortly after coups d’etat in Guinea, Niger, and Madagascar, Sam Pa rushed in with financing and projects for the new rulers. His arrangements with a North Korean state agency involved everything from counterfeiting to drug smuggling. Yet, many of these endeavors have supposedly often been delayed, proved difficult to complete, and were rife with payoffs and kickbacks. In Zimbabwe, it is widely believed that Sam Pa smuggled millions of dollars worth of diamonds out of the country in order to enrich both Mugabes and to defraud Zimbabwe nation. His trafficking of arms to Cote d’Ivoire a decade ago directly violated UN sanctions. His firm even contracted recently to build a $1.3 billion bridge from Russia to Crimea.
In 2014, the US Department of Treasury put Sam Pa on the official U.S. sanctions list for providing assistance to Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization, one of Mugabe’s agencies of intimidation. Although Sam Pa’s personal money trail is purposely hard to follow, his riches have in part been used throughout Africa to corrupt national leaders and others responsible for approving resource-related contracts.
Sam Pa is an alias, and there are six other names by which he is known. Fluent in several languages, he carries multiple passports and usually travels in one of several of his own aircrafts. Exactly what Sam Pa and his company Queensway own, however, cannot be known exactly since holding companies registered, say, in the British Virgin Islands, own shells of companies in Singapore. These shell companies, in turn, own property in, say, Mozambique. Queensway allegedly owns a major bank building in Manhattan via a shell holding company in Delaware. Beneficial and legitimate ownerships are masked, providing lots of cover for Sam Pa and his financiers in China.
China Sonangol, one of the enterprises he controls together with dos Santos and the Angolan state, has largely cornered the lucrative market in petroleum leases in and exports from the Angolan oil fields. It was an immensely profitable concern, backed by major financing guarantees from China’s state-owned Sinopec oil company, until the price of petroleum plummeted this year.
Sinopec has now lost billions of dollars on its guarantees to Sonangol and its close backing of Sam Pa. He, in turn, walked away with at least $57 million in “consulting” fees and expenses, having little hard cash of his own in oil ownership. His detention in October may have stemmed from Sinopec’s sense of being cheated. But it could also have much to do with Sam Pa’s close ties to a Chinese provincial governor and high Communist Party official who was also bundled off to prison in October.
Sam Pa’s presumed exit from African maneuvering will leave a reasonable number of questionable heads of state, their associates, and particularly those with whom Sam Pa had “arrangements of convenience” bereft of a deal maker and money launderer. Sam Pa was most of all a source of “rents” for several dozen corrupt politicians and officials in the resource-rich areas of Africa. They will miss his fine touch, and his uncanny ability to make African colleagues wealthy – at the expense of the much poorer citizens of his target countries.
Sam Pa’s demise will hardly be the end of corruption in Africa, or of lucrative deals in the resource sector. But the vast web of personal strands of enrichment that he spun in a number of key countries could, as the Chinese prosecution of Sam Pa unfolds, unravel, and alarm the citizens and civil societies of Africa.