Too good to be true? Malawi’s mysterious $6.8-billion jackpot
A shadowy Belgian foundation, allegedly funded by elderly Jewish philanthropists, has dangled a ‘grant’ for Malawi twice the size of the country’s national budget, but critics doubt the promised bonanza will materialise. Now amaBhungane has managed to question Bridgin’s elusive founder – and the answers are not reassuring.
Malawi was blown away in November 2022 when the government signed a deal purportedly worth $6.8-billion with a Belgian-registered private foundation, Bridgin.
During the high-profile signing ceremony at State House in Lilongwe, President Lazarus Chakwera described the financial package, which is intended to fund major infrastructure projects, as an “early Christmas”.
The grant is more than double Malawi’s 2022/23 national budget and nearly 60% of its gross domestic product.
“Never in the history of this nation has there been a developmental programme as momentous as the one we are embarking on today with the Bridgin Foundation,” Chakwera announced in his trademark American accent.
Chakwera was flanked by Bridgin Foundation president Tanko Mouhamadou and Malawi’s finance minister Sosten Gwengwe.
Sean Kampondeni, the president’s special executive assistant, told the gathering he had been receiving calls from people who could not believe what they had read on flyers announcing the ceremony. “Many wanted to know if this was in millions… I told them it was billions,” Kampondeni said.
According to the announcement, the $6.8-billion would fund construction of major projects including a power plant ($3.3-billion) to produce 1,000MW – three times Malawi’s current capacity – which would resolve the country’s intermittent power supply.
In addition, $1-billion would go towards a state-of-the-art teaching hospital and $750-million to build the country’s first high-tech fertiliser plant.
Mouhamadou told the gathering: “We thank government for accepting to have the country move out of its current situation and restore the dignity of every Malawian,” adding that the investment would not only boost Malawi’s economy, but also benefit Western contractors.
But will it?
The country’s national budget has a deficit of almost 30%, after donors pulled direct budget support over nine years ago because of corruption.
Public debt is more than double the national budget. The development budget is far lower than what the government pays to service debt. Forex shortages are persistent, making imports of strategic goods such as fuel, fertiliser and pharmaceuticals difficult.
Despite the state euphoria over the Bridgin, there was also an air of scepticism; many were hearing of Bridgin for the first time, yet it was pledging what would be 12 times the combined annual contribution of conventional foreign donors to Malawi’s development.
Bridgin’s cryptic existence
According to its certificate of incorporation, Bridgin Foundation was registered on 18 November, 2014 in Belgium as a private foundation under the management of four directors.
Unlike other international foundations, which openly share their success stories, Bridgin’s online presence is scant, with a single-page website that says nothing about its own track record other than claiming it supports governments through public-private partnerships.
“For confidentiality and security reasons, this website is intentionally left without detailed content; should you need further information, please contact us using the button below,” the website reads, giving Mouhamadou’s name and email address.
Mouhamadou ignored Amabhungane’s efforts to contact him, until we persuaded our Belgian media partners to reach out to him.
He admitted to them: “I know that I have been contacted by several journalists in Malawi. They sent me emails, they contacted me on WhatsApp and I didn’t answer. I never answered.”
AmaBhungane has established that Bridgin has never filed annual accounts with Belgian authorities, as required by law. Annual accounts approved by the board of directors must be sent to the Registry of the Company Court for small foundations or to the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) for large associations.
Both the Company Court and NBB confirmed that Bridgin Foundation had not filed annual accounts since its establishment. The Company Court issued an attestation letter dated 8 March 2023 confirming that it had never received annual accounts from Bridgin.
The NBB stated the same through its spokesperson Sarah Bonmariage.
Presented with these findings, Mouhamadou, in a recorded interview with amaBhungane’s Belgian media partners, who assisted in the investigation, claimed Bridgin had filed accounts and promised to share copies. He instead emailed a tax compliance certificate for 2018.
In a written response, a spokesperson for the Belgian government finance office said the tax certificate from Bridgin had nothing to do with the filing of annual accounts but “simply confirms receipt of the taxpayer’s tax return”.
Mouhamadou wrote to amaBhungane:“Bridgin is currently in full compliance with the legal requirements for the filing of accounts. If this were not the case, Bridgin would be prosecuted by the Belgian tax administration and fined, which is absolutely not the case.”
Another red flag is that the official address Bridgin gives for its offices is no more than a board room, which it hires for meetings, according to our Belgian media partners. The company that hires out this space also forwards incoming mail and provides other business services to Bridgin.
Mouhamadou, in the recorded interview, stressed that for security reasons Bridgin did not have to disclose the location of all its offices and would likewise not share the number of its employees.
In written responses, Mouhamadou also refused to provide a list of projects brokered by Bridgin and the companies involved.
“As our CEO mentioned in his interview, Bridgin is under confidentiality with its partners and is obliged to work with discretion for security reasons, which were discussed at length in the interview.
“Apart from our one-page website, Bridgin has never published anything online. Bridgin does not disclose the projects it funds also for reasons of confidentiality. Countries that wish to do so can voluntarily and freely publish their collaboration with Bridgin on the internet. Bridgin does not advertise its funding.”
Mouhamadou claimed the reason for all this secrecy and security was that Bridgin’s funders were Jewish.
The mysterious elderly Jewish donors
“Our donors are 100% Jewish,” he told our Belgian partners, while explaining that this did not mean they were Israelis, although “99% of people do not differentiate”.
He said these funders were advanced in age and did not really care about a return on their investment.
“Our donors, they are aged between 73 to 95 years old. They are in a logic of, ‘We are going to die. And our money, we’re not going to the grave with it’.”
Mouhamadou claimed the funding was provided in the spirit of Tikkun olam, a concept in Judaism that refers to various forms of action intended to “repair” and improve the world.
AmaBhungane pointed out that Israeli diplomats had attended signing ceremonies with some countries and that Mouhamadou had stated it was largely “Western and Israeli” companies that Bridgin linked up to governments.
Mouhamadou confirmed this: “The Israeli ambassador’s mission is to reassure the governments of the countries where Bridgin finances that the Israeli companies that will do the work in collaboration with the local companies are robust and of high quality.
“The ambassador receives the list of projects and makes sure to promote Israeli companies in the projects we finance. So, he is fully in his role as ambassador. So having private donors is totally compatible with having private Israeli companies.”
In the interview Mouhamadou used the “Jewish/Israeli” connection as justification for Bridgin’s lack of disclosure.
“We cannot disclose our donors. There is a question of life in there. There’s my life in there because I’ve had a lot of death threats.
“This is a question that comes up consistently. The Palestinian question… again today in Malawi, I am telling you in Malawi, I have received emails where they say, ‘You are working with a Zionist state, a state that has implemented apartheid on the Palestinians’…
“I care about my life. And the Palestinian question, it still comes back to me today. And that’s why, you see, I’m reluctant to talk about the Jewish nature of our donors. That’s why I’m extremely reluctant to talk about it…”
A grant or a loan – or what?
The Malawian government has described the $6.8-billion funding as a grant. The president said as much in his speech.
A grant, under the Public Finance Management Act in Malawi, is defined as a gift or financial contribution which does not require repayment.
But in this case, according to Mouhamadou, the Bridgin Foundation is expecting to recoup the money after a period of time, without interest.
In his written responses, Mouhamadou said a Funding and Governance Agreement (FGA) framework contract was signed for all projects. He said the FGA was always accompanied by an off-take agreement (such as a power purchase agreement), without which Bridgin did not finance a project.
“This power purchase agreement says, if Bridgin, you produce electricity, we, the government of Malawi, we will buy it.”
Unlike other donors who provide grants to Malawi, the Bridgin Foundation’s travelling and accommodation expenses were paid for before the contract was signed.
In the interview, Mouhamadou said: “We are not asking for a sovereign guarantee; we are not asking for a bank guarantee and we are not asking the state to pay us. On the other hand, when we arrived, the state accommodated us at the Presidential Villa in Lilongwe and that’s it. Our plane ticket, our accommodation – and it is written in the contract – are 100% fully reimbursed at the first project stone laid. We refund 100%…”
Mouhamadou explained that governments were expected to carry pre-signing costs: “You know why? Because there are countries that we go to and then we lose one or two or three years and we pay, we pay, we pay and then in the end they don’t sign.”
Bridgin’s world of promises
The deal with Malawi by Bridgin is the latest and the largest in a list of eight others that amaBhungane has been able to trace so far. The countries involved are: Liberia, Uganda, Nepal, Zambia, Nigeria, Ecuador, Ghana and Uzbekistan.
There is a striking similarity in the foundation’s approach to business in all these countries; Bridgin’s president Mouhamadou is a regular feature in negotiations which usually involve top government officials, presidents, ministers and diplomats.
Liberia was one of the first to get a promise of funding in 2016 when Mouhamadou, together with Israeli ambassador to Liberia, Emmanuel Deev Mehl, met President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Bridgin pledged to invest in a 200MW power project within a year, according to Liberian publication New Dawn.
We contacted two Liberian journalists, one of them from New Dawn, who said the promised investment had not yet materialised; neither was there any update from the government.
In response to enquiries from amaBhungane, Liberian presidential press secretary Isaac Solo Kelgbeh referred us back to Bridgin.
Uganda signed a $500-million grant in April 2022 following discussions which started in 2020. The ceremony was presided over by President Yoweri Museveni. The grant was to be used to establish four high-tech higher education centres, including a medical hospital for Makerere University and the headquarters for the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, a consortium of universities in Africa.
While confirming in an interview with amaBhungane that the funding was yet to be delivered, a spokesperson for Uganda’s Ministry of Education, Dennis Mugimba, said they were still optimistic.
“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 it is indeed for real and true. We have no doubt that it will deliver projects as promised,” Mugimba said.
In June 2020, Bridgin signed a $120-million “University Development Assistance Project” with Kathmandu University for a hydro-power project in a ceremony hosted by then Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, according to online reports.
In response to enquiries by amaBhungane, the university’s director for global engagement, Uddhab Pyakurel, said the memorandum of understanding (MoU) had expired after one year, before the foundation could deliver.
Pyakurel said: “We sent an email 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.
“We have had no further communication with the foundation.”
According to the Diplomatic Bulletin, a publication of the Zambian Embassy in Brussels, Bridgin executives were in Zambia from July to September 2020 to discuss possible investment.
At the meeting the foundation committed to fund infrastructure development.
While Zambian government officials have not yet responded, Zambian journalists have told amaBhungane that the agreement had not yet showed signs of progressing.
Nigeria, and others
Online reports also show that last October Mouhamadou and his team were in Nigeria where they met the minister responsible for women’s affairs to discuss how they could support women’s economic empowerment. AmaBhungane has not been able to track the progress of this development.
Based on online publications, it appears the story is the same in Ecuador and Uzbekistan.
According to news website Cuenca High Life, the foundation in 2019 signed a $200-million agreement with the University of Cuenca in Ecuador to build a new research hospital. But we have not been able to find any reports of project delivery.
In Uzbekistan, Bridgin pledged $200-million towards agriculture, education and energy projects after discussions between the country’s envoy in Belgium and the foundation in 2019, according to online media reports. AmaBhungane has not been able to find any information online that the pledge has been fulfilled.
Apart from Mouhamadou, other directors appointed at the launch of the foundation were Sébastien Bourgys, Florence Ruessmann and Yves Jean Bastin.
Bastin left in 2020 for unknown reasons, and in a Whatsapp text to amaBhungane, said he was not “interested for any discussion about Bridgin”.
He was replaced by Christophe Prieels.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Mouhamadou is a graduate with both a Master’s and a PhD from a Belgium University – University Libre de Bruxelles – focusing on ethics and philosophy. In terms of work experience, it is indicated that he worked for the European Commission for 12 years as “senior strategy analyst”.
A scan of recent financial statements that we could trace for companies linked to Bridgin directors show a relatively modest income.
Mouhamadou runs a private limited liability company known as Kaazabel, which was incorporated in 2001 and does business and other management consulting. A financial statement for this firm shows that in 2020 it recorded a loss of €9,734.73, a €2,867.77 loss in 2019 and a profit of €1,556.89 in 2018. DM