Roger L. Simon

Into the Heart of Darkness

Great as Claudia Rosett has been, the only one who could really write the story of Oil-for-Food is Joseph Conrad because this tale of corruption is as rich and complex as Nostromo or Under Western Eyes. For the last few days, lead investigators for Paul Volcker’s Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Progamme have been in London, Geneva, Paris and perhaps elsewhere, interviewing parties of interest who may have known about connections between Kojo Annan, Cotecna, and Nigerian and Iraqi government officials. A final report is promised by the end of the month but I am somewhat skeptical that this particular group can complete their task effectively. They are reportedly American attorneys. Do they have the linguistic capabilities (fluent Arabic and French at the minimum), not to mention experience in the ways of the developing world, to investigate murky transactions that took place in Africa in 1998-1999?

1998 is the operative year when then 23-year old Kojo came to join Cotecna, a company then under sanction in Nigeria for arms sales. December 31 of that year is when that same company sealed the deal with the United Nations, replacing the venerable Lloyd’s as the UN’s oil agent of choice. No one has explained to me why Lloyd’s had to be replaced. Perhaps that is significant, perhaps not. (Apparently only a handful of companies could do such work.) And what, if anything, was young Kojo doing in the Fall of ’98 that gave his company this windfall? At the very least, one would have to go to Lagos, where Kojo was based with Cotecna, and perhaps to South Africa, where other meetings were held, to find out. And maybe you would have to go with George Smiley, rather than the Volcker crew.

What seems to be missing from the investigation so far is the Iraqi side. Yes, there was corruption in the United Nations-there had been for years, apparently-but how did the Iraqis seize upon it? It would seem to me (admittedly from afar) that the approval of Cotecna would have been a no-brainer for the Iraqis. Ah, young Annan’s company, yes, yes. No one would ever have had to say anything. Not Kojo, certainly not his Dad. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” as that other Don (Corleone) would tell us.