It was a proud moment for Lassana Palenfo. On Saturday July 28th, 2012, and amid much pomp and ceremony, the general from the Ivory Coast who is the president of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA), the regional representative of the International Olympic Committee, inaugurated the first 'Africa Village' in the history of the Olympic Games.
London was getting ready to welcome 10,500 athletes, two million spectators and three weeks of competition and here in Kensington Gardens in the heart of the city, the political and sporting elite of Africa finally had their 'Village', whose aim was to sell the image of the continent to the rest of the world. Among the African dignitaries attending in person were Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara, Princess Lalla Joumala of Morocco and the Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia. With its stands, shows and exhibitions, Africa Village was like a vast if temporary ministry of tourism.
Yet this wonderful initiative ended in fiasco. Four days before the end of the Games the village abruptly closed. The reason was a strike by British suppliers and service providers at the ANOCA village who complained they had not been paid. Five years later and still no one is able to trace with any certainty what happened to the money they were owed, money that is at the heart of an astonishing dispute which could, according to Mediapart's information, be aired in the courts in the coming weeks.
At the heart of the saga since 2012 has been the French entrepreneur Alain Barbier, boss of the events company Pixcom and the major organiser of Africa Village. Though ANOCA, with whom he has worked since 2006, has long used his services, since the London event they have accused him of misappropriating the money destined for the British suppliers. In August 2014 the organisation even detailed a series of payments it said it had sent to him. The amounts involved in these transactions were 915,723.67 dollars, 334,000 euros and 50,632 pounds or a total of 1.176 million euros at today's exchange rates, according to ANOCA.
The African organisation then went to the French courts demanding the reimbursement of these sums that had been advanced, they say, to Alain Barbier's company. But the attempt failed. ANOCA's demands were dismissed at first instance by a court in Nantes in western France then on appeal by the Court of Appeal at Versailles in 2016. The appeal judges ruled that the organisation had not sought to solve the dispute in an amicable way as stipulated in its contract with Alain Barbier's firm Pixcom.
Only three payments clearly identified
In the facts as outlined there was no evidence to prove that that the boss of the French company had received all the sums outlined by ANOCA. “I never received this money. It quite simply never arrived in my accounts, that's clear,” says Alain Barbier, who says he has suffered an “enormous” loss financially and in terms of reputation since the start of the affair. The businessman acknowledges that he indeed received two payments from ANOCA; the first for 100,031 dollars in October 2011 and the second for 200,030 dollars in march 2012. But there were no subsequent payments, he insists.
Documents seen by Mediapart confirm these two payments from the Crédit Suisse bank account of 'Olympic Solidarity', the IOC's financial mechanism for helping ANOCA. During the London Games another payment for 365,000 dollars also came out of the same account and was paid directly to the British suppliers. But what happened to the hundreds of thousands of euros that ANOCA says it paid but Pixcom's Alain Barbier denies having received? ANOCA's president Lassana Palenfo and his number two, Algeria's Mustapha Berraf, did not respond to Mediapart's requests for clarification.
Key questions therefore remain unanswered in this affair. Was all the money paid as is claimed? If so, when was it paid and by which route? A source familiar with the machinations of the Olympic movement opens up another line of thought. “Perhaps ANOCA had to give up on paying its suppliers, having been too ambitious when it put together its budget...” they suggest. In theory the costs of creating Africa Village should have been offset by sponsorship income, including from Samsung. But in the end the South Korean multinational gave 'just' 200,000 euros towards the initiative, a small amount compared with the overall cost.
So far the IOC has cautiously kept its distance from the affair which it describes as a “private” dispute, and points to a “mediation” process started by Lassana Palenfo in December 2016. But its silence on the affair could rebound on it. Mediapart understands that Alain Barbier has just instructed a bailiff to go to the IOC's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to claim from the organisation – which has overall financial responsibility over ANOCA - the legal costs arising from the Versailles Court of Appeal ruling, which have not been settled following the end of the case in September 2016. In particular the French businessman is demanding the IOC hands over all documents relating to the payments which were made in the context of the 2012 London Olympics. This is a final summons after which, says Barbier, he will resort to legal action, including using the criminal law.
Defamation proceedings against ANOCA's number two
The Africa Village affair does not seem about to give up all its secrets any time soon, especially as there are sub-plots being played out and possible legal battles looming in the near future. This Tuesday, December 4th, 2017, a new round of legal proceedings in the affairs is due to unfold when ANOCA's veteran vice-president Mustapha Berraf appears before a criminal court in Paris accused of defamation. Aged 63, Berraf is a leading figure in the Olympic movement in Africa; he has been president of Algeria's Olympic Committee since 2001 and in May this year his position as vice-president of ANOCA was renewed. He is also head of that organisation's ethics committee and since last month he has been in charge of running ANOCA in the absence of its president Lassena Palenfo, who has been temporarily suspended during the resolution of an internal dispute involving a rival bid for the presidency.
The legal action follows an article published in the Algerian newspaper Le Soir d'Algérie in January 2017 in which Mustapha Berraf publicly accused Alain Berbier of having fraudulently received money from the Algerian Olympic Committee (COA) for the organisation of the Algerian stand at Africa Village, and this at a time when his company was in compulsory liquidation. Berbier strongly denied the claims and started defamation proceedings against Berraf. The saga, it appears, is just beginning.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter