French, Swiss interests clash in Cameroon port deal

Wednesday December 11 2019

Douala seaport

Cameroon has settled on a local agency to manage its Douala seaport container terminal from January 2020. PHOTO | NDI EUGENE NDI | NMG 

NDI EUGENE NDI
By NDI EUGENE NDI
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Cameroon has settled on a local agency to manage its Douala seaport container terminal from next month after being caught up in a frenetic battle between French and Swiss interests to run the facility.

Cyrus Ngo’o, General Manager of the Port Authority of Douala (PAD) announced on Monday that RTC (“Regie du Terminal a Conteneur”) will be in charge of the terminal as a transitional measure.

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As a sweetener, traders will from January enjoy a 10 per cent discount on tariffs for offshore handling and haulage. The port also serves landlocked Chad and Central Africa Republic.

Though he said the management body was created in accordance with the PAD law that came into force last January, the decision comes in the backdrop of intense diplomatic contest between France and Switzerland to have their companies control the lucrative business at Douala which is considered the Atlantic gateway to Central Africa.

Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya last October ordered PAD General Manager to suspend contract negotiations with Terminal Investment Limited (TIL) of Switzerland to take over terminal management from French conglomerate Bolloré Group.

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Bollore’s contract ends this month but a case it has filed on the termination of its contract is yet to be decided.

The order from President Biya coincided with the visit to Cameroon of French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The Minister of State and Secretary General at the Presidency ordered the General Manager to “suspend works for the finalization of the terms of Terminal Investment Limited (TIL) concession contract until definitive conclusions by the Littoral Administrative Tribunal in Douala on the case of APM Terminals and Bolloré SA against the Port Authority of Douala.”

INTERESTS

It is believed the French diplomacy interceded for Bolloré Group as the order leaked just hours after his one-to-one meeting with President Biya. The minister’s visit also came after Bolloré Group petitioned the President to intervene in the concession battle.

On Monday October 28, five days after Le Drian’s visit, the Swiss Ambassador to Cameroon, Pietro Lazzeri, held talks at State House with president Biya.

The Swiss diplomat said they discussed bilateral interests including the role of Swiss companies in Cameroon “especially that of the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) in the Port of Douala.” President Biya also tweeted that the diplomat bore “a special letter from the President of the Swiss Confederation, Ueli Maurer.” He did not disclose the letter’s contents amid speculation that the Swiss president protested the decision to suspend talks with TIL on the concession. 

PAD floated the international tender for concession in January 2018. The port operator announced a year later that CMA Terminals, Dubai Ports World, Red Sea Gateway Terminal, Hutchison Port Investment Limited and Terminal Investment Limited (TIL) had made the short-list.

It meant French investment group Bolloré SA that had managed the seaport on the Gulf of Guinea since 2005 through its local subsidiary Douala International Terminal (DIT) had been eliminated at pre-qualification.

In September PAD announced that TIL, a subsidiary of Swiss-Italian firm Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), had been picked to renovate and manage the container terminal. It said discussions on a contract for its full control from January 2020 would be completed soon.

This was despite a Douala Administrative Court ruling in August in favour of DIT which is jointly owned by Bolloré Transport & Logistics (BTL) and APM Terminals, a member of A.P. Moller-Maersk. It ordered a stay in the concession contract award which PAD is contesting in the Supreme Court. 

PAD, in documents seen by Africa Review, the Swiss company had proposed to pay upfront 24.3 billion CFA Francs ($41 million) and thereafter 9.2 billion CFA Francs ($15.5 million) annually. In contrast, Bollore proposed 600 million CFA Francs ($1 million) initially and 3.1 billion CFA Francs ($5.2 million) annually for the 15 years of the concession. Overall a TIL concession would earn Cameroon 357 billion CFA Francs ($602 million) against 62 billion CFA Francs ($105 million) from the Bolloré Group.

Four years ago, Bollore’s clout showed when it was awarded the concession to develop and operate a container terminal in Cameroon’s deep-water port of Kribi despite having missed out of the initial short list.

In opting for a local entity Cameroon may, for now, just have avoided being forced to choose between its traditional ties with France and President Biya’s second home Switzerland.

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