British American Tobacco (BAT) has promoted sales of its cigarettes in some of the most fragile, war-torn and unstable countries of Africa and the Middle East, documents seen by the Guardian show.
While civilians were being killed and cities ravaged by violence, BAT pursued opportunities to grow its markets.
The documents describe how cartons of cigarettes were distributed to traders hidden in black bags in Somalia after Al-Shabaab banned sales and threatened punishments under Sharia law between late 2008 and early 2009.
They also show that BAT made plans to launch in South Sudan just two days before it gained independence from the north after years of destruction from a civil war that left 4 million people displaced.
And they tell of a town in eastern DRC that is not on any map, created by BAT to produce and process tobacco leaf, where, according to a whistleblower, millions of dollars were delivered to pay farmers and staff, carried in secretly.
The documents were shown to the Guardian by Paul Hopkins, who was employed by BAT in Africa for 13 years, until he blew the whistle internally on what he describes as unethical conduct; he was later made redundant and left in December 2015. Hopkins tried suing BAT for unfair dismissal but an employment tribunal in London ruled that his employment contract was governed by Kenyan rather than English law preventing him from further pursuing his claim in the UK.
The Serious Fraud Office said earlier this month that it was investigating his allegations.
The details of BAT’s promotion of cigarettes in troubled countries, come as BAT works to raise financing to conclude its purchase of Reynolds American, which will make it the biggest tobacco company in the world. The revelations also follow a Guardian investigation revealing that BAT and other multinationals have used threats against at least eight African nations, demanding they axe or dilute the kind of tobacco control measures that have saved millions of lives in the west.
Hopkins says that fragile states were of interest to BAT, in spite of the practical difficulties and dangers involved in moving cartons of cigarettes and money about.
“If you have no government, you have nobody annoying you about health warnings and nicotine content,” he told the Guardian. “No customs. You basically pay your tax to the local militias on the airfield where you are landing.”
Asked by the Guardian if it had avoided local customs duties and paid cash to local militias, particularly in the DRC, BAT insisted that it observes all “relevant laws and regulations” in the 200 countries in which it operates and that it had pre-paid excise duty to the DRC government.
Millions of dollars
Hopkins, a former soldier in the Irish Army’s special forces unit, says he was required on several occasions to take millions of dollars in cash into the DRC. He says it was destined for the town of Auzi in the northeast, unnamed on maps.
Auzi had been built by BAT in the 1950s with a church and a school. It was run by the subsidiary company BAT Leaf. Usually an outside security company took cash into the DRC to pay for the leaf, which was graded in Auzi but then transported through Uganda to Kenya for manufacturing. But while the usual couriers were on leave, Hopkins says he was told to do the run.
“When the weather is not bad, you can drive,” said Hopkins. “It’s about an hour from Arua in Uganda, across wooden bridges and along dirt roads.”
Hopkins has a photograph of a huge stack of notes, totalling $2.5m, that he says he picked up in Kampala and took with him on a Cessna plane that took off from a private airfield outside of the city.
He says he flew to Arua, where a security company employed by BAT supplied him legally with a pistol. Once on the other side of the Congolese border, he said, “I would rent an AK47 for a couple of days.”
But, he said, “your best protection was the 40,000-plus farmers [in eastern Congo]. They didn’t want the rebels to get you because you were carrying their money.” He said he would camouflage the dollars in bags of promotional items, such as BAT hats and pens, which he would give away to the rebels.
In Somalia, the documents show BAT had a strategy to continue selling its cigarettes in spite of warnings by the fundamentalist group Al-Shabaab that it would punish those who sold them under Sharia law.
A slide from a powerpoint presentation from 22 June 2011 says: “Market Assumptions. Somalia. The No-Smoking ultimatum made by Al-Shabaab now in effect. Cigarettes are now a black market commodity. Distribution is being made in black paper bags. This resulted in about 16% decrease in IMS in May, with 1st week of June already 23% down compared to plan.”