Investors who do not invest: How they access State House, Lands, Diplomatic Passports and Love
Riding on the wave of privileges – including dining with the president – that a Third World country tend to accord to foreign investors, the European nationals have gained rare access to State House, obtained diplomatic passports through dubious means, attempted to appropriate huge swath of land from locals who have not been compensated and some of them even found love and got married
When Mansa Sumareh met Andreas Brandl Helmut to receive Samsung Galaxy S10 mobile phone presented as ‘gifts’ to him and several close aides at the presidency, he could not but feel that the ‘foreign investor’ had a much larger gift – an investment for a country reeling from a near economic collapse.
As an official driver at the State House, Mansa was a witness to the VIP treatment accorded to Mr Brandl and his colleagues – a number of them carrying nationalities of Europe’s largest economy, Germany. The five men were received at the airport by officials of the presidency and driven on State House vehicles to Coco Ocean, a posh hotel renowned for hosting high-profile guests, including visiting heads of state.
“We all felt excited,” the former presidential driver said. “Protocol officers, Henry Gomez [adviser to the president] – all of us were given a phone Samsung Galaxy S10. They also gave a mobile phone and a laptop to the president, through Henry.” We could not independently verify these claims.
But it has been more than one year since that encounter and European investors seem to have no investment to show yet, despite ‘planning’ to inject a whopping US$6 billion, an amount sixfold the country’s gross domestic product.
Mansa Sumareh, though, has fallen out with the presidency. He is currently in trouble with the law for his alleged role in facilitating issuance of diplomatic passports to “unauthorized” individuals. The “scandal” which erupted in 2019 exposed how politicians and public officials indiscriminately – and illegally – issued diplomatic passports in exchange for money and political favours.
Curiously, one of the witnesses lined up by the state to testify against the former presidential driver is Rene Schwarze, who claims to be an investor and bringer of investors. He has been indicted in the passport fraud scandal and briefly detained by police, but the authorities did not take him to court.
“If they charge Rene to court, they would charge… a lot of other people. He knows too much,” said Sumareh.
In four years of operations here, Rene has registered at least six companies with similar business focus and brought in at least three different but related groups of investors none of whom have ever made any tangible investment in the country. He appears to be in it with his mother Birgit Bresser, who claims to be a faith healer, healing cancer, HIV and other forms of illnesses. Both are married to Gambians.
Investigations by Malagen have uncovered disturbing details about the activities – here and abroad – of these so-called foreign investors whose tracks bear significant hallmarks of an international investment fraud enterprise. Some of them have been subjects of newspaper and police investigations linking them to crime and corruption in many other places, including Germany, Austria and Italy in Europe and Guinea Bissau in West Africa.
Riding on the wave of privileges – including dining with the president – that a Third World country tend to accord to foreign investors, they have gained rare access to State House, obtained diplomatic passports through dubious means, attempted to appropriate huge swath of land from locals who have not been compensated and some of them even found love and got married.
From Bissau to Banjul
Malagen Investigations revealed that the foreign investors led by Brandl had been operating in Guinea Bissau for years before coming to The Gambia. The story of their suspicious activities in that country and in Germany was unraveled by two newspapers, an O Democrata, a Bissau investigative newspaper and Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine – one of the most widely circulated in Europe.
According to the two publications, Brandl and his team have paid huge sums of money to get diplomatic passports in Bissau. Several of them were appointed as ambassador at large. Brandl given citizenship and designated as special adviser to the prime minister of Bissau.
But on May 7, 2019, a woman had appeared in the security line at the Frankfurt airport. Upon inspection, a stack of identity documents was found in her luggage. When federal police sought to examine the documents, Andreas Brandl intervened, pulling out a diplomatic passport identifying him as a “special adviser” for Guinea-Bissau. The stack of documents, he claimed, were to be brought to the country’s embassy in Berlin. However, the police have found that the documents are intended for people who were allegedly involved in criminal activities, including drug-related violations, document forgery and insurance fraud.
Brandl and the lady were not arrested, but the passports, including his, were confiscated.
One of Brandl’s men would also run out of luck three months later. Mario Daser, designated by Bissau authorities as “attaché for culture and sport” was arrested by the police in Germany. He reportedly promised a deal to a Bavarian meat wholesaler, including access to Bissau market and a diplomatic status.
The Bavarian butcher was to pay Euros 1.5 million. He reportedly sold his house and sportscar and paid over 800,000 euros to an account based in Dubai. When the investment did not work out, he filed a legal complaint.
As things started falling apart in Bissau for the foreign investors, a letter landed on the desk of Secretary General, Office of the President, the Republic of The Gambia. It was from Brandl. He wanted to ‘explore investments opportunities in different sectors in the country’.
Several months later, approval was granted for his visit.
How the investors gain access to State House
Under former President Yahya Jammeh, foreign investors are welcomed at State House to deal directly with the president. The practice continues under President Barrow despite public concerns for its potential to breed corruption and undermine national institutions of trade and investment.
“The reality is that OP (Office of the President) has too many other responsibilities and may not have the requisite staffing to handle and advise the country’s President which GIEPA and GCCI have by virtue of their mandate, experience and structure,” Alieu Secka, the Chief Executive Officer of Gambia Chamber of Commerce, told Malagen.
“Of course, eventually if required at all OP will be recommended to. Another sad reality is that, businesses which tend to go directly for political leaders are very often dubious operators and we encourage our government to be mindful.”
But Barrow administration has defied such concerns and went on to set up an investment unit under the presidency. Andfrom 2017 to 2019, Rene was a frequent visitor to the State House. His go-to person was Amadou Sanneh, believed to be a nephew of the president, according to Rene himself and multiple sources.
“He is lying,” Sanneh however said, referring to Rene. “He said he is an investor and I wanted to help him but I do not know him much. He wants us to be friends but I stepped back when I realised that he has had problems with the people who introduced him to me.”
Rene said he has also made acquaintances with a number of influential people in the president’s inner circle, including Henry Gomez, an adviser to the president. Henry also denied any friendship relationship with the German.
He added: “I know Rene but he is not my friend. We met three times. The first one was at State House when he came to talk to me about his investors.”
Friends or no friends, these contacts would also prove apparently crucial in clearing the ground for the arrival in July of Andreas Helmut Brandl, who led his team of investors brought into the country by Rene. They are Dr Falkenberg Alexander Daniel, Mario Dasser, Andreas Helmut Brandl, Nidal Baumgartner and Aldevina Ilorena Fernandes Gomes Cuino.
The investors have also gained rare access to the State House and have had a meeting with President Adama Barrow.
“I am not that stupid,” Henry said, responding to the charge that he did not do minimum due diligence before leading the ‘foreign investors to State House.
He added: “They said they are investors who wanted to invest in the Gambia. I was impressed with what they presented to me [he won’t say what that was]. So, I took them to the president and that was it.”
And he was asked: “If you are to lead such kind of people to the president, don’t you think you should have known all about them so that you don’t put the president and country in danger?”
Henry replied: “Mister, do I look like a detective to you? I am a politician. And do you know how many investors have been coming into this country? You think all of them are clean?”
But why did you not take them to GIEPA; they’re better placed to do background checks on investors and to give guidance with respect to investment?
Again, Henry replied: “So you want to tell me that all the investors that have come into this country, from the time of Jawara to Jammeh, have gone through GEIPA?”
In a strange and unusual way, all visits and communications between the authorities and the Brandl led investors were never public or televised as is the norm for such visits by investors to State House.
Diplomatic immunity for sale
Barely two months after his Bissau-issued diplomatic passport was seized in Germany, Brandl was once again a diplomat, made an “ambassador at large” by Gambian authorities. Mario Daser, who allegedly defrauded a Bavarian butcher and flew in with Bandl to Banjul, received no less privilege. Other members of his team were all carrying Gambian diplomatic passport by the time they concluded their two weeks visit.
The Brandl led investors brought in by Rene had been operating under what appeared to be a veil of secrecy until a diplomatic passport scandal erupted in September, 2019 and their passports were leaked on social media.
Official records seen by Malagen revealed that just 271 diplomatic passports were in use at the time President Yahya Jammeh was forced out of office in 2017. In under three years of being in office, the President Adama Barrow administration had issued a record number of 1,175 diplomatic passports.
Mario Daser is one of the recipients. At least two sources familiar with how it happened said Henry Gomez led Mario Dasser to the Department of Immigration on July 17, 2017. With an executive directive from the State House, the transaction lasted only few hours.
Gomez, though, denied aiding Dasser to obtain diplomatic passport.
“But you took Mario Daser to the immigration?” he was asked
Henry replied: “Were you there?”
“The records at the Foreign Affairs Ministry show that you helped him.”
Again, Henry replied: “I don’t know who is feeding you that crap. In fact, for me, I don’t want to talk about this diplomatic passport issue.”
Meanwhile, the diplomatic passport issued to Dasser may be genuine, even though he is among several hundred of ineligible holders of it. But Investigations by Malagen revealed that the documents issued to Brandl and three other members of his team could be fake and investigations by police indicted Rene in the production of at least six fake diplomatic passports in connivance with a Nigerian, Micheal Lapido who fled the country following the passport fraud scandal. Apart from the Brandl led team, Rene has allegedly produced a fake diplomatic passport to a Christian Mahlig, who reportedly paid him Euros 10, 000.
Meanwhile, from 2014 to 2019, records at Foreign Ministry have shown that 1959 diplomatic passports books and 3440 service passports books were unaccounted for. These books were believed to have been stolen and illegally printed for cash, by certain officials. Records of these illegal printings are not available with the authorities.
Promises, promises and just promises
When coming into the country, Mr Brandl carried in his bag a letter, supposedly written for him by Guinea Bissau authorities, certifying his ‘15 years of humanitarian aid’ in that country, particularly in the health sector.
“One of the biggest support was setting up the Embassy in Berlin, as a permanent mission of the Republic of Guinea Bissau, which is still rented out by his own finance,” the letter says of Brandl.
Has Brandl made promise to support the health sector?
In August 2019, another set of investors linked to Rene and colleagues of Brandl wrote to the presidency in a letter seen by Malagen, promising a joint support of equipment worth more than €2.9 million euros to country’s health sector. They are Roman Kazimierz Zieman, Anastasiia Ziemian and Stephan Karl Morgenstern.
How are these related to Brandl?
“Be sure this is just a beginning of a longlasting Donation Era to The Gambia,” wrote Stephan at the end of the letter. “It is a honour (sic) and pleasure for me to do this important contribution for my country.”
Like almost all investors associated with Rene, Roman Ziemian and Stephan Morgenstern are reported to be Ponzi stars who are behind FutureNet, an alleged online business fraud that scam investors.
They had promised in their letter that the support would arrive in five weeks. It has been more than fourteen months since.
“I have no idea about this,” said Babanding Sabally, the head of pharmaceuticals at the Central Medical Store, confirming that no such support had arrived.
Enter Rene’s briefcase companies
Rene did not own a car when he set out on his ‘investment’ ventures. Today, he drives a black coloured Hyundai Tucson – the brand has a market value of at least US$23,000. He rents an office complex at the Sky Blue Plaza for $9,000 per annum.
More remarkably, he has six companies in his bag, but all of them exist only on paper.
In August, few days after his arrival into the country, Rene and her mother registered Fireball, an online marketing company. Either by mistake of the registrar or yet another misrepresentation, the surname used on the registration is Breber, rather than much known Bresser. The only staff are Rene and his mother.
Barely three months later, Rene registered Savanah Gambia Limited where he holds 30 per cent of the shares. The other shareholders are Modou Sanneh, Andre Schulte and Sumbundu Bah. Not much could be gathered about Savanah as the company does not even have a website or social media presence. They claim to be dealing in import & export, consultancy service, transportation, real estate and construction but there is no trace of their activities.
Then, in October 2018, he established yet another company, Baeckerei UND Konditorei George Company Limited for ‘online marketing, bakery, catering services and supply of services’. This company, like the previous two, has no website or social media presence. There was no trace of their activities.
Rene’s thirst for more companies could not be quenched.
Seven months after getting his third company in under three years, he registered three more companies in May 2020. All of them are related to a brand called EXW.
While EXW Capital Company Limited supposedly deals in agriculture, precious stones, car rental, real estate and import & export, the EXW Capital Networking deals in digital wallet investment banking and FIAT.
The third of such, EXW Capital Agency Limited deals in travel and tour ticketing, tourism and transportation.
Rene holds six percent of shares in each of the companies and his partner, one Manuel Batista, an Italian, holds majority share of 94 per cent.
Not much could be gathered about the EXW Gambia online as the website was under construction. The EXW World has a functioning website listing Gambian among 4 African countries where they are present. It is however confirmed that Italy’s top financial regulator, CONSOB, has declared EXW illegal and ordered it to block its websites, describing it as “abusive financial intermediaries”
Similar orders have been issued against the company by the regulatory authorities in Austria and Germany.
The Smart Kas: the Euros 200 million investment never leaves paper
The latest of investors to be brought in by Rene is a Dr David Tibor Meszaros, CEO of MG Group BV, one of the two companies backing Smart Kas, ‘a global composite conglomeration of international enterprises, law firms, think tanks, government officials, royal families and entrepreneurs in the world of technology’.
The company prides itself as one of world’s most sophisticated smart agriculture solutions providers: zero energy, zero water and zero waste. It claims to be present in France, Germany, Netherlands, Baltic States, North America, Brazil, among a long list of countries.
The Gambia is not on the list.
On its colourful website, though, there is no evidence of any project carried out anywhere by the company. In the Netherlands where it is headquartered, the company talks about how that country being a ‘global leader in agricultural innovation, offered ‘SMARTKAS a great variety of research and tools’. But there is no mention of any specific research done or tools developed or deployed by the company.
In France, the company claims to be ‘currently in the process of incorporating one of our SMARTKAS subsidiaries in the South of France, Toulouse.’
In Germany, they claim to be working closely with German Government and Bavarian Municipality to acquire subsidiaries and land. “Besides this, we’re currently working on a very special project that can be deployed on multiple locations in Germany.”
The information on Germany on the website instructs the reader to “Read on below”. But, actually, that is all what was there to read. No details about this ‘very special project’.
But was The Gambia on the mind of the founders when registering the company? For, in May, 2019 – the same month that Smart Kas was registered in Amsterdam – Dr David Tibor and his partner Mr JC Robert DelHaye, wrote to President Adama Barrow, informing them of their plan to invest Euros 200 million in smart agriculture in the country.
To get this ‘international investment’ however, Dr David Tibor not only wants a plot of land measuring 1000 hectares or more “to be collateralized”. Further, he also requires a signed and stamped presidential letter of support and interest for the project and an agreement with the presidency, guaranteeing that he would be granted “export import license to establish factories and facilities for Smart Kas unit production in your country”.
The letter sent to the Minister for Agriculture in April, at which time Smart Kas was not even registered in Amsterdam, Dr David has made similar demands. Apparently, Dr David had a template and only required Gambian authorities to put in name and signature.
Malagen could not confirm whether all of the demands set out the letter have been met. But efforts were made to appropriate a huge swath of land to the investors, in the Eastern Kiang villages of Masembeh, Jasombo, Koliyori and Jomari.
The owners of the appropriated land said no compensation was paid to them. The investors had only promised to provide free electricity to the communities that provided them with land. As with the promises made by investors associated with Rene, this promise would never see the light of day.
The physical planning officer who processed the plot of land for the company declined to give further details of the process. The Governor, Rohey John-Manjang, who is in the thick of the transaction, would not respond to many requests for interview on the issue.
How Justice and Agric. Ministries stood grounds
Not all public institutions had their eyes closed or allow to be influenced to make any rash decisions. Two of those are Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Agriculture.
According to our sources, the presidency had engaged the Office of the Attorney General for legal advice on the investors and their proposed investment of Euro 200 million.
For the then Justice Minister Abubakarr Tambabou, the proposal presented by the investors was too good to be true.
“We dismissed it and said this looks like a money laundering scheme” one of our sources said.
“A lot of people were putting a lot of pressure, but luckily the former AG was very firm. He told them if you want, go ahead but we are not going to be part of it.”
Rene appeared to have encountered a similar brick wall when he visited the Ministry of Agriculture. “He came here and requested us to draft him a support letter showing he is an investor in The Gambia. I told him I cannot do that. There has to be an investment before we can do that” the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Ebrima Sisawo told Malagen.
Rene would persist but by December 7, Sisawo seemed to have had enough. “Please note that your requests have been well received and noted. You may, however, engage the Gambia Import Export Promotion Agency (GIEPA) as your first point of contact,” he wrote to him in a letter seen by Malagen.
Rene did not do that. He pursued his matter further with the Ministry of Land. “When he came here, I directed him to the Governors who would connect him with the chiefs and land owners.”
However, Rene had told Malagen that he got support letter from Office of the President – a claim he allegedly told officials of Ministry of Agriculture.
The uncontrolled and unchecked proliferation of companies
The Gambia is a world of companies that exist only on paper. The Registrar General lists an average of twenty companies every month – an annual average of 240 companies, a senior official at the Justice Ministry told Malagen.
“Most of those companies only seek a certificate of legal existence but they don’t really exist,” our source added.
But with no proper street naming system, enforcement of regulations, including filing of annual returns and payment of annual renewal fee of D1000 has been a challenge.
Malagen has uncovered a general lack of compliance with the law. And, true to form, the companies incorporated by Rene, some dating back four years, have never complied. And none has a tax file or pay a dime to the state as tax.
More, the witness signature section of the memorandum of his EXW Capital Agency Company has been left vacant. The memorandum of another company, Savanah, is not even dated. And our search at the Registry of Companies could only find memorandum for 3 of his other companies, suggesting his registrations may not even fulfill a significant part of company registration which is having a memorandum.
Last year, tax authorities in Brusubi contacted Rene’s office concerning lack of payment of taxes on his businesses, but he told them that he had not yet started operations, sources at the Gambia Revenue Authority revealed. He had however told Malagen 5 months earlier that he had hired several staff and was dealing in cryptocurrency and international financing.
Rene’s schemes: Are registry authorities complicit or compromised?
Curiously, the memorandum for two of Rene’s companies were ‘prepared’ by Mr Alieu Jallow, who is the Registrar General and cousin to the partner of Rene’s mother.
Yet, he argued that his actions did not constitute conflict of interest.
“I did not do [prepare the memorandum] it. I only facilitated [the registration],” he told Malagen.
The document however reveals that Mr Jallow’s role might not have been limited to facilitation. At the bottom of it, the memorandum reads: “presented for filing by Alieu Jallow, Cape Point, Bakau.”
When Malagen met Jallow at his office last month, he was preparing a presentation and one of the issues he would be talking about, he told the Paper, was the failure of companies to file annual returns.
Ironically, the companies whose registration he facilitated appeared to be as guilty as others that are being charged in his presentation.
The epilogue: meet Rene the investor and bringer of investors
After many cancellations, Rene finally agreed to meet me. It was in July 2020. It was past 8pm and his ‘staff’ were still at work at his Sky Blue Plaza offices on Bertil Harding Highway. I only call to seek for an appointment given the time that was. “You can come to my office,” he said. “Right, now,” I asked, thinking it was little late. “Yes, now,” he responded.
There was much to see in what seemed like an impenetrable obscurity of Rene and his office. There is no signboard – the only office that does not have one. There are 4 security cameras at the front, the entrance and back of the office – no office has that on that building.
“Hey, Mustapha, welcome,” he said. He sent out his staff. The meeting was now on – just a chat as he promised to grant interview ‘soon’. Often smiling and chuckling, and making outlandish claims, he rattled away on a number of topics, from his investments, his investors and the diplomatic passport scandal. He bragged about his connections at State House.
At one moment, he boasted of his ‘strong business ties’ with royal families in Morocco and Abu Dabi. He brought out his phone and played a video of an Arab man he referred to as “His Highness”, the “Prince of Abu Dhabi”.
“What is his name,” I asked. Rene paused for few seconds, chuckled and said “ah…… Bin Muhammed Bin Khalifa….,” he said after a long struggle. He added: “You know Arabs, they have too many names.”
Actually, the man he was referring to in the video is Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.
Rene stayed in touch with me afterwards, flirting and gossiping. Occasionally, he would google “1 btc (bitcoin) in dalasi”, take a screenshot of it and shared on WhatsApp. Of course, just a slight click on the image shows the google search box and some German. However, it was not my job to assume.
What is this? I would ask. The aktuel (German for “current”) balance from the bitcoin on the Börse (German for Stock exchange). This is either a way of making me believe him on his investment claims or keep me close, I thought. And three months after our first in-person encounter, I received a call from him. “Mustapha, I am now a Muslim and my name is Muhammed.” He announced to me that he was to marry a Gambian whose identity we could not disclose for ethical reasons.
“I will get married on Friday. If you want to write a small news report, you can come by. The marriage will be very big—only with big people. The head of the police department will be there, the DIG will be there, Yankuba Sonko [Interior Minister], the nephew of the President [Amadou Sanneh].”
The ceremony was to happen at his office grounds. I could not honour the invitation. But I apologized.
When Malagen paid a surprise visit at his office in December, Rene who had said that he was in Senegal, was somehow found at his office. “I am just coming from Dakar,” he said. He added that he was looking for opportunities to spread the Smart Kas investment. This is even as The Gambia one remains only on paper.
“I want to give you the updates later,” he continued. “You will have a big, big thing. I will give it only to you. That is what I told Alex [his Gambian manager for EXW Modou Ceesay].”
“I am waiting for a call from State House in Senegal,” he added, without mentioning from whom he was expecting the call.
On December 5, Rene sent me a WhatsApp audio saying he got contacts from the presidency in Senegal though he would not explain from who or on what. At any time, Rene is doing mighty things or meeting high-profile people.
Malagen was hot on Rene’s heels and he was aware of it – and visibly pissed. Late December, he telephoned me. It was the day I had interviews with registrar of companies about the potential conflict of interest in his involvement in registration of the last 3 companies for Rene in May 2020. He was tensed. “Mustapha, what are you doing at the ministries? Can you explain this? You are lying about our companies.”
“I spoke to my lawyer. What you want to write, let it be the truth. Or not I will take you to court and to international court.” I told him that I was doing my job and that I have some allegations against him. Then a text message came about an hour later. In it is his emails.
“Please send me all the allegations to my email,” he wrote. I did but no response was received.
Malagen checked on him a few days later. There was no sign of him. He does not reply to SMS or WhatsApp messages. Calls to his phone do not go through. And his office has for the past several weeks been closed.
A watchman at his office told me he informed them that he was going to Senegal for 2 months. Meanwhile, the Gambian office was closed and the reported staff recruitment was halted.
Early January, Rene came back online. However, he was not taking my calls. Sources informed me he arrived back into the country on December 23. However, his office remained closed and he did not respond to emails also sent to him by Malagen.
“We’re not closed,” Modou Sanneh, his manager, however said. “We hired and trained staff and told them to wait because we’re waiting for funds to come (next month).”