British American Tobacco under fire for 'sabotaging' SA and Zim rivals

Report into one of the world's largest tobacco companies reveals how bribes were allegedly paid to former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe

13 September 2021 - 16:18
An international report paints a damning picture of British American Tobacco. Stock photo.
An international report paints a damning picture of British American Tobacco. Stock photo.
Image: 123rf.com/marcbruxelle

Bribes, lies and spies. 

These are some of the shocking claims contained in a Bureau of Investigative Journalism report into how British American Tobacco (BAT) allegedly paid bribes – including to former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe – and used illegal surveillance to “sabotage” its rivals in both SA and Zim. 

The report, published on Monday in a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, BBC Panorama and the University of Bath. revealed how BAT was linked to a conspiracy to pay a bribe of between $300,000 and $500,000 (R4.2m-R7.1m) to Mugabe to get certain people released from jail.

The report alleged that thousands of leaked documents, obtained by BBC Panorama, showed how BAT funded a network of almost 200 secret informants in Southern Africa.

The leaked documents suggest there were discussions about paying a bribe to Mugabe’s political party Zanu-PF.

It further revealed how BAT allegedly paid bribes to South African a private security company, Forensic Security Services (FSS), to conduct a secret operation to hamper rival tobacco businesses in Zimbabwe. 

FSS allegedly received the majority of outsourced work by BAT in SA to illegally spy on its tobacco rivals by tapping phones of competitors, placing tracking devices on their delivery vehicles and bribing staff to hand over information.

When contacted for comment, FSS's Stephen Botha said he was “not interested” before hanging up.

BAT did not deny the proposed payment to Mugabe when asked by investigative reporters.

The company said: “Our efforts in combating illicit trade have been aimed at helping law enforcement agencies in the fight against the criminal trade in tobacco products. In 2016 BAT made public that it was investigating allegations of misconduct and was liaising with the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO). BAT fully co-operated with the SFO’s subsequent investigation, which included allegations relating to SA.”

BAT's lawyers said the allegations are not new and that it was not unlawful to pay sources to gather information about criminal behaviour.

“We emphatically reject the mischaracterisation of our conduct ... Our efforts in combating illicit trade have been aimed at helping law-enforcement agencies in the fight against the criminal trade in tobacco products,” the company said. 

“Acting responsibly and with integrity underpins the foundations of our culture.”

This is not the first time BAT has been accused of bribery. In 2015, Panorama found the company had secretly paid politicians and civil servants in countries in east Africa to undermine antismoking measures.

BAT allegedly purchases 90% of all tobacco grown in SA. 

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