Postcolonial cons, scandals, and fraud

Business fraud and illicit financial flows are not a new problem for Africa—the "Drevici Affair" in Nkrumah's Ghana is instructive.

Kwame Nkrumah memorial in Accra, Ghana. Image credit @jbdodane via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of histories on Africa’s postcolonial past and a rethinking of African economic history, as Tinashe Nyamunda wrote here in Africa is a Country. For Ghana, this new work is comparative, transnational, and moves beyond national narratives of disappointment and decline. While scholars are “thinking critically and imaginatively about what we might term Africa’s postcolonial archive,” writing these histories remains challenging. Such was the case when I began researching the history of international investment, finance, and fraud in the years following Ghanaian independence, and tracking one of the most notorious, and controversial, foreign investors to arrive on the post-independence scene, Noe Drevici.

Originally representing a German chocolate manufacturer, Drevici rose to become President Kwame Nkrumah’s “biggest confidence man” and the country’s second-largest creditor after the UK. Between 1962 and1965, Drevici secured a number of high-profile contracts for industrial projects—valued at around £60-£70 million. By the 1970s, Drevici had pocketed around £9 million as advance payments for factories and projects that were never completed and he fled the country. How do we research a man whose business deals were private, and intentionally shrouded in secrecy? How do we find answers about a person who engaged in widespread fraud and then disappeared? And how can this kind of story help reframe postcolonial narratives?

As a historian who has written on consumerism and retail markets in Ghana, the Drevici case initiated a whole new set of questions about Ghana’s economic past. Aside from basic ones like: who was Noe Drevici? How did he rise to become one of Nkrumah’s closest confidants? And where did the money go? What became known in international business circles as “the Drevici Affair” would also shift my research to new areas of inquiry. Specifically—to what extent did the financial relationships forged, and the fraud and scandal that accompanied them, affect Ghana’s economic aspirations and autonomy in the years following independence?

Unlike settler colonies in East and North Africa, where the end of Empire led to a withdrawal of funds, decolonization in Ghana initiated an influx of capital in the form of credit, contracts, and massive loans. President Nkrumah and members of his Convention People’s Party (CPP) understood the difficult work of nation-building—specifically the infrastructural and industrial development Ghana needed—would require enormous financial costs. While Nkrumah’s messages of pan-Africanist solidarity, anti-imperialism, and later socialism, provided the ideological fuel for such projects, he and his government ultimately needed cash.

No longer strictly tied to British capital, the new government welcomed foreign investors from across Europe and the US, and later the Soviet Union and China. In the late 1950s and 1960s hundreds of international businessmen, consultants, investors, and entrepreneurs flocked to Ghana’s capital city Accra to pitch ideas and strike million-dollar deals with members of the country’s new political elite. Partly encouraged by Nkrumah’s efforts to attract foreign capital for his development agenda, and partly fueled by circulating ideas about Ghana—a newly liberated African colony, ripe with economic opportunity—the country, in the words of one Swiss businessman, became a “playground for salesman from all over the world.”

In the midst of this excitement and optimism, Drevici arrived in Ghana in 1962. His initial plan was to buy low-grade cocoa for a factory planned in Israel, but later shifted to manufacturing locally. By then Ghana was one of the world’s top cocoa producers, and, because cocoa was the country’s main source of foreign exchange, controlling its production and price through local processing aligned with Nkrumah’s development plans. Drevici’s support of Nkrumah’s political vision was also part of his allure. After 1960, Nkrumah moved toward more socialist models of development and rhetoric linking industrialization to economic liberation. At public events and in the press, Drevici echoed the president’s messages of socialism and Nkrumah’s aspirations for the African continent to emerge as a “third power in the world.” By backing Nkrumah, Drevici made enemies as well. His statements stoked tensions between Nkrumah’s government and existing foreign trading companies, as well as annoyed newer investors, like the Americans.

Among British officials Drevici was considered a rogue who had duped Nkrumah. Such accusations were not unwarranted. Drevici had been involved in a banking scandal in Frankfurt, fled to South America, and had a pending criminal charge in Hamburg. However, sources suggest that Nkrumah also used Drevici. First, as a method to diversify the country’s economic relationships outside of the old British colonial structure, and second, as leverage in Ghana’s bargaining position with other investors. Additionally, Nkrumah put Drevici to work—he hosted and gave factory tours to visitors, including members of the World Bank, and was sent to Tokyo to court Japanese investors, a strategy to further move Ghana’s economy away from Western control.

After Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966 by a military and police coup, Drevici continued conducting business in Ghana amid serious accusations of corruption and fraud. Ultimately, in 1970 President Kofi Busia terminated the remaining Drevici contracts. As Drevici’s accounts were frozen and factories seized, he escaped the country once again. But, this was not the end of Drevici. He returned to Ghana five years later desperate to pitch yet another business idea—the building of a cocoa pipeline. He was also spotted at a New Year’s Eve party celebrating with John Ackah Blay-Meizah, regarded in Ghana as one of Africa’s greatest conmen. I have found no evidence to date that Drevici was offered fresh contracts in Ghana, but US state department cables from the 1970s show that he was busy pursuing US investors from his Park Avenue apartment in New York City.

The “Drevici Affair” is a compelling story shrouded in deception and scandal and while Drevici’s time in Ghana was comparatively short, the implications of his business activities were not. Even today, abandoned Nkrumah-era projects, especially the enormous cocoa storage silos outside of Tema Harbor are often used as examples of Nkrumah’s failed economic policies, the mismanagement of funds, and corruption among his CPP members. What many people do not know is that the silos were part of the original Drevici contracts. This situates Ghana’s post-independence era within a broader global financial history, allowing us to ask new questions about African nation-building, the formation of postcolonial economies, and the accumulation of foreign debt. It also demands a history of financial/corporate crime beyond specific African leaders and regimes. As historians have argued, “African corruption after the end of empire was in many ways driven by foreign finance.”

While the work of tracing business fraud on an international scale and the role of global finance in reproducing inequalities and wealth gaps, has been taken up mostly by journalists and civilian groups like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Transparency International, historians have much to offer. The end of empire in Africa not only changed the movement of money around the world, but also structured patterns of global exchange and investment today. New African histories that consider illicit financial flows and account for the inability of states and institutions to regulate these transactions, are more important now than ever. As international leaders, such as former president Trump, who boasted to a United Nations luncheon that many of his friends are “going to the continent to get rich,” we need a new generation of historians to help consider what (and who) is a con and what is an investment?

Further Reading