LONDON, July 17 (Reuters) - A would-be leader of Libya’s $67 billion sovereign wealth fund warned on Friday that conditions were not right to start unfreezing and managing the funds assets, speaking out against a rival’s plan.
The fund has yet to be fully untangled after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi four years ago. It is at the centre of a bitter power struggle even as its staff are trying to trace those responsible for billions of dollars of missing money.
AbdulMagid Breish, once the undisputed leader of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) - which has had four chairmen claiming the top job over two years - is meeting with lawyers, journalists and bankers in London with one clear message: do not let anyone tinker with the frozen accounts.
“Not until we have total stability,” Breish said in an interview with Reuters.
Currently Libya is torn between two governments, one based in Tripoli and the second in the east, who have appointed different heads of various institutions, including the state oil company. The resulting chaos has also allowed Islamic State militants to gain a foothold in parts of the country.
Breish said any unfreezing of the LIA’s assets could jeopardise the money, as the rival governments and factions on the ground scramble for cash in the oil-rich state.
“Not until we have stability on the ground, not until we have unification,” Breish said of any management of the money. “Before that, it’s too dangerous.”
Breish was speaking out against plans from rival Hassan Bouhadi, who in October 2014 was appointed as head of the fund by the internationally recognised government based in eastern Libya. Breish claims to have been reinstated as head of the LIA by Libya’s Court of Appeal.
Bouhadi was in London last week appealing for exemptions to sanctions that have frozen the group’s investments since 2011.
The pair, reluctantly and via lawyers, joined forces earlier this month to take on Goldman Sachs and Societe Generale which the LIA has sued for more than $3 billion of money it claims was either mismanaged or totally disappeared.
Breish said there is around $300 million in foreign bank accounts that the LIA can access, and is using to finance the lawsuits that are unfolding against Goldman and others. Another 10 billion Libyan dinars are on deposit with local banks, Breish said, but he insisted it is impossible under current law for any government or institution to use that money.
“We have kept saying all along that LIA cannot give money to anyone,” Breish said.
A central bank official in Tripoli told Reuters in May the bank was allowed to use LIA cash to tackle a budget crisis caused by a shortfall of oil revenues. Breish said roughly 60 percent of its Libyan held funds are deposited with the Central Bank, but there are no loans coming from it - and that the LIA can withdraw its funds at any time.
He said any further money, including returns from frozen accounts, is not available to himself or Bouhadi. The returns on the account, which Bouhadi put at 5-7 percent per year, Breish says are impossible to state without a fresh audit of the 550 companies in which the fund holds stakes.
For now, Breish will continue unravelling LIA assets and tracing those he believes were mismanaged or pilfered before 2011, and beefing up LIA staff with accountants and an expanded litigation team to take on others, in Libya and abroad, who he believes are responsible for nearly $2 billion more of missing LIA money, he said.
The one fight he is not gearing up for is his rivalry for the chairmanship.
“In the next couple of weeks or months, there will be a government of national unity. There won’t be any Tobruk government, there won’t be any Tripoli government,” Breish said. The rival leadership, he believes, will “vanish into thin air.” (Additional reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)