ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Construction firm Commisimpex has gone to a French court in its fight with the Congo Republic over what it says are more than $1 billion in unpaid bills, the latest step in a decades-old saga that has weighed on the nation’s economy.
Commisimpex, which worked on construction and public works projects from the early 1980s until a Congolese court ordered it into liquidation in 2012, wants Total (TOTF.PA), Eni (ENI.MI) and other energy firms to pay taxes and royalties to the company instead of paying the state.
Commisimpex, which has pursued Congo in courts in Europe and the United States for nearly two decades, launched its latest legal challenge in October 2016 at the commercial tribunal in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, documents seen by Reuters showed.
Details of the case have not been publicized by any parties involved until now, a sensitive time for the government as it starts another round of talks with the International Monetary Fund on support for an economy battered by weak oil prices.
The legal saga has weighed on Congo’s sovereign rating and forced a temporary default on a Eurobond this year.
Commisimpex has won several other court cases abroad, but Congo has not paid. In 2012, Congo said the firm owed 1.3 billion euros ($1.54 billion) in social security payments built up over 30 years. A Congolese court then ordered the firm into liquidation.
The construction firm filed its latest petition to the French commercial tribunal and served a summons to the Congolese unit of France’s Total and other firms informing them of its action.
A Commisimpex spokeswoman said the firm was pursuing $1.25 billion in unpaid bills and interest.
Commisimpex is seeking to activate a guarantee on oil field revenues it says it secured in 1986 as collateral against debt, the summons sent to Total showed.
Commisimpex said Congo used “as security all revenues, and notably all moneys owed, royalties, taxes rights, etc. whether present, future or eventual originating directly or indirectly from ... hydrocarbon deposits.”
It applies to the Likouala, Loango, Tchibouela, Emeraude, Yanga, Sendji and Sendji Compl. oil fields, which were then operated by Elf Aquitaine SA, Elf Congo, Agip and Agip Congo.
Elf was later absorbed into French giant Total, while Italy’s Eni took over Agip.
Commisimpex’s petition lists Elf Aquitaine, Total E&P Congo, Eni and Eni Congo as defendants.
A lawyer for Elf Aquitaine said it would not comment on the case. Eni declined to comment. A spokesperson for Total did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Five smaller firms - Congorep, SNPC, Kontinent Congo, AOGC and Petro Congo - which acquired stakes in the fields at a later date are also listed.
Petro Congo said it was not aware of the case. The other companies did not respond to telephone calls and emails.
Congolese government spokesman Thierry Moungalla said: “The Congolese state will, of course, defend its position which is that these taxes cannot be subject to seizure.”
He described references to a guarantee in the Commisimpex documents as “allegations” and said it was up to the company to present proof to the court.
Oil accounts for about three-quarters of Congo’s revenues, and weak global crude prices have hit the country hard. Losing taxes or royalty payments would add to the economic pain.
Congo has opened talks with the IMF to support its economy. But Congo’s debt load has come under scrutiny by the IMF, which last month said Brazzaville had not fully disclosed its debt situation during a visit by IMF officials in March.
An IMF delegation began another week-long visit on Tuesday during which it said it would finalize its debt assessment.
Rating agency Standard & Poor’s said last week it would consider raising Congo’s foreign currency ratings if the government reached a settlement with Commisimpex.
Earlier this year, Commisimpex briefly secured the freezing of a $21 million coupon payment Congo made to holders of its $363 million Eurobond. But its effort to secure the funds was unsuccessful, a U.S. court ordered them to be released, but the move temporarily pushed the bond into default.
Additional reporting by Valentina Za in Milan, Bate Felix and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, and Christian Elion in Brazzaville; Editing by Tim Cocks and Edmund Blair