Indonesian businessman Albert Njoo has big oil interests in Madagascar. Photo: Twitter

JAKARTA – In a storyline seemingly straight out of a B-grade movie, a company owned by Indonesian businessman Al Njoo has been implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina, allegedly to protect his majority stake in a stranded heavy-oil concession on the Indian Ocean island. 

But three months after 21 people, including alleged coup leader Paul Rafanoharana, 57, were arrested for their role in the plot, the Madagascar government has failed to follow through on the allegation against a seemingly unconcerned Njoo, who continues to go to his office every day in Singapore in business as usual fashion.

Rafanoharana, a French-Malagasy former gendarme captain, retired French army colonel Philippe Francois, 54, and five army and police generals are being held in a high-security prison facing charges of endangering state security and conspiracy to kill the president.

It isn’t the first time Rajoelina has claimed an attempt on his life. He was initially suspected of concocting the coup story to get rid of his political rivals and seize control of the two-billion-barrel Tsimiroro concession owned by Njoo’s Madagascar Oil.

Singapore-based Benchmark Group, the majority stakeholder in Madagascar Oil, insisted in July that while it did receive e-mails from Rafanoharana, the firm’s security adviser, soliciting 10 million euros (US$11.5 million) for “political destabilization purposes,” it did not act on them.

After initially ignoring requests for further comment, a Madagascar Oil spokesman told Asia Times in a weekend statement: “Any suggestion that either Madagascar Oil or Benchmark Group have been involved in any attempt to destabilize Madagascar’s political system is risible and is rejected in the strongest terms by both organizations.”

Police who raided Madagascar Oil’s offices claim to have found deleted messages on Rafanoharana’s computer condemning Rajoelina for plunging the impoverished country into a “hellish spiral” and pointing out that removing him would free Madagascar Oil of its many bureaucratic obstacles.

Observers point out that if Njoo is under investigation for the coup plot, it has not reached the stage where law enforcement agencies have asked Interpol, the international police organization, to issue him with a Red Notice. He is not among the current list of 7,580 international fugitives.

Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina in a pugnacious pose. Photo: Facebook

At the least, Benchmark could face prosecution for failing to inform the government of the supposed plot, which officials say was aimed a “eliminating and neutralizing” a range of leading figures, including the president.

Those who know Njoo and are otherwise critical of his way of doing business, believe it highly unlikely he would be involved in a coup. ”He isn’t a guy who takes that sort of risk,” says a former Madagascar associate. “He will take a bet each way, but not on one horse.”

There is no question Njoo has had a difficult time with the Rajoelina government, which in recent years has been pushing the Indonesian businessman for a stake in Madagascar Oil, founded by British investors in 2004.  

Although he was able to start a pilot project, using steam-flood techniques to fill three giant stainless-steel tanks, the government backed off its promise to lay a 275-kilometer pipeline to supply the oil to power plants around Antananarivo, the nation’s capital.

Even then, industry experts say with an American Petroleum Institute (API) viscosity level of 15 degrees, compared to 34 degrees for light sweet crude, the oil would have to be blended with light crude in an on-site refinery before it could be used as feedstock.

An earlier plan to pipe the oil a shorter distance to the west coast for use as bunker fuel for international shipping was eventually abandoned after it became clear it would run into opposition from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) over environmental standards.

Now in his mid-60s, the businessman is said by associates to be living in Singapore’s Bukit Timah district with his Korean wife, Margaret Lee. The couple are known to maintain a $30 million mansion in the small town of Atherton, south of San Francisco.

The scion of an Indonesian-Chinese banking family, Njoo is a former business partner of Hashim Djojohadikusumo, brother of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is preparing for a third tilt at the presidency when incumbent Joko Widodo steps down in 2024.

Through Calgary-based Nations Energy, the pair parlayed an $88 million investment in a Kazakhstan oilfield in the late 1980s into a $1.9 billion windfall when they sold the block to China’s Citic Group in 2007 at the start of the new century’s global commodity boom.

Njoo is thought to have used his share of the profits to take a majority stake in Madagascar Oil, while Hashim plowed some of his newfound wealth into launching Prabowo’s political career, including his first failed presidential bid in 2014.

Since then, the pair appear to have gone their separate ways, with Hashim telling friends he is glad he stayed out of the Madagascar venture given the difficulties Njoo has had with the Rajoelina government.

It had been a long road back for Hashim, who lost his highly-leveraged $7 billion Tirtamas Group in the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis, watching creditors walk away with four banks, cement and petrochemical plants, and part of a coal-fired power complex.

Only months before the crisis hit, Njoo had been Hashim’s lead negotiator in the ill-timed purchase of a 40%, $232 million stake in Bank Niaga from the Tahija family, the main shareholder of the country’s sixth-largest private-sector bank since 1972.

A 1997 company profile describes Njoo as one of Tirtamas’ three key executives, alongside Hashim himself and Prabowo’s then-wife, Titiek Suharto, the second daughter of the former president whom he married in 1983 and divorced in 1998.

Forbes currently lists the 67-year-old Hashim as Indonesia’s 40th wealthiest person with total assets of $685 million, tied up in his Arasari Group’s interests in palm oil plantations and forest concessions as far afield as Africa – but notably not in oil and gas.

Sources in the oil industry are puzzled why the Tsimiroro oilfield is seen to be such a prize, particularly at a time when world leaders are being reminded once again of the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions.

But they also note that a man as wealthy as Njoo may be content to keep it in the ground for now, despite past threats by the government to nationalize the Tsimiroro production sharing contract and three exploration licenses his company holds.

“Madagascar Oil, having successfully managed its way through the pandemic, is currently focused on the safe development of the Tsimiroro field and is making good progress in securing an offtake agreement for its low sulphur crude with a view to restarting operations thereafter,” said the company statement.

The company claims the project has the potential to make a “significant contribution, at a local and national level,” and is being managed “in accordance with high standards of environmental, social and governance performance.”

The statement claims a pipeline is not part of current plans, but it does not explain how the field can otherwise be exploited.

Given the growing push for a green energy revolution, experts rule out Njoo attracting any multinational financing to develop the field, which lies in desert terrain, split by deep, seasonally flood-prone gullies on the western side of the former French colony.

Another major problem has been heavily-armed cattle rustlers who have been terrorizing villages in the project area. Nationwide, the gangs are now considered the biggest threat to Madagascar’s peace and security.

Madagascar Oil was formerly owned by the late English-born Australian multi-millionaire Alan Bond, who sold out in 2008 after initially declaring the Tsimiroro field to be what he called “a huge thing … a bloody monster.”

A worker on the Tsimiroro oil field. Photo: Facebook

Three years later, the company scuttled a project with French oil major Total to develop the 1.2 billion-barrel Bemolanga oil sand deposit, north of Tsimiroro, which would have cost at least $8 billion to bring into production.

“In today’s world I can’t think of a worse field,” says one veteran oilman, who has worked at Tsimiroro and points to what he calls the “treacle-like” consistency of the crude. “There would have to be thousands of wells drilled with no market and absolutely no existing infrastructure.”

Njoo has been a frequent visitor to Madagascar, relying in recent years on the unstinting loyalty of Madagascar Oil CEO Russell Kelly, a former technical operations director of East Java’s PT Tuban Petrochemical Industries, to run the operation.

A British national, Kelly helped restructure several petrochemical companies after his arrival in crisis-hit Indonesia in 1997, focusing on legal and financial issues with both domestic and international creditors. 

Njoo is described by a former employee as a man uncomfortable in crowds, with a penchant for micro-management and playing “funny games.” A Singapore banker found him “challenging” to deal with when he worked for Hashim’s Semen Cibinong, a job he took after early stints at Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank.

His interest in heavy oil stems from Indonesia’s experience in Sumatra, where the viscous oil in the maturing Duri and Rokan fields has long had to be extracted employing specialized steam-flood and chemical injection methods.

The industry sources point out that since the Kazakhstan deal, Njoo has not had the same success with steam-flood ventures undertaken by Nations Petroleum, a separate Canada-based entity, in Azerbaijan and California. 

Far from being a coup-maker, Njoo likes to see himself as a philanthropist, providing $1 million a year to fund Asian students engaged in cancer research at Johns Hopkins Hospital where his wife, herself part of a wealthy Korean business family, underwent successful cancer treatment.

He claims to have sponsored the building of schools on the Sumatran island of Nias after the devastating 2004 tsunami and has also contributed funding to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) aimed at increasing the productivity of Indonesian rice farmers.  

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated, amended and restructured on November 8, 2021, with information provided by a Madagascar Oil spokesperson received on November 7, 2021, by Asia Times via Celicourt Communications Limited.

We note herewith that both Madagascar Oil and Benchmark Group declined to respond to Asia Times’ earlier requests for comment and executive interviews including with Al Njoo.