Empire & Decolonisation

The Savundra Affair: The History of an International Fraud

On December 10, 1958, the Government of Ghana issued an urgent statement denying the claim that it had granted Camp Bird Ltd., a London-based mining and finance company, all rights to future mineral extraction in Ghana. This was a direct response to Camp Bird’s announcement in the Financial Times that Ghana’s government would not only hand over future mineral rights, but allow the company to collect ten percent of the proceeds from all existing mining firms for the next fifty years. At the time, Ghana’s income from minerals, including copper, gold, and aluminium was around £30 million a year and thus, in theory, Camp Bird would collect £3 million annually. The 1958 mineral rights dispute and its aftermath became known as the Savundra Affair. This shook Ghanaian politics and headlines splashed across the international media. Investigations raged from London to Colombo and involved government officials, bank managers, lawyers, accountants, journalists, angry shareholders, Interpol, and the Ghanaian police.

For scholars, the Savundra Affair also exposes the complicated histories and social worlds in which global finance in Africa operated. There is a persistent myth that decolonial regimes across Africa were “corrupt” and this alleged corruption has been used as evidence for the failure of African independence and democracy. Erased from these narratives are the networks of globalized finance that were, and are, part of this corruption. The 1958 dispute forces us to consider the global conditions under which Ghana’s new leaders navigated the foreign private investment needed for development. It also shows the difficult financial decisions the government had to make in order to establish economic autonomy and build and maintain a new nation .

Introducing Emil Savundra

At the centre of what would become an epic story of international scandal and fraud was Camp Bird’s director Emil Savundra. For people living in the U.K. during the 1960s, or at least those who owned a car, Emil Savundra was a familiar name. Known in the press as the “Prince of Conmen,” Savundra was convicted in 1968 for embezzling tens of thousands of pounds from half a million U.K. motorists through his insurance company ‘Fire, Auto, Marine.’ His trial and arrest were widely reported across Britain. The Daily Mirror published exposés of his business dealings detailing his lavish lifestyle among the rich and titled, including his close relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. But what brought Savundra to Ghana a decade earlier? And how did he become a key player in a dispute over Ghana’s mineral wealth?

Emil Savundra on the Frost Show, 1967 [wikicommons]

Originally from Ceylon, Emil Savundra (Savundranayagan) started his business career at a Colombo-based English trading firm. In 1949 he formed the first of several import-export companies of his own. One year later, he and his wife relocated to London, and then to Paris, to set up company headquarters. Savundra’s early business exploits included a fraudulent oil deal made with the Chinese government and an eight thousand tonne “phantom rice shipment” that never arrived in Portuguese Goa. He was arrested for the latter, extradited to Belgium, and sentenced to five years (serving only two months) in an Antwerp prison for fraud and forged documents. In 1956 Savundra returned to London where he connected with John Dalgleish, Chairman of Camp Bird Ltd., and began developing the plan to acquire mineral rights in Ghana.  

The Savundra Affair

How did a man like Savundra, already a known con man with a criminal record, continue to close deals worldwide? What global networks and financial structures enabled his activities? While the 1958 Ghana mineral rights dispute illustrates the increasingly fast-paced world of international business in which men like Savundra could traverse countries and continents, the controversy  must also be situated within the history of African decolonization. Unlike settler colonies in East and North Africa, where the end of Empire led to a withdrawal of European assets and funds, decolonization in Ghana initiated an influx of capital in the form of credit, contracts, and massive loans. As the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957, Ghana was initially celebrated by Western countries as a model of successful democracy in Africa, and considered an important market for consumer goods and services due to its high per capita income in comparison to other African states. As a result, the new nation became a hot economic opportunity zone attracting businessmen, consultants, investors, and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Ghana’s first Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and members of his Convention People’s Party (CPP) understood that the difficult work of nation-building, primarily industrial and infrastructural development, would be expensive. Regaining control over Ghana’s natural resources and profits from production was an additional challenge. Although Nkrumah remained one of the most vocal anti-colonialists and critics of capitalist exploitation, “enticing foreign investors” was always on his agenda. Nkrumah envisioned foreign businessmen as partners in Ghana’s development and as a way to forge new economic relationships outside of the old colonial structure. No longer strictly tied to British capital, the new government welcomed investors from across Europe and the U.S., and later the Soviet Union and China. Partly encouraged by Nkrumah’s efforts to attract foreign capital, and partly fueled by ideas circulating about Ghana—a newly liberated African colony, ripe with economic opportunity—the country, in the words of one Swiss businessman, soon became a “playground for salesman from all over the world.”

Kwame Nkrumah on the front of Time Magazine, 1953 [wikicommons]

Savundra was part of this early wave of foreign businessmen who came to Ghana after its independence. By October 1958, Savundra had locally registered Ghana Minerals Corporation (GMC) as a subsidiary of Camp Bird Ltd. And, as he alleged in the Financial Times, convinced Ghana’s new leaders to transfer all mining rights to GMC. Additionally, he relocated his wife and five children to Accra and took up residence at the swanky, new Ambassador Hotel. He promoted GMC employment opportunities in the local press and publicly attacked existing British mining companies as “relics of colonialism” who put their own profits before national interests. In a Ghana Times interview, he declared that the days of colonial exploitation were over and that “Ghana belonged to Ghanaians.” According to Savundra, GMC would pay Ghanaian workers higher wages, develop infrastructure and services—hospitals, electricity, sanitation—in areas where it operated, build mineral processing plants, and establish a “New Mining Development Fund” where ten percent of its profits would be deposited and used for future mining projects.

While Ghana denied Camp Bird’s exclusive mineral rights announcement, the claim nonetheless gained attention worldwide. Such an agreement had the potential to not only restructure Ghana’s mining industry, but also put long-established mining companies out of business. At the center of the controversy were two letters signed by a Ghanaian junior minister, S.I. Iddrissu of the Ministry of Information, which accepted Camp Bird’s proposals in principle. The government claimed it had no knowledge of the letters, and that Mr. Iddrissu had no authority in the matter. In response, Camp Bird published photocopies of the letters on ministry letterhead in the Financial Times. As a result of the debacle, the London Stock Exchange Committee suspended Camp Bird shares pending clarification of the agreement. Ultimately, Nkrumah instructed that Iddrissu should be dismissed from office and Savundra be deported. That same week, Savundra resigned as director of GMC and Camp Bird withdrew its proposal.

Competing accounts of Savundra’s deportation, as well as claims made by Nkrumah and CPP’s main political opposition, the United Party, further complicate the case. Originally, Savundra was to be deported to Ceylon where he held citizenship and where he was also wanted for tax evasion. Instead, he and his family fled to Lagos and eventually returned to London. There was also confusion around how he left. While some reports claimed that he evaded police custody by feigning illness, Savundra insisted that he left Ghana freely. Did Savundra bargain with Ghana’s Government to avoid deportation to Ceylon? Or was his release negotiated by other powerful networks?

About four months after Savundra’s departure, the United Party (UP) demanded further investigation of the dispute after S.I. Iddrissu accused high-level officials in Nkrumah’s government of accepting a £100,000 bribe to secure the Camp Bird deal. At a private press conference, Iddrissu not only provided a list of those who shared the money, including himself and Nkrumah, but also divulged that it was the Minister of the Interior, Krobo Edusei, who had instructed him to sign the promissory letter which was published in the Financial Times. Nkrumah’s CPP hit back hard against the allegations in the press. They suggested that this was part of a “vicious UP plot,” Operation Vampire, which sought to discredit the CPP at home and abroad. A secret informant told the media that Iddrissu’s press conference was the first stage of the operation. While a Barclays receipt for £100,000 which would have been evidence that proved the bribe never surfaced, such allegations called into question the legitimacy of the Ghanaian government and Nkrumah.

Understanding the Savundra Affair

Regardless of its contested nature, the mineral rights deal was attractive to Nkrumah’s government. As these new leaders saw it, Camp Bird’s proposal was an opportunity to ensure that more of the profits from mining remained in Ghana and benefitted Ghanaians. By paying workers higher wages, building infrastructure and factories, and using profits to invest in future development projects, Savundra positioned Camp Bird as a more equitable economic partner rather than just another “selfish foreign interest.”  Additionally, news that Savundra, himself a former colonial subject, had a criminal past was not a deal breaker. As several anti-colonialists, including Nkrumah, had been wrongfully accused of crimes or jailed, the government assumed that Savundra may have been wrongly accused of fraud because of his anti-colonial politics. We might understand the Camp Bird deal as a financial risk that Nkrumah and the CPP may have been willing to take, as a path toward economic autonomy and freedom.

Nkrumah visiting Akosombo Dam during construction, 1962 [wikicommons]

Perhaps Ghana’s government also sought to use Savundra as leverage in renegotiating terms of business with other mining firms. Camp Bird’s announcement in the Financial Times put companies that already had mineral rights in Ghana on high alert. Directors of the powerful Ashanti Goldfields Corporation (AGC) went so far as hiring their own private investigators to probe the Camp Bird agreement. As one of the oldest British mining firms in Ghana, ACG and its then Chairman Sir Edward Spears, a high-ranking army official and former member of Parliament, wielded an enormous amount of influence in political and financial circles. Sources also suggest that Spears applied pressure on Nkrumah to reconsider the deal. Such actions demonstrate a sense of fear and anxiety around Ghana’s efforts to regain control over its mineral wealth. Decolonization threatened the privileged position of many colonial firms and began to change the international flow of money and investment.

Savundra was not the first or the last international fraudster who arrived in Ghana after independence. By 1958, about sixty foreign businessmen, mostly from Western countries, had been deported as “undesirables” whose continued presence was “not conducive to the public good.”  Deportations were used by Ghana’s government as a safeguard against potential economic harm.

Post-independence histories of Ghana have often focused on economic disappointment and decline, as well as corruption and the mismanagement of funds among Nkrumah and the CPP. The Savundra Affair shifts our attention from specific African leaders and regimes to the larger global context in which contracts were brokered. A lack of regulatory financial institutions and laws on an international scale allowed for men like Savundra, an accused and self-confessed conman, to continue to facilitate illicit financial flows and evade the authorities. From Ghana, he would go on to Costa Rica where he was involved in several bank fraud cases, and finally return to London to become the key player in the largest insurance scandal in UK history.

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