* Firm files arbitration request to Paris court
* Plaintiffs seek damages, temporary halt to some works
* Rail deal is among top African infrastructure projects
* Bollore hired bankers to prepare IPO for rail deal
By Emma Farge
DAKAR, Nov 17 (Reuters) - A major West African rail scheme being built by French industrial conglomerate Bollore is caught up in a legal action, initiated by a rival firm shortly after the group hired banks to prepare for a Paris bourse listing of the regional project.
Court documents reviewed by Reuters show that a rival firm, Geftarail, and its Nigerien subsidiary have filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Arbitration in Paris seeking to block work on a section of what would be one of Africa’s biggest infrastructure projects.
The dispute concerns rival rail schemes for Benin and Niger. The defendants in the suit are the governments of the two countries, not Bollore itself, although if the action is successful its project would be affected.
In the filing, the plaintiffs argue that the governments of Niger and Benin granted Bollore rights to the Benin-Niger link that overlap with their own Africarail project.
Geftarail, which is also a French company, says it has held the rights to build a rail network linking Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso since 1999, according to the court filing dated Nov. 5. The concession, granted by the countries’ governments, was later extended to Togo, it stated.
Bollore did not respond to several requests for comment on the legal action and the possible IPO. However, the French website Challenges quoted a company spokesman as noting that Bollore Group was not directly affected by governments’ former contracts. The governments were not named.
A spokesman for the Niger government declined comment while a spokesman for the Benin government could not be reached for comment.
Geftarail chairman Michel Bosio told Reuters he had nothing against Vincent Bollore, the company’s billionaire chief. “The solution we propose is that instead of doing this alone and in violation of our rights, we create a consortium together to get funding for this important development project,” he said.
Bollore is planning to spend more than 2 billion euros ($2.15 billion) on building Blueline, a 3,000 km (1,860 mile) rail loop. When completed it would connect Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, and Togo.
Geftarail and its Nigerien subsidiary say Bollore has already begun work on the line in Niger. “The plaintiffs request, on an interim basis, an order that Benin and Niger put a halt to works underway by Bollore Group within the railway concession granted to Africarail,” they stated, as part of several temporary measures sought.
In addition to the injunction, they are seeking a 50,000 euro ($53,630) per day penalty for any delay in applying the temporary measures and an unspecified amount in total damages as part of a final settlement.
Construction work has yet to begin on Africarail.
Late last month three sources close to the process said Bollore had hired several banks to prepare for a Paris listing for Blueline in the first half of 2016. A banker familiar with the project said a stock market flotation could raise up to 500 million euros.
Roddy Barclay, head of intelligence and analysis at London-based consultancy africapractice said that raising funds was “likely to be dependent on the company providing greater clarity on its liabilities” in the case.
High customs fees and congested roads mean that West African regional trade is only a small fraction of that seen between the nations of Asia and Europe, a factor capping growth in some of the world’s poorest countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso.
The Africarail project, advocated by former French prime minister Michel Rocard, would cover a smaller area than Bollore‘s, although Bosio said it could be extended beyond the current plan.
Bollore, which has extensive interests in the continent and operates container ports in West Africa, already runs the rail link between Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou and Abidjan, the coastal commercial capital of regional economic powerhouse Ivory Coast.
It was not clear why Benin and Niger decided to award the contract to Bollore, although Barclay said the move was not entirely surprising.
“African governments hungry to unlock development potential and reap the financial dividends of major projects coming online have periodically moved against companies that are perceived to have failed to develop infrastructure,” he said.
In the filing, the plaintiffs said that they had earlier sought an amicable agreement to resolve the case, without success, although neither of the two governments nor Bollore confirmed the overture.
A court official declined to comment on the case, citing the confidentiality of proceedings. The court, which administers arbitration on behalf of the International Chamber of Commerce, has in the past awarded temporary measures within months.
It typically takes about two years for a final ruling. ($1 = 0.9323 euros) (Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki in Niamey and Allegresse Sasse in Cotonou; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Joe Bavier and David Stamp)