Algeria ranks 105 out of 176 in Transparency International's 2012 corruption index, and the occasional corruption investigation often just seems to be how the elites settle their scores, such as a string of revelations about prominent politicians in November, which observers said were linked to next year's presidential elections.
"I realize that people might be shocked by what is happening at Sonatrach — these scandals are terrible and we condemn them as individual acts," Sonatrach head Abdelhamid Zerguine said on the radio Sunday, the anniversary of Algeria's 1971 nationalization of its oil industry from the French. He promised to fight further corruption "with utmost vigor," even while denying it was systemic.
The scale of the scandals is staggering. Nearly €200 million ($260 million) was paid out by the Italians, according to the Milan prosecutor. ENI has pledged full cooperation with prosecutors in their investigations.
Meanwhile, according to a joint investigation by Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper and an Italian business paper published Feb. 22, Canadian company SNC-Lavalin paid a series of bribes of its own to secure a $1 billion engineering contract. Company spokeswoman Lilly Nguyen responded to queries about the case saying "to the best of our knowledge, SNC-Lavalin is not specifically under investigation in the Sonatrach matter."
With commissions on deals like this going to the highest levels of power, the Algerian press rarely reports about it — until the subject is broached by the foreign media.
Malti, who was there at the founding of Sonatrach in 1963, estimated that the country was losing between $3 and 6 billion annually to corruption in the oil sector alone.
"If a judge says that an inquiry has opened or even a minister promises to take measures against 'people working against Algeria's interests,' I don't believe them," Mohammed Saidj, a professor of international relations at Algiers University, told the AP. "It's just words to appease a public opinion shocked when it hears about the corruption and billions of dollars stolen by high-level political and military officials, including those close to the president."
The chances of this situation changing are dim, considering how much the country relies on a single company.
In a chapter on Sonatrach in the 2012 book "Oil and Governance," John Entelis, an Algeria expert at New York's Fordham University, described the importance of a company established just a year after Algeria won its independence from France, and wrote, "Algeria's governing elite rely upon Sonatrach for revenue from which they gain power, patronage, and privileges."
Entelis told AP that the letter in El Watan shows that Algerians are increasingly able to complain about this system, even if that won't necessarily change things.
"This is the heart of the Algerian political system — Sonatrach, the DRS, civil society in the form of ... willingness to make these things public. Some say this is what enables it to maintain itself instead of collapse," he said.
Paul Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco. Associated Press writer Karim Kebir contributed to this report from Algiers, Algeria.