The controversy surrounding subsidies granted to Sihame El Kaouakibi, the founder of the Antwerp youth movement Let’s Go Urban, took another turn yesterday as two new investigations were started into her affairs and those of her various initiatives.
Let’s Go Urban started off as a dance/hip-hop studio for young people, and El Kaouakibi attracted a lot of attention. That, in turn, led to a flood of subsidies, from the city of Antwerp and from the Flemish government.
El Kaouakibi could do no wrong, and when Open VLD offered her the chance to stand for parliament, she went along gladly – especially when the party gave her generous funding for her election campaign.
But then the wheels started to come off. El Kaouakibi refused to follow the party line, creating enemies for herself in Open VLD ranks. When it was revealed that she had received funding that other more long-standing party representative had to do without, questions started to be asked regarding how this person who presented herself as a ‘social entrepreneur’ could build such a reputation by simply hoovering up public subsidies wherever they lay.
The whistle-blowers within her own organisation went to the authorities alleging mismanagement of funds. An investigation was ordered by an independent administrator, parts of which were leaked this week, showing that some €450,000 in public subsidies were filtered through to other businesses run by El Kaouakibi, while another €475,000 from investors in her jobs-for-youth platform Point Urbain found its way into her personal company.
Last night’s VTM News revealed that the special investigations unit of the finance ministry has opened an investigation – a claim that ministry spokesperson Francis Adyns could, typically, neither confirm nor deny.
In another government department, federal home affairs minister Annelies Verlinden (CD&) has ordered an investigation by her department into the non-profit WeLoveBXL, another El Kaouakibi enterprise, this time in Molenbeek in Brussels. Under the so-called Canal Plan for the commune, that enterprise attracted €200,000 in subsidies.
In all, El Kaouakibi is now suspected of having funnelled almost one million euros from public and private investments in her various enterprises, through to be own private accounts. According to the administrator’s report, the problem is not one of incompetent management of funds, but one of deliberately falsified invoices.
For the moment, one investigation into El Kaouakibi has been suspended for three weeks, as one of her lawyers has become infected with Covid-19. The other investigations continue, however.
Meanwhile, back where it all started in Antwerp, mayor Bart De Wever said the city’s own investigation is not yet complete, but promised the “toughest consequences possible” should fraud be proven. The various youth projects financed by the city through El Kaouakibi would, however, continue to be supported.