Nigeria collapse: Did Radebe barter arms for bodies?

The bodies of South Africans who were killed when a church building collapsed in Lagos were flown home to the Waterkloof air base. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The bodies of South Africans who were killed when a church building collapsed in Lagos were flown home to the Waterkloof air base. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Did South Africa attempt to swop weapons for the remains of South Africans who died in Nigeria?

Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe may have become a hero when he secured the return of the bodies of those killed when a church building collapsed in September, but how he cracked that deal is raising uncomfortable questions.

Two months after 116 worshippers died when the building of Prophet TB Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos collapsed, 85 of them South Africans, Radebe successfully returned with 74 bodies, to the mourning nation’s relief, two weeks ago. Eleven bodies are yet to come home.

He now stands accused of bartering with Nigeria to secure the return of the bodies by promising he would ensure that an arms sale worth $9.3-million (about R100-million), which had been blocked by South Africa, would proceed.

The Mail & Guardian has seen two letters that Radebe wrote to JP “Torie” Pretorius, of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations (the Hawks), and Dumisani Dladla, the head of the national conventional arms control committee (NCACC) secretariat, in which Radebe seeks to assist the Nigerian government to get the weapons. Nigeria apparently wanted the arms, including helicopters and ammunition, to fight against the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

Money wire
  In October, the Asset Forfeiture Unit seized $5.7-million that had been wired to Standard Bank in South Africa. Three weeks before that, $9.3-million in cash was confiscated after being brought into the country via Lanseria airport, north of Johannesburg, in three suitcases, by a delegation said to represent the Nigerian government.

In both instances the money was apparently confiscated as the transactions it was to be used for were illegal.

In his letters, Radebe, the chairperson of the arms control committee, said it had come to the committee’s attention that the failed attempt on September 5 to pay an arms dealer in South Africa “was, in fact, a legitimate requirement from the government of Nigeria”.

“Although the required administrative processes were not adhered to at the time, the government of South Africa deems it a bona fide error,” Radebe said in his letters to Dladla and Pretorius.

The minister’s key request to Dladla was for him to “liaise” with Pretorius and to “obtain all relevant information in order to assist the parties involved to apply for the necessary authorisations in compliance with the National Conventional Arms Control Amendment Act (no 73 of 2008).

“Upon receipt of the required permit applications, the national conventional arms control committee will favourably consider ex-post facto approval thereof,” Radebe wrote.

Sale of arms
  The committee is a Cabinet body tasked with regulating the sale of arms to legitimate governments. Its mandate includes ensuring South Africa does not sell weapons that are used to violate human rights.

It appears that Radebe is finding it difficult to sell his plan to other South African authorities. Law enforcement agencies looking into the arms money are pressing on with their investigations, and Radebe’s colleagues in the Cabinet are said to be less than impressed.

The Hawks spokesperson, Captain Paul Ramaloko, said this week that the investigation was continuing and that his investigators knew nothing about Radebe’s request for charges to be withdrawn.

But Ramaloko admitted that the Hawks were part of the priority crime directorate, whose head, Pretorius, had received the request from Radebe.

A minister, who serves on the arms control committee but wanted to remain anonymous, said they were unaware of Radebe’s request or of the committee blessing the Nigerian arms transaction.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who also serves on the committee, referred the M&G‘s questions to Radebe.

  Another Cabinet minister and arms committee member said Radebe unilaterally wrote the letters to Dladla and Pretorius without consulting fellow committee members and only sought their blessing much later.

A government official said Radebe’s colleagues were accusing him of single-handedly legitimising the Nigerian arms procurement transaction.

“Jeff cut this deal all by himself. He wanted to claim credit for cracking this matter [securing the return of bodies],” said the government official.

“His colleagues who serve on the arms committee are distancing themselves from the whole thing. They are refusing to back him on this one. If we allow Nigeria to get away with this, it means any country can come and do the same.

“The good thing is that the Hawks are refusing to drop the charges. They’re not budging. Their view is that a crime has been committed and someone has to be held responsible,” the government official said, adding that it would be difficult for Radebe to fulfil his undertaking to the Nigerians.

  Radebe, through his spokesperson, Vanessa du Toit, said this week he was surprised by claims that three committee members had distanced themselves from the decision to help Nigeria to legitimise the arms deal because “this matter was discussed and approved at the October 30 2014 NCACC meeting”.

But the letters Radebe wrote to Dladla and Pretorius are dated October 6, three weeks before the date the minister says the committee met and gave him the go-ahead.

A senior government official said on Thursday the ministers who attended the October 30 meeting reluctantly let the matter stand “after he [Radebe] unilaterally took the decision with no consultation. Their blessing is with an understanding that the horse has bolted.”

Jeff Radebe (centre) was praised for securing the return of the South Africans’ remains, but at what price? (Siyabulela Duda)

Radebe said the repatriation of bodies fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the state of Lagos and had no relation to the arms matter. He said he drafted the letters to Hawks and the directorate for conventional arms control “after consultation with the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.

A senior member of the diplomatic corps asked: “How can he allow the Nigerians to take advantage of us during such a painful period of mourning?”

Dladla’s secretary, Lihle Dlamini, said on Thursday that Dladla was overseas and claimed not to have received messages that the M&G had left on Wednesday at her office.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson, Bulelwa Makeke, said Pretorius was in court for the week and could not respond to questions.

In the dark
In September, the arms committee was in the dark about Nigeria’s application to procure arms from South Africa. But Radebe said, through his spokesperson, that, after the confiscation of the Nigerian funds, “careful deliberations and discussions with the relevant Nigerian government authorities at the Nigerian high commission [in Pretoria] as well as in Abuja were undertaken”. From these talks, he was convinced that the Nigerian authorities had a legitimate requirement for arms.

“Hence, the authority vested in the minister, as chairperson of the NCACC, it was decided that charges be withdrawn,” he said.

The Nigerian ambassador to South Africa, Sunday Yusuf, said his government could not speak about the arms and denied ever meeting any South African government minister to negotiate the legitimisation of the failed arms deal transaction.

“Dirco [department of international relations and co-operation] might be able to help you with that. Honestly speaking, the high commissioner has not been involved in this matter,” he said.

Yusuf also refused to refer the M&G to the authorised government spokesperson in Nigeria, saying there were “agencies” that were handling the arms deal and not government.

Cash purchase
  According to media reports, the Nigerian government admitted it had sent a delegation carrying cash to buy arms in September and that it had wired another amount of money to Standard Bank for the same purpose. This was a desperate attempt to acquire arms to fight Boko Haram, the government said.

Pretoria, however, frowned on the methods that Abuja used to try to secure arms. A member of South Africa’s diplomatic corps with intimate knowledge of the matter said: “Even though the Nigerians are desperate to defeat Boko Haram, why didn’t they follow the legal route?

“There are relations between the two countries. They should have used that to express their desperation instead of doing things the wrong way. It could have been Boko Haram buying those arms and we wouldn’t know,” the diplomatic source said.

Radebe’s motivation for requesting that the Nigerian arms transaction be legitimised has also been linked to his political ambitions.

“Jeff has got his eye on becoming the next international relations minister while he is still working on climbing on top to the presidency,” the diplomatic source said. “He is making friends in other countries because he sees himself as South Africa’s president, if not in the immediate future, he wants to start working on it already.”

Special envoy
  Radebe went to Nigeria as President Jacob Zuma’s special envoy to negotiate the release of the South Africans’ bodies. The speed of his success was commended – he landed in Abuja on a Monday and by Tuesday he told the press the bodies would be home by the weekend. He had met President Goodluck Jonathan the previous day. 

South Africa has had a tense relationship with Nigeria since Zuma became president and Jonathan took over the reins in the West African country. They have tried to play the role of African strongmen, in much the same way as their predecessors Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo did. But the cracks began to show when South Africa deported 125 Nigerians for carrying fake yellow fever vaccination certificates in March 2012.

Their fraught relationship was also suspected to have played a role in the way Abuja delayed informing Pretoria about the dead South African worshippers and the delay in the return of their bodies.

The private jet that landed at Lanseria airport on September 5 is owned by the leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Ayo Oritsejafor. The NPA found an invoice in the delegations’ possession for helicopters, drones, rockets and ammunition. For the money wired to Standard Bank, the Nigerians wanted to buy 50 Russian-made M-75 20mm cannons and 200?000 rounds of ammunition.

But the Nigerian buyer, Societe d’equipements Internationaux, later told a Cape Town-based arms dealer that it had found a better deal with a Serbian arms dealer and the money needed to be returned. During the process of transferring the cash back to Nigeria, Standard Bank alerted the Asset Forfeiture Unit and the money was frozen.

Anxious discussion
  The M&G has seen an email that shows that Radebe’s request has been a subject of anxious discussion among government officials, who are wondering what to do about it.

“What concerns the NCAI [National Arms Control Inspectorate] about this case is that there are no documents … end-user certificate, or otherwise … from the Nigerian government that they had ordered the arms and ammunition,” reads the email that was distributed among members of the diplomatic corps. “Thus far there is no proof that has been provided that the Nigerian government ordered these goods or is in any way involved in this deal.”

The officials added that, because Nigeria had bought arms from South Africa before, “the responsible officials in that country understand the administrative and legal process that South Africa requires”.

Although the Nigerian government insists that it was a legitimate transaction, the Nigerian ThisDay newspaper quoted an anonymous Nigerian diplomat as saying: “In fairness, we ought to have approached them [South Africa] government to government quietly. They would in turn facilitate approach to whoever is supposed to sell the arms to us. The money would be transferred and that would be it.”

The Standard Bank spokesperson, Erik Larsen, said on Thursday he could not respond to questions because “client confidentiality would preclude us from discussing or disclosing this type of information”.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge


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