SA oils up to Obiang

South Africa is in advanced negotiations to get oil exploration rights from the government of Equatorial Guinea.

The impending deal will expand the foothold of PetroSA, the South African state oil company, in the booming Gulf of Guinea. But it raises the question: Has the promise of oil lucre clouded the government’s judgement in helping a country with a dismal human rights record prosecute the mercenaries who wanted to topple President Teodoro Obiang Nguema?

The Mail & Guardian has learned that talks between PetroSA and

its Guinean counterpart, GEPetrol, started in 2002 and are close to fruition. PetroSA is after exploration blocks believed to be offshore.

PetroSA this week confirmed the negotiations, but stated: “Since final agreements have not been concluded, we cannot divulge further detail.”

But a source close to the Guinean government this week said the talks were progressing well and finalisation was now “in the hands of PetroSA”.
Both sides are backed by their governments at the highest levels.

Equatorial Guinea has Africa’s fastest-growing economy, driven by oil finds since 1995. It should pump 500 000 barrels of crude a day soon.

It has been alleged that the coup plotters arrested in March were driven by promises of a share in the country’s oil wealth by Severo Moto, the exiled opposition leader. Ely Calil, a London-based oil trader, is the alleged coup architect. Calil and Moto have denied the allegations.

Lawyers acting for the Guinean government, in a London case against the alleged conspirators, claim mercenary leader Simon Mann was promised $16-million once he installed Moto in power. Calil would get oil business.

Others, some prominent in British high society, have been implicated as alleged “investors” in the plot. They include Mann’s friend Mark Thatcher, arrested in Cape Town last week, and disgraced Tory politician Jeffrey Archer. Both have denied knowingly funding the coup attempt.

A well-placed source said South African intelligence started actively investigating the plot in late December. President Thabo Mbeki tipped off both his Zimbabwean and Guinean counterparts before Mann’s men left for Harare to pick up arms.

The source said the aim of South Africa’s action against the coup plotters was to send the message: “Don’t come with your money and your toffee accents to create mayhem in Africa.”

What the putschists may not have counted on was that expanding economic and diplomatic relations between South Africa and Equatorial Guinea — including the oil talks — gave South Africa a vested interest in saving Obiang.

Johann Smith, a security consultant active in Equatorial Guinea, this week said over the past three years Guinean ministers and officials had paid visits to South Africa, where they enjoyed high-level political contact. He said the government believed it could exert a positive influence on Obiang’s regime — widely regarded as a dictatorial kleptocracy — through cooperation.

Department of Foreign Affairs statements confirm the expanding relations well before the coup attempt.

In December Obiang visited South Africa to sign a “general cooperation agreement”. In February Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma hosted her Guinean counterpart in Pretoria to “assess bilateral relations in the political, economic, security and defence spheres”.

Also present were Minister of Minerals and Energy Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and her deputy counterpart, Gabriel Nguema Lima, a son of Obiang. They discussed “areas of cooperation in [the] minerals and energy sector”.

Days after the alleged coup plotters’ arrests in Harare and the Guinean capital of Malabo, the Guinean justice minister visited South Africa to ask Mbeki for help in mounting a “fair” trial. The request was renewed at a Pretoria meeting between Obiang and Mbeki on July 14, and a team of South African justice department and prosecuting authority officials left for Malabo soon afterwards.

While South Africa’s action to stop the mercenary plot is beyond reproach, one may ask whether cooperating in the subsequent prosecution does not breach South African constitutional values. Obiang’s government has already breached an assurance it will not seek the death penalty and it has not followed legal due process.

While Obiang asked Mbeki at their July 14 meeting for judicial assistance, economic relations were also on the agenda. The newsletter Africa Energy Intelligence claims Obiang and Mbeki discussed “future oil cooperation, and specifically South Africa’s PetroSA being awarded [the exploration blocks].”

After the presidents met, Foreign Affairs announced that a delegation, possibly led by Mlambo-Ngcuka, would soon visit Equatorial Guinea to ensure “the consolidation and strengthening of economic cooperation”.

Mlambo-Ngcuka’s spokesperson, Yvonne Mfolo, this week said the visit was likely to take place in mid-October. She confirmed the “petroleum issue” would feature on the agenda.

The source close to the Guinean authorities, when asked whether Pretoria foiling the coup helped PetroSA clinch the oil rights, said there was “no question” that South Africa had earned “goodwill”. But he also said there was no direct relationship, as the oil negotiations pre-dated the coup plot.

Presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo denied the lure of oil clouded judgement on the mercenary matter, saying: “Our economy is a hundred times stronger than [Obiang’s]. I cannot see us being influenced.”

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung. Read more from Stefaans Brümmer

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