To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
11 Dec 2015 00:00
Jacob Arabo. (Gianluca Colla Bloomberg)
Swazi king Mswati III’s choice of business partners is again under the spotlight after strong evidence emerged that the spendthrift monarch is in business with Jacob Arabo, a wealthy Uzbekh-American jeweller who has done jail time for lying to federal investigators about his alleged links to a multimillion-dollar drug ring.
At issue is a gold mining venture in northern Swaziland called Lufafa Mine Pty Ltd.
Arabo, known as “Jacob the Jeweller” and the “King of Bling”, is a purveyor of flamboyant jewellery to clients ranging from the hip-hop industry to Hollywood and the sporting world through his firm Jacob & Co. He was arrested in 2006 at his flagship New York jewellery outlet on suspicion of tax evasion and laundering more than $270-million in narcotics proceeds for a Detroit-based drug ring called the Black Mafia Family.
Arabo was sentenced by a Detroit court to 30 months in prison for lying to investigators, fined $50 000 and ordered to forfeit $2-million to the United States government.
He was released from jail in April 2010.
His clients include such celebrities as rapper Sean “Puffy” Combs, singers Mary J Blige, Beyoncé, Jessica Simpson and Janet Jackson, soccer star David Beckham and supermodel Christy Turlington.
The Black Mafia to which he was allegedly linked was said to have established cocaine distribution cells throughout the US and to have a direct connection with Mexican-based drug cartels.
AmaBhungane has now found compelling evidence that Jacob & Co is involved in a gold-mining operation in the Lufafa mountains near Pigg’s Peak in partnership with Mswati and the Swazi government, through the Lufafa mining company.
This appeared to be denied by Swaziland’s commissioner of mines Sam Ntshalintshali, who said there was no connection between Arabo and Lufafa.
A recent trip by amaBhungane to the mine indicated that mining, or preparation for mining, is already under way, with local residents confirming that some of their family members are already employed there.
The visit also confirmed that a road and bridges crossing rivers on the route to the remote mountain location are under construction.
But attempts to establish a more detailed picture of the operation – and particularly Arabo’s role – proved challenging.
AmaBhungane sent questions to Ntshalintshali and Jacob & Co in New York, including queries about the shareholding of the Lufafa operation and whether Arabo was an appropriate business partner for the Swazi head of state.
No reply was received from Jacob & Co, and the commissioner appeared to duck many of the questions, particularly those relating to Arabo’s involvement.
Ntshalintshali said the Lufafa mine was privately owned and that the government was not financially involved. It is unclear whether this also applies to the road being built to Lufafa and the bridges on it.
When asked about the mine’s ownership structure, he referred amaBhungane to the provisions on mining rights in the country’s Mines and Minerals Act of 2011.
Although he did not specify what these were, the Act stipulates that the king must receive 25% of any mining venture, with a further 25% going to the government.
Nowhere in his responses does Ntshalintshali mention the name of the government’s private partner in the Lufafa mine.
He suggested that amaBhungane “refer to the office of the registrar of companies, a public office whose records will render whatever information your require in this regard”.
AmaBhungane asked a Swazi citizen to makes inquiries about the mine at the company registration office in Mbabane, but he was blocked by a barrage of questions and a demand for an identity document.
Asked whether Arabo was a suitable business bedfellow for Mswati and the Swazi government, given his criminal record, Ntshalintshali said the Lufafa mine “has no relation to the person referred to above and therefore the question is moot”.
But some of his colleagues in government think otherwise.
At a “consultative conference” at the Pigg’s Peak Hotel in August, Swazi Minerals Board chairperson Winston Lomahoza told the local media that Mswati owns 25% of the shares in the Lufafa mine, the government owns 25% and Jacob & Co the remaining 50%.
This conforms precisely with the requirements of the Mines and Minerals Act. Lomahoza added that he was “grateful that his majesty had allowed mining to take place yet again”.
The function was attended by senior government officials and traditional leaders, including the regional commissioner of the Hhohho district, Prince Tshekedi Dlamini.
The Swazi Observer reported the prince as saying that Jacobs & Co had managed to convince the country’s authorities that they deserved a licence to mine there.
Mswati allegedly holds his mining shares in trust for the Swazi nation. But he does not pay tax, so it is unclear how ordinary Swazis benefit from his holdings.
There have also been numerous media reports in Swaziland about contacts between Mswati and Arabo.
The first publicised meeting between the two was in 2012 – two years after Arabo was released from jail – when the Swazi Observer reported that the jeweller had hosted Mswati at a dinner in New York during a visit by the monarch to the United Nations general assembly.
“King of Bling”
Arabo reportedly visited Swaziland shortly afterwards when he attended the University of Swaziland’s 2012 graduation ceremony at Mswati’s invitation. The Swazi Observer reported Mswati as saying at the ceremony that Arabo “was a man of his word”.
In April last year, the “King of Bling” was reported to have graced Mswati’s lavish 46th birthday party in Manzini.
In June, it was reported that Arabo had been granted prospecting rights over 22-million hectares in the mountains of the northern Hhohho district. Ntshalintshali said the Lufafa mine was granted a 25-year mining lease in October last year.
The commissioner said that Lufafa was “currently on a construction development, evaluation and testing phase of its plant in readiness for commissioning.
“The mine consists of a low-grade but high-tonnage deposit,” he said.
In July a curious report appeared in the Swazi Observer, allegedly exposing serious illegal mining activity by an Ivorian employee of Jacob & Co, Beke Janel, who was reportedly found in possession of 27kg of illegal gold. Janel was charged in the Pigg’s Peak magistrate’s court and granted bail on condition that he surrendered his passport and reported regularly to the police.
“The local consortium of Jacob & Co”
AmaBhungane was unable to establish what progress has been made in this case or Janel’s current whereabouts. Royal Swaziland Police spokesperson Khulani Mamba said he knew nothing of the case but would inquire. Subsequent attempts to talk to Mamba on the phone were unsuccessful.
Also at the Pigg’s Peak consultative workshop was a royal family member, Mihlakayifani Dlamini, described in a news report as a director of “the local consortium of Jacob & Co”.
US resident Dlamini and Arabo are shown together in a photograph accompanying a Swazi Observer article in June last year, which states that they are business associates.
Dlamini told the media in Pigg’s Peak that Lufafa’s estimated gold reserve was 251 000 ounces and that 75 Swazis had been employed at the mine. He added that homesteads might have to be moved as the mining would take place over a 425 000-hectare area.
He also said that, although Swaziland did not have the capacity to purify gold, the intention was to refine it to 98% purity in the country and to send it to South Africa for final purification.
Dlamini also predicted that, in a few years, the country would be able to make and sell products manufactured from gold, such as jewellery and watches. He added that a jewellery school would soon be set up to teach Swazis gold manufacturing techniques.
He also hinted that non-Swazis are currently providing the mining expertise at Lufafa. The Swazi Observer reported him as saying that “we are expecting to employ a lot of Swazis and we want them to be involved in the running of the mine. In a few years, we expect expertise to be imparted to locals.”
Ntshalintshali reportedly said that 25 Swazis were being trained in Taiwan to be mining engineers. They were now in their second year of training and were expected to be absorbed by mines such as Lufafa by 2018.
He said 15% of the government’s stake in the mine would be reserved to provide capital for companies venturing into mining or the production of mining products.
Mswati is currently embroiled in an acrimonious legal battle with a former business partner, Shanmuga Rethenam of Singapore.
At issue are expenses associated with the purchase and refurbishment of the king’s personal jet, which Rethenam claims are due to him.
* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Click here.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.
Create Account | Lost Your Password?