Money laundering, impersonation of a United States congressman and fraud — these are some of the allegations against a top lawyer who was chosen to be part of the multibillion-rand South Sudan oil deal South Africa signed earlier this year.
Despite committing the country to a long-term R14.5-billion deal to exploit oil resources in South Sudan, it has been shrouded in mystery. The Sunday Times reported in March that then energy minister Jeff Radebe had jetted to South Sudan to sign the deal, and that the state had already spent R20-million pursuing it.
The Mail & Guardian can now reveal that Njock Ajuk Eyong, also named as NJ Ayuk and Njoy Ayuk Eyong, is one of the people who was part of the deal. This will see South Africa’s Strategic Fuel Fund and oil-rich South Sudan explore petroleum resources in the war-ravaged country.
When the deal was signed, South Sudan’s former minister of petroleum, Ezekiel Gatkuoth, said his country has great potential, yet remained vastly underexplored.
This week he did not respond to questions about Eyong’s role in the deal, or the cost of the deal.
Official court records — which include an indictment, Eyong’s signed plea, and the judgment obtained by the M&G from the district court for the District of Columbia in the US — fill in some of Eyong’s story. These reveal that, in 2007, Eyong was found guilty of impersonating congressman Donald Payne so that he could issue visas to at least nine people who were then living in Cameroon.
Eyong, born in Cameroon, was an intern for the congressman at the time and his duties included mailing letters and filing correspondence. But in 2003 he started fraudulently writing letters with the signature of Payne to ensure the issuance of visas. The records say: “It was the purpose of the scheme that the defendant would provide false documentation to cause consular officials in various embassies of the United States around the world to issue visas permitting non-US citizens to enter the United States, who would not otherwise have been eligible for [the] issuance of a visa.”
Another court record states that, without the knowledge of the congressman, Eyong sent a fax to Germany stating that a Francis Valery Donfack, a citizen of Cameroon, was invited to the US to attend the annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
“Among other false claims, the letter indicated that [Donfack’s] travel, room and board and other miscellaneous expenses would be paid for by the Congressional Black Caucus … Defendant Eyong then personally called the US embassy and told consular [officials] that the congressman had requested that the visas be issued for this applicant. The consular officials refused.”
Eyong is now the chief executive of Centurion Law Group, one of the top law firms on the continent. Headquartered in Equatorial Guinea, it focuses on structuring deals in the energy sector as well as brokering deals with governments across Africa and the world.
A month ago, when the firm was contacted for an interview about the oil deal, a Mickael Vogel, who is listed on the company’s website as a director, said: “Unfortunately, only the SFF is legally in a position to publicly comment on this particular deal.”
When further questions were sent to Centurion, the M&G received a cease-and-desist letter warning that “the full weight of the law will be speedily dispatched on the Mail & Guardian” in the event of publication. The letter noted that: “South Sudan chose to award a lucrative oil block to the people of South Africa.”
What the email didn’t do was respond to the M&G’s questions. No responses were provided to numerous follow-up requests.
In its March article, the Sunday Times reported that Radebe pleaded with Gatkuoth to speed up the signing of the agreement. In leaked messages, Radebe wrote: “We are proposing as a signing date the 6th of May 2019. We apologise for the short period, however, as you know we have our national elections on the 8th of May 2019.”
Radebe told the M&G that he does not know a person by the name of Njock Eyong, nor did he play a role in his alleged appointment. But he confirmed that he was made aware that the SFF and its South Sudanese counterpart, Nilepet State Oil Company, appointed Centurion as one of their service providers.
“It is a total falsehood to allege that I acted in my personal capacity in the agreement between South Africa and South Sudan. At all material times I have acted in my official capacity as the then minister of energy,” he said.
He added that his trip to South Sudan for the signing ceremony had been authorised by Ramaphosa.
“You are advised to contact SFF who are the ones who chartered the flight to South Sudan,” said Radebe.
“As I have explained, ministers are not involved in operational matters and certainly I did not as SFF/Nilepet are responsible for appointing service providers as well as the execution of the project.”
The M&G has tried to establish the exact role that Eyong played in the oil deal — talking to people involved on the South African side and people on the outside — but none of the parties involved responded to exhaustive efforts to get comment.
Yet in a report by Independent Online, Eyong said: “The potential discoveries can be quickly and cheaply tied into existing infrastructure. I am also impressed by the deal’s commitment to local content, dedication to hiring citizens of South Sudan and investment in education.”
This indicates that South Africa seems to have included someone with a criminal record in a secretive and lucrative oil deal. The US court documents note that, when confronted by the police for impersonating Payne, Eyong denied his involvement. “He disclaimed his knowledge, pretending to speculate that they [the letters] may have been sent by a friend of his — now dead — who he allowed to visit him at the congressman’s offices.”
In 2007 he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation, and told to back to Cameroon in 30 days or be deported.
Things, however, did not seem to end with this conviction. Eyong and his advisory firm have also been flagged by Ghanaian media. In 2015, The Finder online newspaper wrote that Centurion director Genevive Kabukuor Ocansey was arrested and detained for allegedly aiding a Cameroonian — Eyong — to launder $2.5-million into Ghana and repatriate $1-million to Equatorial Guinea.
The report stated that, after a tip-off, officials of the Bank of Ghana undertook several months of investigations and arrested Ocansey, who is listed on the Centurion website as the company’s director in Ghana. The article noted that: “Her accomplice, Njoy Ayuk Eyong, also known as NJ Ayuk MBA, is out of Ghana at the moment.”
A source in Ghana told the M&G that the case had stalled since Ocansey paid her bail.
The Central Energy Fund, the mother body of the SFF and responsible for finding solutions to meet the country’s energy needs, did not respond to questions about how and why Eyong and Centurion were appointed.