Ivor Ichikowitz is the founder and executive chairman of the Paramount Group, the largest private arms manufacturer in Africa. It makes armoured vehicles, naval ships, helicopters, and fighter jets. But Ichikowitz would prefer not to be remembered for the weapons systems that he sells to autocratic regimes including Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
Instead, he wants to focus on his philanthropy. As the website of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation puts it: “Ivor is an African industrialist and philanthropist with a passion for Africa and its people.”
It was the charitable version of Ichikowitz on show at the recent Rhodes Forum, held this weekend on the Greek island of the same name. He participated in a panel discussion on the role of philanthropy in the new world order. The forum is an annual conference organised by the Dialogue of Civilisations, a controversial think tank run by Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin (Yakunin himself is also controversial: he has close links to Vladimir Putin, and is currently on a United States sanctions list in connection with his alleged role in the annexation of Crimea).
During his presentation, Ichikowitz spoke passionately about his foundation’s African Oral History Archive, which aims to preserve original testimony from participants in the fight against apartheid; and about his commitments to conservation and anti-poaching efforts.
He views poaching as a major threat to international security. “In my day job we run an aerospace and defence business, which is global, where we come face to face with conflict all over the world. We realised that a lot of this conflict was created by the proceeds of cross-border crime, including the trade in contraband wildlife products.” This trade, he added, “ultimately funds the purchase of weapons which creates hotspots on the continent”.
Ichikowitz’s solution: more weapons. In 2016, his foundation donated a Gazelle helicopter and anti-poaching equipment to the Gabon National Parks Agency for its Anti-Poaching Rapid Response Task Force. In a tidy confluence of interests, Gabon — ruled by the same family since 1967 — is a long-time customer of the Paramount Group, having previously purchased ten Maverick internal security vehicles and six refurbished Mirage F1 fighter jets, according to DefenceWeb.
Ichikowitz has strong views on philanthropy. He identifies three types of philanthropist in Africa. The first, for whom he has no time, are the ones “who talk a lot and do very little”. The second, with whom he identifies, are those who “roll up their sleeves, they get the job done, they bulldoze everyone out of the way to get the job done”. The third are the western-based “think tanks” who use “philanthropy, thinly-veiled, to impose radical ideas to interfere politically, create regime change, often for other nefarious purposes. That’s a problem, it gives philanthropy a very bad name.”
The third type of philanthropist
On the same panel as Ichikowitz sat his close friend, Jean-Yves Ollivier, a French businessman who was accused recently of falling into that third category. Ollivier runs the Brazzaville Foundation, which also has a strong focus on conservation, and was recently the subject of an investigation by Finance Uncovered. The investigation aired claims that the Foundation was established to launder the reputation of Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the president of the Republic of Congo who has been in power for a total of 35 years, and has been repeatedly accused of enabling human rights abuses.
When challenged on this by the Mail & Guardian, Ollivier said — without offering proof — that the investigation was paid for “by some people who don’t like us, and the conclusion has not proved anything”. He denied the allegations. “Why do you identify one person, especially who is nothing to do with my company, with my institution, why do you say that I am supporting this guy? I am not supporting this guy, he is a friend. But look at what I am delivering. Not what my friends are.”
This response is disingenuous: in early versions of the Brazzaville Foundation website, seen by the M&G, President Sassou-Nguesso is referred to as the organisation’s “inspiration”. In fact, both Olivier and Ichikowitz are close to the Congolese president. As the Telegraph put it in a 2016 article: “Mr Ollivier is one of his key aides while Mr Ichikowitz is his main arms supplier.”
Tim Bell, the founder of disgraced PR firm Bell Pottinger — infamous for meddling in the internal politics of sovereign states — was until last year a trustee of the Brazzaville Foundation. Its board includes former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe and former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa. In another tidy confluence of interests, Phosa is now a partner in Ichikowitz’s Paramount Group, and the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation describes the Ichikowitz Family Foundation as one of its main sponsors.
Nothing to see here
Ichikowitz claims not to see any contradiction between his day job and his charitable endeavours. During the question and answer session, we put the question to him.
M&G: Mr Ichikowitz, earlier this year your company Paramount signed a deal with Saudi Arabia. This was in the wake of the [Jamal] Khashoggi murder and documented abuses by the Saudi Arabian military in Yemen. How do you square that with your philanthropic activity?
By way of background, that deal involves Paramount helping Saudi Arabia’s state defense company establish domestic production of “technologies and capabilities across the land, sea and air domains”, according to Reuters. Saudi Arabia is a key protagonist in the war in Yemen, which by a United Nations count has killed at least 102 000 people. Among other alleged abuses, Saudi Arabia has been accused of killing thousands of civilians through indiscriminate bombing campaigns.
Ichikowitz: I have the privilege to be involved in 22 companies. These companies have lives of their own and they employ tens of thousands of people. We have a long history of relationships between South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The very contract that you refer to is an industrial collaboration agreement, an industrial contract, that will produce thousands of jobs in both countries. It has nothing to do with our philanthropic activities. Quite frankly, I think that in the current global environment it is very difficult to have a knee jerk reaction to the relationship we have. You could argue that we do business in the United States, from a human rights and abuse perspective, it isn’t necessarily [trails off]…I also do business in South Africa and frankly I don’t agree with what the South African government is doing. Business and philanthropy are related because the money for philanthropy comes from business. We do social impact philanthropy, we create jobs, and I don’t think we have to answer for the countries we do business with.
This too is a disingenuous response. Ichikowitz and Paramount have a legal obligation to answer for the countries they do business with: as per the National Conventional Arms Control Act, South African arms manufacturers cannot export weapons to countries where they could be used in the commission of human rights abuses. Ichikowitz may or may not be exporting arms to Saudi Arabia – the terms of the deal are not public – but in helping the Kingdom to manufacture its own defence capabilities, Paramount Group certainly risks aiding and abetting gross human rights violations on an even grander scale. As the old adage doesn’t quite go: give a man a bullet, and he can shoot for a day. Teach a man to make a bullet, and he can shoot for a lifetime.
Ichikowitz insists that it is possible to separate his day job from his charity. In practise, however, it is very difficult to see where the arms dealer ends and the philanthropist begins – or, indeed, if there is a difference between the two.
Ichikowitz did not grant an interview to the M&G.
Note: Simon Allison was a guest of the Rhodes Forum.