Our troops died - then came the deal-makers

01 June 2017 - 08:09 By SABELO SKITI and GRAEME HOSKEN
BIG MAN: Former Central African Republic president Michel Djotodia outside the presidential palace in Bangui in this file photograph taken in November 2013.
BIG MAN: Former Central African Republic president Michel Djotodia outside the presidential palace in Bangui in this file photograph taken in November 2013.
Image: JOE PENNEY/ REUTERS

A company owned by a former cabinet minister and by a business partner of the Guptas investigated the potential of a multimillion-dollar deal with former Central African Republic leader Michel Djotodia's regime only months after his rebel forces had killed 15 South African soldiers.

The soldiers were killed in March 2013 by Seleka rebels who overran the country and ousted former CAR president Francois Bozizi. South Africa had deployed hundreds of troops to the country as part of a military training programme for Bozizi's special forces.

Many soldiers who fought in the now infamous Battle of Bangui died after running out of ammunition.

But barely four months after the South African troops were slain Gupta associates were involved in talks with the regime of Djotodia, who was CAR president from March 2013 to January 2014, and the Gupta family was consulted, leaked e-mails suggest.

Shortly after Djotodia came to power a South African company, Gade Oil and Gas, which at the time was owned by Gupta associate Salim Essa, and by Ben Ngubane, a former arts and culture minister, submitted to his government an expression of interest in exploring an oil block in that country, the e-mails suggest.

  • READ MORE | Guptas vs Oppenheimers: Controversy over use of luxury airport terminalThe State Security Agency (SSA) warned state-owned defence equipment manufacturer Denel that its apparent efforts to frustrate the Oppenheimers, a wealthy South African family, in their Fireblade luxury VVIP terminal at OR Tambo International Airport, would land it in court and had the potential to embarrass the government, leaked e-mails suggest.

A middleman offered to give Gade Oil and Gas access to CAR's minister of oil and petroleum, over whom he claimed to have influence, for an "incentive fee" of $50000.

E-mails from the middleman seen by TimesLIVE, dated October 28, state: "Can you confirm that any advance [down payment upon signing] incentive for the minister will also include mine at minimum level of $50 000.

". my role with the new government here has been a very influential one hence I am always expected to take care of others 'behind the scene'. I feel comfortable if you handle mine separate from the minister."

The e-mail was forwarded to prominent businessman and former Essa partner Iqbal Sharma by Cape Town businessman Luphumzo Kebeni.

Sharma told TimesLIVE when contacted yesterday that Kebeni, a former South African government employee, claimed to be representing the interests of the CAR government.

Sharma told TimesLIVE: "We never spoke to anybody in power directly. We were told we could speak to the ministry. This project never really materialised . I think negotiations dragged on for a few months, but nothing happened because we were not willing to pay for a meeting."

Included in the e-mails seen by TimesLIVE are some that spell out the terms of an offer.

The e-mail from the middleman reads: "This is the official offer - an additional 6M$ will be paid to the guys there ... In total 16$M."

This mail ultimately ended up in the in-tray of Rajesh "Tony" Gupta on July 30, forwarded by Essa and Sharma.

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Sharma said Gade Oil and Gas had asked him and Gupta for help with mining opportunities.

"I didn't know anyone who could do that, so I spoke to Tony [Gupta]. He mentioned that Kebeni has contacts in that place [CAR] and he had mentioned elsewhere that he worked in the oil and gas business."

He said: "Kebeni claimed that he knew people in the ministry ... and that he had been tasked by the CAR government to source investment. The decision was made that he arrange a meeting with the president through [the middleman].

"But all this never materialised. The discussion by [the middleman] mentioning incentives was out of turn and it was never entertained. That's why there was no meeting because no one entertained the idea of paying for any meeting," he said.

Kebeni said he had not met any Gupta family members or even known of their involvement in the transaction involving Gade Oil and Gas. He said he had never met Sharma or Ngubane.

He said he knew the middleman who had helped him "as a long-time friend and comrade".

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Kebeni said he acted as a broker.

"I never received any bribes or paid any such emoluments to anyone because none of the transactions we were pursuing at the time yielded anything."

A statement released by Ngubane last night said: "The company refused to pay any fees to anyone. It also did not enter into any transactions in the CAR and does not own any gas and oil mining rights in the CAR or anywhere else."

The statement said Ngubane had left the company, which was dormant.

Gupta family attorney Gert van der Merwe yesterday said: "The e-mails that you are relying on are (1) unlawfully obtained, (2) not authentic, and (3) not fully disclosed and, therefore, not worthy of a comment."

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