Johannesburg – A failed bid to secure a lucrative oil concession in the Central African Republic (CAR) ties a company linked to Eskom chairperson Ben Ngubane and Gupta associate Salim Essa to talks involving the payment of “behind the scenes incentives” to government officials in that country.
Emails and documents obtained by News24’s sister publication City Press show that in 2013 – mere months after 13 South African soldiers died while trying to suppress a violent coup in the CAR – the Guptas were sent an email that detailed how a $6m payment would help another company secure the same oil block a Gupta-linked company would later try to obtain.
An email forwarded to Rajesh “Tony” Gupta, the youngest of the Gupta trio, in July 2013, apparently set in motion an effort by Gade Oil and Gas, whose directors at that stage were Essa and Ngubane, to secure exploration rights to an oil block in the north-east of the CAR.
Gade Oil and Gas’s lobbying efforts involved communication between two South African businessmen and a representative of the CAR’s then oil and minerals minister.
Talk of making payments
It was in some of these exchanges that there was talk of making payments to the oil and minerals minister in order for Ngubane and Essa’s company to secure the exploration rights.
On July 30, 2013 – barely four months after the violent ouster of former CAR president Francois Bozizé by the Seleka forces of former president Michel Djotodia – Tony Gupta and his son, Srikant Singhala, were forwarded email exchanges involving the CAR’s so-called Oil Block A from the owner of an unknown Gmail account.
The exchanges were between a group of South African businessmen and associates of the Guptas, including Essa, in which a company called Soco International’s bid for the oil block were discussed.
The emails also included a draft agreement between the CAR’s new Djotodia-led government and what appears to have been Soco International’s local subsidiary, Soco CAR Limited. The latter document, drafted in French, was included in the batch of documents obtained by City Press.
“This is the official offer – an additional 6M$ will be paid to the guys there . . . in total 16$M,” one Mata Botima emailed Andy Macauly, a South African businessman, on July 10, 2013.
The agreement between Soco CAR Limited and the CAR was attached to this email, which was then forwarded by Macauly to Essa and Iqbal Sharma, Essa’s former business partner.
Macauly also wrote the following to Essa and Sharma: “This is the offer made by Soco International which is US$10m to Gov’t on signing & $6m out wide to people.”
These exchanges, along with the draft agreement, were finally forwarded to Rajesh Gupta and Srikant Singhala on July 30, 2013.
Enter SA’s ‘honorary consul-general’ to CAR
A series of emails exchanged between Sharma and Luphumzo Kebeni and his partner, Emmanual Baba Zuma, two South Africans who were roped in to negotiate with a CAR citizen who called himself South Africa’s “honorary consul-general” to the CAR, shed further light on Gade Oil and Gas’s bid to secure the oil exploration rights.
The emails suggest Kebeni and Zuma started communicating with Maxime Ange Kazagui, a CAR businessman with a footprint in the diamond trade and also that country’s then representative in the Kimberley Process (to stop the flow of conflict diamonds), in October 2013.
Kebeni and Zuma also provided feedback to Sharma on their negotiations with Kazagui.
“Me and Luphumzo Kebeni will in CAR this coming and we will ensure that the Block will still be award to you, we apologies for any convenient caused [sic],” Emmanuel Zuma wrote to Sharma on October 12.
On October 28 of that year, in an email that includes the name of Ngubane and Essa’s company in the subject line, Kazagui told Kebeni that money would have to be paid to himself and the minister.
“Can you also confirm that any advance (down-payment upon signing) incentive for the minister will also include mine at minimum level of 50 000 $. Remember, as RSA Hon Consul-General for CAR, my role with the new government here has been very influential one hence I am always expected to take care of others ‘behind the scenes’. I feel comfortable if you handle mine separate from the Minister,” Kazagui wrote to Luphumzo.
Luphumzo then forwarded the CAR businessman’s request to Sharma, and wrote: “I think we should honour it as this man plays a huge role and influence in the day to day affairs of the Minister and government there in general… The request for down-payment upon signature is just a token of motivation/appreciation as he is always keen to expedite and fastrack things even at short notice.”
A meeting between Gade Oil and Gas and the oil and minerals minister was then proposed for November 2013, but this apparently never materialised.
‘Nothing ever came of it’
Sharma, Ngubane and Kebeni all saidthat Gade Oil and Gas’s bid for the oil block did not go through.
Ngubane says any suggestion of him having been involved in proposed corrupt payments is “just rubbish”.
“I was at an oil importers meeting when the possibility of a deal in CAR was discussed, but nothing ever came of it,” said Ngubane.
Sharma says he would never have entertained the possibility of bribing foreign government officials.
“I wasn’t involved in any such thing and I didn’t propose such a thing. The emails that the fellow [Kazagui] wrote to Kebane about that [proposed bribes], that is not something that we accepted at all,” says Sharma.
Sharma explained the Guptas’ involvement in the saga as follows: “Tony (Rajesh) Gupta just introduced the people, Andy Macauly and them, to Luphumzo (Kebeni, the South African who did Gade Oil and Gas’s bidding in the CAR). Andy and them came in separately, they did not know Luphumzo.”
Luphumzo said that he was central to the proposed deal, but that he never participated in, or suggested any, corrupt deals with CAR officials.
“I am involved in minerals deals in countries such as the CAR, Chad and Gabon. I was invited by the CAR government to try and get investors in that country,” said Luphumzo.
News24 could not get hold of Zuma for comment, but Luphumzo stressed the fact that his partner was in no way related to or linked to the family of President Jacob Zuma.
“Baba [Emmanual] Zuma has no relation to President Jacob Zuma. I brought him into the deal,” said Luphumzo.