South Africa is considering returning more than $15m, it seized from Nigeria in September, last year.
The money, which was meant for the purchase of arms to fight the Boko Haram insurgents, was seized in two batches of $5.7m and $9.3m.
A South African newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, reported on Friday that South Africa had begun to work out the process of returning the money.
According to the newspaper, the effort of South Africa is aimed at starting on a clean slate with Nigerian President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari.
The money was taken to South Africa through Lanseria Airport in Johannesburg in three suitcases by a delegation said to represent the Nigerian government.
The Mail & Guardian stated that South Africa wanted to use the money to extend an olive branch to Buhari’s government and mend relations between the two countries, which became strained during the tenure of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan. It quoted a South African government source as saying, “The positive thing about [Buhari] is that one of the people who supported him is Atiku Abubakar. That makes him our man and he will automatically work well with [President Jacob] Zuma.”
According to the newspaper, Atiku is a close associate of Zuma. He was Nigeria’s deputy president during the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, at the time when Zuma was Thabo Mbeki’s deputy.
“Also, this man [Buhari] is a [retired] military general. It is true that the military needs some beefing up to fight Boko Haram and we should help,” the source added.
On the process of returning the money, the South African government source added, “Diplomatically you send a signal. Obviously they will have to make a request once they receive a positive signal, but the request will just be an official step to finalising the transaction.”
The newspaper stated that although formal talks had not yet begun, South Africa had apparently started sending “positive signals” through its diplomats in Nigeria and to the Nigerian embassy in Pretoria.
“To ensure that the process of returning the money or regularising the sale of arms looks as clean as possible, the Hawks investigation will continue, the source said, but will be managed politically to reach a conclusion that is diplomatically favourable.
“One way is to make the investigators say: ‘Yes, a law has been broken, but it’s true that the government [of Nigeria] is the owner of that money and genuinely wanted to buy arms legally. They might have flouted the rules, but it’s a genuine transaction.’ [We will say] this money does not come from dirty hands or rebels or arms dealers,” the source said.
“We will find a way to regularise the transaction and either return the money or give them arms.”
Nigeria wanted to use the money to buy arms such as helicopters and ammunition to strengthen its fight against Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.
In 2014, the South African newspaper had reported that the head of the national conventional arms control committee, Jeff Radebe, who is also the minister in the presidency, was blamed by the government for taking a unilateral decision to try to regularise the sale of arms to Nigeria to facilitate the release of bodies of South Africans who were killed when Pastor Temitope Joshua’s church the Synagogue Church of All Nations building collapsed.
At the time, Radebe denied it and said the committee had met in October and decided to propose unlocking the Nigerian arms trade.
The M&G quoted from two letters that Radebe had written to JP “Torie” Pretorius of the Hawks and Dumisani Dladla, the head of the arms control committee’s secretariat, in which he said the failed attempt on September 5 to pay an arms dealer in South Africa “was, in fact, a legitimate requirement from the government of Nigeria”.
“Although the required administrative processes were not adhered to at the time, the government of South Africa deems it a bona fide error,” he wrote.
The newspaper also reported that a government source in South Africa said, “What Jeff did may have been unilateral, but it is now an avenue that South Africa is willing to explore. Even when we were doing damage control after your story, the discussion centred around how we can get a positive outcome out of this.”
The spokesperson for the South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation, Nelson Kgwete, was reported by the newspapers as saying that the department had not been in talks with Nigerian government over the confiscated money and knew nothing about a proposal to either return the money or sell arms to Nigeria
When contacted, the South African ambassador to Nigeria, Lulu Mnguni, said there had been discussions between his country and Nigeria to return the money before the expiration of the tenure of the Jonathan administration on May 29,2014.
Mnguni however said he could not comment on the report that the South African government planned to give the money to the incoming government, noting that he has no such information.
“We have been holding discussions about returning the money to the current government in Nigeria before the expiration of its tenure on May 29, but I can’t react to the report in a newspaper on the issue, but I will get across to my principal and let you know the position of things,” he said on the phone.