Nigerians bust with $10m in suitcases

2014-09-14 15:01

A high-level investigation is under way after a mysterious business jet, registered in the US and carrying nearly $9.3?million (R102?million) in cash, landed at Lanseria International Airport, northwest of Johannesburg, on September 5.

The cash, unused $100 bills, was packed in three suitcases and was apparently meant for buying arms for the Nigerian intelligence service.

The plane, a Challenger 600, had a Nigerian flight crew on board, along with two Nigerian citizens and an Israeli. It was piloted by a Captain Ojongbede and the flight had come from Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Adrian Lackay, spokesperson for the SA Revenue Service (Sars), confirmed that customs officers became suspicious when the passengers’ luggage was unloaded and put through the scanners just after 7pm. The officers then investigated and found three suitcases full of cash.

The passengers apparently told officials they were acting on behalf of the Nigerian intelligence service.

They provided documentation confirming they had come to South Africa to buy weapons. It is not clear whether the Israeli passenger was an intelligence operative or an arms dealer.

The National Conventional Arms Control Committee, which has to approve the import and export of any weapons as well as issue permits for such transactions, was not aware of any applications in this case.

A committee spokesperson said they were aware of the incident, but did not respond to requests for further information.

Hawks spokesperson Captain Paul Ramaloko confirmed the incident. City Press understands that the National Prosecuting Authority unit that investigates crimes against the state is also involved in the case, and the State Security Agency has also shown interest in the matter.

Arms transactions are not usually paid for in cash, and a complicated bank transfer system is needed to transfer large amounts of money from one country to another.

Lackay said Sars officials made certain that the money was properly packaged, and sealed and handed to the Reserve Bank for safekeeping until the investigation was completed.

The case was reported to the Muldersdrift Police Station, west of Joburg, and the seizure of the money was documented accordingly, said Lackay.

The aircraft was temporarily impounded, but was allowed to return to Abuja on Monday morning.

According to unconfirmed reports, one of the passengers was arrested.

Further investigation revealed that the aircraft used to belong to the American healthcare company Kimberly-Clark. But company spokesperson Bob Brand said the firm had sold the plane years ago, and denied that it had anything to do with the incident.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration aeroplane register, the Challenger, with the registration number N808HG, was reregistered in the name of Bank of Utah Trustee last year. The address in the register was given as Salt Lake City, US.

Aviation industry insiders claim similar “owners” have previously been involved in several controversial aircraft financing transactions for aircraft in Africa.

City Press has also established that the aircraft is used by an entity called Swat Inc in Abuja, but no details of such a company could be found.

Another plane used by Swat Inc, a Hawker Siddeley 125, also with an American registration number (N497AG), landed at Lanseria Airport last month. That plane and its passengers remained in the country for two days before returning to Abuja on August 13.

The Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria failed to respond to written and telephonic enquiries this week.

Jack Hillmeyer, spokesperson for the American embassy, said no one at his embassy knew anything about the aircraft or the incident.

The SA Reserve Bank’s regulations provide that a passenger entering or leaving the country may carry a maximum amount of R25?000 in cash, or the equivalent in foreign currency in notes.

The passenger may be stopped and asked to declare the cash and state the origin of the money.

He or she may also be asked for the letter of permission from the central bank in their country of origin.

And if there is any suspicion that the cash is meant for money laundering, customs officers may seize it.

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