RUSSIAN CARGO SHIP
UAE’s role in Lady R saga doesn’t make sense, say experts as questions over arms imports continue
Rather than clarifying details of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the docking of the Russian cargo vessel, the executive summary of the Lady R report leaves many thinking whatever was going on was unlikely to have been above board.
Perhaps the main question – of many – raised by the executive summary of the official inquiry into the controversial docking of the Russian vessel Lady R at Simon’s Town in December, concerns the role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Until now, this controversy has all been about weapons and/or ammunition imported from and/or exported to Russia. The official inquiry, headed by former judge Phineas Mojapelo, found that no arms for Russia were loaded onto the Lady R, as US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety had famously alleged. It did confirm that the ship offloaded military “equipment”.
But the release of the executive summary this week disclosed for the first time that this “equipment” had been ordered from a company based in the UAE. This equipment had been ordered by Armscor in 2018 and was long overdue, delayed, among other reasons, by Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Read in Daily Maverick: Lady R executive summary report: Nothing to see here, folks
African Defence Review director Darren Olivier believes the Lady R executive summary “raises more questions than it answers and I don’t believe we can reasonably say that the matter has been closed and settled”.
And the biggest questions arise from the fact that the UAE was mentioned for the first time. “The minister [of defence] said the order was from Russia, the Lady R is a Russian ship, and it sailed from Novorossiysk in Russia. It didn’t stop to collect any cargo from the UAE.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa
Olivier pointed out that there were no National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) import permits from the UAE in 2018 or 2019. The NCACC’s approval is required for any arms exports or imports. “The only import permit I can find from the UAE is in 2022, for ‘80 large-calibre artillery’, but it would be unusual for a permit to be only applied for so long after the contract was signed rather than applying for it earlier and asking for it to be extended as necessary if there are production delays.
“And as the ship did not dock in the UAE it’s unlikely that it was carrying any Emirati equipment. Most likely the Emirati company acted merely as a broker and in those cases the related permit and End User Certificate paperwork must reflect the actual source country.
“What does exist in the NCACC reports are the two permits for ammunition from Russia in 2019 and 2020. Given that the Minister of Defence has already stated that the order was ‘ammunition for the Special Forces’ and the ship sailed from Russia, we can only assume those are the corresponding permits,” he said, referring to Defence Minister Thandi Modise’s earlier statement about what had been unloaded from the Lady R.
There is no reason to use a third party to order arms or ammo from Russia, unless there are cadres in the supply chain acting as agents or consultants with a company registered in UAE.
“This mention of the UAE is not explained further at all, nor is it explained why the contract was with an Emirati company but all other elements were Russian. Why not just contract with the Russian companies directly? I can’t see how it makes sense to have used a middleman or broker in this case when the option existed to buy directly from Russian suppliers and the buyer. Especially as Armscor appeared to retain all supply risk, which negates half the value of using a broker who could be required to source the items elsewhere if the original supplier failed to deliver. Again, many more questions than answers.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Minister of defensive — Thandi Modise repeats ‘We put fokol’ on Lady R mantra as MPs demand answers
Other experts are also suspicious about the entry of the UAE into the mix. Two arms industry sources, who wished to remain anonymous, also questioned the need for Armscor to have ordered the ammunition or other material through a middleman in the UAE, rather than directly from Russia.
“There is no reason to use a third party to order arms or ammo from Russia, unless there are cadres in the supply chain acting as agents or consultants with a company registered in UAE,” one said.
“These deals don’t go ahead without the cadres getting their commissions, preferably in a jurisdiction where no questions are asked. They add no value, only costs. But that seems standard practice.”
This source said the UAE is definitely a “no questions asked” jurisdiction, notorious for money laundering and other clandestine transactions.
Of course, this is just speculation, though as several sources have said, by declining to release the full report, President Cyril Ramaphosa has aroused such suspicions.
Olivier said: “There’s absolutely no reason why the manifest and related information about what was loaded onto the ship cannot be made a public part of the report. If there are confidential elements, such as the names of personnel, simply redact them. Declaring it all secret is wrong.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Democracy dies behind closed doors — open the Lady R inquiry
Other defence experts have questioned whether the equipment offloaded from the Lady R was in fact only ammunition – as the 2019 and 2020 NCACC permits for imports from Russia said – or whether it also included Russian weapons, which would then not have been authorised at all by the NCACC.
Secrecy leads to questions
Could some of the answers to the UAE mystery and other questions lie in another big question which is hinted at towards the end of the report’s executive summary?
There it relates how the Lady R switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder before entering Simon’s Town – supposedly to avoid being detected by foreign intelligence (presumably the US).
“The vessel and those who assisted it contravened a number of provisions that relate to commercial vessels docking at South African ports, including SARS designation of a port of entry. The Panel made recommendations in relation to the future management of foreign vessels’ docking at South African ports.”
My impression is still that the scope of the investigation was so limited that it was not possible for the panel to investigate everything related to the Lady R’s visit, and that it was possibly designed to to come to a predetermined conclusion.
And the report goes on to say: “The Panel also made findings and recommendations relative to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (‘NCACC’), communication between Ministers, government officials, the failure to write reports and to keep the President abreast of matters of national importance.”
As one commentator, who also wanted to remain anonymous, observed, the “contravention of provisions” and “failure to write reports and keep the President abreast of matters of national importance” sound rather like euphemisms for something more serious, possibly breaches of the law.
On the issue of the Lady R turning off its AIS transponder and conducting its operations under the cover of darkness, DA defence spokesperson Kobus Marais told Daily Maverick: “That’s completely ridiculous and plainly disingenuous. If nothing was done wrong, why the secrecy under the cover of night… I don’t buy this at all.”
He continued: “The bottom line is that there are now more questions than answers.
“If the equipment was indeed equipment ordered in 2018 from a UAE agent, then there doesn’t seem to be a permit issued based on the NCACC reports.
“For the past nine months, the government has refused to take responsibility and to talk to us, and the President had declared, prior to the establishment of the panel, that the report will not be made public. My impression is still that the scope of the investigation was so limited that it was not possible for the panel to investigate everything related to the Lady R’s visit, and that it was possibly designed to to come to a predetermined conclusion,” said Marais.
NCACC reports have not always been taken seriously by this government and it appears to have taken the crisis triggered by Brigety’s bombshell accusation to force the government to do so now.
The panel’s accusation of a failure to keep Ramaphosa abreast of developments also hints at disapproval of the huge official silence from the government for months after the Lady R docked in Simon’s Town and was seen by many residents of the town unloading – and many who claimed to see it loading – equipment in the dead of night.
That ignited a firestorm of speculation which the government did little to quench.
Ramaphosa himself was silent even after US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had raised this with the government on her visit to South Africa in January. Why the silence?
It is unclear – and perhaps will remain so – why Brigety announced so confidently in his controversial press conference in May that the Lady R had loaded arms and ammunition bound for Russia.
But certainly it had the effect of jolting Ramaphosa into action by appointing the inquiry.
US appreciates South Africa’s ‘seriousness’
The US Congress, which has perhaps been the most suspicious about the Lady R, seems not quite convinced about the Mojapelo report’s findings.
Daily Maverick understands Congress is reviewing the efficacy of the report’s executive summary in relation to what the State Department previously briefed it about the Lady R – which was the same information that informed Brigety’s conclusions about the incident.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Is US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety a loose cannon — or a consummate professional?
Either way, though, it seems that both Pretoria and Washington have agreed to put the incident behind them and to move ahead with relations – including South Africa hosting the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum in November, which had seemed jeopardised by the Lady R episode.
This week, US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said: “We appreciate the seriousness with which the panel of inquiry in South Africa undertook to investigate irregularities surrounding the Lady R’s presence in South Africa in December of 2022.”
He added: “We look forward to advancing our relationship with our South African partners on a number of shared priorities, including trade and health.”
Asked whether the US still backed Brigety’s allegation, Patel replied rather vaguely: “No change in policy or anything like that. We had raised our concerns in December and had continued to raise our concerns about the presence of this vessel and certain irregularities around it. But again, we appreciate the seriousness that – which the South African government has acted and taken this.” DM