South Africa’s government has confirmed that an ambassador accused of accepting bribes in the case concerning mobile operator MTN’s Iranian unit has been suspended and recalled pending the outcome of an investigation.
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, responded to parliamentary questions on Wednesday, confirming that Yusuf Saloojee, South Africa’s Ambassador to Iran, has been recalled while the department conducts a detailed internal investigation into claims implicating him in bribery.
The investigation into allegations against Saloojee appears to be picking up pace, as almost four months after his initial suspension pending the outcome of an enquiry the government has now taken the move of recalling him to South Africa for more detailed examination of the claims.
Saloojee is accused of participating in corrupt activities in a case currently on hold before a US court, which sees MTN Irancell being sued for allegedly securing a lucrative contract for the second ever mobile telecoms operator’s licence in Iran through bribery and arms dealing.
The plaintiff to the case, rival mobile operator Turkcell, claims that Saloojee accepted US$200,000 in return for helping to manoeuvre Turkcell out of the network operating contract, and get MTN into government favour.
Turkcell’s pivotal piece of evidence comes in the form of ex-MTN executive Chris Kilowan, who is acting as a witness in support of the plaintiff’s case. Kilowan has claimed that he sourced the US$200,000 to pay Saloojee, which the Ambassador used to buy his wife a house in Pretoria.
In return, it is alleged that Saloojee used his influence in Iranian official circles to ensure that the network licencing contract was awarded to MTN. Furthermore, it is claimed that Saloojee was used to create a channel of communication with senior diplomat Abdul Minty, in order to convince Minty – a governor on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – to use his position to prevent a negative vote taking place within the IAEA with respect to Iran’s activities.
The ramping up of investigations is an important move on the part of the South African government, which has seen transparency and corruption ratings slide. In only June of this year, Transparency International published a report ranking South Africa as 64th on its corruption index. This marks a significant worsening of the country’s reputation, sliding down Transparency’s ranking from 54th in 2010.
The case against MTN is currently on hold in the US, pending a separate decision that will rule on whether the US court has jurisdiction to try a foreign entity. If the case proceeds and MTN is found guilty, the network operator may be forced to pay damages of up to US$4.2 billion to Turkcell.
No doubt, MTN is hoping that the case will be judged to be inadmissible before the US courts. However, the South African government is clearly feeling the pressure to be seen to be taking action to investigate and reprimand private companies for meddling in government matters and official circles. With the government taking the claims against Saloojee so seriously, this is not a good sign for MTN. If he is found guilty by the investigation, there is nothing to say that South Africa will not turn its attentions to MTN, the company that allegedly played a pivotal role in the claimed bribery.