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Libya: On the hunt for Gaddafi’s lost treasure

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Gaddafi’s legacy

By Frida Dahmani
Posted on Thursday, 8 July 2021 01:29

Muammar Gaddafi in Lisbon, 2007 © Suzanne Plunkett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tunisia’s Erik Goaied is a mysterious businessman who is well known in Tripoli and Pretoria. This eclectic adventurer is also the main person trying to find the treasure that Libya’s Muammar el Gaddafi is said to have hid in South Africa.

On 20 April, a Tunisian viewer recognised a former classmate of his while watching the documentary Où Sont les Milliards de Kadhafi? (The Hunt for Gaddafi’s Billions) on Arte. “It’s Iskander, he’s the same person, even though he’s changed his first name. We both went to David Solal’s school for two years and were neighbours from the same housing estate in the Lafayette district of Tunis,” he told a friend.

Iskander is now called Erik and is, at 54, the main person trying to locate the billions that Libya’s Gaddafi is said to have hid in South Africa before his fall in 2011.

No one could have foreseen that Erik Goaied would grow up to become a treasure hunter. Tall and reserved, he comes off as the ideal son-in-law, with no connection to the underworld of spooks and state secrets.

Goaied has not changed, or at least, not much. This man – who, in the 2000s, scoured Tunis’ agricultural fairs in search of innovative methods to apply to the farm that he had just inherited from his family – now simply has a harder look behind his rectangular glasses, a slight twitch in his jaw and seems constantly on the alert.

A double life

A member of the Frachiches tribe, he owns vast family lands in Bhiret Barmajna, in their home town of Thala, on the Algerian border. He grew up surrounded by his great-uncle Mohamed Lamine el-Ghidaoui and his grandfathers, Mohamed and Abdesalem Goaied, who were some of the region’s most celebrated scholars.

In 1906, they led one of the most important insurrections against the colonial authorities in Tunisia. This episode became known as the “Thala-Kasserine affair”.

This man, who is known as Iskander in Thala, wanted to follow in their footsteps and assert that “the values of [their] ancestors are in [their] genes and [they] live by them.”

Passionate about the history of the Frachiches, Goaied came up with a project called Terre d’Ancêtres (Land of the Ancestors), aimed at developing his land, which is full of legends.

Between 2005 and 2006, local farmers closely followed the tug of war between Goaied and the authorities, who refused to grant him access to the cold stores where he wanted to store his potatoes. The state wanted to fight against the speculators who store potatoes and wait for them to become scarce before selling them for a high price on the market.

Erik’s double life

Out of the blue, Goaied told the documentary film’s director that he regrets having neglected his farm during this feverish quest for Gaddafi’s treasure.

Even when Goaied appeared to be just a simple peaceful landowner, he was in fact already living a double life. In Tunis, around 2006, he presented himself as a dealer in medical equipment to the Libyan authorities and did not hide his financial difficulties. He had launched Terre d’Ancêtres as a backup plan, in case his Libyan activities went wrong.

But the man who, at a very young age and for a short time, was a consultant for Elf Aquitaine in Togo and Nigeria, established himself on the Libyan market as the exclusive supplier of a miracle compress for burns called Burnshield, which is manufactured in South Africa. Goaied had access to both Pretoria and Tripoli, an ideal position that allowed him to maintain a good set of contacts, especially during the international embargo on Libya.

Ali Farkash, one of Gaddafi’s brothers-in-law, put obstacles in his way by blocking payments to him, as Goaied refused to give him a commission. Farkash also had him imprisoned for a few days. But the man counted on his solid friendship with Mohamed Tag, an influential senior officer in the Libyan army, to get back on track in 2008 and partially recover what he was owed.

Lobbying and cover

Three years later, Gaddafi was overthrown. Tag, who had maintained good relations with the Gaddafis, returned to service and became, in 2014, the head of the asset recovery committee created by the Libyan government.

This was a timely opportunity for the man who, from 2012, used his South African connections for another type of business, far from paramedical products. But before embarking on this singular stretch of life, Iskander stepped aside and began operating as Erik, who had already made his mark and had an intriguing career.

Canadian academic Howard Adelman, a keen observer of the Libyan scene, was astonished to learn about Goaied’s multiple roles. Although he did not have any documents to prove it, Goaied was supposedly an adviser to an international group specialising in air chartering, which bears the same logo as Terre d’Ancêtres, a marble quarry operator, a network management operator – a modest way of referring to lobbying – and an oil company operator. It was not possible to obtain any further details.

He also said that he was Darron’s international marketing manager in South Africa, but this company appeared to be a front, as – in reality – he was a technical adviser to the German-South African arms company Rheinmetall Denel Munition (Pty) Ltd.

Looking for loot

In 2012, Iskander-Erik Goaied was approached by the transitional Libyan authorities about an arms deal with South Africa.

During these negotiations, he learned that $12.5bn in small bills had been transferred in late 2010 from Tripoli to Johannesburg’s airport. This marked the beginning of the most obscure but high-profile part of the eclectic and secretive career of this adventurer, who had also trained as a pilot in the US.

Nicknamed Erik “Niemand”, or Erik “Nobody”, in Afrikaans, Goaied believed that Gaddafi had hid an estimated “$400bn’s worth” of treasure around the world.

As such, he took advantage of Tag’s return to business in 2014 with the idea to settle an order of weapons worth $5m with funds that Gaddafi had transferred. In Libya, the old regime’s veterans were on the lookout. Meanwhile, in South Africa, no one trusted Tripoli’s negotiators because they could not produce proper purchase orders.

The arms delivery was shelved, and discussions about returning Gaddafi’s treasure stalled. The Pretoria authorities, and more generally the South African presidency, had a very close relationship with the Gaddafi regime, whose financial and military support was essential in fighting against apartheid.

Due to this solid relationship, the Libyan leader, who had become a pan-Africanist, decided to send part of his loot to South Africa. The survivors of Gaddafi’s inner circle, including Bashir Saleh, smiled when the coveted hoard was mentioned, while the Pretoria authorities deftly sidestepped the issue by passing the buck to the former leaders of the governing African National Congress (ANC).

No holds barred

Goaied, who says that he has been mandated by the Libyan authorities since 2014, was desperate to follow up on a trail that had grown cold over the years. However, he quickly realised that his South African counterparts were not playing fair.

With the support of some shady figures, including Johan Erasmus, an arms dealer with a background in intelligence, his friend Fanie Fondse, a former special forces operative, and George Darmanovic, an eyewitness and former influential South African intelligence officer, Goaied plunged further into the dark side of a no-holds-barred case.

Darmanovic was murdered in Belgrade shortly after promising to reveal the South African recipients of Gaddafi’s money. Rivalries got worse, as Erasmus started to suspect that Goaied was trying to pull the wool over his eyes and so threatened him with a taser.

The treasure hunt seemed to be cursed, and Gaddafi’s prize became more and more out of reach to Goaied, even though he seemed to be getting closer.

There are testimonies and images that prove that this colossal sum did arrive in Johannesburg, but it seems to have disappeared quickly. All these figures encouraged Goaied, even “from a distance”, to persist.

Goaied then began operating very discreetly, as part of the Washington African Consulting Group (WACG), which he runs in partnership with Tag and oilman Douglas Keith Foree, and with the support of the Texas-based Ben Barnes Group. During this time, he kept a close eye on the progress of this unprecedented hunt against the backdrop of political instability and conflict in Libya. The slightest political change can open, or close, doors.

He was not the only one, as companies, lawyers and bounty hunters were also becoming sleuths. The team at the Maltese company Sam Serj, led by Libyans Tahar el-Buishi and Mohammed el-Sherwy, was in direct competition with WACG.

Others also participated in this adventure. These include the mysterious Canadian-Libyan company Odyssey Consulting, led by the Canadian-Lebanese citizen Abdullah Ahmed, and also Canadian lobbying company Dickens & Madson, which is chaired by Israeli-Canadian Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli military intelligence agent.

The latter’s clients have included various players from within the Libyan political scene, including Khalifa Haftar and the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, as well as militia leader Ibrahim Jadhran. It is known to have been solicited by politician and businessman Nabil Karoui during Tunisia’s 2019 presidential race.

For most of these sleuths, the treasure hunt is short-lived. Despite his power and connections, El-Buishi was kidnapped for a few months in 2016, then released once he had arrived, by jet, at Al-Abraq airport in Libya.

He blamed Goaied for his misfortune. Goaied claimed that Buishi had been imprisoned for tax evasion. Due to a lack of funds or out of caution, some – such as Franco-Tunisian Taïeb Talbi, who runs the Business Network Investment & Debt – pulled out of the race, which was presented as an attempt to recover Libya’s debt.

A game of bluffs

Like Goaied, no one has had the experience of a real treasure hunt or enough assets and connections to prevail within a political context that is riddled with corruption.

In fact, even though Goaied is close to former ANC security and intelligence chief Tito Maleka, has access to certain Libyan services and contacts within the intelligence agencies, he still has not been able to obtain accurate data. Especially since the money was allegedly transferred to either eSwatini or to somewhere else in the region under the tenure of South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma before 2018.

The clock is ticking for the mysterious Goaied, who, like his rivals, was lured by the 10% commission. He continues to persist with dogged determination, despite the danger. After all, 10% of an insane amount of money, even shared, can change a life. But this meticulous man, who seems to have been trained to prevent risks, never lets his guard down.

He scuppered a deal between the South African government and Serj’s agents, who were prepared – like good mercenaries – to snap up the deal for a 7% commission. Despite Goaied’s statements to the contrary, the audit bureau of the House of Representatives in Tobruk denies that Goaied and his consulting firm, WACG, were commissioned to recover Gaddafi’s money. So far, in this little game of bluffs, Goaied is winning, without revealing too much, and is continuing to pursue what many believe to be a crazy pipe dream.

Loots spread throughout the continent

For Libya’s late leader Muammar el Gaddafi, the continent was a safe place to hide his assets. But 10 years after his death, it is still difficult to identify the countries where the colossal sums of money were hidden. In addition to the funds supposedly in South Africa, a report by the United Nations Security Council in 2017, despite banks’ denials, noted transfers between South Africa and Kenya.

In accordance with the legend of Gaddafi’s hoard, in Ouagadougou, $560m in $100 bills stored in steel boxes were to be transported to Tripoli, but the international transport company in charge of the transfer for a commission turned out to be a ghost company, according to the Burkina Faso government.

Almost the same scenario happened in Ghana. The money, which was kept in safes bearing the logo of the Comité International pour la Protection des Droits de l’Homme, was allegedly moved elsewhere.

Some say there is a stash in Niger. In 2011, Saadi, one of Gaddafi’s sons, was said to have saved his life when he fled to Niamey by providing information about this treasure.

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