South Africa’s Ivor Ichikowitz: A ‘philanthropic’ arms dealer?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s barons of arm sales

By Vincent Duhem
Posted on Thursday, 19 May 2022 16:14

Close to the ANC, South African businessman Ivor Ichikowitz, who founded the Paramount group in 1994, has extended his networks to the rest of the continent as he presents himself as a defender of just causes.

This is part 3 of a 4-part series

The three men who land in Bangui on 22 March 2013 are full of hope. Employees of a large group specialising in the arms and security business have been approached by the entourage of François Bozizé, president of the Central African Republic (CAR). It is a time of suspicion and wild rumours in the capital city.

On 10 December 2012, a motley coalition of rebel groups from the north had launched an offensive with the aim of overthrowing Bozizé’s regime, before an agreement signed in Libreville, Gabon on January 11 halted their advance.

Since then, the rebels have been camped out in the town of Sibut, north of the capital; and they’re still a menace. The head of state thinks he can take advantage of the truce to strengthen his position. It is precisely for this purpose that our three men are in Bangui. The “shopping list” envisaged by Bozizé’s entourage says it all: combat helicopters, armoured vehicles, ammunition. “There were too many requests and the deadline was too short. In the end, no agreement was reached,” says one of the participants in the negotiations.

‘Protection industry’

The day after their arrival, the trio are preparing to leave CAR when they are stopped at Bangui airport. All three men are accused of trying to deliver arms to the rebels and taken to the gendarmerie camp. That evening, the rebels attack Bangui in a lightning strike, forcing Bozizé to flee the country. The gendarmerie camp is deserted. The three men are finally able to leave the country.

The company that employs them is none other than Paramount, one of the continent’s leading arms dealers. It is based in South Africa and headed by Ivor Ichikowitz, a wealthy businessman who, at 56, is one of Africa’s most high-profile arms dealers.

We are not in the destruction business, but in the protection business.

Born in Gauteng province, South Africa, he comes from an Eastern European Jewish family. His grandfather, Charles, came to South Africa from Lithuania in the 1930s and settled there as a timber trader. Ivor’s father, Louis, made his fortune importing cars from Japan.

Very concerned about his image, Ivor Ichikowitz hates being classified as an arms dealer. He considers himself a philanthropist whose arms-selling business serves peace above all. “We are not in the destruction business, but in the protection business,” he likes to say. In addition to Paramount’s 15 global business units, the Ichikowitz Family Foundation funds projects, such as anti-poaching and reconstruction programs, in South Africa, Gabon and elsewhere. Ichikowitz has interests in mining, renewable energy and intermediary oil projects in various African countries.

The businessman only broke into South Africa’s military and aviation scene after the end of apartheid in 1994. This he did through his networks in the African National Congress (ANC), of which he was a financier. He is close to Winnie Mandela and to Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former president Thabo Mbeki.

Gabon, a major source of support

Ichikowitz began establishing his connections with various leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was one of the African representatives of Glencore, the Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company based in Baar, Switzerland. At the same time, Ichikowitz and one of his colleagues opened the luxurious Molori Safari Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.

The lodge hosted prestigious guests, such as former presidents Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, as well as former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Ichikowitz admitted contributing $405,600 to the election campaign of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president from 2009 to 2018, and during his tenure, Paramount established itself as a leading military and aviation company.

The businessman is also close to former Malawian President Joyce Banda. In 2013, Paramount’s naval subsidiary, Nautic Africa, signed an arms contract to supply patrol boats, among other things. Worth $145m, the deal was eventually cancelled by Banda’s successor, Peter Mutharika.

More recently, Ichikowitz has become a major supplier of military equipment, weapons, armoured vehicles and aircraft to the Mozambican government, which is facing a jihadist insurgency in its northern province of Cabo Delgado. Some Mozambican soldiers were even trained by Paramount contractors in South Africa. Ichikowitz sold Mozambique some old Gazelle helicopters, which had been demilitarised and resold by Britain and France after they refreshed their own inventory.

According to our information, Paramount has also been supplying the army of the DRC since last year. However, one of Paramount’s major sources of support in Francophone Africa is Gabon, whose president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, the South African businessman has known for almost 20 years.

The latter was minister of defence under his father, Omar, when Paramount delivered its first two Mirage F1s to Libreville in 2006. He became head of state three years later and continued to work with Ichikowitz, even visiting the group’s facilities in Johannesburg in 2010. New Mirage aircraft were purchased from Paramount, which also supplied 10 mine-resistant armoured vehicles in 2011.

The Ichikowitz Family Foundation presenting a Gazelle helicopter to Gabon’s National Parks in order to combat poaching. ©K9 Academy/CATERS/SIPA

In Gabon, Ichikowitz also got close to Maixent Accrombessi (Ali Bongo Ondimba’s former chief of staff) and Richard Attias (founder of Richard Attias & Associates). Both Ichikowitz and Bongo spoke at the New York Forum Africa, which was held in August 2015 in Libreville. A year earlier, the publicist and the businessman had attended the military parade organised for the national holiday.

Delivery delays

To develop his activities in French-speaking Africa, Ivor Ichikowitz was able to rely on the networks of an old friend, Frenchman Jean-Yves Ollivier, a commodities trader adept at parallel diplomacy. A sign of their close relationship is Plot for Peace, a film recounting  Ollivier’s life and which was produced in 2013 by the South African businessman’s foundation. The two men met during the years of struggle against apartheid.

Through Ollivier, Ichikowitz met Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, to whom, in 2010, he sold 1980s-era French Mirage jets that came from the South African Air Force’s stockpile. “Today, they are used mainly to decorate military parades on national holidays. The pilots and fuel are paid for by Paramount,” says a group executive.

In Gabon, as in Congo-Brazzaville, Ichikowitz has had difficulty ensuring payments. This is a constant in the arms industry, where relationships between buyers and suppliers can be strained.

In November 2015, Paramount signed a huge contract, worth $60m, with the Malian government. Some 40 armoured vehicles were to be delivered. The authorities in Bamako paid an advance. The remainder was to be paid in instalments, with each delivery. The problem was that years passed and the promised vehicles were slow to arrive in Mali. Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) opened up about his problem to United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyane as well as South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.

He’s a trader at heart. It’s in his blood. Ivor is always trying to find a new deal to make money. He’s not really bothered by the merchandise and the people involved, nor does he worry about who he might step on to make the best deal possible.

A dozen vehicles were finally delivered in 2019. Since then, nothing. In total, Mali has paid $30m, but has only received a quarter of the promised equipment. The instability in Bamako, where IBK was overthrown in August 2020, has not helped.

The problem is relatively similar in Togo. Introduced once again by Jean-Yves Ollivier, Ichikowitz sold armoured vehicles to the army there for the first time in 2016. A new contract was signed in 2019 for the same type of vehicles: Marauders, Mbombe 4s and Mavericks. Again, deliveries have been slow. Officially, Paramount says it is waiting for the Togolese authorities to respect the schedule negotiated when the contract was signed. Even so, other sources say the South African group has accepted delivery terms that it was not in a position to honour financially.

Name in the Panama Papers

These hitches have largely contributed to tarnishing Paramount’s reputation in the arms industry. Unhappy with management, several of its close associates left the group with a bang. In early 2018, Paramount Combat Systems – the only South African entity manufacturing armoured vehicles – was declared insolvent and went into receivership.

“He’s a trader at heart. It’s in his blood. Ivor is always trying to find a new deal to make money. He’s not really bothered by the merchandise and the people involved, nor does he worry about who he might step on to make the best deal possible,”  one former employee tells us.

Another source, highly critical of the group’s financial management, explains that “Ichikowitz uses money from new contracts to cover the shortfalls of those he is already behind on”. This, he says, is the reason for the regular delivery delays.

In 2015, the businessman’s name appeared in the Panama Papers, a series of leaked documents created by (and taken from) Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing the business information of more than 200,000 offshore entities.

Two years later, Barclays Bank, through which nearly $430m linked to Ichikowitz passed, warned the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) of potential “suspicious” transactions. Among other things, the British bank was concerned about “the source of Ichikowitz’s wealth and his companies, and his possible involvement in the payment of bribes”. In its own defence, Paramount noted that if Barclays believed the transaction was suspicious, “they would have been within their rights to block it and their compliance team would have done so.”

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