D.uring the last years of apartheid, Willem “Ters” Ehlers could feel the political turnaround.
His boss, President PW Botha, who had vehemently defied all calls for reform, was under pressure. Botha’s days at the head of his party and the country were numbered.
In 1989, Botha met Nelson Mandela in a secret meeting at his Tuynhuys office in Cape Town. Mandela was still in prison at the time. For apartheid stalwarts who clung to their notions of white supremacy, it marked the beginning of the end. The only photo of the meeting was taken by Ehlers.
The fall of apartheid was bad news for Ehlers. A Commodore in the South African Navy, he had risen rapidly to become Botha’s private secretary and aide-de-camp. He was part of an imperial president’s inner circle, which included defense minister Magnus Malan and apartheid assassin and super-spy Craig Williamson.
Ehlers wielded considerable influence and would have had unprecedented insight into the increasingly paranoid and violent regime.
But, since he collapsed, he would soon be fired. What he did next is the subject of a damning new investigative report from the South African non-profit group Open Secrets, which was published in Johannesburg on Thursday.
In March 1993, a Greek-flagged ship named Malo left Montenegro and headed for Somalia. Before she could get there, she was approached and searched by the Seychelles authorities. In the hold they found a huge cache of weapons, including 2,500 AK-47s, 6,000 mortar rounds and 5,600 fragmentation grenades.
As Somalia was under a UN arms embargo at the time, the ship was seized and the weapons confiscated.
At first, the Seychelles government said it wanted to destroy the weapons. But a year later, another, more lucrative option presented itself, courtesy of Ehlers and his new associates.
In a move straight out of a Graham Greene novel set in the crumbling days of an authoritarian regime, Ehlers “went private” and reinvented himself as an arms dealer.
He became part of what Human Rights Watch, in a 2000 report, described as an “old men’s network,” which spanned both national defense and private business in South Africa and drew on experience gained in circumventing the embargoes on weapons.
In 1990, one of Ehlers’ first new positions included taking over as managing director of a Seychelles-based front company violating apartheid state sanctions, GMR. He is named after Giovanni Mario Ricci, an Italian who started the company with the infamous spy Williamson.
Ricci was a close friend and adviser to the Seychelles president, France-Albert René. Ehlers, for his part, claims to have been close to the presidents of the Ivory Coast, Malawi, Uganda, Zaire and Zimbabwe. Between them, Ricci and Ehlers convinced the government not to destroy the dangerous shipment of the Bad, but to sell it. And they had a buyer in mind.
Arming a genocide
Over a 100-day period in 1994, beginning on April 7, the Rwandan government at the time instigated the massacre of almost 1 million minority Tutsis, moderate Hutus, and Twa. Two million would be displaced. Many, many more were mutilated, raped, and traumatized.
While much of the violence was coordinated on radio stations and involved the Interahamwe, the youth wing of the ruling party, it included neighbors killing neighbors, priests murdering parishioners and massacres by the government army. Machetes and small arms, including rifles, were the weapons of choice in the killing.
Some of these weapons were manufactured in apartheid South Africa, which between 1990 and 1993 supplied an estimated $32 million worth of weapons and military equipment to the Rwandan government. At the time, South Africa had the 10th largest arms manufacturing industry in the world.
But, as the genocide continued, obtaining more weapons became difficult for its perpetrators. In May 1994, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo, making it illegal to sell or supply weapons to Rwanda.
This did not stop Ehlers, as Open Secrets details meticulously in The Secretary: How Middlemen and Corporations Assembled the Rwandan Genocide. The report, which brings together media interviews, witness and police testimony and declassified records, concludes that Ehlers played a central role in bringing weapons from Malo to the Rwandan death camps.
This is how it worked. On June 4, 1994, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora—a Rwandan soldier described by historian Gérard Prunier as the “general organizer” of the genocide—flew from Johannesburg to the Seychelles. He used the nom de plume “Mr Camille” and Ehlers flew with him.
Together, they brokered a deal with the Seychelles government to buy the weapons and have them flown to Goma, in eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Two such flights were carried out, on June 16-17 and June 18-19, a period during which the bloodshed in Rwanda had not yet abated.
According to another Human Rights Watch report from 1995, the Zaire government issued an end-user certificate for the weapons, but upon arrival in Goma, they were handed over for use by Rwandan government forces in Gisenyi, across the border.
Payment for the weapons was made to the Central Bank of the Seychelles, to an account it had at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In total, $330,000 was deposited there in two separate payments, both made on June 17, 1994, from a Swiss bank account belonging to Ehlers.
A subsequent UN investigation into the financing of the genocide found that Ehlers himself received more than $1.3 million for brokering the deal.
Bagosora was indicted and convicted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and, after spending the rest of his life in prison, died in September 2021. Meanwhile, Ehlers, 75, was located in a comfortable suburb. home in the Pretoria suburb of Waterkloof, scenes of murder and rape in Rwanda are merely a fragment of a distant history.
Speaking to Open Secrets, Ehlers described himself as a mere fixer, whose job it was to smooth relations and trade between South Africa and countries like Uganda and the Seychelles. He said he was adept at operating in Africa because he “had contacts” and understood that “when you sell products in Africa, you have to get paid first.”
He said he didn’t know the Bad Guy’s weapons would end up in Rwanda; that he thought they were going to stay in Zaire. Furthermore, he said, in his estimation, the weapons would only have reached Rwanda “when the fighting was over.”
“Obviously I feel very bitter. Inside, my heart cries. Inside, I know I’m not that person,” Ehlers said.
After its extensive investigation, Open Secrets concluded that Ehlers must be held accountable for his actions and will submit a file containing all relevant evidence to the South African National Prosecutor’s Office.
This article first appeared on The continentthe pan-African weekly produced in collaboration with the mail and guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. download your free copy here.
This story was first published by open secrets