Israeli drones under African skies
A few days ago, the American ambassador in Nigeria met with the Nigerian defense minister, Dr. Rabiu Kwankwaso. The ambassador complained about a major weapons deal that the Nigerian defense ministry had recently signed with the private Israeli company Aeronautics Defense Systems. He was upset that the deal had been given to an Israeli company without an international tender, thereby preventing American companies from bidding. Kwankwaso promised to clarify the issue and get back to him.
But despite the company and the Israeli Defense Ministry's concern over the American intervention, Israeli officials are convinced that the deal will go through.
The deal reflects only a small part of the operations of Aeronautics, a Yavneh-based company that manufactures drones and makes every effort to keep away from the media.
Largest arms deal
This is the largest arms deal that Israel has ever made with Nigeria. It was signed in the Nigerian capital in March between a local daughter company of Aeronautics and the Nigerian defense ministry. The Israeli company has agreed to design, develop, manufacture, install and prepare for operation three Aerostar Unmanned Aerial Vehicle intelligence systems and three Seastar systems for aerial and marine use. Each Aerostar system includes between three and six small unmanned planes, and each plane is equipped with sensors and cameras with both day- and night-vision capabilities. The drones can remain in the air for up to 14 hours.
The Seastar systems have drones that operate from ships and will be used by the Nigerian navy in the Delta region of the Niger River, an oil-rich area that in the last few months has become a battlefield where militias and guerrilla groups are fighting the federal government.
The increasing demand for oil and the hike in oil prices has turned the area into a strategically important region that serves as a focus of activity for American, British and French oil companies - and recently, also Chinese, Russian and Korean companies.
The Aeronautics deal is unusually large for Nigeria, which recently agreed to purchase 15 warplanes and flight training planes from China for a quarter of a billion dollars - $10 million less than it is paying for the Israeli deal.
The aggressive operating and marketing methods practiced by Aeronautics, which was founded in 1997 and is not selective in its choice of clients, have embroiled it in international scandals and a police inquiry over the last two years.
The company's expertise lies in supplying intelligence systems, primarily via drones. At first it won a tender to supply drone services to the IDF for activity in the Gaza area.
Aeronautics beat out Israel Aircraft Industries by offering its services at low prices. With an IDF contract in its pocket, Aeronautics was able to boast, as other manufacturers do, that the system had "proven itself in battle."
The early success whetted the appetite of the small company, which soon began ogling international markets. Aeronautics began operating in African countries, in the midst of civil war, whose corrupt regimes had a rich history of civil-rights violations, such as Equatorial Guinea.
The company's official Web site states that it is now active in India, the United States, England, Ethiopia, Russia, Nepal and Taiwan.
Ivory Coast dealings
In 2005 Aeronautics sold drones to the army of the Ivory Coast, involved in a civil war, while a French peace force was located there. A French unit gained control of Aeronautics equipment and destroyed it.
The Israeli involvement angered France, which demanded that Israel's Defense Ministry instruct Aeronautics and other Israeli companies to cut all ties with the Ivory Coast immediately and obey UN sanctions.
After a delay of several months, Israel was compelled to join countries around the world in imposing sanctions and halting the export of weapons to the Ivory Coast.
It was another episode that led to a police investigation of Aeronautics. The inquiry centered around the suspicion that the company had transferred information to a company in Russia without the Israeli government's permission. The Defense Ministry official responsible for security, Yehiel Horev, has been able to demand serious indictments for similar, suspected violations in the past, but the case was closed in this instance; the official reason was that the company was suspected of "technical violations."
A blind eye
This forgiving attitude toward Aeronautics gave people involved in the security export field the impression that the company had high-level patrons. Its board of directors and consultants include Major General Avigdor ("Yanush") Ben-Gal and former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and previously included former Shin Bet security service head Yaakov Perry as well. Perry said he left the company more than a year ago and was not involved in the Nigeria deal. Ben-Gal did not respond to a Haaretz request for comment.
Two Israeli businessmen - Alon Nelken from Savyon and Amit Sadeh, who represents him in Nigeria - mediated the Aeronautics-Nigeria deal. Both are well-connected to Nigerian government officials. To seal the deal, they enlisted the help of former Nigerian president General Ibrahim Babangida, who convinced the country's national security adviser - Lieutenant General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, a powerful figure in Nigeria - of the importance of the Aeronautics deal.
Nelken, 52, came to Nigeria about 25 years ago as a representative of Israeli construction company Solel Boneh. He stayed there, working as a real estate entrepreneur and the owner of a security consulting company. He owns, among other projects, the Mega Plaza mall in Lagos.
The Nigerian government has already paid an advance of 10 percent ($26 million) for the Aeronautics deal, and some $5 million of that amount has been allocated to various agents.
Nelken and Sadeh are not listed in the Israeli Defense Ministry's security assistance division, apparently indicating that they are not allowed to be involved in security exports from Israel or even to conduct negotiations related to such imports. In response to a query on this matter, Aeronautics said: "This is a question that Nelken must be asked." Nelken confirmed that he had been involved in the deal, but refused to describe the extent of his involvement. The Defense Ministry did not respond to questions on the matter.
Nelken and Auronautics said the company had won the tender legally, beating out an American company, and is operating with the coordination and approval of the Israeli Defense Ministry.
History of close ties
Israel and Nigeria - the most populated country in Africa - share a history of close ties. Israeli companies operate in Nigeria in the fields of infrastructure, communications and agriculture. Hundreds of Israelis live there and ships belonging to the Israeli Zim shipping company stop at Nigerian ports. The two countries have long had security ties, and Israeli companies have previously sold Nigeria weapons for its police and military forces and its intelligence services.
Until a few years ago, Israeli Brigadier General (Res.) Shlomo Ilya was one of the major players in the supply of arms and security equipment to Nigeria. At the time, he was joined by Ben-Gal and Meir Dagan, now head of the Mossad.
Several Israeli companies operate in the Niger Delta, including JDP, which is owned by the Ashtrom International construction group and SCC, owned by Yosef Kalish from Haifa (who also owns the Sharbiv construction company in Israel.)
These companies are involved in infrastructure and agriculture initiatives and employ hundreds of workers.
Good for the State of Israel?
The Israeli embassy in Abuja was in on the secret contacts. Ambassador Noam Katz refused to discuss the issue, but an official Israeli source said that the deal involved "equipment that doesn't shoot," and that it was good for the State of Israel, especially in light of Nigeria's strengthened position as one of the world's major oil exporters.
However, some Israelis - and not just business competitors - are criticizing the deal. They say they are concerned that the presence of Israeli arms in Nigeria, especially in the Delta region, is liable to have negative ramifications. An Israeli businessman warned there was a fear that "due to the deal, the local population, with which we have excellent ties, will identify Israel and Israelis with its enemies."