A few days ago, His Majesty King Mswati III was cutting the sod at Nokwane and welcoming a purported E810 Million investment by a company we now know to be SEMLEX.

To cheering crowds, flashing cameras and unctuous smiles, the King spoke heartily of the country taking one more step towards the land of milk and honey where jobs would be countless and opportunities abound for this tiny landlocked Kingdom nestled in the southern tip of this poverty wretched continent. The government's social media pages were beyond themselves with excitement.

The King was quoted urging Swazis to “join Government in the ‘hunt’ for high technology investors to come and set shop at the Nokwane Special Economic Zone”. The new miracle child is SEMLEX Group, a Belgian company with expertise in the production of identity cards, passports, e-visas, biometrics, birth certificates, and other secure documents.

SEMLEX intends to build their African head offices in the country. But a scratch beyond the surface and one begins to realise this week's event may have been the start of a pilfering plot carefully orchestrated by people with intentions bordering on high treason.

Representatives of Semlex, Prime Minister Russel Dlamini, Emmerson Mnangagwa´s son, George Manyere, Minister Mancoba Khumalo posing with the king during the cutting of the sod at Nokwane. 

Privatising an essential public service

There are many reasons to be alarmed at SEMLEX coming to our country, key among them being that an important public service like the production of national identity cards and travel documents, which were for years provided to by the state at minimal costs, could be privatized to a foreign company.

The obvious implications of this are that the costs of such a national service will hit the roof just like it happened in countries where SEMLEX has a terrible history.

For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where SEMLEX was granted a contract to provide biometric passports under controversial circumstances, the average price of a passport rose from $100 to $185.

$60 from each passport sold in Congo went to an obscure Gulf company owned by a close relative of former President Joseph Kabila, according to reports by Reuters. Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi got into power under the promise to clear up corruption and end the country´s relationship with SEMLEX.

That is how bad the reputation of the company was in the country. Coming to eSwatini, it is now a question of when than if such a fate shall befall us. eSwatini government employees could potentially be retrenched as their jobs become redundant as much of the work will now be done by SEMLEX.

Only a few will be absorbed into this new company. Think of all those government employees under the Ministry of Home Affairs losing secure jobs because our leaders want to pocket from their unholy relationship with such a rogue company.

Former Congo President Joseph Kabila benefitted from the SEMLEX contracts in Congo

Then of course the costs of obtaining a national passport or national identity document will skyrocket. Already the costs of national identity documents and passports are high but with a profit-driven company now in charge of such a service, we can only speculate how much such a service will cost.

But even more concerning is the international reputation of our passport which will soon come under close scrutiny. With such a shady company in charge, our passports will be flagged all over the world and visas are likely to be denied especially for those who intend to work and study abroad.

SEMLEX: A dark controversial history in Africa and the world

But beyond the jobs and cost implications of this new venture lies a fundamental question; who exactly is SEMLEX and what is their record in Africa and the world? Following the revelations by Swazi leaks of the potential of this country to harbour allegedly dangerous international criminals that launder money, and engage in gold smuggling and illicit activities, the country should have taken a dim view of the people behind SEMLEX.

To find out the record of SEMLEX requires nothing more than just a simple Google search and all the answers get laid bare. Reuters did a detailed story on SEMLEX and its history of murky deals with a variety of African states, including Comoros, DRC, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Gabon.

In Comoros, the company was accused of facilitating the sale of hundreds of diplomatic passports, including to individuals posing "potential security risks." According to Reuters, the company's CEO, Albert Karaziwan, at one point held three Comoran diplomatic passports and was appointed "roving ambassador" for the country.

Meanwhile, in 2017, Mozambique terminated a 10-year contract with the same company, accusing SEMLEX of failing to deliver on its promised $100m investment and that the contract had been awarded without an open tender. Up north in the Democratic Republic of Congo they did not renew SEMLEX owing to the widespread outcry about their activities in the country.

Semlex founder Albert Karaziwan

In Comoros, SEMLEX is accused of selling citizenships and was the subject of an international investigation that cut across several countries. The Comoros passport sales scandal involved corruption, public funds embezzlement, bribery, and money laundering scheme in connection with a citizenship by investment program launched by the government of the Comoros Islands and SEMLEX was at the heart of the scandal.

As if all this is not enough Belgian prosecutors are investigating allegations of money laundering and corruption by the company and their Directors. Prosecutors launched an investigation into possible money laundering and corruption soon after Reuters' detailed report. They subsequently raided the company’s headquarters in 2018.

If you think this is bad here is the cherry on top; SEMLEX is alleged to have financed the war in Ivory Coast. Roll back the clock to the beginning of 2011 following the fallout from Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election and you will see the not-so-invisible hand of SEMLEX in the conflict.

In 2011 violence had flared across the West African country after President Laurent Gbagbo rejected the result of a second-round presidential poll that had been won by his rival, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, in late November 2010.

Semlex is accused of fueling war in Ivory Coast

The international community was piling pressure on Gbagbo. He ignored calls from the United Nations’ then-Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to step down. In January 2011, the European Union froze his family’s assets and sanctioned dozens of people and companies that supported his regime.

As Ivory Coast spiralled into its second civil war in less than a decade — a conflict which would later claim 3,000 civilian lives — Gbagbo’s military chief of staff warned the army “didn’t have enough munitions to fight for three days.

Squeezed for cash and in desperate need of weapons, Gbagbo turned to two companies that had helped him fund his campaign to become president through a shady oil deal: Gunvor, one of the world’s biggest oil traders, and, you guessed right, Brussels-based biometric document-maker SEMLEX.

A new investigation by OCCRP showed Gunvor and SEMLEX were ready and willing to broker weapons sales in return for a slice of Ivory Coast’s oil wealth. Given the foregoing, Political Analyst Dumsani Dlamini wonders, what business does the King, and by necessary extension the country, have sanctioning a relationship with questionable characters like SEMLEX?

As one commentator noted, these international syndicates have studied that the absolute powers of the King provide blanket immunity and protection so long as they establish relations with the King.

A history with shady characters and dubious businessmen: the case of George Manyere and Ecsponent

The recent Panama-papers-like leaks by the eSwatini Financial Intelligence Unit to a consortium of international investigative journalists only helped to expose that regulatory institutions are routinely ignored and our banking systems plus financial controls vulnerable to international syndicates and their local proxies intent on milking this country dry.

All these people have one thing in common—proximity with the King, royal family or certain politicians. Quite recently, the country experienced a whole ruckus around the Ecsponent saga where Swazis lost Millions of their savings and investments only for the people at the centre of their misery to be seen posing with the King and smiling from ear to ear during the launch of the SEMLEX project.

During this week´s sod cutting one figure loomed large; Zimbabwean-born George Manyere. Manyere needs no introduction to many of the people who know his complicity in the collapse of Ecsponent.