JOHANNESBURG: Fugitive prophet Shepherd Bushiri and his wife, Mary, were issued with diplomatic passports bearing decoy names and applied with cosmetic facial changes before being smuggled out of South Africa in Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera’s hired jet, sources said.
Several insiders in the government’s security cluster – including diplomatic and military intelligence sources, police officers, and bureaucrats – told the Sunday Independent this week that Bushiri left in Chakwera’s plane last Friday following an operation planned by Malawian intelligence officials and executed by its embassy in Pretoria.
They said Bushiri and his wife were fetched from their home in Centurion in a Malawian embassy vehicle ahead of a scheduled 6pm flight as Chakwera wrapped up his meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
They were driven to Air Force Base Waterkloof as part of an elaborate plot that involved senior Malawian and South African politicians and government officials and the alleged exchange of money.
The plot, which kicked off with whisking off Bushiri’s children back to Malawi, was hatched three weeks ago after the prophet complained to Chakwera through embassy officials that he had abandoned him after campaigning for and funding his successful presidential bid.
Sources said the rattled Bushiri, who is the spiritual leader of the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church (ECGC), sought the Malawian government’s intervention after his lawyers told him he faced a minimum 15-year jail term because the National Prosecuting Authority had a strong case of fraud and money-laundering against him.
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Tyrone Seale yesterday dismissed claims that the president worked with Chakwera to help Bushiri evade justice by arranging a decoy state visit and allowing his ministers and officials to co-operate with the Malawians.
“There is no basis to that. And you would have seen in the week when the president gave interviews in which he said this was disappointing and he said that he had asked for a report to be prepared for him to give the background to what happened here,” Seale said.
“This visit was part of a solidarity tour that President Chakwera was undertaking around the region.
“It’s pretty similar to what our president did in 2018 when he went to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia to introduce himself to neighbouring leaders and to discuss relations between the countries.
“President Chakwera undertook a similar solidarity tour and it was deemed feasible and safe to undertake the visit physically with the necessary Covid-19 controls in place.”
Seale referred further enquiries to government communications and information system (GCIS) director-general Phumla Williams who failed to respond to questions.
However, in a statement last Sunday, GSIC said the government was “able to confirm that fugitives Mr Shepherd Bushiri and Ms Mary Bushiri did not leave South Africa aboard a flight on which President Lazarus Chakwera and his delegation travelled”.
Malawi’s information minister, Gospel Kazako, has repeatedly told the media this week that Chakwera’s government had no idea how Bushiri left South Africa.
According to highly placed sources, however, this is how the Bushiris have been smuggled:
Bushiri approached Chakwera for help through the Malawian embassy; Chakwera instructed the embassy to hatch a plan to save Bushiri and his multi-million rand assets or smuggle him out of South Africa;
Malawian intelligence operatives at the embassy considered options, including smuggling him through Mozambique, whisking him off in the presidential jet, or lobbying for Mary’s acquittal and a lesser sentence for Bushiri;
After spending two weeks in jail, Bushiri was given the options and flatly refused the SA jail option; Chakwera, through the Malawian embassy, then lobbied the Ramaphosa administration for assistance;
The Malawians banked on their constitution which protects diplomats and bars extraditions unless the suspect was sought for murder or treason.
Some members of the judiciary were then lobbied to ensure Bushiri was released on “soft” bail with less stringent conditions, no attachment of his bank accounts and assets except the R5m property in Centurion;
Both governments agreed to approve Chakwera’s request for a state visit and use it to smuggle Bushiri out via Air Force Base Waterkloof;
An advance team was then sent to SA to finalise logistical preparations for Bushiri’s escape;
The Bushiris were fetched from their home in Centurion in a Malawian embassy vehicle and issued with false diplomatic passports and had facial cosmetic changes applied on them;
However, SA police, military and diplomatic officers at Waterkloof raised questions about three passengers – two males and a female – whose names did not appear on Chakwera’s preapproved passenger list;
With rumours that the Bushiris failed to report to the police station, the officials got more suspicious as the height of two passengers resembled that of Bushiri and Mary;
A fracas ensued as the military police wanted to detain the three passengers, but the Malawians sought Department of International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor’s intervention;
Pandor dispatched officials to sort out the problem and they agreed the three suspicious passengers would be allowed to board Chakwera’s plane at OR Tambo; Chakwera’s plane made a stopover at OR Tambo, 25km from Waterkloof, to pick up the advanced team which included the Bushiris;
Bushiri and Mary, with facial cosmetics to disguise them, were whisked onto the place through the diplomatic entrance; Three members of the advance team were left behind to secure and dispose of Bushiri’s assets;
The plane left SA shortly after 10pm last Friday and landed in Malawi after midnight;
The Malawian government ordered a media blackout at the airport before Chakwera’s arrival;
The Bushiris disembarked from the plane immediately after Chakwera and his wife;
Some journalists managed to capture footage of the Bushiris disembarking; but the Malawian intelligence later confiscated and classified it as top secret;
In SA, intelligence officers and some government officials lobbied or spun journalists and editors to blame the country’s porous borders and corruption for Bushiri’s escape.
A highly placed source said: “Even though the passports were not saying Bushiri, he was using a decoy name. Their surnames are not Bushiris but they look like the Bushiris, with few cosmetic changes here and there.
“A bit on Bushiri’s face and on the wife as well there were few cosmetic changes. Those cosmetic changes fitted the profiles of those people on the passports. The fracas started, the back and forth, the minister of Dirco and by that time it was now obvious to the ordinary men and women in enforcement that no, no it appears here there might be some smuggling taking place.
“They searched and searched, luggage to luggage but they couldn’t find the luggage with Bushiri’s name. But there were people, with diplomatic passports, who looked like them. The face does not fit this one of Bushiri but the height and eyes do somehow look the same.
“But then the government decided that these people that are suspicious, who the military intelligence said they must be detained to ascertain their bonafides, must be released.
“Then the Malawian president and the Malawian foreign minister started putting pressure on us, saying you have never treated us this way, we feel like you are ill-treating us. There is nothing sinister there. These are my people, they came here first. At OR Tambo they used the diplomatic entrance to go to the tarmac. But even on that side, money exchanged hands.”
Another source said the Malawian intelligence’s plan involved getting Bushiri’s children back to that country first to ensure they were not used as bait.
“The first conclusion was, let’s get the kids here. The kids must be in Malawi before the operation starts. They were testing the waters with this operation so that if it failed, they were going to smuggle him through Mozambique. They would give him his passport and he would cross from Mozambique to Malawi. The other option was, remain here and let the wife come home, you face the music and we would intervene diplomatically for a lesser sentence. But the guy refused and told the president that, no, he wants out. He does not even want to be in jail here. The two weeks he spent there are hell,” the security cluster insider.
A military source said members of the army were concerned about the government’s role in the matter because it sent a wrong message about the country.
“Everybody is surprised. The statement is issued by the Malawians, not by our foreign affairs. Why would a plane fly for 25km and land again, with such huge costs. What was at stake? And why has the government not sent a diplomatic note of protest to Malawi? Why did the NPA not appeal the release of Bushiri on bail because it was obvious he was a flight risk?” the source asked.
A diplomatic source said South Africans should make peace with the fact that Bushiri was not coming back to face justice.
“The Malawians have decided to try Bushiri that side. So, there is no coming back for Bushiri. Interpol can’t extradite him. They can only arrest Bushiri to make sure he appears in court in Malawi.”
This comes against the backdrop of media reports in Malawi last week that Chakwera played a role in Bushiri’s smuggling, and that he was protecting the fugitives.
Lilongwe Magistrates Court last week released the Bushiris unconditionally after ruling the charges against them were illegal. They handed themselves in after International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) issued a warrant for their arrest at the request of the South African government.