Secret intelligence documents leaked to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit reveal that spies in Addis Ababa were alerted to a plot by “an unnamed state” to kill a top African Union diplomat.
Ethiopian agents later accused Sudan of involvement in the plan to assassinate African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who had previously served as South Africa’s foreign minister.
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Dlamini-Zuma allegedly faced “an eminent threat” to her life in the Ethiopian capital which also hosts the headquarters of the African Union in October 2012, just days after she was appointed.
The documents show that South African and Ethiopian intelligence agencies had been unprepared for the threat, for which they blamed Sudan. The agencies admitted they did not have enough time to “neutralise the operation” or apprehend those involved.
The documents also describe how unarmed African Union (AU) bodyguards “slept in corridors for four days without food or water provided,” because the AU “did not arrange accommodation and resources for food”.
‘An eminent threat’
On October 22, a week after Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma became AUC chairperson, the Spy Cables show that South African intelligence headquarters received information about a possible assassination attempt.
It quickly relayed the details to the embassy in Addis Ababa, and that evening, the South African ambassador briefed Dlamini-Zuma, telling her “there might be some changes in the protection arrangements”.
He had expected an attack within the following two days.
South Africa’s top spy in Addis Ababa then called Ethiopia’s intelligence chief. He left a message, and an hour later got a call back.
Just before 10pm, Ethiopia’s spy boss was informed of the threat, and the two men agreed to beef up the South African diplomat’s security. Four extra bodyguards were sent to her hotel the following morning.
On the day the attack was expected, all the spies could do is watch, wait and hope that the security they had deployed could protect the life of the chairperson.
Amid the crisis, South Africa’s security chiefs held an emergency meeting, also chronicled in the Spy Cables. The acting head of South African military intelligence, General T Nyembe, told his colleagues that “an unnamed state” was behind the plot, and warned that there had been “another alert which further pointed out a potential assassination plot… to be carried out at a different venue.”
The South Africans discussed the need to make “an overall intervention for the security of the AUC Chair”, but doing so in a diplomatic manner to “avoid creating the impression that South Africa was declaring a vote of no confidence on the handing of AUC Chairperson’s security” by Ethiopia.
The day passed without any attack.
The following morning, the South Africans meet their Ethiopian counterparts and were told, for the first time, of Sudan’s suspected involvement in the plot.
The Spy Cables report that the Director of Foreign Service at Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Hadera Abera, explained that his service has crosschecked the names of the plotters with “all entry points especially those bordering Sudan”.
They found no matches, and the Spy Cables do not reveal the names of the plotters.
Another secret document recorded Hadera saying that in his service’s assessment, Sudan “would not carry out such operations” as it had “paid dearly in the attempted assassination of Egypt former President Mubarak.”
There is no explanation of how Sudan had “paid dearly,” but the state was linked to the attack on Mubarak that took place in Addis Ababa in 1995.
‘Slept in corridors’
Hadera reassured the South Africans that “there has been never [sic] a threat that developed into a situation where a diplomat is killed in Addis Ababa with the exception of the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak whose life was threatened in 1987.”
Ethiopia uses a different calendar to most of the world, by which its 1987 corresponds to 1995.
Hadera asked for more help from South Africa and to share intelligence to help foil “terrorist activities.”
However, the same document shows that AU security chief General Egziabher Mebrahtu swiftly contradicted Hadera’s reassurances about diplomats’ security in Addis Ababa. He “lamented” the situation for his unarmed men, who have a “poor capacity to provide and protect”.
The AU security man also explained that confusion between his agency and Ethiopian intelligence, who provide security for the AUC chairperson, resulted in the situation where the “AU did not arrange accommodation and resources for food” for the bodyguards.
“The protectors slept in corridors for four days without food and water,” one spy cable records. “This created a gap since they have to go out of the hotel to get food and water, leaving the Chairperson unattended, therefore vulnerable.”
A final secret document on the Addis Ababa security crisis, dated October 29, assesses developments since the threat a few days earlier, and outlines South Africa’s security arrangements in Ethiopia. It reveals that the country maintains “two ‘Safe Havens’ to which South Africans can be taken to in the even of any emergency situations”.
It also shows just how underprepared both the South African and Ethiopian security services had been in the face of the threat.
The SSA admits it was not able to foil the plot, writing that “the available time would not allow the host service to neutralise the operation” despite treating the information “with the utmost seriousness”.
“Follow-up is being done to clear all potential possibilities on the potential assassination of the Chairperson of the AUC.”
“So far no new information has been received regarding the assassins,” the secret spy cable concluded.
“The developments on the situation will be monitored and a close liaison with NISS on the matter will be carried out on a daily basis.”
Clarification The only previously reported attempt on Mubarak’s life had been in 1995. It’s not clear if Hadera has mistaken the date or if there had been another, previously unreported assassination attempt in 1987. Mubarak did visit Addis Ababa in 1995 for talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Clarification (25/2/2015): An earlier version of this article said it was unclear whether, when he mentioned 1987, Hadera Abera was mistaken or talking about a previously-unreported assasination attempt on Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. Neither seems to be the case. Hadera appears to be referencing the 1995 attempt. Ethiopia uses a different calendar to most of the world, by which its 1987 corresponds to 1995.