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Picture: Sindiso Nyoni/ICIJ
Picture: Sindiso Nyoni/ICIJ

Eswatini finance minister Neal Rijkenberg projects an air of ordinariness. His sensible suits, likely bought off the rack, are only rarely swopped out for Swazi traditional dress.

But Rijkenberg is far more colourful than his looks suggest. For a start, he is an evangelical pastor who has established an orphanage town for 400 children. He’s the owner of the country’s largest timber company, Montigny, sprawled over 80,000ha — just under 5% of Eswatini’s land mass. And he’s a loyal servant to King Mswati III, who awarded him with a second term of office in 2023 and who appointed him as chair of Silulu Royal Holdings — a company accused of “land grabbing” from the poor.

One of the most puzzling cases to coincide with much of Rijkenberg’s tenure as finance minister is the effort by Canadian brothers John and Alexander Asfar to establish a “Farmers Bank” in Eswatini.

While the operation may seem amateurish from the outside, it seemingly has sufficient political backing — including from the king, a 2022 Kroll report suggests — to hold a (one-year) temporary banking licence at present. While there is no evidence of Rijkenberg’s interference in the application process, the bank’s first branch in Eswatini was built in a remote area owned by a nonprofit linked to Rijkenberg and surrounded by Rijkenberg’s vast forest plantation.

This licence application was first lodged seven years ago with the Central Bank of Eswatini (CBE) which, to its credit, has vigorously opposed the awarding of the licence.

Who is behind Farmers Bank, what are its political connections and might it be a vehicle for questionable future financial transactions?

The Swazi Secrets leak provides some clues. The 890,000 leaked documents from the Eswatini Financial Intelligence Unit (EFIU) were obtained by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit devoted to publishing and archiving of leaks, and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and seven media partners including Open Secrets.

In addition, Open Secrets has obtained a copy of a 2022 independent investigation by the UK office of risk and risk advisory firm Kroll, commissioned by the CBE. The findings of this document are published here in the public interest.

The Central Bank of Eswatini. Picture: Supplied
The Central Bank of Eswatini. Picture: Supplied

Big boardrooms and bold claims

In June 2017 in the sleepy seaside town of George, South Africa, the board of directors of Farmers Bank decided to apply to the CBE for a commercial banking licence. A banking licence is a prize not easily obtained and, were they to be successful, they would hold one of only five such licences, together with Standard Bank, First National Bank, Nedbank and the local Eswatini Bank.

According to a scanned application in possession of Open Secrets, Farmers Bank suggested that, unlike other Swazi banks, it would not rely on local depositors from the country of 1.2-million people and rather seek to attract offshore capital. In contrast, the bank’s domestic operation would be to support farmers in Eswatini’s agricultural sector with loan facilities. That’s like an amalgamation of banks such as the Land Bank and Investec in South Africa — a highly unlikely business model.

However, the over-500-page licence application makes bold, curious claims that should have immediately set off alarm bells. First, it promised to deliver $2.5bn worth of investments into Eswatini. This is significant given that the kingdom’s GDP in 2023 was only $3.8bn.

Then there’s the bizarre claim that its office in George, known as the Worldwide Corporate Center, would boast “one of the most technologically advanced and biggest boardrooms in Africa”.

Open Secrets and the ICIJ have verified that these premises have not been occupied by Farmers Bank to date.

The first of two branches of Farmers Bank was built in the tiny hamlet of Bulembu in northwestern Eswatini (the other is in the commercial capital Manzini). Bulembu has a long history as a “company town” built to serve the now-defunct Havelock Asbestos mine. The road to Bulembu is at times impassable without a four-wheel drive and the town residents are primarily orphans and forest workers. This makes the Farmers Bank, with its green roof and bulletproof windows, a curious sight. When Open Secrets last visited the branch in 2022 there was no sign that it had ever been operational and the obligatory high-back office chairs were still wrapped in their plastic coverings.

Once owned by a British mining company, Bulembu is today run by nonprofit Christian organisation Bulembu Ministries, which Rijkenberg established and was a director of from 2005, before taking on the role of chair in 2018.

We have been unable to ascertain if Rijkenberg has retained that role but he has indicated in response to questions that Farmers Bank rented property from Bulembu and hence he recused himself from any decisions regarding the banking licence.

Farmers Bank in Bulembu: Bulletproof windows in a village of orphans. Picture: Supplied
Farmers Bank in Bulembu: Bulletproof windows in a village of orphans. Picture: Supplied

Enter the Canadians

The 2022 Kroll investigation has two primary findings. The first is that there were key gaps in Farmers Bank’s licence application, “relating to the source of initial seed capital and the bank’s ownership structure”. The report adds that, “despite repeated requests by the CBE and opportunities to provide the information, the Applicant has failed to provide a clear explanation and supporting documentation to address these gaps”. 

Both Kroll and the EFIU investigated the two Canadian brothers behind Farmers Bank: John and Alexandre Asfar. The brothers make an appearance in South Africa in around 2015 and Alexander Asfar is believed to live in the luxurious Fancourt golf estate in George.

However, the two brothers have no history as bankers and John Paul Asfar has a chequered history of financial dealings in Canada where his Traveller’s Inn hotel chain was ultimately declared bankrupt. Prior to this he’d also dabbled in lobbying for casino licences. It remains unclear whether he repaid his creditors; as a local news article notes, “the chain ended up being dismantled as creditors moved in to recoup what they could”. A bankruptcy trustee estimated that John Asfar owed as much as C$68m. In 2009, immediately following the bankruptcy, he had promised to repay his debts and pledged C$70m to charity. At the same time, he stated his intent to leave Canada to concentrate on “helping needy people in Africa”.

John Asfar’s bankruptcy might go some way to explaining why the Kroll report notes that he has never supplied the CBE with a “fit and proper person” assessment and why he had — according to Kroll — written to Rijkenberg to intervene when this was required in the past. According to the report, “as at the date of this report, we understand that J Asfar’s assessment still remains outstanding”. A history of bankruptcy would almost certainly be a reason for the CBE to reject a banking licence application. In Eswatini, like most jurisdictions, a banking licence is a golden ticket which should only be given to individuals with impeccable credentials.

In addition to this, the Asfar brothers established a complex holding structure that did little to create a sense of transparency in the scheme. Farmers Bank was owned by a New Zealand entity called Worldwide Capital Corp, which was in turn owned by Canadian company Tetrillion. According to Kroll, both brothers were directors of all these companies. However, they failed to provide proof of who the ultimate beneficial owner of Tetrillion is, raising a red flag in the Kroll report.

Bulembu asbestos mine. Picture: Supplied
Bulembu asbestos mine. Picture: Supplied

A higher power intervenes

The second key finding of the Kroll report is critical of the CBE and suggests that the CBE made some decisions in awarding a licence because of “external pressure”. It notes that, “from documents reviewed by Kroll it is likely that third parties external to the CBE intervened in the process and issued instructions to the CBE to proceed with the granting of a licence to Farmers Bank and the subsequent extension of the licence. This is despite the fact that the CBE had identified concerns and deficiencies.”

The licence application process took several twists and turns. According to Kroll’s report, a CBE evaluations team recommended to the board of directors in 2017 that they reject the commercial banking licence as it would “tarnish the regulatory integrity of the Central Bank’s licensing policy.” In September 2018 a banking licence was issued (with certain conditions) following a “royal command” from the king. However, in October 2020, the CBE posted a public notice that it had revoked Farmers Bank’s commercial banking licence. Internal government and CBE records provided to Open Secrets show that a subsequent appeal process chaired by Eswatini minister of commerce, industry & trade Manqoba Khumalo led to the decision to reinstate the licence in January 2021.

One of the core reasons behind the CBE’s decision to revoke Farmers Bank’s licence in October 2020 was Farmers Bank’s board of directors’ inability to provide adequate proof of the origins of all the seed capital required to establish the bank. In addition, the Kroll report shows that, starting in 2019, the Asfars transferred R89m of the seed capital to purchase silver bullion from Rand Refinery in South Africa. However, the CBE was unable to verify the existence of the silver bullion.

A road to Bulembu. Picture: Supplied
A road to Bulembu. Picture: Supplied

Right of reply

Rijkenberg was sent a detailed set of questions which he declined to answer, as did the EFIU and CBE.

John Asfar responded without providing any specific answers but made a number of revealing statements in a rambling, error-filled letter which we quote from here: “The Leadership is now aware of your plan to not Libel and attack our Financial Institution but also the plan to destroy the economy of Eswatini. These acts will result in International Warrants being issued again, this time for Financing/Financial Terrorism as defined by the Act in Eswatini, and internationally.” He went on to add: “We will be going up the ladder and horizontally, and will be seeking to reverse take-over the different news platforms and legacy news agencies, with our corporate entities we registered in different jurisdictions as ‘WORLDWIDE NEWS’.”

Central bank integrity matters

Reading John Asfar’s rebuttal may leave the impression that these are not serious people — or perhaps not serious enough to operate a bank, even in a small jurisdiction such as Eswatini. However, what happens in the country matters to its people and the economies of the region.

South Africa has witnessed the subversion of banks during state capture — think Bank of Baroda — as a means to advance individual interests. It is a reminder of how political interference has the potential to damage the integrity of a country’s financial system. This has not happened yet in Eswatini’s absolute monarchy, largely because of the diligence of public servants in institutions such as the CBE and elsewhere, but it does not mean it is immune from this either.

*Read more about Swazi Secrets: The Swazi Secrets leak — part 1

*Read more about Swazi Secrets: Swazi Secrets part 2: The construction kingpin

* Additional reporting by Daniel Ford

* Open Secrets is a nonprofit organisation that exposes and builds accountability for economic crimes. Support Open Secrets

swazi secrets explained

Swazi Secrets is a cross-border investigation that reveals Eswatini’s unexplored role as a conduit in Southern Africa’s gold-based money-laundering economy — and how the absolute monarchy’s weak anti-money-laundering controls enable figures close to the royal family to benefit from proximity to the king.

The leak is the largest of its kind from a financial intelligence unit in an African country. The documents include bank records, police investigation reports, court affidavits and transcripts, and confidential exchanges between government agencies within Southern Africa. The records also include details about banks around the world that have facilitated financial transactions for people and companies suspected of criminal activity. The documents comprise more than 890,000 internal records from the Eswatini Financial Intelligence Unit (EFIU) obtained by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit devoted to publishing and archiving of leaks, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). ICIJ co-ordinated a team of 38 journalists from 11 countries to investigate illicit financial flows in Southern Africa and beyond.

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