World: Mandela bribery allegations on eve of poll fail to stick

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DAYS BEFORE the election which will mark President Nelson Mandela's departure from public life in South Africa, leaked letters are circulating which connect him with a Nigerian businessman, an oil deal and two cheques totalling nearly pounds 170,000.

South African newspapers have reported details of the letters between Mr Mandela's lawyers and a British legal firm representing the businessman, Antonio Deinde Fernandez, who also represents the Central African Republic at the United Nations, but the story is seen as an attempt to smear Mr Mandela and possibly the African National Congress, which may well win a two-thirds majority in the election on 2 June. The letters were leaked in London, and most of the running is being made by British newspapers, according to journalists in South Africa.

The centrepiece of the story is a meeting between Mr Mandela and the Nigerian military leader, Abdulsalami Abubakar, at an airport near the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in February. Also present was Mr Fernandez, reported to be one of the richest businessmen in Africa, with interests in several parts of the continent. He has also represented several African countries as a diplomat, including Mozambique, Angola, Swaziland and Togo.

Later a letter was sent by the businessman's London solicitors to Mr Mandela's lawyer, Ismail Ayob, referring to an agreement between Mr Fernandez's oil company and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. A copy of the contract and a cheque for $134,000 (pounds 83,000) was enclosed, leading to allegations that this was a kickback for Mr Mandela's help in securing the deal.

According to Mr Ayob, Mr Mandela recalled meeting Mr Fernandez at Abuja airport, but could not remember discussing an oil contract. Instead they had talked about the President's children's charity.

The lawyer wrote back to Mr Fernandez's London solicitor, Simon Goldberg of Simons Muirhead and Burton, asking him to clarify what the cheque was for. Mr Ayob said the reply was that Mr Goldberg had been instructed the money was for the children's fund. Another cheque for a similar amount was enclosed; both were paid into the charity.

"We get a lot of people trying to ingratiate themselves with Mr Mandela, and a lot of people who would like to do business with him," Mr Ayob has been quoted as saying. "Things don't always go as they like."

The revelations have clearly caused embarrassment in South Africa, threatening to besmirch Mr Mandela's reputation as one of the most revered international figures of the late 20th century, but few believe he would take bribes. Nor would he need to: since his release in 1990 from 27 years in prison, he has been besieged with offers by well-wishers to meet his expenses and give him houses and cars. Most were told to give instead to his children's fund.

Allegations of ANC involvement in corruption have been frequent during the campaign, and Mr Mandela had been accused of tolerating financial misdeeds among his closest associates, but no scandal has attached to him personally in his five-year presidency. On 16 June, barring an unimaginable election reverse, the 80-year-old leader will hand over to his chosen successor, Thabo Mbeki.