Norwegian Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hansen admitted on Thursday that military officials had done a poor job of selling several surplus vessels in 2012 and 2013, and he apologized for that at a parliamentary inquiry. The vessels wound up under the control of paramilitary forces in Nigeria, and a former military employee has been charged with corruption.
“The fact that the vessels have landed in Nigeria under Nigerian flag reflects a breakdown in our systems, and I apologize for that,” Bruun-Hansen said during a hearing before the Parliament’s disciplinary committee. He was not defense chief at the time of the sales, but took responsibility for what’s become a military scandal that extended into his tenure. Norwegian regulations prohibit the sales or export of material or services to private buyers who may arm the vessels and offer them for use in areas of conflict, and those regulations were violated.
News bureau NTB reported that Bruun-Hansen admitted that military officials did not carry out a thorough check of the company, CAS Global, that bought six missile torpedo boats (MTBs) and the support vessel KMN Horten three years ago.
The vessels were sold after they’d been stripped of weapons, rebuilt and repainted so that they could be classified as civilian vessels. Representatives for CAS Global had also declared that the vessels would sail under British flag and British jurisdiction, and with European crews. Norway’s Foreign Ministry, which is responsible for controlling exports of military material, then cleared the sale. The Horten at one point was reported to be part of a transaction involving anti-piracy efforts off Somalia.
Both the defense and foreign ministries were under political leadership of the former left-center government at the time, headed by Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who is now secretary general of NATO. Current Foreign Minister Børge Brende, also testifying at Thursday’s hearing, said that much remains unclear about the sale and export of the vessels, and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Brende had notified the state prosecutor (Riksadvokaten) about possible criminal violations.
The so-called “Nigerian boats” scandal emerged after a series of reports in newspaper Dagbladet, and several members of the parliamentary committee noted on Thursday that a simple Internet search would have revealed that CAS Global only had a postbox address. Defense department officials nonetheless received the Nigerians who represented CAS Global and wanted to inspect the vessels that were up for sale.
“Does this mean that anybody can buy these boats, as long as they sign a declaration?” asked Erik Skutle, a Member of Parliament for the Conservatives. “Even terrorists? How on earth could this happen?”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Bruun-Hansen and the head of the defense department’s logistics organization (FLO), Petter Jansen, tried to answer the many questions that arose after Dagbladet revealed how the Norwegian equipment landed in the hands of owners described as Nigerian warlords. Another former Norwegian Coast Guard vessel, the KV Titran, was also sold through a brokerage company in a transaction that both Jansen and Bruun-Hansen also admitted did not comply with regulations. It was sold on to a South African weapons trader, Nautic Africa, which in turn sold it to another Nigerian company.
Norwegian and British police made three arrests in January in connection with the sales. A former FLO employee who was responsible for sales has since been charged with corruption and Jansen, his boss, admitted that his own follow-up of the case had also been deficient. He claimed he since has made many changes in the FLO as a result of the scandal.
Harald Sunde, who served as defense chief when the sales were conducted, also apologized on Thursday and said he was disappointed over all the mistakes made in connection with the vessel sales. He blamed a difficult reorganization of FLO at the time for the breakdown. Now both prosecutors and Norwegian police are investigating and more charges may be filed.
Helge Thorheim, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party, told NTB that he thinks the defense department was under pressure from the Defense Ministry to sell the vessels, to raise money at a time of tight budgets. “But it’s very difficult to get to the bottom of this case,” Thorheim told NRK.