Uncovering the secret African mission of Viktor Orbán’s son

Szabolcs Panyi, Jean-Baptiste Chastand (Direkt36) 2024-01-30
Szabolcs Panyi, Jean-Baptiste Chastand (Direkt36) 2024-01-30

The son of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has tried to hide his involvement in the planned Hungarian military mission in Chad in an almost comical way. The government was also secretive, but when they discovered that Direkt36 and the French newspaper Le Monde had obtained evidence of Gáspár Orbán’s involvement in the Chad military project, they were quick to make it public. Here is the story of the revelation.

A strange scene took place at the beginning of December 2023, when Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and his delegation arrived at the presidential palace of Chad in Africa. As the cars carrying the Hungarians rolled up to the entrance of the building, the foreign minister and members of his delegation started to walk towards the palace, but one of his escorts suddenly turned his back and headed towards the garden.

The young man getting out from a white van, wearing a green fedora, first looked at the camera recording the arrival of the Hungarian delegation, then turned his back and started to walk almost sideways, pulling a surgical mask from his pocket. The strange scene was captured in a video of the meeting taken by the Chadians and posted on Facebook on December 7, 2023, the day of the meeting.

After a cut in the video, the person in the green hat can be seen walking through the corridors of the presidential palace with his face covered by the mask, but later, in the footage recorded in the meeting room, he appears without the mask – although here the camera records him from the side, so his face is not visible. However, the video also includes a scene where the same man, walking behind foreign minister Szijjártó, enters another room – now without a hat and mask – and when he spots the camera again, he quickly hides behind a pillar. (As this can be seen in the video below.)

Direkt36, together with Le Monde, has tried in recent weeks to identify the young man, who took part in at least six African meetings between May 2023 and January 2024, from dozens of videos and photos of similar official Hungarian visits to Chad and Niger. This person appears only in the material uploaded by Africans, mostly barely recognizable, while he is mostly completely left out of official Hungarian reports. Although in most of the pictures we can’t even make out his main features, during our joint investigation we finally found a video from October 2023, a photo from December 2023 and a photo from January 2024, where his face was visible.

As it turns out, it was the Hungarian Prime Minister’s son, Gáspár Orbán.

Gáspár Orbán visits Chad in October 2023 – Source: Cnarr-Tchad Facebook

We uploaded the picture of the young man with mustache and slicked-back hair to two different facial recognition apps, and both of them clearly matched it with photos of the Hungarian prime minister’s son. We also showed the pictures taken in Africa to two sources who knew Gáspar Orbán personally, and both confirmed “one hundred percent” that it was him.

Gáspár Orbán had appeared differently in earlier photos, without a mustache and beard. The casual, fashionable style was also uncharacteristic of him. An acquaintance who met him last year confirmed that he now looks as he does in the African photos. And when the above photo of him with a mustache was uploaded to FaceCheck.ID, the app returned the following matches:

All photos except the one in the bottom right corner are of Gáspár Orbán

A colorful career

Based on publicly available photos, the facial recognition app has essentially created a virtual showcase of Gáspár Orbán’s colorful career full of abrupt changes. He first turned to professional football (soccer) in 2010, before giving up the sport in 2014 due to an injury, according to the official explanation. Gáspár Orbán, who was also studying law at ELTE university in Budapest, then moved to Africa, where he taught children to play football in Uganda with Christian aid organisation Empower a Child. “In Africa, I encountered the power of the living God in such a way that I gave my whole life to Jesus,” he said of his African experience shortly afterwards, when he entered the Hungarian public life as a leader of a religious congregation called Felház.

The soccer and missionary career was followed by another sharp turn – this time, he joined the military. In 2021, Telex revealed that Gáspár Orbán, who became a professional soldier in 2019, had been awarded a ministry scholarship (on Hungarian public funds) to study at the British Royal Sandhurst Military Academy. It is not known how his career has developed since he graduated from the academy. His last military photographs showed him in his regular uniform, with cropped hair and a shave.

In November 2023, the Hungarian Parliament voted to support the deployment of a 200-strong military mission in Chad and in the immediate neighbours of the sub-Saharan country, including Niger. The troops will be tasked with “advisory, support and mentoring tasks in the field”, which Hungary will use to help fight terrorism and tackle the root causes of migration, according to the official justification.

The mission to Africa, announced almost out of the blue, has surprised both the public and experts, with Telex writing in its article: “according to information leaked from the army, the risky and costly plan is not unanimously popular in military circles, and there are also questions about the Hungarian interest”.

Shortly afterwards, Direkt36 received information from a source with links to the Hungarian defense forces that the prime minister’s 31-year-old son, who has strong personal ties to Africa, plays a key role in launching the mission in Chad.

After hitting a roadblock in verifying information about Gáspár Orbán, Direkt36 sent public information requests on January 2 to three ministries – the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Prime Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office – and shortly afterwards to a fourth – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFA). We tried to find out exactly what role Gáspár Orbán is playing in the preparations for the upcoming Hungarian military mission in Chad, with what authority, on whose staff, and where – wether in the immediate vicinity of his father – he is doing his work.

The MoD’s reply on January 17 only revealed that Gáspár Orbán “serves in the Hungarian Defense Forces as an officer”, but they did not reveal the exact rank, and did not answer the other questions. The MoD claimed that the information on the military mission in Chad is not public and that the other questions are not of public interest. The other ministries all denied that Gáspár Orbán was doing work for them, with the Cabinet Office admitting that, on police orders, members of the prime minister’s family were allowed to enter the Carmelite monastery – Viktor Orbán’s office – and other ministry buildings.

Family diplomacy

Direkt36 and Le Monde started to sweep through the Facebook pages of the Chadian and Nigerien governments after denials from Hungarian government officials, and we were able to identify Gáspár Orbán’s involvement in both the Hungarian military and foreign ministry delegations. The prime minister’s son is in fact the only person to have attended at least all the six meetings related to the preparation of the Hungarian military mission in Africa from May 2023 to January 2024, according to photos and videos. In several places, he could only be identified from the back or profile, by his body type, hairstyle or the way he was dressed, and by the clothes he wore in other photos.

According to photos uploaded to Facebook by the African participants, and according to sources familiar with the details of the visits, in May 2023, Gáspár Orbán visited Niger in the company of Azbej Tristan, the Deputy State Secretary for the Assistance to Persecuted Christians; In early July, he visited Chad with Azbej and László Máthé, the Hungarian Ministerial Commissioner responsible for coordinating Hungarian foreign policy in the sub-Saharan region; in October, he visited Chad again with Máthé; in December, he was again in Chad with foreign minister Péter Szijjártó’s delegation; in January 2024, he visited Niger with Máthé and shortly afterwards again he was in Chad.

A source close to the Chadian authorities also told Le Monde that it was Gáspár Orbán who had established the contacts necessary to facilitate the negotiations through the “family diplomacy” that is common in Africa.

According to the source, the reception of the Hungarian delegation to Chad in early July 2023 was arranged by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s son, who received help from Mohamed Bazoum, the son of the Nigerien president (who was later overthrown in a coup on July 26, 2023). It was Bazoum’s son who put Gáspar Orbán in touch with his good friend Karimo Déby, half-brother of Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Déby. According to the source close to the Chadian authorities, the Hungarians were originally going to send a military mission to Niger, which was thwarted by the coup – they then sought to contact the Chadians with the help of Gáspár Orbán.

Last July, the Hungarian delegation was officially led by state secretary Tristan Azbej and ministerial commissioner László Máthé, who  – together with Gáspár Orbán – were even able to meet President Mahamat Idriss Déby himself. Le Monde has also managed to confirm that French government officials are also aware of the involvement of Viktor Orbán’s son in the preparation of the mission to Chad (Niger and Chad are French-speaking countries where France’s influence is still strong).

On the evening of January 23, Direkt36 received the reply of the foreign ministry, the fourth ministry to be contacted with a public information request, in which they denied having any information on Gáspár Orbán – while the recordings show that he was attending negotiations of Hungarian diplomatic missions. In the meantime, Le Monde, which was involved in the joint investigation, managed to schedule an interview for the next day, January 24, with the foreign ministry officials who had previously been part of the delegation with Gáspár Orbán, Tristan Azbej and László Máthé.

At one point in the otherwise good-spirited interview, which was full of substantive answers, the French journalist showed the foreign ministry leaders photos of Gáspár Orbán posted on African Facebook pages, asking whether Gáspár Orbán was in the photos and in what capacity he was participating in the mission.

Gáspár Orbán can be identified in this picture from Chad – Source: the Facebook page of the Chadian Ministry of Defence

Azbej and Máthé were clearly surprised at the mention of Gáspár Orbán. They did not deny that he was in the footage, but refused to answer further, arguing that information about military personnel is not public and therefore they cannot talk about him. (In all the footage in which we have identified Gáspár Orbán, the Prime Minister’s son is seen in civilian clothes, in smart, fashionable, colourful jacket-trousers-tie-hat combinations, with a short beard and a thick mustache – none of which is indicative of a real military appearance, but which the rules allow.)

The minister intervenes

A day after the foreign ministry officials refused to answer questions on Gáspár Orbán on the grounds of confidentiality of information about military personnel, Minister of Defense Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky unexpectedly revealed in an interview with Index.hu, which has been under government influence since 2020, in response to the last question of an interview, that Gáspár Orbán, “because of his special qualifications, legal knowledge and language skills, is involved in the preparation of the Chad mission, in cooperation with other military and civilian leaders”. The minister also claimed that “I appointed him as liaison officer. This is the army (…) and he is on duty”.

In contrast, shortly before, Szalay-Bobrovniczky’s ministry had stated in its rejection of Direkt36’s public information request that “data related to the military mission in Chad are not public pursuant to Article 15 (3) of Act CXL of 2021 on Defense and the Hungarian Defense Forces”.

We have tried to reach Gáspar Orbán through the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defense, but so far there has been no response. The Ministry of Defense did not explain why they did not tell us that the prime minister’s son was participating in the Chad mission, when Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky spoke publicly about it shortly afterwards.

The article was originally published on direkt36.hu

Szabolcs Panyi

VSquare’s Budapest-based lead investigative editor in charge of Central European investigations, Szabolcs Panyi is also a Hungarian investigative journalist at Direkt36. He covers national security, foreign policy, and Russian and Chinese influence. He was a European Press Prize finalist in 2018 and 2021.