Kenyans protest on the streets of Nairobi demanding the release of Kenyans languishing in South Sudan prisons. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Kenyans caught up in a bitter rivalry between two brothers in South Sudan
It was about noon in Juba. Dateline: May 29, 2015.
Ms Bhavik Ghagda was speaking on the phone to her brother Ravi Ramesh, who was stationed in South Sudan. It was nothing serious but the usual banter between a brother and a sister. The chit-chat was abruptly disrupted by President Salva Kiir’s national security men who had arrived at Click Technologies shop in Juba’s Airport Road.
Ramesh, who had arrived from Nairobi the previous day, interrupted the call: “Some guys have come into our shop. I will call you back,” he told his sister before hanging up. He never called back.
“I tried to call him back but the phone was off,” his sister, Ms Ghagda, told me a few months ago, as we sipped coffee at a Java outlet in the City Centre.
Unravelling the story behind the life sentence meted out on four Kenyans who are serving time in a Juba prison has been a nightmare.
Besides Ramesh, the other Kenyans rotting in jail are Anthony Mwadime Wazome, Anthony Keya Munialo and Boniface Chuma Muriuki; away from the shop where they sold Iphones, Apple products and some of the best-money-can-buy IT products in South Sudan.
The Kenyans were apparently caught up in a bitter rivalry between two brothers, Juba’s emerging billionaires, executives and military personnel in a case that exposes how the cut-throat competition for government tenders is creating social havoc in the five-year-old nation; a story of systemic corruption and abuse of power.
The main players in this game were two step-brothers, John Agou, a former student of Mang’u High School and USIU, and Gaddafi Arthobei, an in-law of President Kiir.
REBUILD YOUNG NATION
Arthobei had spent his early years at the Kakuma Refugee Camp with his mother after she escaped a civil war that had uprooted more than 4.5 million people from their homes. He then left for Canada after studying at Ruiru High School — part of a multitude of “lost boys” who were airlifted to US and Canada to start a new life and later return to build the young nation.
Arthobei returned, some say he was deported, to Juba and found his half-brother Agou who was working as a journalist. It was Agou who accommodated Arthobei when he founded a new company, Jupiter Printing.
As an in-law of the President, contacts and contracts flowed easily.
Shortly after independence in 2011, South Sudan stopped importing office stationery from Syria and that multi-million-dollar contract was given to Arthobei after he was introduced to the executive director in the Office of the President, Mr Yel Koor, by three senior officials at the presidency.
As a result, Arthobei was able to supply stamps, letterheads, writing pads, computers and presidential promotional items worth $8.6 million (Sh860 million) for the first one year.
Then, according to court records, Arthobei turned into a vicious tenderpreneur and started submitting unbudgeted-for proposals to the office of the president.
The two most outstanding were a $7.9 million project to supply food in Abyei, a disputed drought-wracked area between Sudan and South Sudan, and a $3 million project for a mini-petrol station. When these were blocked by Yel Koor, Arthobei is said to have issued threats to those against his projects.
On a Thursday, June 20, 2013, Arthobei was arrested together with two former ministers: Cabinet Affairs, Deng Alor and his Finance counterpart, Kosti Manibe Ngai.
REGISTERED NINE COMPANIES
To execute his plans, Athorbei had multiple identities and had registered nine companies in South Sudan such as Daff Supplies International Ltd; Daffy Investment Group; Gaddhaffy Athorbei; Athorbei Gaddhaffy; Athorbei Gaddhafy Damascus, and many others.
His arrest was after his company, Daff Supplies International Limited, was accused of over-pricing 62 pieces of fire safes whose market price was only $3,000 to $128,377 a piece.
The money was paid to a Kenyan company Daff Supplies Investment Limited instead of the company that “won” the tender through single sourcing.
By this time, Athorbei’s step brother Agou had abandoned his career as a journalist and become a government spy. Also, Athorbei’s business empire had grown with several employees who included the three Kenyans.
He was also a common face at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport where he loaded his cargo of computers and IT-related products for Juba. In Nairobi’s South Sudan social circles, he was the ultimate millionaire.
Shortly after he was paid $7.9 million Athorbei wired some of the money to a Nairobi bank, followed it, withdrew and drove off. By this time, alarm bells had been raised in Juba and on a second journey to withdraw the balance, he was “advised” to go and complete some paperwork in Juba. That is when he was arrested.
His arrest by the national security saw the entry of his step-brother Agou into business, supplying the same items that Athorbei’s companies supplied to the government. Soon, like his brother, he became a millionaire.
By the time that Athorbei was released from prison in February 2014, his brother had grown immensely rich. In Nairobi, where he was known in social circles, he threw a party for which he claimed to have paid a bill of Sh1.5 million at the Sailors in Nairobi when his USIU girlfriend Susan Chaat graduated in September 2012. Later that month, the two got married and lived in Agou’s penthouse on Riara Road while he also pursued a Global MBA degree at USIU. He also had a young child.
During the trial, the chief administrator at the office of the president, Mayen Wol, told the court that Agou’s brother returned with vengeance, eager to either retrieve his businesses, ruin his brother or both.
Agou had by this time built a company known as Click Technologies from 2013 and had landed into several multi-million-shilling deals with the government.
“Gaddafi did two things, first he wrote something on the Internet that there is $12 million stolen in the office of president and me (Mayen), Yel Luol and John Agou had taken the money,” Wol told the court.
He also said Athorbei came to Nairobi “where he made fabrications that he and others stole money, and he brought the intelligence report against them to Thomas Duoth, NSS Director-General of External Security”. On May 29, 2015, Agou was approached by the National Security agents and arrested at the Airport Business Centre in Juba.
The country was going through a power struggle between President Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. A freeze on payments to suppliers was on — with money directed to the war.
That is how alarm was raised on Agou’s invoices. His brother had published in a blog that his kin had stolen $36 million and banked it in an offshore account in Malaysia. He published another article saying senior office of the president personnel had, together with Agou, received $12 million. He is said to have handed the article to his brother-in-law, President Kiir.
Several other reports emerged and were sent to the intelligence department alleging the transfer of Sh500 million to Agou’s bank account in Nairobi. The report was channelled to the Director-General of General Intelligence Bureau by a director of Athorbei’s company. It found its way to President Kiir’s office as evidence of corruption in his office.
Agou was accused of scheming to defraud the government of $1 million after forging the President’s signature to ease payments. After a raid in his office, presidential seals and letter heads — which he used to supply to the presidency — were taken and used as evidence.
That is how the Kenyans were caught up in a political battle they hardly understood. It is now on record that President Kiir summoned his officials, Wol and Luol, who had been implicated and suspended them. On the weekend that followed Ramesh’s arrest, his sister and father left Nairobi for Juba hoping to find him.
“We got in touch with the printing press staff and we were warned not to interfere with the case or we will also be locked up,” recalls Ms Ghagda. “We came back to Nairobi with no news.”
Nothing was heard about the Kenyans arrested until on the 40th day when they were released. “They called us. They were in jovial moods. They had neither been charged nor questioned. We were excited,” recalls Ms Ghagda. The celebration was short-lived as they were rearrested shortly afterwards.
Graphic designer Anthony Keya was working with a Juba company before he decided to join Click Technologies of Agou in May 2014. The pay was good. The only time he came home was in February 2014 to see his new-born baby.
“He was to come back in June because my mum was very sick” his wife Esther told me. “When I heard he had been arrested, I tried to call him but the phone was off.”
Upon their arrest, few South Sudan lawyers wanted to take up the cases. It is also on record that a lawyer who tried to represent them in court was threatened by National Intelligence officers. He had tried to get some written notes from the arrested Kenyans.
Attempts by the Kenyan families to seek help from the ministry in Nairobi bore no fruit. “We were always told that they were in the custody of the complainant who happened to be the National Intelligence,” Ms Ghagda said.
Also at the ministry in Nairobi, they had been told the Kenyans were held as “state witnesses. And we always asked, ‘why should they detain witnesses? We were always told to remain calm,” Ms Ghagda says.
Anthony Mwadime’s father was in the court following the proceedings. Interestingly, none of the Kenyans were named in the court documents.
He watched as the judge read the ruling and saw his son crying in the dock. Apparently, as he came to learn later, his son had been jailed for life together with the other Kenyans.
Chuma’s brother got so traumatised by the trial that on the last day, he forgot to pick up his clothes at the hotel and just boarded a bus to Nairobi.
“He did not want to stay in Juba for another day. He has also not spoken about Juba. He gets disturbed when asked about it,” says Ruth Mwaniki, Chuma’s brother. Whether these Kenyans will ever be released will now be a matter between governments. But they remain victims of a vicious war in the presidency in Juba.
After a year writing this column, I take a short break and will resume in February, 2017. Wishing all readers a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.