Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Lucas Dwaje stared broodingly out of the living room window of his home built on a 600 acre farm in the Zanzi area of Rukuna, a two-hour drive from Lavangwa. He normally retreated to his farm when he wanted to think and rest in a serene environment far away from the bustling city where everyone had an agenda or wanted something from him.
The natural environment wasn’t working its usual magic to calm his frayed nerves however. He was too worried to appreciate the stunning vista of the sun setting over the horizon. His job as president of Bancushi gave him plenty to worry about, but the last few years had been a constant battle to keep the ruling party united while countering the threat of a growing opposition.
Dwanje was tall, lean and fit with a dark complexion, and looked much younger than his 60 years. Political analysts attributed this to his healthy and active lifestyle. He had criss-crossed Bancushi countless times since his election eight years before addressing rallies, holding fund raisers, opening schools and hospitals.
Dwanje was a teetotaller, non-smoker and stuck to traditional foods like sour milk, boiled maize, arrow roots, sweet potatoes and traditional greens. He was an indefatigable workaholic and had attained his current position through sheer grit and hard work with a large dose of cunning thrown in.
Dwanje worked as a shopkeeper in his birthplace of Bosoto before plunging into politics. He first served as an assistant minister for health and housing in founding President Keye Mokeba’s government. Dwanje was one of his most strident supporters and eventually gained access into the inner circle of loyalists that the president used to purge radical politicians from the Bancushi National Party (BNP).
By the time Mokeba started ailing, Dwanje had gained substantial clout in the ruling party far exceeding his position. He began a campaign to position himself as Mokeba’s successor and tirelessly lobbied BNP delegates, cutting deals left and right.
Keye Mokeba had come to power by bringing together his tribe, the Buyu of central Bancushi, their cousins the Buni at the foot of Mt Nyake and the Kawe from the west of the country who had made their home around Lake Burimba, one of Africa’s Great Lakes.
Mokeba had alienated the Kawe during the course of his presidency but Dwanje reckoned that if he could gain the support of the Senya, the second largest tribe after the Buyu, who flanked the Kawe on the east, he could neutralise the latter. This was particularly important given that Victor Akisa, former vice president of Bancushi, was from the Kawe tribe and his main challenger in the succession race.
Dwanje worked tirelessly among his own smaller tribe, the Benji, who resided in the country’s bread basket to ensure that no strong contenders came from his backyard.
The Buyu proved to be a hard nut to crack but he finally got their support by promising them the vice presidency and convincing their community and business leaders that he was a safe pair of hands who would continue with the policies introduced by President Mokeba.
When Mokeba died in 1979, the vice president took over as acting president for a period of 90 days as outlined in the constitution. In elections held the following year, Dwanje won with a landslide. The honeymoon lasted until a failed coup attempt jolted him to consolidate power using a carrot and stick approach that had succeeded for the most part.
Dwanje ordered the police to raid newspapers and magazines which published stories critical of the government. Their equipment was confiscated, their writers and editors arrested, charged with sedition and jailed, which cowed many media owners.
The state only licensed broadcasters who danced to the regime’s tune like Bedan Mangola, a prominent Buyu businessman who owned The Times newspaper, Channel 4, a television station, and Star FM, a radio station. The national broadcaster was easy to control. The managing director of Bancushi Television (BTV) and Radio Bancushi knew that his funding came from the state. He did what he was told, secure in the knowledge that his job was safe.
When students from the University of Bancushi and civil society activists held street demonstrations to protest the frequent arrests of government critics, Dwanje sent the General Service Unit (GSU) to clear the roads. The elite squad performed its task with ruthless efficiency, killing some protestors and maiming hundreds.
When the protests increased, Dwanje closed down the university for 18 months. He ordered the National Intelligence Service (NIS), known informally as the Special Branch, to detain the most vocal student leaders and activists. The others fled the country like rats from a sinking ship.
Dwanje used the Special Branch to plant spies everywhere, particularly among organisations he suspected of supporting Akisa who was angling for a comeback. Akisa had decamped from the ruling party and formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which performed poorly in the 1985 elections.
But current intelligence reports showed that support for the party had increased especially among politicians who had lost in the BNP nominations, which virtually guaranteed a win in the national polls.
Akisa however, was nobody’s fool. He embarked on a quiet campaign to recruit Buyu and Kawe business leaders unhappy with the state of the economy, which had been weakened by a rising trade deficit and corruption that started in the previous regime and escalated under Dwanje’s rule.
The president and his cousin Wallace Leswa, the only man he trusted completely, devised a strategy to tame Akisa that had worked brilliantly so far. They targeted the businesses of wealthy entrepreneurs who were bankrolling the opposition. Leswa created a three-step plan.
First, find out if a company had a large loan with the National Bank of Bancushi (NBB) or Bancushi Commercial Bank (BCB) in which the state had substantial shareholding. Next, put the squeeze on the bank’s management to recall the loan with no warning. Most companies unable to repay at such short notice were put under receivership. When their owners rushed to court for protection, Leswa, put the second step into motion.
He bribed friendly judges and ensured these cases were put on their dockets. Their job was simple. Keep stalling the cases with the help of lawyers representing the banks that Leswa had recruited for this purpose until the targeted companies, crippled by debt, became insolvent. Step three was to engineer their sale to competitors who supported the government.
There were more than enough takers for the companies which were sold for a song then revived, ironically using loans from NBB or BCB which were granted on very friendly terms and processed with astonishing speed. The new owners usually sold the companies after a year or two at a handsome profit.
This process kept entrepreneurs so busy trying to save their companies that they had no time to indulge in politics, let alone fund the opposition. But the best outcomes were when they changed their tune and sent emissaries to Dwanje begging for a reprieve.
It was usually granted at a steep cost to the entrepreneurs. Some lost majority shareholding in their companies. Others were forced to donate large sums of money to the ruling party. All were threatened with dire consequences should they continue to support the opposition.
At the centre of it all was Sudipta Trivedi, a crooked wheeler dealer who had been on the periphery of the ruling party for years, peddling his services to whoever could pay his fee. Sudipta started out by winning small government contracts where he inflated the cost of goods and shared the proceeds with various high ranking ministry officials.
His fortunes blossomed when he recruited a powerful godfather, Benjamin Yasi, the permanent secretary in charge of internal security and provincial administration in Dwanje’s government. Yasi helped him win a series of huge contracts to supply military equipment by single sourcing the contracts under the cloak of ‘national security’.
Sudipta acted as the middle man. He was a genius when it came to creating dummy corporations in places such as the Cayman Islands and had formed an elaborate web of 50 shell companies and subsidiaries, secret trusts and frontmen for the sole purpose of chasing billions in government business.
His strategy was to enter into ‘lease finance’ agreements where his companies lent money to the Bancushi government to purchase the goods he supplied to the same government at hugely inflated prices. Sudipta never delivered the bulk of the equipment procured under these opaque deals. On top of this, the government ended up paying huge amounts in interest on the ‘loans’ that Sudipta’s companies provided.
Sudipta used the proceeds of graft to build a business empire that stretched from Bancushi to South Africa, the United Kingdom, India, Dubai and Mauritius. He used his network of dummy corporations to funnel billions into secret bank accounts and real estate investments in the west on behalf of Dwanje and Leswa, which enabled them to amass a fortune in less than a decade.
The trio were now using Sudipta’s dummy corporations to conceal their shareholding in many of the companies they were forcefully taking over with the connivance of the courts.
Their strategy of forcing companies into receivership using bank loans had recently hit a snag when several entrepreneurs paid up within days of receiving notices from their banks. NIS investigations revealed that a group of Buyu businessmen led by Bola Karenga had joined forces, pooled their resources and bailed out at least five companies.
The news infuriated Dwanje. He and Bola had clashed in the past, a fight that Bola won. But not this time. Dwanje would make certain of it.
They filed slowly into the room. Each man greeted Dwanje with a handshake then picked his preferred spot. Very few people had ever seen the president’s inner sanctum. He entertained most visitors to the farm on the porch and in cold weather, the main living room. His first wife had furnished the rest of the house but he had insisted on picking the décor for this room.
The crisp and airy light grey walls provided a beautiful contrast to the white ceiling and predominantly brown leather and oak furniture. Several Persian hand knotted area rugs placed on top of the cream coloured wall to wall carpet added to the luxurious look and feel of the room.
A brown leather sofa set dominated the centre of the room with his large oak desk on the right just inside the entrance. Large portraits of Dwanje with African presidents and other world leaders that he had met on his travels across the globe hung on the walls.
Several table lamps, sconces and floor lamps provided soft pools of light in the evening. The throw cushions on the sofa matched the full length silk curtains with a dark grey and white pattern and black tie backs and pelmets, which hung over the bow window overlooking the manicured lawn that was watered twice a day, except during the rainy season, keeping it lush and ever green.
This room was his sanctuary, the place he held war councils. The household staff and his family steered clear of it and never entered the room without invitation.
Benjamin Yasi, 39, tall dark and imposing, sat on the largest sofa, right in the middle as if he owned it, crossed one ankle over the opposite knee with his right hand splayed wide on the seat. This position placed him directly opposite Dwanje who sat with his legs crossed at the knee in his favourite wing chair with brown and cream striped fabric.
Yasi wore a grey three piece suit with a white shirt, red and white polka dot tie and black Italian handmade lace-up Oxfords. His voice boomed even when he spoke in a low tone. His square face, bushy eyebrows and thick lips made him appear intimidating but in reality he had a warm, jovial personality.
Wallace Leswa and Dominic Segala sat side by side on the two-seater on the president’s left. They were both successful businessmen and Dwanje’s closest confidants. Segala, 48, was dark, short and stout, soft spoken and tended to speak in a measured tone. His mild façade masked a ruthless streak that had caught many a business and political opponent flat footed. Segala was a political animal and it was largely due to his mobilisation skills and ability to outthink any opponent that had propelled Dwanje to the top.
Despite this he shunned the limelight and very little of his personal life was in the public domain. He wore a light brown suit and white shirt with a purple and white diagonal striped tie and caramel leather lace-ups.
Dark, round faced and chubby, a fact partially concealed by his height, Leswa, 42, was the man Dwanje turned to when he needed unorthodox solutions to problems that eluded legal solutions. Leswa was a political wheeler dealer and prone to flaunting his fabulous wealth and close ties to the president. He was brash and the most outspoken of the lot. Today he wore a navy suit with a white shirt, light grey tie and black cap toe double monk strap shoes.
Oliver Zimeli sat down last on the single chair to the president’s right. The head of NIS wore a charcoal suit, light blue shirt, diamond-pattern navy and brown tie and brown dress boots. An inconspicuous bespectacled man with a brown complexion, placid face and affable personality, Zimeli, 56, was easy to ignore in a crowd. He was soft spoken like Segala and weighed his words carefully before speaking.
Behind the genial eyes lay a mind like a steel trap. Zimeli had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of people, places and events coupled with an ability to be coldblooded and impartial when necessary. These traits had helped him retain his job as spy chief, a position to which he’d been appointed by the former president.
Dwanje had kept him on for the simple reason that he knew where all the bodies were buried. Heck, he had helped bury most of them. Zimeli was unrivalled when it came to uncovering people’s dirty secrets, a skill that Dwanje had utilised to the maximum. It helped that he was from the Buyu tribe. Yasi was Kawe.
Having two such critical dockets held by members of the two most rival tribes was an ingenious move that had gifted Dwanje’s supporters with ample propaganda to silence critics who complained about the ethnic composition of his government.
“What’s the position?” Dwanje didn’t waste time on preliminaries. He was casually dressed unlike the others in brown corduroy pants, patterned sweater over a cream shirt and brown wingtips.
“We lost Pojola Holdings,” Leswa announced.
Dwanje’s lips tightened in annoyance. “What happened?”
“It’s like they knew we were coming. Their lawyers had already transferred the loan amount to the bank. When our guys arrived, they just showed them the deposit slip then ordered them off the property.”
“Where did they get Sh10 million at such short notice?”
“All I know is they paid with a banker’s cheque drawn on Credit Bank,” Leswa replied.
Dwanje turned to Zimeli, thick eyebrows raised in silent query. “Six deposits ranging from half a million to two million were made into the account of Kinandi Ltd over a period of three days early in the week. The banker’s cheque was done the day before yesterday.”
“Who owns the account?” Leswa asked.
“Jacob Sibi, owner of Omuti Pharmaceuticals,” Zimeli replied.
“I thought we agreed to keep the information about who was being targeted under wraps. How did they find out?” Dwanje addressed the question to Leswa who shrugged. “Other than the people in this room, who else knew?”
“Sudipta and the bank manager. The bank officials sent to the company were only given their orders two hours before.”
“It could be a leak in the bank or Sudipta’s office,” suggested Zimeli.
Leswa shook his head. “Must be the bank. Sudipta knows what’s at stake. He assured me he’s being very careful.”
“The leak aside, how are these people getting hold of such large sums in a matter of days?” Dwanje asked.
Zimeli leaned forward elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together. “There’s a massive fundraising effort going on, but very quietly. They’re calling it a war chest. The initial target is Sh500 million. They’ve gained the support of several leading manufacturers from the Asian community who have made large donations to the kitty.”
“How is that even possible? We haven’t touched the Indians!” Leswa leapt out of his chair and paced the room in agitation.
“They’re simply hedging their bets. Idi Amin woke up one day in August 1972 and expelled the entire Asian population in Uganda. Since then Asians haven’t felt secure in East Africa. They worry that the same thing could happen over here,” Zimeli explained.
“That’s ridiculous,” Leswa’s sharp retort greeted his words.
“Today it is Buyu and Kawe businesses. Tomorrow it could be Asian businesses. They reckon that if this government can go after its own people, born and raised here, what would stop it from targeting a community whose members are for the most part still considered foreigners?” Zimeli countered in a calm tone. He rarely got ruffled.
“Their strategy is to support both sides so that their interests are protected regardless of who wins. A large chunk of Akisa’s funding for the 1985 elections came from the Asian community.”
“How does Bola fit into all this?” asked Dwanje.
“He’s the de facto leader of the group, mobilising existing members, recruiting new ones and keeping the financial records. Most of their meetings are being held either at his Tezi farm or Woodville,” said Zimeli.
“Where are they keeping the money? We can freeze the account on grounds of national security,” suggested Yasi, speaking for the first time.
“It’s not in one place. They have devised a system where donors sign a pledge for the amount they wish to contribute. When a business needs to be bailed out, Bola calls a few people on the list with instructions on where to deposit their donations after which they buy a bank cheque. They can roll out and complete the whole process within hours if necessary. Beneficiaries of the fund will repay the cash with five percent interest with the money going back into the kitty to assist other businesses in distress.”
“I want to know who’s on that list and what they’ve pledged,” Dwanje ordered grimly.
“We’re working on it. But it won’t be easy. They are paranoid about secrecy. Only Bola has the full list. No one else knows for sure who has contributed what. Bola has moved all his meetings to the golf course to avoid wiretaps. Their meetings at Tezi are held outside the house while walking around the farm. Although we can keep tabs on who he meets, we can’t assume it’s about the war chest. It could be related to his other businesses.”
“What about the caddies? Anyone we can recruit there?” asked Yasi.
“They are not talking shop in the presence of the caddies who’ve been instructed to stay a good distance away once they take or give their clients clubs. Except one whose main job is to enforce that rule. Bola’s caddy.”
“So recruit him.”
“We’ve tried. He’s not biting. He and Bola go back a long way. He’s very loyal.”
“Maybe we should start breaking legs,” Yasi countered with a pointed look at Dwanje.
“Violence should be a last resort. In my experience, you get more reliable information when people are willing to talk. Use of force often leads to deliberate misinformation just to throw us off track,” Zimeli replied. He had learnt this lesson the hard way and tried to instil it in his officers.
A story goes that at one time a new born baby was found dumped in a garbage heap in Kibo slum. Police questioned people in Soweto village where the body was found, one of 12 villages in the vast slum.
After getting nowhere, they called in the Special Branch which rounded up all the women in Soweto village and took them to an undisclosed location for interrogation. Afterwards, every single one claimed that the dead baby was hers, even grandmothers well past their prime. Many never quite recovered from that ordeal.
The incident so infuriated local leaders that they called the media and threatened to raise a stink in parliament. It took days of some pretty fancy footwork on Zimeli’s part to get the media to bury the story. He shipped the officer who had overseen the operation to Ngelai, a remote town in north eastern Bancushi nicknamed ‘Siberia’ because nobody at NIS wanted to work there.
Many years of inter clan fighting as well as neglect by the central government had left the vast arid area lawless, forcing visitors to travel in convoys to avoid being ambushed by the armed bandits that roamed the region.
“What about his business holdings, is he vulnerable? How did he make his money?” asked Leswa, who was still pacing.
“He was born in Nyago and grew up poor but was educated by Christian missionaries until Form 4. He worked as an untrained teacher until 1965 when he joined the civil service as a junior clerk in the Ministry of Education in Lavangwa. He rose up the ranks until 1974 when he was transferred to Baret as the District Education Officer where he made a lot of money during the coffee boom…”
“Ah those were good days. Those guys made a killing with virtually no effort,” interrupted Leswa with a smile.
“I keep hearing about this coffee boom that enriched a lot of Buyu businessmen. How exactly did it come about?” asked Yasi.
Leswa stopped pacing and resumed his seat.
“You know that Brazil is the largest producer of coffee right?” Yasi nodded. “Freezing temperatures destroyed more than 70 percent of its crop in July 1975. The resulting shortage sent prices through the roof. Everyone started trading in coffee. The climax was in 1977 when Idi Amin rounded up all the Americans in Uganda. In retaliation, Jimmy Carter imposed a trade embargo on Uganda’s coffee. The farmers there started selling their coffee through Bancushi, most of it smuggled at night through Baret, a small town on the border…”
“Where Bola was working,” finished Yasi nodding in comprehension.
“Coffee was called the black gold,” said Leswa.
“Idi Amin got so angry he ordered his soldiers to shoot the smugglers on sight, but they were part of the racket,” laughed Dwanje.
“The best part was it was all untaxed. President Mokeba refused to tax the incomes of small coffee farmers during the boom, benefitting the smugglers in the process,” said Leswa.
“How long did it last?” asked Yasi.
“About four years. Coffee prices fell at the end of 1978. Anyway let’s get back to Bola.” Leswa gestured to Zimeli to continue his briefing.
“He left the civil service after 13 years and started Liberty Insurance Company Limited. Later he took up commercial dairy, tea, coffee and wheat farming. He bought a fleet of trailers and started a cargo transport business – BK Transporters, invested in real estate and built the hotel. The insurance company is the cash cow but he also gets a lot of income from farming. Other than Tezi which is 200 acres, he has a 300-acre farm in Nyago and 100 acres in Rukuna. He has two undeveloped beach plots at Meribo and Luzi, each five acres. Here in Lavangwa he has a five storey commercial building in the city centre where his headquarters is based and a two-acre parcel of land along Goti Road which is undeveloped. His other companies are Kario Meat Processors, Wekuru Distributors and Jako Holdings which owns the Jambele Arcade. He has shares in 10 other companies and several bank accounts with very healthy balances.”
Zimeli had carried a large folder which he’d placed on the oak coffee table at the start of the meeting but he’d made no reference to it.
“So money won’t work on this guy. What about family – wife, children?” asked Yasi.
“His first wife Consolata Wekuru died while giving birth to her last born, Grace in 1969. Wekuru Distributors is named after her. They had five children. James and Tony work in the family businesses, Peter and Grace live abroad, Makena is disabled and works as an artist. James is the only one who is married. His wife Paula Chako is a secretary at Orient Bank. They have two sons; Christopher, two, and Lewis, six months old. Bola married his current wife, Isabella Matebo, in December 1978. They have two daughters; Rose, eight and Susan, six.”
“Someone please explain to me how he does that.” Yasi threw up his hands in bewilderment. “He’s rattling off the jobs and ages of complete strangers. I can barely remember the names of my children let alone their ages.” The room erupted into laughter.
“In my business you have to remember facts. It can often mean the difference between life and death,” Zimeli replied with a grin.
Segala who had remained silent weighed in on the discussion. “We could promise him a senior position in government.”
“Bola is that rare successful African man who is not interested in power. He’s been asked several times by community leaders in Nyago to run for political office but he’s declined every time,” Zimeli told him.
“It may be hard to cripple him financially but we can still distract him enough to disrupt the activities of the group,” said Segala.
“How?” asked Yasi.
“Target the insurance company. You said it’s the cash cow right?” Zimeli nodded. “Bringing it down should do the trick.”
“Cut off the head of the snake,” Leswa murmured.
“How do you bring down a profitable insurance company whose owner is sitting on a Sh500 million war chest, or soon will be?” asked Leswa.
“That’s your job to figure it out. I deal with political strategy. Business is your thing,” Segala replied.
“That’s a really tall order.” Leswa rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I’m going to need time and I need Bola’s file.” Zimeli reached for the folder on the coffee table, extracted a sheaf of papers and passed them across to him.
“In the meantime keep trying to get that list of contributors and find a mole in Bola’s home or business that we can use,” ordered Dwanje. “Segala, I need a political strategy to deal with this group. If we can’t get to Bola directly, we can discourage enough of the rest to halt the fundraising or at least slow it down so that it stops interfering with our plans.” Segala nodded.
“We’ll meet in a week for a progress report.” Dwanje glanced at his watch, a slim gold Rolex with a black face and diamonds around the edges. “It’s almost seven. We can have some refreshments on the veranda as we wait for supper.” They stood up and preceded him out of the room.