Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
James Karenga studied the pile of documents in his office on the fifth floor of Gemini Plaza in the heart of Lavangwa’s central business district, while chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully. Like his clothes, he kept his furnishings simple.
The dark stained hardwood desk that dominated the room was well made but old. He had inherited it from his father who had bought it when he first started Liberty Insurance 10 years before. His leather chair too was old with nicks in the fabric. The blue carpet was faded and threadbare in places.
The cream coloured venetian blinds had several broken slats which prevented them from hanging properly. His brother Tony often teased him about the office, asking when he would refurbish it but James liked it the way it was. It had character.
Unlike his brother who liked fashionable clothes and designer labels, James picked clothes because of their functionality and stuck to dark colours. Today he wore a navy suit which fitted well over his stocky 5’10 frame, striped blue, white and red shirt and no tie. He hated ties and only wore them when absolutely necessary.
He wore his trademark black brogues. He had several pairs in the same design, black and brown. James rarely shopped for clothes. When he found a shoe he liked, he bought several pairs in different colours and wore them until they were almost falling to pieces before he replaced them.
He rubbed his right hand over his bald head absentmindedly, another contrast to his brother’s dense two inch curly spikes which gave him a wild funky look. Tony had a thin moustache and short beard but James preferred the clean shaven look, the only hair on his face being his bushy eyebrows.
He looked up as the door opened and his brother and father came in. “Hi dad, Tony.” He rose and greeted each man with a firm handshake then ushered them to the more informal seating area across the room where a three-seater dark brown sofa set was arranged around a black wooden coffee table.
His middle aged personal assistant entered the room carrying a tray with coffee and tea which she placed on the table. She knew what each man liked and made quick work of serving before leaving the room as silently as she had entered. The trio engaged in small talk for several minutes. Tony and James had taken the armchairs on either side of their father who sat on the sofa.
Tony wore a Prince of Wales subtle plaid pattern suit. The fabric was woven with alternating black and white threads to create a light grey effect, with a light blue windowpane to add a hint of colour. He had paired it with a crisp cream shirt, maroon tie with tiny white dots and his favourite black lace up Oxfords handmade in Italy.
Bola, 57, lean and shorter than both his sons sported a shiny bald head like James. His square face had sparse eyebrows, two deep creases on either side of his nose extended all the way to the corners of his mouth with deep dimples, greying moustache and lower full lip. He wore a black pinstriped suit, white shirt, navy tie with light blue and white stripes and black brogues.
His piercing gaze from below hooded eyelids was fixed on James as he leaned forward and put down his cup, signalling the start of the official business of the meeting. “What is the urgent matter you wanted to discuss?” His voice was low and gravelly but not in an unpleasant way.
“We have a problem with the Palm Beach Resort account.” James passed a sheet of paper from the file he was holding to his father. “Maurice and Steve have paid out the claim.” Maurice was the CEO and Steve the financial controller of Liberty Insurance whose offices were downstairs on the fourth floor.
Bola looked up, eyes narrowed in anger. “I thought we agreed to appeal the arbitration award?” James nodded. “What happened?”
“I had a meeting with them yesterday. They said the decision reached by the arbitrator was legally binding so the company had no choice but to pay.”
“That’s rubbish. I’ve already briefed our lawyer. He is getting ready to file our case in the High Court this week,” Bola retorted.
“Can we stop the payment?” asked Tony.
James shook his head. “I checked with the bank. The cheque cleared yesterday.”
“Bloody hell!” Bola kicked the leg of the coffee table causing the china cups to rattle on their saucers. James flinched. He knew it was just a matter of time before his father directed his ire towards him.
Bola was generally easy going and gave his sons a free hand when it came to overseeing the companies he had assigned to them. But when they messed up he let them know, in no uncertain terms.
His businesses had grown to an extent where Bola realised he was overextended, so he appointed competent managers for each company and put them in clusters with his sons having an oversight role for a cluster. James was responsible for Liberty Insurance, BK Transporters and Kario Meat Processors.
Tony handled the real estate side – Jako holdings which owned Jambele Arcade and Gemini Plaza, Woodville Golf Hotel and Country Club and Wekuru Distributors. They traded places every two years so that each could develop a sound knowledge of all the businesses.
None of his children had yet expressed an interest in farming so Bola personally managed the three farms – Nyago, Rukuna and Tezi, and oversaw his personal investments in 10 other companies, all the while scouting for new business opportunities.
His sons held monthly review meetings with the managers of the companies under their control, more frequent if a business was new or having difficulties. The trio held a board meeting every quarter where they reviewed the performance of all the family businesses. Any of the three could call an emergency meeting when the need arose however.
“There’s more bad news I’m afraid,” said James.
His father glared at him. “What could be worse than forking out Sh12 million even before we have exhausted all our appeals?”
James sighed knowing his father would hit the roof when he told him just how worse it could get.
“I spoke to our reinsurers this morning. They were not happy with the judgement of the arbitrator. They believe as we do, that Palm Beach Resort’s claim has been inflated. Our loss adjustor put the value of the hotel closer to Sh9 million. They expected us to appeal. Now that the company has paid out, they’re calling it fraud.”
“What?!” Bola roared.
“They’ve informed me that they won’t pay our claim because it’s “out of terms”. And they’ve given us 30 days written notice to come off cover.”
“On what grounds?” Tony asked, surprise evident on his face.
“They are reassessing their limits of exposure. They won’t be handling any more business involving makuti roofs because it’s too flammable and risky.”
“Dammit!” This time it was Tony who cursed. There was a short silence as each man digested the news. “This is really bad. It leaves us exposed if there are any more fires.”
“What were Maurice and Steve thinking making such a costly business decision? It’s not like them to be this reckless.” Bola’s voice was marginally lower but he was still livid.
James could feel his father’s pain. He had handpicked the two managers and promoted them to their current positions. After years of working together in the trenches building the company from scratch, Bola knew and trusted the two men. He had put his first company, his pride and joy and the basis of all his success into the hands of the two people he had the most faith in to safeguard his legacy.
Maurice and Steve were not just his employees, they were Bola’s close friends. This last point had James weighing his next words carefully, knowing what needed to be done but not sure how his father would react to the solution he was about to propose. “I was thinking the same thing. Can we really trust them?”
His father stared at him intently. “What do you mean?”
“The speed with which they paid out the claim worries me. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it fraud, but you have to admit, it looks suspicious.”
“You think they made a deal with Titus Rabon?” Disbelief filled his father’s expression.
“I don’t know, but anything is possible. You’ve been in this industry a long time. You know better than anyone the shenanigans that go on.”
“No. Those two are like family. I’ve known them for years.”
James finally spoke his mind. “I think we should suspend them and conduct an investigation.” He had come into this meeting wanting them sacked but he didn’t think his father would go for it. At least not yet. He needed proof of what he knew in his gut. Maurice and Steve had paid that money deliberately. He didn’t know why but he would find out.
“Why not do a complete audit of the books, see if there’s something we’ve missed?” suggested Tony.
Bola sat in deep thought, feet apart, elbows on his knees, fingers laced together. His sons waited patiently. Bola rarely made snap decisions. He took time and weighed his options carefully before expressing an opinion.
“Okay.” He lifted his head. “Suspend them. Take over the day to day operations and do the investigation.” He stood up. “I need to call Jawiri. He may have some ideas on how to handle this mess.” Caleb Jawiri was their family lawyer. After giving James a few more instructions, Bola ended the meeting.
He missed her. At first he thought it was just the lingering memory of the passion they had shared. So he did what had always worked in the past. He went on a dating spree in a bid to get Sophie out of his head. But it hadn’t worked.
He thought about her while in bed with other women, constantly compared his dates to her and they always came up short, even those more beautiful. He missed her smile, her warmth, her cooking, heck he even missed the way she always argued with him.
Tony had always enjoyed the way women fawned over and threw themselves at him once they found out that he was Bola Karenga’s son. Not Sophie. Once she got over her initial misgivings about dating him, she challenged him constantly. She wasn’t afraid to voice her opinions whenever her worldview differed from his and didn’t seem in the least intimidated by his family’s wealth and social position.
Their conversations were like a duel. He missed the stimulating thrust and parry, the wisecracks and sarcastic barbs she sometimes threw at him when teasing, which should have irritated the hell out of him but surprisingly, he found them endearing.
He believed the reason thoughts of her consumed him was because of the abrupt way she had ended their relationship. He worried about her emotional state after the abortion and that really irked him. Tony wasn’t used to thinking about the emotions of the women he dated. He took what he needed and he assumed they did the same thing. They were adults able to take care of themselves.
And yet as much as he tried, he couldn’t forget the look in Sophie’s eyes the last time he saw her. Just how battered and bereft she seemed. For the first time in his life, Tony felt an emotion rise in him that was as alien as it was unwanted. Guilt. He kept telling himself that the abortion was for the best.
Neither of them had been ready for a baby. Sophie was still young. She had plenty of time to get children. Their business problems were mounting by the day and required his full attention. He would have been too distracted to focus on a child. None of these rationalisations could erase the memory of her, however. Or the guilt.
Tony finally convinced himself that once he saw and talked to her again, and ascertained that she was alright, she would stop haunting his waking and sleeping hours and he could resume his carefree life. But Sophie apparently didn’t want to be found. He had looked everywhere.
After several futile visits he finally found her brother at home. Luke invited him in, coolly polite but Tony hadn’t missed the hard glint in his eyes as he explained that Sophie had moved out and was now living with a relative. Tony pressed him for details, an address or phone number where he could reach her. Luke didn’t budge.
“I’ll tell Sophie you’re looking for her and ask her to get in touch with you,” he finally said standing up. Tony took the hint and left. Sophie didn’t call him.
Next he tried Carol again. Her reception was even frostier than at their previous encounter. She slammed the door in his face without uttering a word.
His visit to the college yielded no fruits. He discreetly questioned Josh, Helen and David only to realise they didn’t have a clue about Sophie’s pregnancy. All they knew was that she had dropped out of college. It seemed she had only confided in Carol.
Tony concluded that she had gone to Kinyani and hired a private detective to find her mother’s shack in the Maili Saba slum.
Sophie couldn’t believe how fast time flew. April was almost over. She was due on June fifth, just six weeks away. The pregnancy had progressed with no complications thank goodness. She was determined to work until the very last moment and save as much as she could.
She’d already bought a cot, made for her by a fundi in the neighbourhood who sold furniture. She’d had a blast picking out baby clothes every time she made a trip to Meribo and now had more than enough to see the babies through their first year. Now she was saving for the hospital expenses. Her life was back on track and it looked like everything would turn out well.
Later that week Sophie came home from her rounds selling clothes after dusk had fallen. It was too late to go to the beach so she took a shower, changed and went into the kitchen to start dinner. Suddenly she heard panicked shouts coming from outside. She quickly put off the gas cooker and rushed outside into the darkness.
Clouds of smoke from the hotel next door greeted her. Oh no, Kivulini Hotel was on fire. The traders in the curio village all rushed to help put out the flames and when it became clear the hotel couldn’t be saved, turned their efforts to stopping the fire from spreading to their homes. That too proved futile.
Sophie watched in growing horror as the fire consumed their houses even as desperate neighbours rushed into burning buildings to save what they could. She attempted to get into her aunt’s house which was on the side of the fence they shared with the hotel but the next door neighbour grabbed her and pinned her arms to her sides.
“No! You won’t make it,” he shouted above the roaring flames, which were getting bigger by the second, fanned by strong winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean. A gas cylinder exploded, escalating the blaze. Even the most heroic gave up trying to salvage their property and watched in misery as their homes were reduced to ashes.
Tears ran down Sophie’s cheeks as she thought of the large consignment of clothes she’d brought from Meribo two days before, purchased with most of her savings. She’d wanted to maximise her sales before the babies came, before she became too tired to walk around hawking her merchandise. Now it had all gone up in flames.
Filled with despair, Sophie’s knees gave way and she knelt on the ground, keening. She and her aunt spent the night in the adjoining compound, which had mercifully been spared. A kind neighbour offered them a mattress on the floor of her living room.
Sophie didn’t sleep a wink, tortured by worries about what would happen to her babies now that she’d lost all her savings.
Her aunt put her on a bus to Lavangwa the following morning. Sophie didn’t remember anything about the journey. She arrived at the main bus park still in a daze and fell into her brother’s arms weeping.
Luke informed her that a man had been sniffing around his apartment building asking all his neighbours questions about her. Her mother had reported that the same man had also gone to their home in Kinyani looking for her. Going to his house was therefore out, unless she wanted Tony to find her.
Sophie became hysterical at the news. She’d lost everything and now she couldn’t even go back to the place that she’d called home for two years. After she calmed down she remembered the farm in Kembo, Carol’s home. She asked Luke to take her there. They arrived to a warm welcome as Carol’s mother fussed around her like a mother hen.
Sophie was so exhausted from the long trip following a sleepless night that she fell asleep almost immediately, even before Carol’s mother finished preparing food for them to eat.
They put her to bed in Carol’s room and gathered around the kitchen table where Luke updated them on what had happened. Afterwards, Carol went into her room and watched her friend sleep, tears filling her eyes at her misfortune. Luke ate supper with the family before he went home and promised to come back and check on Sophie the following day.
They met at Dwanje’s Zanzi farm at noon on a Saturday morning. It was immediately evident that everyone was in high spirits. They took their usual positions. Dwanje in the wing chair, Yasi hogging the large sofa, Segala and Leswa side by side on the two-seater and Zimeli in the remaining arm chair.
Dwanje turned to Leswa. “You have good news for me?”
Leswa sat in a relaxed posture with his left leg crossed over his right knee and grinned in triumph. “We have Bola on the run.”
Dwanje smiled. “Tell me more.”
“His company paid the excess claim and lost their reinsurer in the process. Three more hotels have been torched. As we sit here, Bola is looking at additional fire compensation claims amounting to Sh65 million.” Segala whistled in appreciation.
“What does that mean?” asked Yasi, who was extremely well versed in security matters but always found himself a little out of his depth when they discussed business.
Leswa turned to him, happy to explain. He loved to brag when the schemes he and Sudipta cooked up achieved the desired results.
“First you need to understand how insurance companies make money. They collect premiums from insurance policies and invest the money in various ways – government bonds, treasury bills, stocks, mutual funds and so on.” Yasi nodded. “After deducting claims and overheads what is left is their net profit. There is a little more to it but that is the basic business model.”
“Ok I get that.”
“What we’ve done with these fires is wipe out their income from premiums for an entire year. Last year they collected Sh75 million. They’re holding claims of Sh65 million, add the Sh12 million already paid to Palm Beach Resort, that’s a total of Sh77 million.”
“And don’t forget there are always smaller claims that come up in any given year,” added Segala.
Yasi nodded thoughtfully. “Ok, but even if they incur a loss this year, what about the money they collected in previous years when they didn’t get a lot of claims. You said they invest the cash they get so it must be quite a lot by now. Won’t that cushion them?”
“He’s talking about the company reserves,” said Segala.
Leswa nodded and leaned forward, smiling blissfully. “Ordinarily that would be true. But Sudipta is an artist, you won’t believe what he came up with.”
“There he goes again,” Segala said in mild exasperation. “The wonder boy.” The comment was addressed to Dwanje who smiled at Leswa like an indulgent father but said nothing. Zimeli sat like a sphinx, his face an expressionless mask.
“Liberty Insurance has around Sh120 million invested in various places. Sh100 million is in government paper – bonds and T-bills purchased through Bancushi Commercial Bank. When the securities mature, we’ll just instruct the bank to delay the payments to the company.”
“Is that even legal?” Yasi asked.
Leswa looked at him in amazement then laughed. “Have you forgotten what my assignment was? Whether it’s legal or not is not the issue.”
Yasi waved his hand. “What I meant was, can you get the bank to do that?”
Leswa looked at him reproachfully, offended that Yasi doubted his capability to carry out the task. “Of course. This is the same bank that has been putting companies in receivership on our instructions. This is small potatoes.” He clicked his fingers dismissively.
“How long can they hold onto Bola’s cash?”
“A few months if necessary. Just long enough to go to court and get a judgement against the company for failure to pay the claims.” Leswa spoke confidently, like a man completely sure of his facts and his ability to manipulate people.
“We’ll start a rumour among his existing clients that the company is in trouble and unable to pay claims. We ensure the court case is covered widely by the media and next thing you know, his clients refuse to renew their policies for next year, further reducing his income. After that it’s just a waiting game.”
“We know Bola has other resources so he could still pull the company out of the fire. But it will be enough to make him sweat. And he’ll be too busy to get involved in Akisa’s politics,” Segala chipped in.
Dwanje beamed and rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. “Good work. That is excellent news.”
“I’m curious about something,” Zimeli finally spoke. “How did you get Bola’s company to pay the insurance claim so fast?”
“Ah, that,” Leswa flashed a roguish, conspiratorial grin. “Sudipta confided in the CEO and financial controller about his plan to cripple Liberty Insurance. He offered them significant shareholding in the new firm that would take over the company, promised they would retain their positions and assured them he would throw a lot of business their way, including a huge chunk of government parastatals. They agreed to help.”
“Wasn’t that a risk? What if they had gone to Bola?”
“Never ever underestimate the human capacity for greed. That’s what Sudipta always says. It works 90 percent of the time. On a few occasions he’s had to resort to coercion or threats to get people to do something, but those are exceptions,” replied Leswa.
“Like with Titus,” Segala murmured. Leswa nodded. “Bola sacked Maurice and Steve last week. What if they squeal?”
“Sudipta found them jobs in two of his companies. They will mark time there until we acquire Liberty Insurance.”
“Smart thinking. Take care of them financially and they’ll be no trouble,” said Segala.
“The best part is Bola doesn’t suspect our involvement. He thinks his former managers colluded with Titus to defraud the company,” Leswa gloated. The others burst into laughter.
“Where are we on the political strategy?” Dwanje addressed the question to Segala, moving to the second agenda item.
Segala leaned forward. “We’re ready for the party elections. We’ve lobbied all the delegates and have the votes to make sure that Oku Sebu and Bedan Mangola are elected national chairman and secretary-general. As agreed, Sebu will chair BNP’s disciplinary committee.”
Dwanje nodded in approval. Sebu was from the Kawe tribe. Once elevated to the helm of the ruling party, his job was to counter Akisa’s popularity in their backyard of western Bancushi. Mangola’s job was to prevent Akisa from harnessing the growing dissent among the Buyu.
Segala had come up with an ingenious plan. Mangola would organise delegations where prominent Buyu business and community leaders would go to state house to pledge their loyalty publicly to the president.
Those who heeded the call would benefit from lucrative state tenders. Those who refused would be labelled traitors and dealt with by the party’s disciplinary committee using a strategy of “first isolate and then crush”.
By having the two most powerful positions in the ruling party held by people from the Buyu and Kawe tribes, not to mention the national security dockets headed by Yasi and Zimeli, Dwanje hoped to win the propaganda war that Akisa was currently waging as part of his campaign for the following year’s elections.
“Do you think Bola will agree to pledge loyalty?” asked Leswa with a smirk.
“I’d be disappointed if he did,” replied Segala.
“Yeah, that would be too easy,” agreed Dwanje who liked nothing better than a good fight with a worthy opponent. Bola fitted the bill. “Anything else on the agenda?” He looked from one to the other. “We can go over the logistics of the party elections as we eat lunch,” he concluded after a glance at his watch.
Later that afternoon Leswa and Segala drove back to Lavangwa together. Segala was behind the wheel of his beat up brown Subaru Leone, a strange choice for a tycoon.
He was paranoid about his personal safety – no one made as much money as he had without collecting a few enemies along the way – and had several cars, all as old and beat up as this one, which he interchanged often making it almost impossible to track him. Leswa’s driver followed close behind in his brand new jungle green Range Rover Classic.
They had been talking animatedly for some time about the forthcoming party elections when a brainwave struck Leswa. “I’ve just thought of a way to raise additional cash for the polls and increase the pressure on Bola at the same time.”
“Liberty Insurance covers cash-in-transit for Eagle Security, one of the largest firms in the business.” Segala nodded, swerving to avoid a large pothole on the road. “We target end month when the vans are carrying huge sums to bank branches. I figure we can collect 10 to 15 million easy.”
“At least. It can be even more if you hit a van from one of the large banks,” Segala said.
“It shouldn’t be too hard to bribe the guards and the police escort to cooperate. Those guys are paid peanuts.”
“I like the way you think.”
“I’ll meet Sudipta tomorrow and ask him to take care of it. He can use Yasi’s boys.”
Yasi had recruited hundreds of jobless youth who he used to run an informal intelligence operation to rival the more experienced and legally constituted NIS.
This army of informants reported to the headmen, chiefs, district officers, district commissioners and provincial commissioners that Yasi supervised as the PS in charge of internal security and provincial administration.
Dwanje encouraged Yasi’s activities, to the extent that he sometimes overruled Zimeli’s advice in favour of Yasi’s, which had on a few occasions led to an epic war of words between the two men. But that was typical Dwanje. To play off even trusted advisors against each other.
He did it to keep them on their toes and ensure that no one became too powerful. Dwanje’s motto was simple when it came to politics and matters of state. No one was indispensable. Except perhaps Leswa.
“Do we tell Mzee about the new plan?” he asked his companion.
“Not yet. First let’s see if it works,” Segala advised.
By then they had reached Riverton, a mixed use area comprising commercial and residential units 3km northwest of the central business district. Segala drove into a petrol station and parked the car. Leswa alighted and after a brief wave strode to his car which had pulled in behind Segala’s.
He got into the back seat and was chauffeured to his two storey palatial residence in Kensington Gardens, a plush suburb 4kms north of the city centre inhabited by the ultra-rich, with most homes sitting on an acre or more. The area was originally home to white settlers and after independence attracted affluent Bancushians, diplomats and expatriates on long term contracts.
It had its own country club with sports and recreational facilities for residents, including a golf course, a luxury clubhouse with a restaurant, gym and golf shop. It also had a community centre with a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts.
Leswa telephoned Sudipta immediately he got home and shared his idea about the cash in transit heist. Sudipta suggested they meet the next day. He knew just the right person to carry out the plan and would bring him to the meeting.
That’s one of the things Leswa liked about Sudipta. His ability to think fast and act even faster. He however vetoed Sudipta’s suggestion to bring anyone else to their rendezvous. He was a cautious man. He didn’t want anyone who could link him directly to the theft if things went south.
It was the same reason Sudipta never accompanied him to his meetings with the president. He acted as the go between in all their transactions to avoid exposing Dwanje. They agreed on a time for the next day’s meeting.
Leswa hung up, poured a shot of single malt Scotch and sat in his favourite leather armchair in the den. Things were progressing very well indeed, he thought with a sigh of contentment.