In May last year, four Kenyans found themselves in the middle of the most important corruption case in South Sudan’s history. Then they were all sentenced to life in prison.
She couldn’t recognize the man seated across her. He was hairy, skinny, and broken. She knew who he was, he was her son, but she couldn’t recognize him.
Two days before, on Saturday 24th October 2015, Esther left Nairobi on an early morning bus. She was headed to Juba through Kampala. On the other side of this trip was a son she hadn’t seen in months, and one who had been held incommunicado for most of the previous five months. The one time Anthony Wazome had appeared, on a hurried call with the news that he would be coming home, was in late June. Then he went offline again.
But here he was, right across from her. Her tall, dashing, light-skinned 33-year-old son reduced to a hairy, skinny, and subdued man. At first, she tried to not cry, to show him the steely image of a mother to a son in distress. But he broke down first. For both of them, the previous five months melted into a few minutes. The flurry of activities, the hundreds of meetings and protests, and the sleepless nights.
In the room with them, chaperoning this teary mother-son reunion, were three handlers. The rules were simple; they couldn’t discuss overly personal matters. The handlers listened keenly to the exchange, and cut it off after 15 minutes. Wazome was led back by his jailers, leaving his mom behind. Both of them unsure of when, if ever, they would meet again.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Esther tells me as we sit around a table on the upper floor of Jumuia Caf at All Saint’s Cathedral. There are four other ladies at the table, all family to Wazome and his colleagues. “When I finally got to see him, first for all of 15 minutes, he was devastated,” she says. “He hadn’t shaved for five months. They had tortured him, psychologically, and he was broken. He had become a small boy again. He asked me, repeatedly when he would come home,” she says, holding back tears. “Then he turned to his jailers and asked ‘you told me you would release me!”
The week before I met his mum in June 2016, Anthony Wazome and three of his Kenyan colleagues at a small company in Juba called Click Technologies were sentenced to life in prison. The hurried judgement was read out in Arabic, with no official translation for the four Kenyans among the 16 people in the dock. All of them were given a blanket life sentence for a fraud and forgery case where the owner of Click, a South Sudanese man called John Agou, had forged the president’s signature to request for payments.
In Nairobi, the 13 months of panic and anguish among the families became sheer terror. The four Kenyans: Wazome, Anthony Kia, Ravi Gaghda and Boniface Chuma, would spend the rest of their lives in a South Sudanese prison. On the judgement sheet, their names were tucked, all misspelt, at the end of a list that started with their boss, John Agou, and his wife, Sarah Anyath Chaat. Agou was at the heart of an incredible story involving fraud, and forgery, all in a plot to rob the highest office in South Sudan.?
But in his defense, the third person on the list, Mayen Wuol, formerly the highest ranking officer in Salva Kiir’s office, argued it had nothing to do with the money. The real fight, he repeatedly said, was between John Agou and his 42-year-old brother, Arthobei Gadaffi, and stretched back four years. What Mayan was saying, and what most people involved believe, is that Gadaffi was the hidden hand behind the case, and was the source of all the documents and information that led to the hurried conviction. The entire case was related to the earlier one, Mayen added, and was about money, a sibling rivalry and revenge.
“How powerful am I?” Gadaffi asks when I ask him if he set his brother up. “How powerful can I be to detain the Chief Administrator, the Executive Director, and the Director of Communications in the President’s office?”
His picking out the third man is interesting, because the man, Chaat Bol, is John Agou’s father-in-law. Chaat was an aging paper pusher with little gravitas, climbing the ranks slowly to Director of Communications. Two weeks to the verdict, he was arrested and his name added in the middle of the charge sheet as person #10. He was released on a Tuesday and then re-arrested two days later when he went to check on his daughter and son-in-law.
Over a 41-minute conversation over the phone, Gadaffi says he had nothing to do with his brother’s case. He denies almost everything, except the fact that it was Mayen Wuol who first brought up his name. “I have been called many things throughout this case,” he says, “I’ve been called an economic hitman and a relative of Salva Kiir.” But many of the things he denies are a matter of public record.
A Small Fire in J1
Sometime in mid-2012, a small fire caused by a faulty wire in J1, South Sudan’s State House, destroyed a cache of sensitive documents. About a week later, the country’s Council of Ministers passed Resolution No: 33/2012; an elaborate plan to have all government offices inspected for faulty wiring. Execution fell on a man called Deng Alor, then the Minister for Cabinet Affairs. But Deng had other ideas.
Deng turned the resolution to mean that the government also needed fire resistant safes. He knew just the man, with just the company, for the job. Deng and the Finance Minister, Kosti Manibe, single-sourced 62 safes from Daffy Supplies International, owned by one Arthobei Gadaffi, then aged 38. The contract figure was an astonishing USD 7.59 million, meaning each safe would cost USD 128, 377.
But none was ever even delivered.
The money was paid in a single instalment. As soon as it hit the Daffy Supplies’ bank account, it was transferred to a sister company in Kenya called Daffy Investment Group. Two days later, Arthobei Gadaffi walked into Barclays Bank Queensway Branch in Nairobi. He withdrew a million dollars in cash from Account No. 2027165853, and walked out.
Although he was already a prime customer at the bank, this particular withdrawal was alarming. The bank called Kenya’s Central bank and the South Sudanese Embassy, enquiring whether the money was legitimate. The money seemed to have come from the South Sudanese Central Bank, but no one there seemed to know anything about it. So they asked the bank to freeze the account.
The next day, Arthobei Gadaffi strolled into the bank and asked to withdraw the balance in full. The account was frozen at the behest of the South Sudan government, he was told. He would need to go back and sort it out with them first. He went raving mad. He cursed and got violent, nearly breaking windows and getting into a fist fight. Today, over a phone call, Gadaffi denies any of this ever happened despite the fact that it was extensively covered on South Sudanese media.
Defeated, Gadaffi sneaked back into South Sudan a few weeks later. He was eventually arrested, and the money was wired back to the Central Bank’s coffers. Authorisation had been signed by junior accountants, but blame fell on the two ministers in charge. Deng Alor and Kosti Manibe were both suspended.
For his part in the ruse, Gadaffi was detained in Jebel, at the headquarters of South Sudan’s intelligence unit. A renown tenderpreneur with extensive contacts, he knew he would get out, someday. But there was something more disturbing: his adopted brother and business partner, John Agou, worked at the same place where Gadaffi was held for nearly a year. Every single day, from the confines of his cell, Gadaffi saw his brother walked right past, without even acknowledging him.
Then the 2013 war broke out.
Gadaffi’s path to freedom began with that war between Riek Machar and Salva Kiir. As the sound of gunfire rattled across Juba, he was handed a gun and a uniform and with them, his freedom.
John Agou and his cousin/brother, Arthobei Gadaffi crossed into Kenya as young boys in the early 1990s. Agou’s father, Wuoi, had inherited Gadaffi’s mum after her husband died. When the Sudan War escalated, the family crossed the border to get to Kakuma, a new refugee camp near a town with a similar name in what is today Turkana County.
Both boys went to Lodwar Primary, but Gadaffi was older and more street smart. Agou was quieter, less outgoing, and more book smart. Gadaffi went to Ruiru High School and Agou to Mang’u High School.
Agou, at first, wanted to be a journalist. After he was done with high school, in 2003, he joined the Kenya School of Mass Communication. Then he moved back to Juba to find his footing, working as a radio producer and journalist for multiple publications.
Arthobei Gadaffi, on the other hand, first flew out to Canada. He was deported back to Juba in unclear circumstances, and ended up a key government contractor. One of his primary companies, Jupiter Printing, provided most of the stationery in government offices. He was intricately connected to multiple layers of the government, and was rumored to be related to Salva Kiir. His answer to this possible family connection is at best dodgy: “What does being related with Salva Kiir have to do with anything?”
Something about John Agou changed in 2010. The journalist was recruited and trained as a spy in the months leading to South Sudan’s independence referendum in 2011. He first worked as a Personal Assistant to a Cabinet Minister and then ended up attached to the President’s office. Very few people ever knew, until his downfall, that he even worked for the government. In the President’s office no less.
Outside, he was young, immensely rich and powerful. He was almost always a silent partner in Gadaffi’s many companies, and together they were building what seemed like an unstoppable empire. One old friend recently recounted three separate anecdotes to prove this. In one story, while they worked together, Agou and Gadaffi would have bags of cash in the office, and cheques would be forgotten in drawers, unbanked, for months.
When Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi was attacked in September 2013, John Agou donated USD 500, 000 to aid in disaster recovery. He was clearly rolling in lots of money, but it didn’t raise as much suspicion as his brother’s had less than a year before.
In the other, Agou held a massive party for his wife-to-be, Susan Chaat, in early November 2012. She had just graduated from USIU and he invited friends to the basement of Sailors in Hurlingham, Nairobi. It was an open bar. By the time the tab was closed due to a fracas at 2am, the bill had clocked KES 800, 000. He later told his friends “You guys are cheap! The budget was Shs. 1.5 million.”
But there was a darkness to the man. Ever armed, he was domineering and vindictive. He was also a bully, even to the point of paying off Susan’s previous boyfriend to take a walk so he could have her. Susan was a catch. Her father worked in the President’s office, she had grown up in Nairobi, and she was ambitious. The November 24th 2012 wedding was much a political marriage as it was a romantic one.
To their friends, the Agou’s were rich, young, outgoing South Sudanese professionals. John was a businessman, a tenderpreneur with an eye for detail and millions to spend. Susan was the socialite, making friends across Nairobi’s celebrities and living large. They lived in a penthouse on Riara Road, in a building said to be owned by Agou and a few other silent partners. Agou flew to Nairobi nearly once every week, to see his young family, attend a Global MBA Executive Class, and run his other businesses.
In the months Gadaffi was in jail, John Agou took over whatever contracts he could, and built a new company.
The Empire John Agou Built
The Juba Arthobei Gadaffi walked back into after 8 months in Jebel had changed. His brother was now far more powerful and well-connected, and he had used the time to build his own companies. Unlike Gadaffi, who had always had to play from the outside, Agou worked in Salva Kiir’s office. Agou had gone it alone, cutting off his brother and business partner from the close knit circles that controlled tenders in the presidency. That, and many other things, would come up again as the beginning of John Agou’s downfall.
Among the companies John Agou built, in the early months of 2013, was Click Technologies. The first employee and business partner for this new venture was a Kenyan called Moses “Bush” Kibuku. Bush had run a small unit in Nairobi by the same name, but its prospects in Juba were by far more promising.
As its unofficial manager, Bush needed to build a team. Among his first hires was his childhood friend, Anthony Wazome. Wazome left a company called Escapade Prints and Graphics in Nairobi to join his friend’s new outfit. Agou himself brought in Anthony Kia, a second graphic designer, from a company called Brandcom in Juba. He also brought in Ravi Gaghda, a man he had known since 2010. Boniface Chuma was at the time the care taker of Airport Business Center, the building that housed the new unit. He became the general factotum: a mix between a driver, a messenger and a hand of the king.
There were other Kenyans, including Peter Nkonge who worked in Sales and Repair.
The company worked almost exclusively for the government although it ran a small shop that saw substantial business from walk-ins. With an owner who worked in the President’s office, it was probably one of the safest places one could work in Juba. Although salaries weren’t competitive, there was a lot of money floating around and an unofficial reward system for excellent work.
In 2014, someone broke into Click Technologies and stole electronics, documents and some cash. A second theft, this time by an employee, raised the ante. He also stole money and documents, and threatened to use them against the company. But nothing seemed serious seemed to be happening. In that time, Gadaffi moved back to Kenya.
In mid-May, Moses “Bush” Kibuku crossed the border back into Kenya. His exit from Juba didn’t make sense, and never has, as he was Agou’s business partner and probably his most trusted lieutenant. His name would appear many times later in the investigation documents, and his role in the entire story is still incomplete.
Two weeks after Bush left, Click Technologies became a crime scene.
The same day Esther left for Juba, in a different bus using a different route, Boniface Chuma’s younger brother, Gakuhi, also set for an uncertain journey to see him. He saw him the next day, briefly, in the presence of three translators and a looming man-in-charge. It was agony, as the two of them tried to pack up five months of conversation into the 10 minutes they had been given. “We were warned not to talk about personal things,” he tells me over the phone. “He had been home five months earlier and had gained weight, but the Chuma I saw that day was disheveled and skinny.”
The next week, Ravi Gaghda’s dad Ramesh and brother Bhavik also left for Juba. “We were standing outside the room where we were supposed to meet Ravi,” says Bhavik, “and he was being brought in from the other side as we were walking in.” Ramesh looked his son dead in the eye and didn’t recognize him.
“I had to nudge him and tell him that’s Ravi,” Ravi’s brother adds. The previously clean-cut and slightly built Ravi was now so skinny that he had to hold his pants up as he walked.
“No way, that’s not him!” his father retorted.
But it was.
It was the same script. A short, chaperoned meeting where emotions ran high.
“Most of that time was spent in tears,” Bhavik says, looking at his dad. “Then when we could talk, we had to switch to Gujarati because our dad is not very fluent in English.” That agitated their minders who immediately snapped back and demanded they speak a language the others could understand.
Just days after the sweep of Click Technologies in May, both Ramesh and Bhavik had flown to Juba to look for Ravi. Ravi and Bhavik had been on the phone that day. Bhavik heard commotion in the back, and Ravi told him some men had come to the office. Then he hanged up on the promise that would call him back later. He never did. At least not for the next 40 days.
The two-day visit after Ravi’s line went dead ended abruptly after both Ramesh and Bhavik were warned, in no less words, that they would also be arrested. But at least they now knew where Ravi was.
On 7th July, 40 days after the sweep of Click Technologies, all spent in a small prison cell in the headquarters of the National Security, the Kenyans were told they could go home. But there was a rider. Ravi was sent to the Kenyan Embassy to get diplomatic staff to come pick up the other 4. They were all given back their things, including their phones. They all called their families, telling them they would be home soon. Chuma called his pregnant wife, and then updated his Facebook wall.?
Ravi returned the next day, alone. The Embassy staff had been surprisingly unhelpful so he had come back to see if there was another way. But there wasn’t. He was promptly re-arrested, and the psychological torture begun again. More than a month later, on August 25th, the same thing happened. They all called their families to tell them that they had been told they would be released. They were still held together, with a single meal a day, and no access to any form of representation. At some point, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in South Sudan called them “state witnesses” although no one had questioned them at that point.
The one detail they had managed to glimmer, from the snide comments their jailers made, was that this was about money, a lot of money.
In Part II [Link], a kidnapping at a wedding in Karen, a gun in court, and why Kenya has been reluctant to offer any help to her citizens held in Juba as ransom.
Edited by Christine Mungai, Editor Africapedia [Link]
One story is good,
till Another is told.