The strange case of the Juba Four.
Marula Manor sits in the heart of a disappeared country. A rambling two-storey affair, it is planted among the willows and ferns and jacarandas on a 20-acre estate in Karen. This used to be old settler Nairobi's Deep South, where the Landrover-driving beer-swilling Kenya Cowboys ruled the dusty lanes, and men a half-century old and more were still called boys, connected to their bwanas and their ma'ams by a yes-sir lingua called Kitchen Swahili.
The Manor was made famous 75 years ago, by a crime. Its owner, Sir "Jock" Delves Broughton, was charged with the murder of 39-year old Josslyn Hay, Lord Errol, in 1941. Errol's body was found just up the road from the estate. He had been shot in his car. He was last seen alive dropping off his lover, Diana Broughton, Jock's wife, at Marula. The case became the window through which the world first peered into the Happy Valley set, the scandal-ridden aristocrat Kenya settlers.
But that was a long time ago. Even Karen has changed. Down Marula Lane, the majority of the properties surrounding Marula Manor are now owned by Africans. The Manor itself has remained intact. But free of its old ghosts, it has become something of a caricature of itself. A few years ago its current occupants, in search of the commercial possibilities Marula presented, retrofitted it as a destination for arriviste Nairobi--the young, highflying city professionals in IT, media and corporate finance; the returning diaspora set. With its lawns and gardens done in the English style, there was only one business idea that fitted the bill: Marula became a wedding venue.
If there is some historical irony there, that Marula, once an adjunct of the Happy Valley set, with its casual infidelities, its louche culture of the supremely privileged, was now one of Nairobi's poster venues for a traditional wedding, few took notice of it on 2 October 2015. Two prominent newscasters, Betty Kyalo and Dennis Okari, were getting married. The wedding was a giant advertising billboard, and not just for Marula. For commercial others, these high-profile Nairobi events had become opportunities for product placements and brand endorsements--everything from luxury cars to custom-made hair extensions.
There were only 150 names on the official guest list. Susan Chaat's was one of them. Tall and dark and in her mid-20s, it is possible that she knew the couple through her husband, John Agou.
Marula Manor is hard to find if you've never been there. It's one of the many driveways on Marula Lane, a nondescript, lonely road that branches off Karen Road. To get to it, you have to actually know where it is. Susan Chaat's driver got lost that day as he drove her, her son, and her sister to the Kyalo-Okari wedding.
They finally got to Marula Lane, and drove down the long rocky driveway that leads to the estate.
Standing next to the guard at the gate was a group of men. When the driver stopped the car for the obligatory security check, the men approached them. One, a South Sudanese man, asked Susan to step out and into their car. She told her sister to go on ahead with her son. She would be back before the wedding started.
She never came back.
As the couple engaged vows, Susan Chaat's captors were racing her towards the South Sudan.
In Juba, her name was added on a charge sheet, following her husband's, John Agou, as the brains behind the most notorious corruption case in South Sudan's history. Eight months later, it was on the judgement sheet, on a list with 15 other people who included her father, Anyieth Chaat Paul, and her husband.
Five months earlier, on 29 May 2015, at Airport Business Center on Airport Road in Juba was Susan's husband of almost two years, a journalist-turned-spy-and-businessman called John Agou. He was carted off in the morning by his police colleagues. The police came back without him and arrested everyone, employees and unlucky customers combined.
The sweep, court documents would later reveal, was triggered by an unauthorised request of $1 million that John Agou made in the president's name. With a moratorium on such large transactions, South Sudan's Central Bank enquired whether the request was legitimate, tying together an investigation that had started a year before.
In July 2014, a whistleblower post titled "Corruption in the Office of the President" appeared on a South Sudanese online news site, Nyamile.com. The writer, using the pseudonym "Dr. Thon Awan", wrote about a four-man team within Salva Kiir's office that had been robbing the presidency. In February 2014, Dr. Thon wrote, Yel Luol, Kiir's Executive Director had asked for $12 million to be transferred from the president's special account to a trust fund of an organisation that had Yel as the chair and John Agou as treasurer. The money was quickly transferred across several accounts, with $2 million being sent to a trust fund in Susan's and her son's names in Nairobi.
Ten days later, someone calling himself "Dr. Anguie Anguie" posted a reply titled "False Allegations of Corruption in the Office of the President." In the middle of a spirited denial, the writer wrote "My humble analysis is Dr. Thon seems to have been looking desperately for any little piece of information to convict on the ground of revenge for unknown reasons." He doesn't explain what revenge he is talking about, and doesn't really say how he is involved in the case.
On 24 July, Dr. Thon posted a reply, identifying Dr. Anguie as John Agou. Dr. Thon paints himself as driven purely by patriotism, and even thanks John Agou for "stirring up a debate on corruption." He then outlines a series of dossiers to be released in four parts, complete with documents. A few of those documents made it online, mostly showing requests for money transfers. After this public sparring, there was silence for nearly a year.
To the 16 people who stood trial between February and July 2016 and were eventually convicted of the crime, the whistleblower was John Agou's brother and former business partner, a man called Arthobei Gadaffi. The story first came up in the courtroom from Mayen Wuol, the third name on the charge sheet and the former senior-most official in Salva Kiir's office. He insisted that no money had been stolen but that the entire case was driven by sibling rivalry that began in 2013 and escalated with the July 2014 whistleblower articles.
In mid-2012, a small fire caused by a faulty wire in Jl, South Sudan's State House, destroyed a cache of sensitive documents. 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 Deng Alor, then the Minister for Cabinet Affairs.
Deng interpreted the resolution to mean that the government also needed fire resistant safes. Deng and the finance minister, Kosti Manibe, single-sourced 62 safes from Daffy Supplies International, owned by a 38-year-old man called Arthobei Gadaffi. The contract figure was $7.59 million, meaning each safe would cost $128,377.
The money was paid in a single instalment. As soon as it hit 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.
Not a single safe had been delivered.
Although he was already a prime customer at the bank, this particular withdrawal triggered anti-money laundering alarms. The bank called Kenya's Central Bank and the South Sudanese Embassy, enquiring whether the money was legitimate. Though it seemed to have originated from South Sudan Central Bank, no one appeared to know about it. So they asked the bank to freeze the account.
The next day, Arthobei Gadaffi tried to withdraw the balance. 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.
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. The two ministers in charge were both suspended.
For his part in the ruse, Gadaffi was detained in Jebel, at the headquarters of South Sudan's intelligence unit, where Agou worked. Every morning, he would see his adopted brother and business partner walking past his barred cell window, on his way into his office.
Then in December 2013, the civil war began.
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.
The Juba Arthobei Gadaffi walked back into after 8 months in jail was different. Agou had gone it alone, cutting off his brother and business partner from the close knit circles that controlled tenders in the presidency. Unlike Gadaffi, who had always had to play from the outside, Agou worked in Salva Kiir's office.
John Agou and Arthobei Gadaffi crossed into Kenya as young boys in the early 1990s. They are in fact cousins; Agou's father inherited Gadaffi's mother after her husband died. When the liberation war escalated, the family crossed the border to get to Kakuma, a new refugee camp near a town with a similar name in today's Turkana County in Northern Kenya.
Both boys went to Lodwar Primary, then Gadaffi, older and more street-smart, went to Ruiru High School. Agou, quieter, less outgoing, more book-smart, was accepted into Mang'u High School, one of the most prestigious national schools in the country. Founded in 1925 by the Holy Ghost Fathers, it had over the years, produced generations of the (mostly) Catholic faction of the African post-colonial professional elite, including several cabinet ministers and vice-presidents. Its most famous alumnus is Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's third president.
Agou 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. In 2010, John Agou became a spy. 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 amassing a huge fortune.
In those years, an old friend recently told me, Agou and Gadaffi would have bags of cash in the office. Cheques would be forgotten in drawers, unbanked, for months. In November 2012, a few weeks before his wedding, John Agou held a massive, private graduation party for his wife-to-be at the basement of Sailors, a nightclub in Hurlingham, Nairobi. By the time the tab was closed at 2am, the bill was $8,000. His budget for the night, Agou later told his friends, had been $15,000. When Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi was attacked in September 2013, Agou donated $500,000 to aid in disaster recovery.
With the money and power came a different side to the man. For Agou, the 24 November 2012 wedding to Susan Chaat was as much a political marriage as it was a romantic one. Some of his friends now whisper that he may have paid off Susan's previous boyfriend to win her charms. Susan's father worked in the president's office and had, like most of Juba's elite, kept his family in Nairobi, away from South Sudan.
After they got married, Agou and Susan moved into a penthouse on Riara Road in Nairobi. Agou flew to Nairobi weekly, to see his young family and attend a Global Executive MBA Class. He was the businessman, and the empire was now his. Susan was the socialite, making friends across Nairobi's celebrity landscape, shopping at the Junction Mall, where the expat crowd and Nairobi's yuppies like to be seen.
Among the companies John Agou built, in the early months of 2013, was Click Technologies. The start-up sold computers and other electronics, and also offered graphic design and printing services. 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 Keya Munia, a second graphic designer, from a company called Branacom in Juba. He also brought in Ravi Gaghda, a man he had known since 2010, from Nairobi. Boniface Chuma was at the time the caretaker of the 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.
The company worked almost exclusively for the South Sudan 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.
Bush left Juba, and Click Technologies with it, two weeks before it became a crime scene.
The court case eventually started in February 2016, nearly a year since the sweep of Click Technologies on 29 May 2015. Sixteen people stood trial for multiple counts of fraud and forgery. They were transported to court in heavily guarded armoured vehicles. There were roadblocks and elaborate security measures, even within the courtroom. The courtroom had more National Security agents than civilians. Over its first weeks, a pattern emerged: defence witnesses always returned to the stand the day after testifying, to change their original testimony.
In almost all the images of the trial, John sits at the back, next to his wife. They are mostly hidden from the camera, with only their heads visible. The four Kenyans always sit in the front pew, every time, as if being paraded as the faces of the scandal. Yet the lawyer who eventually took up the case routinely brought up the fact that the Kenyans were never mentioned in the testimonies. Ravi had made a payment request to the president's office for some items including mosquito nets. This was brought up, but wasn't part of the case itself. The investigators said that Keya and Wazome were "involved in the forging of stamps". The extent of their culpability was never determined, and they were never properly questioned.
John Agou's first lawyer, Kiir Choi, cross-examined prosecution witnesses on the investigation and the haphazard arrests and searches.
At Click and at the homes of Mayen and Lol, the police found republican seals and papers with the president's letterbead. But this wasn't unusual; for years, Agou and Gadaffi had printed most of the papers in the president's office, first through a company called Jupiter Printing. But the transaction that triggered the investigation seemed to have been one of many, most of which had already been approved. In total, the investigation committee said, John Agou stole $14 million. He was part of a complex web of insiders within the presidency, and had used his power and education to beat South Sudan's weak financial controls.
Over the five months of the trial, it became clear that something else was at play. The abduction of Susan Chaat from Nairobi seemed to have been an attempt to force Agou, like his cousin before him, to refund the money.
Over a 41-minute phone call, 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. "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 and have them sentenced to life in prison?"
In Nairobi, the families of the four Kenyans in the case still believe they didn't get a fair hearing. In late February, just a few weeks into the job, Kiir Choi was threatened at gunpoint in open court, in full view of the judge, Ladu Armenio. His tormentors, the policemen, wanted the notes his clients had been passing to him in the courtroom. Choi quit the case in protest.
There was also the fact that a lot of things about the case and the detention reeked.
On Saturday 24 October 2015, Esther, Anthony Wazome's mother, 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.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Esther tells me as we sit around a table on the upper floor of Jumuia Cafe at the All Saint's Cathedral in Nairobi. 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 said 'You told me you would release me!'
"There were 8 Kenyans initially and four were released," Washington Oloo, the Director of Consular Affairs in the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tells me without clarifying if it was through the Kenyan government's intervention. "While we can't interfere with the sovereignty of the South Sudanese government, we've also objected to the sentence," he continues, "this was not a capital offence."
What he doesn't admit, and what most families repeatedly accuse the Kenyan government of, is a failure to insist on even the barest semblance of justice. On their visits last year, the different families were told "We have no use for these ones, we just want our money back." While no one explained exactly how they were connected, they figured that Agou, like his brother, had used Kenyan banks for his transactions.
As we sit around the table, with different family members narrating how messy the last 13 months have been, they feel more like one big family than four different ones. They have attended countless meetings together, organised protests, and a hunger strike. It was as a result of the hunger strike they staged outside the Old Treasury Building in Nairobi on two occasions last year, and which now houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that eventually secured them visitation rights.
While officially, Kenya and South Sudan are bosom buddies, the story on the streets is different. In 2012, there were more than 50 Kenyans in prisons around Juba alone. Most were there for lacking valid travel documents and being involved in shady deals. That same year, 15 Kenyans were killed by Sudanese nationals. The year before that, in 2011, a 22-year-old Kenyan university student was arrested while napping under a tree in Tongpiny, Juba. He spent two years in Juba Central Prison and was never charged for his crime--he had an expired visa.
Washington Oloo tells me that the accusation goes both ways. "We are also accused of mistreating South Sudanese here. And no, Kenyans are not targeted in South Sudan." I prod him on what is supposed to happen if a Kenyan is arrested anywhere in the world. "In such a case, we offer consular services, and ensure that their rights are being protected. Our missions abroad ensure that this is done. We inform the families. We assist with the families to identify attorneys for them."
He mentions sovereignty and independence, and says that Kenya is "in discussions with South Sudan and other countries to get prisoner exchange." While the diplomat in him is cagey on the details, and skirts the question on whether Agou's money in Kenya is the real reason why the Kenyans are going to spend their life in jail, he agrees that the sentence was too harsh. "We have also objected to that. None of the accusations levelled against the Kenyans were for capital offences." Cleland Leshore, Kenya's High Commissioner to Juba told Nairobi's Sunday Nation that. "We have an option of negotiating extradition and an exchange of prisoners' agreement, or initiating a high-level political intervention into the matter."
"Life has stopped for us," Tejal Gaghda, Ravi's elder sister, says, looking exhausted," Nothing can go on until Ravi comes home." True to her word, Tejal has dedicated the last year and a half to finding ways to get her brother back. She has met everyone there is to meet, all her phones have been bugged and a few of the people she's reached out to have gotten death threats.
"It feels like a dream. An unsolvable problem," says Tejal a few evenings later when I meet the entire Gaghda family. Ravi's mom says nothing during our interaction; at some point she asks her husband to take her home. It has been a long day, her daughter tells me. But I catch a glimpse of that sadness I saw in Wazome's mum a few days earlier. She can't bear hearing this story again, so she leaves.
It feels like a dream. Those words stay with me. There's something surreal about this entire story. Gadaffi himself refers to it as a "wild dream" about 12 times during our conversation. "I am married to a Kenyan," he tells me. "This is my home, and this whole thing is putting my life in danger. I had nothing to do with it. It's a wild dream!"
After a pause, he adds: "John Agou and I are brothers, and brothers fight over inheritance, not government contracts."
"What is happening to him is a tragedy," he continues, unprompted, "and he should be man enough and absolve those poor Kenyans because they were just his employees. I don't interrupt him, so he goes on "If I was in the shoes of the families, I would write an open letter to Salva Kiir and Uhuru Kenyatta and ask them to intervene for those young Kenyan lives." But does he believe John Agou is guilty? "Blood is thicker than water," Gadaffi responds without hesitation, "John Agou at the end of the day is my brother. Whether he is an Adolf Hitler, or anything, he is my brother."
This story is also being serialised on owaahh.com, an investigative journalism resource.
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|Title Annotation:||Reportage: CRIME|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2016|
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