Two weeks ago, the government quietly dissolved a Kenyan-registered company associated with a flamboyant US socialite who once claimed to have more influence among Somali pirates and warlords than the US government.
This is a story of wit, high stakes and the underworld.
The name Michele Lynn “Amira” Ballarin is hardly known locally — yet this “horse-country socialite”, as one US official called her, managed to walk into Homa Bay County and get Sh110 million to ostensibly build a road. The county is struggling to get back the money.
It is not clear why Oasis Group International, associated with Ballarin, was dissolved — though it adds a new twist to the story of this mysterious American whom Somali militia and pirates had nicknamed Amira, meaning Princess.
Highly placed sources in the Interior ministry say the company was struck off the register because of “security concerns”, given Ms Ballarin’s background. Interestingly, nobody wants to go on record.
The western media is awash with details about Ms Ballarin, who once claimed to have links with US intelligence. The last time she appeared in public in Kenya, Ms Ballarin was meeting Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti and his cabinet, pitching for an ambitious Sh500 billion Agricity project and a Sh3.3 billion road construction plan. Also in that meeting was Nairobi businessman Eliud Owalo, who did not pick our calls. Mr Owalo is a former campaign manager of Mr Raila Odinga.
Getting to the bottom of this story ruffled some feathers. “I don’t understand why you are going back to this story,” Mr Awiti said on phone. “The road project and the contract were insured and we have taken them to court to recover our money. We also cancelled the tender.”
Although the media had been invited to cover the US “investor” briefing, nobody seemed to connect Ms Ballarin to the woman whose links to Somali pirates baffled many, including the US intelligence. Was Mr Awiti aware of this background? “I came to learn about that later,” he told this writer.
While Mr Awiti claimed they had done “due diligence” on the company, how it won a Sh3.3 billion tender while its annual turnover was only Sh120 million was intriguing, according to a Homa Bay County transport committee report.
MCAS QUESTIONED PAYMENT
Later, Homa Bay MCAs questioned the payment of Sh110 million to Ms Ballarin’s company when the tender documents indicated a different company, Berenyi Inc. When we reached Berenyi Inc CEO and founder Tony Berenyi at his South Carolina office, he said he was “never paid a cent”.
“I was in Homa Bay for only two weeks. Amira called me and asked for my assistance in design of some roads in western Kenya. She said she had a contract of $40 million with the (County Government of) Homa Bay. They may have used my name to get a tender... I don’t know. But I did no work there and never got paid,” said Mr Berenyi, whose company is listed as “international partner” in Oasis’ website.
Mr Berenyi says Ms Ballarin was in Homa Bay with Mr Perry Davis, whom he described as “her spokesman”. Mr Davis has some military background.
Once described by the Washington Post as a former Green Beret and Amira’s business partner, Mr Davis is said to live in Ms Amira’s sprawling 110-acre estate in Warrenton, Northern Virginia.
In his LinkedIn page, Mr Davis says he works for Oasis Group International and that he previously worked with the US military for over 30 years, “working in hostile and complex environments”. He is currently the president of another company, Blackstar Inc, which western media say is used to gather intelligence.
“The problem with Michele is separating fact from fiction. What is real, and what is made up?” Mr Geoff Whiting, a retired naval intelligence officer who partnered with Amira, is quoted by The Washington Post saying.
Ms Ballarin did not respond to our emails, though her Nairobi contacts called to ask what the story on Oasis was all about. They did not provide answers to the question: What exactly was Ms Ballarin doing in Kenya?
On her Linkedin page, Ms Ballarin, a graduate of West Virginia University in Morgantown, describes Oasis group as an “international infrastructure firm with a focus on enabling national and regional governments in achieving a US standard in key infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and sustainable energy-utilising local management talent and labour resources.”
It doesn’t state the projects it has carried out.
But according to the UK Observer, Ms Ballarin also runs a private military company, Select Armor, which was used for “undercover missions” in support of President Abdullahi Yusuf’s transitional federal government — founded with UN backing in 2004. In April 2007, the Associated Press reported that Select Armor was also part of a team led by Lockheed Martin Corp, which had been selected by the US Navy “...to compete for anti-terrorism contracts worth up to $500 million over five years.
Ms Ballarin came to Kenya’s attention in 2008 when she was involved in tense hostage negotiations with pirates holding MV Faina, a ship full of Russian tanks destined for South Sudan via Mombasa, and a Saudi oil tanker, MV Sirius Star, seized off the coast of Somalia.
When talks with pirates aboard Sirius Star collapsed, they surprised everyone when they insisted they would want to speak only with Ms Ballarin and dropped a banner on the ship’s freeboard with her nickname — Amira. She later termed as “sensational” reports in western media that she was in “constant communication” with the pirates.
Regarding the banners bearing her name, Ms Ballarin said: “I suppose... it was a compliment in the way we helped family members... (communicate),” she told the Voice of America while denying participation in the actual talks. “We never had any interaction with the owners of the ships or the insurance companies.”
Why then was she interested in only two ships while so many had been seized? “I was deeply disturbed that a horrible environmental disaster (would take place) in the case of Sirius Star if insurgents poked a hole into the tanker” (or) if they unloaded the military cargo aboard the MV Faina,” she said.
At that time, very few people knew who Amira was, although a senior US government official told ABC News about his frustration over the US government’s indifference in the Horn of Africa: “It’s pretty sad when a horse-country socialite has more sway in Somalia than the whole US government.”
Later on in Nairobi, Ms Ballarin would organise meetings with Sufi groups at a time when piracy in the Indian Ocean had reached a crescendo. That alone baffled security experts since it appeared she was a trusted confidante of both the warlords and the pirates, and once told reporters that she had a plan to bring peace to Somalia via what she called on her website “Organic Solution”. Western media said she printed some navy blue shirts for the “Somali boys” to illustrate the work she was doing. “On the front they read: “Somali Marine Security.” On the back: “Amira’s Organic Solution for Somalia,” wrote Mr Keith Koor, a reporter who got one of the shirts.
Ms Ballarin also befriended President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and various Somali leaders and was at one point appointed Somalia’s “Presidential Advisor for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance”.
Asked by the Voice of America about that appointment, she ducked thus: “The best way to answer that question is to say that we have always been available for the Somali people...”
The Washington Post reported how Ahmed had spent an entire weekend in Ms Ballarin’s large estate “huddled there with Ballarin and Davis over Memorial Day. They mapped out logistics and pored over mock-up designs of resettlement villages, the first of which is slated to break ground by year’s end.”
President Ahmed later cancelled the contract with the woman who once claimed to be setting up a bank in Somalia, Oasis Bank, an outgrowth of Organic Solutions, and little was heard of her dalliance with government operatives in Somalia afterwards.
She once told the VOA that she had meetings with the Sufi group in Nairobi, Dubai, and Somaliland, giving them support against the Al-Shabaab. The Washington Post reported how Ms Ballarin and Mr Davis also earned a contract with the Pentagon to gather intelligence inside Somalia. That flirtation with intelligence started in August 2007 when she is said to have sent an unsolicited letter to the CIA, via another company — Gulf Security Group.
Ms Ballarin had proposed, according to western media, “to “track and eliminate Al-Qaida terrorist networks” in the Horn of Africa. But the CIA told her off and said they were “not interested” in her services.
Ms Ballarin then sought out the Pentagon. The Washington Post claimed she was “rewarded with a classified contract for an undisclosed amount of money. But within a year, the contract was reportedly terminated for “non-performance”.
In her house, The Washington Post reported, Ms Ballarin, who in 1986 ran for Congress, keeps a “photo gallery of herself posing with Somali politicians, warlords, clan leaders and Sufis. In almost all the pictures, she is wearing an Armani suit, her hair pulled back in a tight bun.”
When she appeared at a boardroom in Homa Bay County pitching to build cheap two-bedroomed houses for $7,500 with an inbuilt solar panel system, she was flanked by several of her Nairobi contacts. Governor Awiti appeared to buy the plan.
“The uniqueness of this approach is, it will create business opportunities and employ people...” Mr Awiti said in a clip still available on YouTube.
Ms Ballarin’s past in investment banking is said to have earned her a place among the wealthy bureaucrats and investors of Washington DC after her second marriage to Gino Ballarin, a hotel manager in the exclusive Georgetown Club in DC. It was in these social circuits that she met a wealthy Somali “elder” who “fascinated” her with Sufi religion and Somalia.
Had the governor of Homa Bay checked on Google, he would have found some amazing facts about Ms Ballarin. Several of her Somalia development programmes failed, including the plan to set up an airline and a bank. The Washington Post reported that all these projects “were dissolved after nine months, with many investors failing to recoup tens of thousands of dollars”.
Ms Esther Herbert, a medical consultant who once worked with Ms Ballarin in a Somali initiative from 2008 to 2010, told The Washington Post: “She has an amazing ability to attract very powerful people... Then it all falls apart.”
With the deregistration of Oasis International, Ms Ballarin’s door to Somalia — and to Kenya where she runs a children’s home — seems shut. Or perhaps we have not heard the last about her.
John Kamau is a senior writer with Nation Media Group. Email: [email protected] @johnkamau1