Kenya has attracted its fair share of imposters, both local and international, most of them gifted in various guises of financial daredevilry. Sample some:
1. In 1982, Grace Aluma, a Ugandan confidence trickster, took Kenya’s high and mighty for a flashy ride claiming she had uranium deals with the American government, besides bragging she had $100 million to invest.
Grace never lacked eager victims, including banks, motor dealerships, Bahati MP Fred Omido and Dr Victor Johnson, a UN consultant from Sierra Leone.
While, in 1925, Czech-born Victor Lustig (who had 22 aliases) sold France’s landmark Eiffel Tower twice, Grace’s equivalent was luring diplomats and lawyers into “buying” the International Life House in Nairobi.
Eventually, as it happens to all imposters, the long-sleeved arm of the law caught up with her and her Congolese sidekick, Simon Ngole Mulopwe, in 1984.
2. One sly American hand named Dick Berg convinced the organisers of the 4th All Africa Games in Nairobi in 1987 that he was in minted condition to market the games after Arc Enterprises, who had been sub-contracted to organise an international music concert, skived with over Sh243,000 of ticket sales.
“We are pleased,” piped the then Culture permanent secretary Sospeter Arasa, “that Mr Berg was the first to alert the police about the runaway organisers.”
And so Berg, who resembled a cross between a missionary from an Arizona Bible belt and a backpacker tourist, clinched the deal, with the reassurance he would give Kenyans value for their money.
The Moi administration had spent Sh160 million, recoverable through television and film rights, courtesy, no less, of Berg’s capitalist mettle. Indeed, the missionary in him delivered Sh30 million he had raised in cash and kind.
But there is a thin line between imposters and confidence tricksters. Dick Berg was bitten by a crooked bug. He placed one ad in an international magazine from the Sh5 million down payment for media publicity, before bolting on a one-way ticket to wherever.
And that even before the games began! The only communication to the organisers was a telex wishing them “success in the games”. Dick Berg has not been heard from since.
3. In January 2002, Michael Otieno lured, through the Internet, American businessmen Daniel Marrow, a Baptist minister, Jim Harrel, a retired police officer and Jurgen Ahlaman to Kenya to sign a Sh732 million deal posing as a diamond dealer.
But the only deal that was cut was a Sh382 million ransom on his hostages’ graying heads.
For 87 days, the trio survived on water, bread and diarrhea-inducing pizzas before they were rescued by the FBI. It turned out ‘Oti’ was not Kenyan but Nigerian Augustine Azubuike Nwanga, and was sentenced to seven years in the coolers for kidnapping.
4. In March 2002, Kenyans were treated to the hilarious asides of the self-styled “Queen of Sheba” of the Nubian Dynasty that, she claimed, stretched from Kenya through Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
In a televised press conference, the Queen bragged that she had some loose change to invest on these shores — actually, a jaw-dropping Sh15 billion.
Nabobs in government and greedy businesspeople were smitten. They were at her beck and call, offering assorted goodies. But the 22-carat cutie was Debra Amelia George, a student who punched a Sh3.4 million hole on the Grand Regency’s (now Laico Regency Hotel) balance sheet.
That unpaid bill included the hotel’s payment of her medical treatment when ‘Queen Sheba Kasambura Sai Ra III’ fell ill halfway through her “working holiday”.
The hotel filed a civil suit against her, but when the case came before Justice Kassanga Mulwa, the Queen was on her way to Amsterdam, Netherlands. Funny thing is, the real Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopia beauty with whom the biblical King Solomon had a fling. Neither was Nubian.
5. One can be an imposter by default. On May 30, 2003, a comedy of errors played out in Kenya with a weather-beaten Ethiopian farmer, Ato Lemma Ayanu, in the lead role of the long-lost freedom fighter General Stanley Mathenge, who had, it was rumoured, disappeared to Ethiopia 47 years earlier.
“General Mathenge” was “discovered” over a drink in 2002 by George Milimo, a longtime resident of Addis Ababa who was working at the Kenya High Commission. Ayanu displayed an insatiable curiosity about Kenya. Then Milimo asked him whether he was ‘The General Mathenge’. The wizened old man replied: “I am Mathenge!”
Journalist Joseph Karimi picked the story, and it was published simultaneously by Kenya’s two main dailies. “This is the greatest day for this country since independence,” crowed politician Koigi wa Wamwere at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, where a crowd gathered to welcome the General back home. “It is the first stage in reclaiming our heroes’ and heroines’ lost glory.”
The Ethiopian ambassador Mussa Murad took the cagey position that “we need further investigations. He could be or be could not be (General Mathenge).”
But The General could neither recognise his sister Martha Nyawira nor speak English, Kiswahili or Kikuyu. Never mind he was to be honoured during the following Madaraka Day celebrations.
The government spent Sh4 million in entertaining the 72-year-old farmer from Altad in the outskirts of Addis, Ethiopia’s capital.
6. Imposters go to extraordinary lengths to cart their luck. In September 2005, the then Sports minister Maina Kamanda received a call from Lamine Diack, the president of the International Association of Athletics (IAAF) over that spiked matter of his son, who was stranded after an accident in Kenya and needed Sh368,000.
Diack gave Kamanda a number to call his son. It later turned out the “son” had called Kamanda posing as Diack. Not one to take matters lightly, Kamanda phoned the real Diack to ask whether the amount his “son” needed was enough. The “son”, Nelson Peter Banda, is Zambian. Diack is Senegalese.
7. In November 2005, Alexandra Kwizera was arrested at Yaya Centre for masquerading as a woman. The 30-year-old Burundian pleaded guilty to four counts of being in Kenya illegally, saying he had come (via a forged passport) to realise his life-long dream of getting a sex change. He was fined Sh30,000 or six months in jail.
8. In March 2006, Kenyans were treated to a slapstick courtesy of two Armenian brothers, Artur Margaryan and Artur Sargasyan, who enjoyed state security besides access to the VIP lounge at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Investors, we were told.
Turned out the characters flashing dough, hosting lavish parties and generally living fast on Easy Street were, according to diplomatic briefings, “common Eastern European criminals”. One, Margaryan, even dared the then police commissioner Major-General Hussein Ali to arrest him. They were later “deported”.
9. In May 2009, Old Mutual Life Assurance sued a stock brokerage firm for allegedly selling its EABL shares worth Sh17.9 million to an imposter who had taken the identity of Old Mutual chief executive Stewart Henderson.
10. In September 2009, Dr Sammy Sawanda was busy with an aptitude test for employment at the Nairobi Hospital when a team of doctors and nursing board officials injected a syringe to expose his fake medical butt.