British swindler who was involved in Kenyan media fights

Publisher and business magnate Robert Maxwell. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The arrest this week of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of disgraced publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, gives us an opportunity to look at how her father corrupted Kenyan politics.

Ghislaine is now infamous because of her association with American financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Eppstein, whose finance clients included Saudi Arabian businessman Adnan Khashoggi, the man who at one point owned Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

AK, as he was better known, was also a broker and arms dealer. His dalliance with Kenyan politicians including Charles Njonjo was well-known. He entered the Kenyan scene in 1967 after he bought the Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki, which was then a known hideout for Western intelligence operatives whose agenda was to tame the influence of the Soviet Union in Africa.

A SPY

This could be the reason the British press insists AK was a spy.

A billionaire playboy, Khashoggi brought his many girlfriends to Kenya. They included American actress Brooke Shields, whose escapades in Nanyuki were once captured by photojournalist Mohamed Amin when he was commissioned to film an episode of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous TV show, indirectly promoting vacation destinations.

Maxwell and the Khashoggi family were business acquaintances. It is on record that the classic Jon Bannenberg–designed super yacht Lady Ghislaine, on which Maxwell committed suicide or was pushed to the sea off the Canary Islands, was designed for one of the Khashoggis.

Maxwell had purchased the yacht, which known as Lady Mona K, for $70 million and renamed it after his after his favourite daughter Ghislaine, now under arrest.

DONALD TRUMP

Adnan Khashoggi had another yacht known as Nabila, named after his daughter. It was later sold to businessman Donald Trump, now America’s president, who in turn sold it to its current owner, Saudi business magnate Al-Waleed bin Talal, the man who until last month owned Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. (He sold it to a Nepalese tycoon, Binod Chaudhary, for Sh2.8 billion.)

Had Maxwell not befriended President Daniel Moi, perhaps we would never have had interest in him. Maxwell was introduced to Moi by his Jewish friends, who used Nicholas Biwott, the powerful minister, to cut deals locally.

But he was a thief and a swindler – a fact that became known after his death. Indeed, he looted millions of pounds from the pension fund of his Mirror Group Newspapers and wiped out all shareholders and left pensioners with nothing but poverty.

‘SHUNTING MONEY’

Many thought he was immensely rich, but it was discovered that was “shunting money between his companies to give the impression that they were profitable”.

It all started in April 1983, when the ruling party bought Hilary Ngweno’s Nairobi Times and transformed it into a national daily, the Kenya Times, and a Swahili publication, Kenya Leo.

President Moi initially met with Maxwell in October 1987 and asked him to help reinvigorate the party paper. The Kenya Times Media Trust (KTMT) was born after this meeting, with a company known as Kanu Investments holding 55 percent of the shares and Maxwell owning 45 percent.

In 1989, Maxwell agreed to invest £30 million and to modernise KT’s printing press, which would also print exercise books and educational books. It was a good deal.

WELL-CONNECTED LAWYER

KTMT’s first chairman was Nairobi’s well-connected lawyer Jared Benson Kangwana, who owned The Mall in Westlands, Nairobi and had interests in the Chester House building along Koinange Street in the city.

During this period, Maxwell also agreed to set up Africa’s third private TV station, Kenya Television Network (KTN). The move surprised many people since Moi did not believe in a free press.

Moi had also promised Maxwell that they would build a 60-storey media complex in Nairobi that would not only house KTMT but also a stock exchange, banks, art galleries, a hotel and shops. Outside, a towering 30-foot statue of President Moi would be erected.

When this became public, on November 24, 1989, Greenbelt Movement leader Wangari Maathai emerged as the most-vocal opponent of this skyscraper, which was to be built inside Uhuru Park.

FILED LAWSUIT

She started writing letters to donors and to Maxwell. She then filed a lawsuit at the High Court seeking a permanent injunction against the proposed skyscraper. The matter was heard by Justice Norbury Dugdale, who dismissed her request, saying that as a private citizen, she had no locus standi to sue on behalf of the public.

“The only authority empowered to institute such a suit would be the Attorney-General,” the judge said, closing the door on many other public-interest litigations.

Justice Dugdale was the same notorious judge who ruled in 1989 that the Bill of Rights as enshrined in the Constitution was “unenforceable”, thus undermining the judicial system. He had also thrown out lawyer Gitobu Imanyara’s bid to nullify Section 2(a) of the Constitution, which made Kanu the only party.

RIDICULED ABROAD

Maxwell was caught up in all these and was being ridiculed by his business rivals abroad – especially for his dalliance with Moi. To Moi, the flagship $300 million project was now coming a cropper because of Prof Maathai.

Inside Parliament, the local government Minister, William ole Ntimama, sought to give a ministerial statement on Prof Maathai. By then, Greenbelt was not widely known and operated from some makeshift offices in the compound of the Central Police Station in Nairobi (The office was later burnt.).

Prof Maathai had placed an advert in The Standard, then owned by businessman Roland “Tiny” Rowland’s Lonhro, in which she condemned the planned building of the skyscraper.

COMMERCIAL NEMESIS

The advert may have appeared innocent but it was seen in political circles as Rowland’s continued attempt to bring down his commercial nemesis, Robert Maxwell. Tiny Rowland had in 1987 sold his 90 per cent stake in the money-losing Today newspaper to publisher Rupert Murdoch’s News International and not to Maxwell’s Mirror Group Newspapers. All wanted to control African governments.

In Parliament, Ntimama rubbished Prof Mathai’s letter, saying Uhuru Park would be left intact.

“The building is not going to occupy any part of Uhuru Park at all,” Ntimama lied. By that time a perimeter wall had been erected opposite Nyayo House, occupying a large part of what is now known as Freedom Corner.

Ntimama wanted to lessen the damage. He praised President Moi as “the greatest environmentalist…recognised internationally as the protector of environment”.

“If it was not for His Excellency the President, the whole of Mau Forest could have been turned into a desert by people who wanted to cut down indigenous trees…if Prof Maathai was interested in protecting the environment, then why, in the name of God, did she not utter a word during those days when Mau Forest was being destroyed and charcoal was being burnt all over.”

“Greenbelt Movement is seriously bogus…it is conning the international community to get funds for unknown reasons,” said Ntimama.

‘SELFISH GOALS’

Another Member of Parliament, the outspoken Kennedy Kiliku, said “Prof Maathai’s masters are jealous of this historic project and are using her for their own selfish goals”.

But the nasty part was left to John Keen, an assistant minister in the Office of the President: “That woman is behind time. She does not seem to know where Kenya is heading. She is guilty of incitement, and I do not see why she should not be taken to court”.

“The complex is for the benefit of the children of Kenya, and I sincerely ask Prof Mathai and her clique of women, who are members of her bogus organisation, to rethink again…I do not see why a bunch of divorcees, women of no standing at all should come forward to criticise the efforts that are being made by the government,” said Keen, in an indicator of how low our politics had sunk.

NO CAPITAL

With this opposition, Maxwell failed to raise the desired capital to kickstart the project. While the Kenya Times had taken a livelier style, had strong features, and Maxwell had bought a new colour printing press that gave the other papers a run, things were not looking rosy.

The Kenya Times had poached all seasoned journalists in Nairobi and increased their salaries and secured all government tender notices.

We still don’t know what happened in between but in December 1991, the KTMT chairman announced that neither the late Robert Maxwell nor the Kenya Times Media Trust owned shares in KTN.

What Kangwana was saying was that he was the owner of the TV station. Although Kanu secretary-general Joseph Kamotho insisted that Kanu was a shareholder, Kangwana retorted that KTN was funded through debt financing from local banks.

OFF YACHT

“Ownership is a difficult concept when you haven’t paid for it,” Kangwana said.

This tussle happened a month after Robert Maxwell had mysteriously died after he fell off his yacht in November 1991.

“He used to get up at night and pee over the stern of the ship. Everybody knew this. And he weighed about 140kg at this time. The railings were wire. So I think he lost his balance, because he was very top-heavy,” Ken Lennox, a former Mirror photographer, was quoted saying last year.

Why then did Kangwana claim that Maxwell did not have any shares at KTN? According to Kamotho, Kanu had asked Kangwana to hold one share in trust and the other share was held by KTMT managing director Jeremy Thompson. In KTMT’s board was John Holloran, Mirror Group Newspapers editor-in-chief Mike Molloy, University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Phillip Mbithi and Chemelil Sugar managing director Joseph Ruto.

HIGH-STAKES GAMES

Kangwana’s announcement came at a time when he had sealed a deal with South Africa’s M-Net, which was to invest $4 million in a joint venture. Some high-stakes games commenced.

We also know from court records that Kangwana had imported some TV equipment duty-free and had stored them in a warehouse in Kikuyu town. He then entered into a sale agreement with tycoon S.K. Macharia of Royal Media Services, who wanted to establish a private TV station.

When Treasury, then under Prof George Saitoti, learnt about this, it instructed the Commissioner of Customs to levy full duties in March 1995. It was a colossal amount: Sh256 million. In a notice of seizure addressed to Kangwana, the commissioner confiscated the equipment.

PAY DUTIES

The long and short of it is that Royal Media Services was asked to pay the duties, charges and penalties on the whole consignment. KTN, which had wanted to be enjoined, withdrew and there were out-of-court negotiations led by lawyers Mutula Kilonzo and Ken Kiplagat (for KTN).

Kangwana was finally forced to abandon his ownership of KTN as he was intimidated with a theft case.

He at one point fled the country and only returned after some of his friends intervened.

Kenya is not short of twists and turns, and all this was all thanks to Maxwell.

Now, his daughter is facing the music elsewhere.


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@johnkamau1