Kenya’s most famous master con artists
That a former chief magistrate is one of the people who fell for a recently exposed investment scheme that saw Kenyans conned of at least Sh500 million all but justifies a remark made by French writer François de La Rochefoucauld: “The intellect is always fooled by the heart”.
Going by the way the Simple Homes concept was marketed, it is not hard to tell why any heart would be made to overrule the brightest of minds — even that of a former magistrate like Joyce Manyasi whose duties largely included determining the fate of those accused of breaking the law.
This is a scheme that promised people that, by paying what they ordinarily remit as rent, they could eventually possess their own homes. A client, or rather a victim, was required to simply state the amount of rent they were paying and — surprise, surprise — they got a funding plan that would see them spend that same amount per month but eventually own the house.
The deal was made sweeter by the Simple Homes owners telling their suitors to buy shares in the company and get more benefits. But it was all a ruse.
The alleged architect of the scam, Mr Argwings Kodhek, has now booked himself a place in the corner reserved for individuals whose infamous schemes have outsmarted a number of Kenyans.
Throughout Kenyan history, such scammers have come in different shapes, sizes and accents.
Some like Kamlesh Pattni have pulled off scams so huge that they affected the country’s economy for decades, while others dreamed up the pyramid scheme that have made hundreds of families suffer after their collapse. Yet others like Joshua Waiganjo are simply impersonators with a convincing story.
But some can be truly bizarre. In April 2005, for example, a group of people convinced farmers in Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, that they had a ready market for chameleons. They urged farmers to go into the coffee, tea and wild bushes and collect chameleons with a promise that brokers would bring some foreigners to buy them at a price ranging between Sh1,200 to Sh1,500 depending on size and colour. On the appointed day, farmers from Mukurwe-ini, Othaya and Tetu woke up early and invaded Tambaya Market in Mukurwe-ini ready with their chameleons. But by the end of the day neither the brokers nor “foreign” investors had showed up and the angry farmers released the chameleons back to their natural habitat.
On that colourful note, Lifestyle looks at some of those whose schemes left Kenyans stunned.
If there is a day Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti would wish to forget, it has to be when he signed a deal with a company associated with the mysterious Michele Lynn “Amira” Ballarin in 2013. Few months after Awiti had been sworn in, his administration fell for an idea from an investor who wanted to build an agri-city consisting of farms and low-cost homes, a project that would cost Sh560 billion. Through Oasis Group International, a company associated with Ballarin, Homa Bay could also see roads built using cheap but durable technologies. Several of her Nairobi contacts accompanied her whenever she went to Homa Bay to pitch the idea. In the end, the county government paid Sh110 million but no project was executed. Homa Bay MCAs questioned the Sh110 million payment when the tender documents indicated a different company, Berenyi Inc, rather than Oasis. Early last year, the Sunday Nation reached Berenyi CEO and founder Tony Berenyi who said he was “never paid a cent”. In February 2016, the government deregistered Oasis Group International, with State sources saying it was due to security concerns as there was an unexplained link between Ballarin and Somali pirates.
When a Naivasha magistrate jailed the burly Joshua Karianjahi Waiganjo for five years for impersonating an assistant police commissioner, Kenyans were hardly surprised. This is a man whose daredevilry as a fake police officer had sent tongues wagging since he was busted in 2013. When Senior Resident Magistrate Shadrack Mwinzi sent him to the gallows in October 2015, it was just a confirmation that Waiganjo’s antics were not make-believe. This is a man who had the audacity to accompany senior officers in an helicopter after an attack in Baragoi, arrest and assault workers at a club in Njoro, inspect a guard of honour by Kenya Forest Service guards during a graduation ceremony at Londiani, order a new Land Cruiser for Njoro Police Station, control transport during the burial of Kenya’s 8th Vice-President Kijana Wamalwa among others. Waiganjo now wants to be the Njoro MP.
He was a Kenyan-born, short bespectacled bold headed man who walked with a limp. Not many younger Kenyans have an idea who Alnoor was but behind his name was a brilliant and innovative investor who together with his brother Igbal Kassam started Trade Bank in the 1980s. To attract depositors, the bank offered simplified account opening procedures and one only required an ID card and a passport size photograph. Other banks required letters of introduction, pay slips among other documents. At Trade Bank Centre, now Integrity Centre, the bank operated drive-in 24-hour services. In 1993, the bank collapsed like a pack of cards on alleged insider trading and unsecured loans advanced to Kanu era politicians. Depositors lost millions and Alnoor fled and settled in Canada. In 2010 he lost an election to become Mayor of Calgary in Alberta.
At only 25, he masterminded one of Kenya’s biggest thefts from the public coffers. The architect of Goldenberg scandal, Pattni took advantage of the government’s export compensation scheme to swindle taxpayers of more than $600 million (Sh60 billion) in just three years. Son of a Mombasa gold jewellery dealer, Pattni was hardly known as he and his brother ran a small jewellery outlet along Nairobi’s Dubois Road. He later moved to Mageso Chambers in Moi Avenue where Goldenberg International Ltd and Exchange Bank Ltd were hatched to become the face of the scandal. It still remains a mystery how he came to enlist spy chief James Kanyotu as a director and promoter of the two companies. The company was to import and export all types of minerals and in return receive compensation but the entire deal was a co-ordinated scheme to swindle the government. He capitalised on desperate politicians hungry for cash and reckless economists and administrators.
He was the reigning reverse driver “champion” until his deception was unmasked. Awori pulled one of the most adventurous tricks ever witnessed in Kenya in 1985 when he convinced the media to believe that he had driven a car in reverse from Mombasa to Nairobi, then to Nakuru, Rongai and back to Nairobi, hoping to break the world record. He claimed he had practised on “private roads” and his aim was to smash the world record allegedly held by American Gerald Hoagland. He then planned to set off another world breaking record by reversing a 7-tonne lorry from Nairobi to Mombasa with a giant Mercedez-Benz truck. It was reported that a “Mr John Miller, an independent adjudicator for Guinness Book of Records” had arrived in Nairobi. Awori was to leave Mombasa on December 11 and arrive at Uhuru Park on December 12 during the Jamhuri Day celebrations. He was flagged off on the night of December 11 but nobody knows what happened after that. Telex messages were sent to Kenya News Agency on his progress and final arrival in Nairobi. “John Miller” “confirmed” he had broken another record. Awori said he was now going for the “620-km Kiwi Auto Reverse Rally” in New Zealand’s Newbury Ranch Farm. There was nobody from Guinness. Awori never travelled to New Zealand and all the telex sent came from a Nairobi office on Mama Ngina Street where Awori co-ordinated his lies. He was arrested and charged with fraud.
In 1987, a US citizen arrived in Nairobi and convinced the gullible sports ministry officials that his firm, Berg and Associates, could help collect over Sh224 million to market the All-African Games which Kenya was to host. He claimed he had achieved a similar feat at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Nobody bothered to check those facts. His word was binding. Berg was granted exclusive business rights to market the games and brought on board Coca-Cola and House of Manji among other companies. Then minister in charge of sports Henry Kosgey did not know that Berg was “an international crook”. While he was to market the games internationally, the ministry only received Sh5 million before Berg hurriedly took off without submitting the final accounts. He later claimed that he feared for his life. That was the last Kenyans heard of him and the promised Sh224 million.
He told his victims he was Mohammed Khashoggi, son of Saudi billionaire and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and the information appeared real on paper. But the 34-year-old Kenyan conman, the son of a former Permanent Secretary, later left an astonishing trail of victims of his wily ruses in Mombasa, Nairobi and London. Newspapers in UK thought his real name was Fred Ochieng’ but little else was known about the man. Hotels loved him because he was a big spender. In about four months in UK, he had accrued bills of £200,000 before he was arrested. It took the management of one prestigious hotel the whole of 1994 to discover that the man they had contracted to play the piano was a confidence trickster. In 1988, a British court had convicted the then 26-year-old of fraud and theft and jailed him for four years. His victims included hotel tycoon Allen Sheppard, then owner of the Grand Metropolitan Hotel Group who was conned into giving weeks of five-star hospitality to the penniless guest.
In 1982, Ugandan con Grace Aluma arrived in Nairobi masquerading as a billionaire. She told her gullible victims that she was engaged in uranium business and was scouting for big deals with the US government. Top names, including politicians, fell for the trick and hoping to have a share of the $100 million (Sh10 billion at current exchange rate) which Aluma claimed to have in a Kenyan bank. As an “investor”, she had managed to sell her story to some diplomats and was on the verge of selling International Life House to a diplomatic mission when she was smoked out. But that was not before she had conned Kenya Commercial Bank, Swissair, Westlands Motors, UN consultant Dr Victor Johnson and Bahati MP Fred Omido of significant amounts of money. Aluma was later jailed for two years on a charge of fraud and conspiracy to defraud a city bank of Sh100,000.
Lemma Ayanu was more of a victim of this con just as were millions of Kenyans. Despite the government and his own protestations, he was flown into Kenya in May 2003 as the missing Mau Mau leader, General Mathenge. Top leaders had congregated at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to witness the arrival of Gen Mathenge. Ayanu was accompanied by four of his relatives and for days, former Mau Mau leaders dismissed his credentials. He could not speak Kikuyu language and only spoke Amharic. Ethiopian Embassy insisted that Ayanu was an ordinary farmer and wondered why the Kenya government was carrying a DNA test on him. At the end of the Gen Mathenge episode, the government had gobbled about Sh1.5 million in accommodation, transport and meals.
GILBERT AND MARY DEYA
In 2004, Eddah Odera, 56, and post-menopausal, claimed she had given birth to 13 “miracle babies” between 1999 and 2004 with no sexual contact with a man. The miracle babies turned out to be part of a major human trafficking syndicate involving two clinics in Nairobi and which were connected to Mary Juma Deya and her husband Gilbert Deya, who lived in the UK as a “Bishop”. Mary and her accomplices were later jailed while extradition proceedings continue against her husband in London.
DIBLA AMELIA GEORGE
When she arrived in Nairobi in the first week of December 2001, she booked herself at the Grand Regency and told those who cared to be conned that she was the Queen of Sheba. She said she had come to Kenya in search of diamonds. She was booked by the family of some drug baron into the Presidential suite. From here, she called a press conference, which was widely covered, to announce that she was seeking opportunities to invest Sh15 billion. At the Regency, she had accrued a bill of Sh3.4 million, and the hotel security refused to let her leave until she cleared. Her friends tried to intervene but she ended up before Nairobi Magistrate who released her on a Sh500,000 bond. On the night of January 30, she was whisked to the airport and the Queen of Sheba disappeared.
ARTUR MARGARYAN AND ARTUR SARGSYAN
In 2006, the two Armenians arrived in the country and managed to hoodwink everyone. They were international criminals who had managed to worm themselves into the Kenya security system and got “appointed” as Deputy Commissioners of Police. They had VIP passes for JKIA and wined and dined with the powerful. At a house in Runda, they threw overnight parties, drove diplomatic cars and carried guns openly. They were implicated in the raid on the Standard Media Group. After they assaulted immigration officers, President Kibaki sacked the CID director Joseph Kamau and formed a commission of inquiry. When police raided their Runda home, they found a cache of guns and ammunition, balaclava helmets and a number of T-shirts branded QRU (Quick Response Unit) similar to those worn by the media house’s raiders.