Ruto distances himself from arms racket as puzzle of ‘General’ deepens

Former Sports minister Rashid Echesa is seen in this photo inspecting military-grade cargo in Poland. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Admission that the disgraced former minister at the centre of a Sh40 billion scandal visited Harambee House Annex raises questions.
  • Mr Ruto was last evening hard-pressed to explain how the disgraced former minister was allowed access to his boardroom.

  • He termed the association of his office with the scam a “choreographed smear campaign” by his political competitors.

On a warm Thursday morning last week, three men – a Kenyan and two foreigners – drove into Harambee Avenue in Nairobi and made their way into the office of Deputy President William Ruto. The Kenyan asked the orderlies at Harambee House Annex, a massive security installation directly opposite the Office of the President across the road, to inform Dr Ruto that they were around.

As they waited for the Deputy President to show up, they were ushered into a boardroom, where the two foreigners waited patiently as their host paced up and down the corridors. They had come here to discuss the finer details of a Sh40 billion military equipment contract between their Warsaw-based company and Kenya.

By the time they walked into the brightly lit corridors of Harambee House Annex, they had already paid Sh50 million in various forms of facilitation fees, a small amount of money when viewed in the context of the value of the contract that had brought them to Nairobi. They were also carrying various documents detailing the contractual particulars of the deal with Kenya, including letters bearing the name and signature of the Cabinet Secretary for Defence, Ms Monica Juma.

After a few anxious moments, the two were informed that Mr Ruto was not in the office, and so they left. As they made their way out of the complex into the bustle of Harambee Avenue, they were intercepted by Criminal Investigations Officers, who promptly arrested them.

The events of that fateful Thursday morning were the culmination of months of meticulous planning of one of the most complex scandals in Kenya’s recent history. No, Kenya was not looking for military hardware to buy. No, the letters and documents they were carrying were not genuine.

And no, the burly, aggressive man they were dealing with was neither an agent of the Kenyan government nor an emissary of the Kenya Defence Forces.

That man was Rashid Echesa, a former Cabinet Secretary fired by President Uhuru Kenyatta last year for yet-to-be-revealed reasons. And the men he had taken into the second highest office of the republic were agents of military equipment supplier Eco Advanced Technologies. They were about to fall victim to an alarming con-game playing out in, of all the addresses, the office of the country’s Deputy President.

Mr Ruto was last evening hard-pressed to explain how the disgraced former minister was allowed access to his boardroom. Saying he was not aware of the deal Mr Echesa was executing so meticulously, he termed the association of his office with the scam a “choreographed smear campaign” by his political competitors.

However, in the evening, his communications team admitted to the Sunday Nation that Mr Echesa had, indeed, visited Harambee House Annex in the company of the two men last Thursday, February 13. But Mr David Mugonyi, the DP’s press secretary, said Mr Ruto “was not scheduled to work from Harambee House Annex and, indeed, did not visit the premises at any point on that day.”

“His Excellency the Deputy President was not scheduled to meet with the former minister, and the said Rashid Echesa had neither sought nor secured an appointment to meet His Excellency the Deputy President over any business, official or otherwise,” said Mr Mugonyi.

Without giving details on whether the three men had been allowed access to the DP’s floor, he added that Mr Echesa and his entourage “promptly departed” Harambee House Annex after they were informed that Mr Ruto was not around.

On Saturday several leaders joined a growing chorus that is asking Mr Ruto to explain the circumstances of the visit. Among them were Siaya Senator James Orengo, who said Mr Ruto risks being viewed as abetting corruption unless he clears his name over the matter.

“The office of the Deputy President has become a crime scene in Kenya. He must tell us what he knows about this matter to redeem himself and the office he occupies,” said Mr Orengo. His sentiments were echoed by Lugari MP Ayub Savula, who noted that “there is no way a meeting can be held in Mr Ruto’s office without his knowledge”.

The political backlash came as detectives from different units under the Directorate of Criminal Investigations raided the houses of Mr Echesa and three other suspects in Nairobi. The detectives, mostly from the Special Services Unit, took away for scrutiny documents and electronic devices from the homes, located in the Lang’ata and Karen suburbs of the city.

As part of the investigations, detectives are trying to piece together the events as narrated by the Egyptian director of Eco Advanced Technologies. Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti did not divulge to the Sunday Nation much about investigations into the matter, but promised that “a lot is under way.”

Sources familiar with the investigations said the directorate is trying to uncover the identity of the “military general”, several witnesses have referred to as being the man at the centre of the deal that has seen at least four arrested so far.

“We are treating the ‘general’ as the core prerequisite in our investigations because we reckon that once we identify him, he will be in a position to unearth several other things that are not yet clear in this case,” a detective said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

When he recorded his statement on Thursday soon after the arrests, Eco Advanced Technologies’ Africa director described the mystery soldier as someone who appeared well-known within the Ministry of Defence.

“His name is Mohammed Sabu and he claimed to be a KDF pilot and part of the joint operations between KDF and America in Somalia. He was always referred to as General,” the director said.

On the occasions that he met with the suppliers – in the upmarket Lavington neighbourhood and at a restaurant in Hemingways Hotel in Nairobi – the “General” was always accompanied by a bodyguard and had escort cars with mounted sirens.

“I believed he is a pilot because later on when we were in Poland, he was able to operate the drones and he was also very conversant with military equipment, especially aircraft,” the director of the company, owned by American Koziowski Stanley Bruno, said.

The suspicion of the company directors was roused when, during the day, they were supposed to meet at the Office of the Deputy President, the “General” appeared wearing a suit and did not have a uniformed escort. And then, to make matters worse, an employee at Harambee House Annex referred to the “General” as Omondi.

Defence Director of Public Communication Bogita Ongeri distanced the Kenya Defence Forces and the entire ministry from the deal, saying those mentioned were not employees of KDF.

“The ministry has a well-structured procurement structure, which also follows the Public Procurement Act. Before anything is procured, it has to be approved by the Defence Headquarters’ approval committee and a legal team that is in place. There is no way the Defence CS can independently sign such deals. Actually, the Principal Secretary is the accounting officer,” Brig Bogita Ongeri said.

Asked whether the ministry had directed the KDF’s Department of Military Intelligence or the Military Police to investigate the matter, he said: “This has nothing to do with KDF. Those were masqueraders and the DCI is already handling that.”

Defence CS Monica Juma was not available for comment but her Chief Administrative Secretary Peter Odoyo said DoD cannot be party to “such scandalous dealings”.

Mr Echesa and three others – Daniel Otieno Omondi, Clifford Okoth and Kennedy Oyoo Mboya – were arraigned on Friday, granted bail but detained at Muthaiga Police Station over the weekend. They are expected in court again Monday.

Detectives believe the documents that formed part of the scandal were signed in Mr Ruto's boardroom, and at an office at Kenyatta International Convention Centre, where Mr Echesa was “recognised and highly respected” by the security personnel, according to witnesses.