What you need to know:
- The night creepers shot him dead and vanished with his Toyota Allion, registration number KBM 772N.
- JKIA, or rather Kenya, had become the hub of smugglers and a conduit for gold from war-torn eastern Congo.
- It was the smuggling of 2.5 tonnes of gold worth $113 million that triggered the interest of President Kabila, and he flew to Nairobi to have a word with President Kibaki.
On a dark night on February 26, 2011, Joseph Cheptarus was just about to drive into his compound at Soledo Estate in Nairobi’s South C when the waiting assassins struck.
It was 1.15am, an ungodly hour. And everyone was asleep when the eerie peace of the night was shattered by sporadic gunshots.
The night creepers shot him dead and vanished with his Toyota Allion, registration number KBM 772N.
They then drove for 16 kilometres, abandoned the getaway car near Multimedia University — on the road to Ongata Rongai — and disappeared into the pitch-black darkness.
2.5 TONNES OF GOLD
As a senior assistant commissioner with the Kenya Revenue Authority, Mr Cheptarus was one of the officers tasked to investigate the disappearance of 2.5 tonnes of gold at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, which was destined to the United Arab Emirates.
He never got far and nobody seems to know what became of the report on his findings over a monumental gold-smuggling racket that had allegedly taken place at JKIA.
JKIA, or rather Kenya, had become the hub of smugglers and a conduit for gold from war-torn eastern Congo.
But this time, it was being fuelled by gold discovered in the River Ulindi, a tributary of the Congo River, and in Walikale, christened the district of cursed gold.
Ben Rawlence, in his book River Congo, describes Walikale as the place where gangs control everything and “where everyone is screaming for money”. Although the area has no airport, smugglers’ planes land on a road.
“Walikale used to have an airport but it is not in use any more, would-be visitors must land on this, the only straight metalled stretch of road around. The edges of the road are cracked and ill-defined; in some places it’s barely wide enough for the wheels of a twin engine cargo plane. I can see why the forest along the roadside is littered with the burnt and twisted carcasses of planes …” wrote Rawlence.
Every year, according to reports, armed groups converged on this belt and annually dug gold worth around $38 million (Sh4 billion) — or more — and which not only entrenched the war but also created deadly networks where death, back-stabbing and sleaze ruled.
Gold and tin make up the livelihood of the Mai Mai — a term used to describe the deadly but fragmented groups that operate in the minefields and are led by different warlords. Nairobi and Kampala had turned out to be the operation bases for smugglers and for merchants of fake gold.
Although DR Congo President Joseph Kabila had in September 2010 banned mining in North and South Kivu, where he said “mafia groups” were operating from, he failed to demilitarise the region. As a result, the smuggling and mining continued unabated and the flow of gold to Nairobi accelerated.
It was the smuggling of 2.5 tonnes of gold worth $113 million that triggered the interest of President Kabila, and he flew to Nairobi to have a word with President Kibaki.
It is now known that President Kabila gave the name of Jean Claude Mundeke Kabamba as the man behind the smuggling. Kenyan authorities — some of them — knew about Kabamba, alias General Mundeke Dako, a Nairobi-based trader who used to work with the DR Congo military during the reign of Mobutu Sese Seko.
At times, and many a time, he pretended to be still a military officer with Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).
A the high-level meeting at Harambee House that was attended by President Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Minister for Interior George Saitoti on March 4, 2011, President Kabila had come with a powerful delegation that included his minister of international and regional cooperation, Raymond Tshibanda, and the minister of mines, Martin Kabwelulu.
A week after Kabila left, police in Nairobi arrested Kabamba, who had been under their watch.
A Congolese diplomat in Nairobi told the BBC, then, that the man was believed to be the ring leader of the gold trade in the city — a business that also attracted well-connected Kenyans, and some with links to Kibaki’s State House.
The other suspects arrested were Ruphin Kazadi Elumba and Jean-Claude Dyansangu Kanza, who were charged with conspiracy to defraud a gold buyer of $1.4 million by posing as legal gold dealers.
While nobody was charged with the 2.5 tonnes gold syndicate, all that we know is that Kabamba had approached a Gabonese national, Ulrich Anass Bongo Ngonyi, and in the process he parted with Sh115.8 million for a fictitious 400 kilograms of gold deal.
It was a case that allowed investigators to know what happened in the gold-smuggling syndicate.
Ngonyi had told the Economic and Commercial Crimes Unit on April 1, 2011 that in June 2010 a man who claimed to be “Lieutenant General” Mundeke called him and offered to sell 400kg of “gold”.
After a meeting at a Lenana Road restaurant in Nairobi, Mundeke introduced three other accomplices as captain, a major and a special adviser at the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a lie.
They claimed to have gold in Dubai, which they wanted to ship to Thailand but because of paperwork, they had thought of bringing it back to Kenya.
Ngonyi was to look for a market in Kenya and was told that they could get more volumes for him.
As he later told police, the first consignment was for 400 kilograms and he paid $6,000 as a down payment, only to be given fake documents that could not help him freight the cargo from Dubai — where it was alleged to be kept in four metal boxes.
At every turn, something would crop up and he would send more money and before he knew it, he had paid the smugglers $1.38 million.
After flying to Dubai, he found that the boxes contained fake nuggets. They were nails packaged from a house on State House Road.
Although he reported the matter to the police in Kenya, the three were released on Sh2 million cash bail — and nothing was heard about the case.
Back in Nairobi, the search for the 2.5 tonnes of gold had commenced after it was stolen from DR Congo.
Investigators wanted to know whether the gold was genuine — or was another set of fakes. They also wanted to know all those who were involved in the gold racket.
The Kabila team had given President Kibaki forged evaluation documents and the fake export certificates that had been used to export the 2.5 tonnes of gold from Kivu to Dubai via JKIA. By then DR Congo had no capability of tracing artisanal gold and tonnes of gold produced by craftsmen was not under the government’s control.
Even today, the move to tag and trace gold from the pit to market has not been successful.
And still, gold from DR Congo’s gold-rich province of South Kivu has been reaching Kenya through known conduits and the country’s gold wealth has been preyed upon by armed bandits and corrupt elites — and has infiltrated the political systems in the region. Joseph Cheptarus had walked into their path with his investigation. His death was a warning shot.
Postscript: When I heard about the death of Kenei, who was found dead in his house a day before he was to record a statement on what he knew about the Rashid Echesa shipment of arms, the story of Joseph Cheptarus came to my mind.
In some international dealings, the investigators and the culprits are usually walking into the hands of deadly forces.
[email protected] @johnkamau1