What you need to know:
In a country where integrity is a weakness and our heroes are thieves and murderers, a man takes on the fight against corruption to save his family. "The Curse of Conviction” follows the defeat of David Munyakei, as told by Billy Kahora in his book "The True Story of David Munyakei".
On Sunday July 30th, 2006, David Munyakei was unable to speak to his wife. The injustice of that moment was felt most strongly by her, Mariam, his wife. Mariam alone knew the journey he had taken, to this hospital bed, silent and bedridden. He was now staring at his wife hoping his voice would cooperate this time. Others who knew him before - outspoken, ready to fight, sometimes even defiant, belligerent, and combative - might have noted this moment for its irony, his silence now. . What about the ones that had called him rigid because of his convictions and courage? Would they mock him now for the many times he had spoken out to anyone willing to listen? But none of them mattered at this moment. Those were the pains of David Munyakei; an exemplar of that familiar cold Kenyan shoulder that every selfless warrior who has given parts of themselves to it, knows only too well.
Now all he wanted was to be Raju. Raju, the nickname Mariam had fashioned for him from his adopted Muslim name Rajab. At this moment he was staring at the only part of his life he could find joy in. Could Mariam see that this was the first time he had been able to recognize her in days? Did it even matter? This is not how he wanted to spend this moment. He motioned that she removes her buibui from her face. She did. He had so much to tell her but when he tried to speak, nothing came out.
A hero is defined as a person, first. One who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities? But more specifically who is a Kenyan hero, and what stuff are they really made of? Questions like those arise in the telling of David Munyakei’s story. A story so full of atrocities that one could hope it was all made up. It stands in perfect opposition with the story of another, infamous man. Kamlesh Pattni, a man so much Munyakei’s opposite, that the universe boasts of its perfect symphony every time they are mentioned side by side. These two men, in time, would have three things in common. Major roles in the first multi-billion graft scandal to hit Kenya by storm. A chance each to be crowned a hero in the eyes of Kenyans. And, I speculate, a deep loathing for the simple fact that their paths ever crossed in the first place.
The world of the corrupt was abuzz with activity across the globe in 1991. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in New York City, was being accused of defrauding depositors of $5 billion, earning that particular scandal the title of largest bank fraud in history. In the same year, a man who will go down in history as the most cunning, shameless and audacious man in the history of Kenya, cooked up a scheme. This scheme would cost Kenya 10% of the country’s GDP. We’re talking about the Goldenberg scandal and the second of the two men: Kamlesh Pattni. How the scheme worked is a little complicated but important to outline. At the time, Kenya was short on foreign currency, and so the government came up with a reward scheme to give bonus cash payouts to companies that were earning the country foreign exchange through exports.
For every US dollar earned in sales abroad, the export compensation claim allowed companies to be paid about thirty US cents by the Central Bank in Kenya for every dollar, as a reward for boosting Kenya’s exports. And so Kamlesh Pattni, alongside his partner in crime, James Kanyotu, would smuggle in gold from Zaire (which would later be renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo). They would then export this gold and earn a 35% reward for earning the country dollars, which were in short supply. Soon, their company, Goldenberg International stopped bothering to import the gold, and instead doctored export documents to keep receiving the 35% export subsidies. The scheme went on from 1991 all through 1993, with Goldenberg International receiving irregular pay-outs for exporting massive amounts of non-existent gold and diamond. Enter David Munyakei.
The year 1991 was also the year that David Munyakei had started working at the Central Bank of Kenya. His first year- like any honeymoon phase was filled with excitement and so many wonderful possibilities. He was a man with a plan and faith in his ability to put in the work. Munyakei had already envisioned his first 3 years at CBK. They were going to end with him getting a scholarship to go to university. He had his whole life ahead of him and believed everything would go according to plan- in that familiar way that every young person, straight from school believes.
It was only a year in when he started spotting the irregularities. As a clerk at the bank, the CD3 customs forms that companies submitted to get the export reward payments went through him. Suddenly he started noticing that he was processing the same forms over and over again. Only the amounts claimed would be changed but everything else remained the same. The other thing that sent his senses flaring were the odd hours he was made to work on the documents. He would be made to stick around after work and only leave when he was done with the stash of documents. He finally approached a central bank official who raised the question that confirmed Munyakei’s doubts; where was all this gold he was clearing? That was the trigger that got Munyakei to finally blow the whistle on the Goldenberg Scandal, and in the process attracted some very rich and powerful enemies but also earned himself a piece of the glaring limelight under the scrutiny of the unforgiving Kenyan public.
David Sadera Munyakei’s portrait hangs high in the metaphorical hall of fame of Kenya’s wronged and unsung heroes. He was a reserved man, but he would also become very outspoken and speak directly when he got worked up about an issue. Reserved, shy people are like that sometimes, they are quiet until they pour everything out all at once - and that sometimes strikes people the wrong way. He was born in Langata women’s hospital where his mother was employed in the Prisons department. He grew up on the outskirts of Narok town, brought up by his grandmother. This was a small village inhabited by a pastoral community. On most days after school Munyakei and his older brother would have to run back home to make milk deliveries around their village. His was a simple upbringing that in no way dimmed his shine. Even then his brother remembers him to be outspoken and never afraid to speak his truth. But with questionable social skills and what some call a very rigid moral compass, Munyakei would soon learn that Kenya prefers its heroes to be safely tucked away in history books, statues, and portraits, and not living, breathing people asking hard questions- that is if they were lucky.
When he discovered the irregular payments, Munyakei raised the alarm. First he was ignored, then threatened by his superiors. By now Munyakei had sneaked copies of the incriminating evidence to Peter Warutere, a journalist, and to then-opposition MPs Paul Muite and Peter Anyang’ Nyong'o. Muite and Nyong'o later presented the papers in Parliament, causing an uproar across the whole country.
But Munyakei discovered, as Kenyan heroes sometimes do, that he had poked the wrong animal. This animal had extensively long tentacles that stretched across the executive, legislature and judiciary. And as the animal retaliated by wrapping its tentacles around him, its sharp fangs took their first bite. Munyakei was arrested, charged with “Communicating information with unauthorized persons in contravention of the Officials Secrets Act.” He was in remand for five months when a judge ruled that he had no case to answer. But, this was no reprieve - the charges had served their purpose. He was summarily fired from his job at the CBK, and when a friend told him his life was in danger, he fled to Mombasa to lie low, and he would spend the next decade in obscurity, anonymity and poverty.
One bright spot was Mariam, whom he met in Mombasa and for whom he had converted to Islam in order to marry. When he met her, he was living under an assumed name, but his love for her was real - and maybe, this was a way to live, and not just hide. He never told his wife about the life he had had in Nairobi, the threats, the slander, the price he had paid just for speaking the truth. He just wanted to live again, and he did - Mariam and the three daughters they would have together given him that.
It would be 10 years before the NARC government would come into power promising to fight against the corruption perpetrated by the previous administration of Daniel arap Moi. Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi reopened the Goldenberg issue, but by then Munyakei had moved back from Mombasa to his home town in Narok, after years of unemployment and deep poverty. Like so many Kenyans who fail to make ends meet in the cities, ushago, your rural home, is the last option. The announcement of the Goldenberg commission came with something he hadn’t felt in a long time, hope! And he had something up his sleeves too this time; proof! He still had documents and testimony that would bring the nefarious scheme to light once and for all.
As for our second man; no one can remember the Goldberg scandal without Kamlesh Pattni’s antics. A polished, soft-spoken, ever-smiling man with a charming personality. Pattni, unlike Munyakei, very quickly learnt that the trick to survive scandal in this country is to be likeable, appear harmless and throw in talks of God at any opportunity.The media were quick to spot who would sell papers between the two. Pattni’s testimonies and antics before the Goldenberg Commission would make the front page day after day, and the Kenyan audience ate this up. Munyakei on the other hand believed in the devil being in the detail. He gave a thorough evidence-based testimony complete with documented proof. The evidence was so impressive that lawyer Gatonye Waweru is on record saying if there were 10 other witnesses like Munyakei, the commission’s work would have been done. But Munyakei didn’t know then that he was playing the right tune for the wrong crowd.
Goldenberg went as all these graft commissions usually go - a lot of talk, great content for TV - the Commission’s hearings were broadcast live on television for their entire duration - and then… eventually, nothing. After his testimony, Munyakei was awarded two awards; The Integrity Awards in 2004 and the Firimbi award in 2005 but none of them would come with an offer of a job. He would use every chance he got to ask for his job at the CBK back. During the Integrity Awards in 2004, Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi demanded that Munyakei be posted at the CBK again - but nothing came of it, those were just words, just a roadside declaration. That’s the thing about roadside declarations in Kenya - sometimes they move heaven and earth, and other times, nothing. Munyakei spent the next two years making trips from Narok to Nairobi trying to press folks to do the right thing, as he had done so many years ago. He needed work to provide for his family. In Billy Kahora’s writing of Munyakei’s story, he sometimes presents Munyakei as beginning to play into the Nairobi, civil-society crowd that he had been introduced to, becoming less naive, less a country bumpkin and beginning to adopt city-savvy of rubbing shoulders and trying to say the right things to the right people. But we’d like to paint a different story of a man who didn’t see the need to laugh politely and clink glasses just to be able to have steady employment, the least of what he deserved.
During the Integrity awards, Transparency International had bought Munyakei a suit. He would hang this suit at their offices and pass by to change into it during every trip to Nairobi - every hero needs a costume, right? In those two years, his story would be published by Kwani? in a non-fiction short novel by Billy Kahora as mentioned before, The True Story of David Munyakei, later serialized by the Standard newspaper. In 2005, the government would offer him a job in the Office of the President at a net monthly salary of KES 8000. But in the subsequent two years his five minutes of fame would lapse, everyone would move on and slowly, the hope he held onto would be replaced with bitterness, and regret, and ultimately desperation. The media, and the civil-society crowd, were using him for photo ops and to tell a good story but nothing else. What use were awards when his wife and children were going hungry? Hadn’t he played his part all this time, done the right thing? And hadn’t he been clear that all he wanted was his job the whole time? Was all this a ruse? Where had he gone wrong? So in 2006 with no hope left, Munyakei accepted the job at the Office of the President.
On that day, Sunday July 30th 2006, David Munyakei was unable to speak to his wife. But that was hours ago. Now she was back home and tired after the running around she had done all day. But even in her fatigue she couldn’t help but look around their small compound. Raju had spent so many days in the recent past sitting in that same compound.
The past month had been agonizing. At the end of June 2006, she had watched her husband return home from Nairobi; unwell. He was coughing and the cough was getting worse, his face and gums were also swollen. Her husband, the award-winning national hero, whose name was in the papers and whose face was on TV, couldn't afford health care on his salary. And so when he came back home on that day in June, they did what they usually did - got paracetamol from the shops to alleviate his pain, and waited on his salary from the office of the president.
At the end of that month, he went to Nairobi to pick up his salary. This, of course, was the days before M-Pesa or instant money transfers. But on his arrival at the offices he had been met with the news that the job transfer he had been seeking to Narok had been approved and hence his salary had been sent there. And so he returned to Narok. However, the news that awaited him was also not what he expected. Apparently, as he had not availed himself to pick up the money in Narok; it had been sent back to Nairobi. Here he was, a cat-and-mouse game with government bureaucracy for a salary that was just Ksh8,000. And because bad things happen in threes; he arrived home to find his children had been sent home from school due to school fees arrears.
Munyakei, perhaps subdued by the savagery of defeat and haunted by this new understanding of powerlessness, sunk into a deep quiet after this. As the dark cloud around continued to engulf him, he stopped eating completely and his health deteriorated. His family's worries were heightened when he started exhibiting signs of pneumonia. They rushed him to Narok District Hospital where, after some persuasion, the doctor agreed to attend to Munyakei, provided they catered for their own meals and IV.
So Mariam sat by Munyakei’s bedside - a man whose joy, sadness, successes and failures she had shared. A man with whom she shared the beauty of parenthood with, a man who over the years had been her biggest frustration and her closest friend, just the way marriage usually is. Their years and experiences had been reduced to this moment; where her love could only be expressed through the teaspoon she used to feed him milk- the only thing Raju could digest. But at least he was still there, she loved him, and she knew he loved her deeply.
Sunday had come with hope. David’s health improved slightly. He even recognized her. She fed him milk, this time with more hope to hold on to. She left him in the afternoon, sure of his recovery. She had to go get money for the much-needed IV bottles from a relative.
So when Mariam Ali Muhammed Hani walked into their little compound and into their house that evening, she was tired. Not only physically, but from the veil of worry and anxiety that had wrapped itself around her. The first things she spotted when she walked in were the empty bottles of IV where they lay in the house. For the last few weeks, those bottles had had more value than everything precious to her. But something told her that time had run out for the two of them, that their aspirations were at last empty, just like those IV bottles in the house. . She knew. Her husband David Munyakei had passed on. He had died of fungal pneumonia.
More than thirty years later, after two government inquiries were instituted to bring to book those behind the mega scam, little has been achieved. Munyakei died, and Kamlesh Pattni became a born-again Christian. There must be a specific chapter written on him in that book every Kenyan criminal reads; ‘An Idiot’s Guide to Getting Away with Crime in Kenya.’ It’s a foolproof plan that involves the criminal finding Jesus, and the church accepting him into their fold which in a nominally Christian country means instant public approval. Just like that, his sins are washed away- presumably even in the court of law. The last attempt to have him convicted were thwarted by Justice Joseph Mutava in 2013 on the grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated since the case had dragged on for too long. And when it was Pattni’s turn; he went the extra mile to even start his own church. Just another hustle, you know? Brother Paul, as he is now known, even vied for Member of Parliament for Westlands in 2013. He lost the election, but still.
A hero is a person first. One who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. I wonder, what is the definition of a Kenyan hero?
Must they wear the persona of the ever charming, always monied, unassuming but also street-smart character? Kenya betrayed David Sadera Munyakei. While others preyed on his well-meaning nature, others brushed him off for his lack of charm and adamant refusal to conform. His legacy is one of a refusal to adapt. He would not join the corrupt whose greed Munyakei knew was a bottomless pit, or bow down to the puppeteer that was the Nairobi public which yearns for entertainment and fakery; integrity be damned!
For years Munyakei unknowingly fought corruption alone while for everyone that was in his company it was just another day in the office. Theirs was the business of fighting corruption not to be confused with sacrifice for a cause. And as for the other fraction of Kenyans; they were tuned in to the never-ending saga that was Brother Paul Kamlesh Pattni’s life. It takes an insurmountable amount of courage to be a whistle-blower. Some like Munyakei are treated to the lonely vacuum that is a blind eye: used, abused and discarded, while others are tortured and most often killed. It shouldn’t matter what we think of these people’s personalities. A hero is a person first. People are complex, odd- different. A person brave enough to put his needs last for the needs of the many should be protected at all costs. No one can fight corruption alone.
It should be known that before his story emerged at the commission, Munyakei was offered
several million shillings by some ‘interested parties’ to not testify and flee to Uganda with his family. Munyakei chose to testify.