The Roman invasion in Kenya: Return of Italians, Sicilian Mafia and playboys?

President William Ruto hosts President of the Republic of Italy Sergio Matella at State House, Nairobi.

Photo credit: PSC I Nation Media Group

Italians were determined to go to the moon – and in 1962, they wanted to go through Kenya. In Malindi, off the coast near Ngomeni, they had found three old oil rig platforms that were still usable. By then, only three nations had launched anything into space: the Soviet Union, the US, and Canada.

The dash to be the fourth, they hoped, would start on any of the three platforms, which they named San Marco, Santa Rita and Santa Rita I. As scientists poured into Malindi, so did the playboys, the Mafia, the investors – and the drug dealers. The Chicago Outfit, which was once led by infamous American gangster Al Capone, got membership of the Nanyuki-based Mt Kenya Safari Club (and killed its owner) and also found drug outlets in Malindi’s casino business.

Malindi was a favourite Italian tourist destination, and some streets still bear Italian names. Villas emerged in the colonised spaces – and besides Italian professor Luigi Broglio’s dream of having an Italian space station near the equator, Malindi was becoming the base of sleaze, drugs and sex. Here, as they escaped the European winter, they would create material comforts: hotels, villas, guesthouses, car and helicopter rentals, and escorts.

They bought land and other properties and established a network that saw Malindi get the moniker African Riviera. Silvio Berlusconi, one of the most controversial Italian prime ministers, has a home here too.

Back to the main business: Italian space scientists had always insisted that the launch of a satellite near the equator, with its heavy payloads, made Malindi the ideal site.

They had sought the assistance of Nasa – which agreed to train the Italian scientists in satellite engineering but not in the making of the satellite. Just before Independence, Kenya signed an agreement with Italy that saw the University of Rome La Sapienza and the Royal Technical College (now the University of Nairobi) become the operators of what was to be known as the Broglio Space Centre.

Under Broglio’s direction, the Italians used Malindi as the base for their space engineering.

To the Italians, Malindi became a second home.

It was the place where they could marvel at their progress – at a time when global power was determined by space entry. Ordinary Italians, the rich, the famous, and the wealthy, poured into Malindi like on a pilgrimage.

On December 12, 1970, as Kenya celebrated Jamhuri Day, the small town was awash with thousands of Italian tourists as they watched their country launch its first satellite, named Uhuru, into orbit. While the space programme came a cropper, the once quiet town of Malindi became the playground of Italian investors, playboys and tourists eager to sample the best of the eastern coast of Africa.

More so, the Italian government continued to renew the bilateral agreement of cooperation, which allowed it to have an intelligence base in Africa. But it is the scandals that have always haunted Italian escapades in Kenya – including the scam of Arror and Kimwarer dams – eliciting a chain of bad press reports.

The first stories were of Italian drug dealers and criminals with Mafia connections using Malindi as their hideout. Italians long resident in Malindi protested these allegations, which they claimed were propaganda by Germans who were “jealous of our prosperity”, one investor told the London Observer. It was true, then, that rivalry between Germans and Italians on who was to control the tourism sector at the coast had reached a crescendo.

The Italian wheeler dealers, aggressive and corrupt, had the upper hand. One Italian investor, according to the London Observer article, accused Germans of visiting Malindi “only for cheap sex and beer”. By then, the Germans were fronted by the powerful Coast Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu, while the Italians had always relied on the goodwill of the Kenyatta family – tied to Italy by their Roman Catholic faith.

Mahihu’s African Safari Club, co-owned with some German investors, was part of this tussle. It was said that he got his shares without paying a penny. There were several court battles over properties – and some are still ongoing – between the Italians and Germans in Malindi.

In one interesting case, a German, Hans-Jürgen, armed with what looked like a decree from a Milan Court, arrived in Malindi in 2009, seeking to enforce the Italian court order and seeking “to take over the ownership, management, running, operation and control of (Salama Beach Hotel) for such period and time as shall be sufficient to satisfy the judgment and decree of the court of Milan dated December 14, 2001”.

It took years of research, and misuse of Malindi police for an Italian lawyer, Taglioretti Farese Cicerchia Capua, to dig up the details. He found that the judgment was a creation of a German company and that “the case number indicated on the appellants’ purported judgment pertained to unconcluded proceedings”.

At one point in this saga, Kenyan Senior Counsel Ahmednasir Abdullahi dragged then-Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko into the case, accusing the governor of conspiring to defraud the German of the luxurious hotel valued at about Sh1 billion. With the Italians, Malindi always got bad press.

One of the major scandals, which the tabloids minted millions out of, was when the heir to the Agnelli Fiat empire, Edoardo Agnelli, was arrested and charged with possession of drugs in 1990.

The Agnelli family were majority shareholders of Juventus FC, the Italian Serie A football club, and owned Italy’s largest bank. It was in Malindi that Agnelli always took cover to seek happiness.

But 10 years later, on November 15, 2000, as he was set to inherit the $15 billion fortune that was his family’s business empire — which included the Fiat car manufacturing company, a considerable stake in Alfa Romeo, and the high-end Ferrari and Chrysler vehicles — he took his own life.

Tabloids claimed he was killed. Eduardo’s escapades in Malindi were well known. He would arrive at the Kenyan coastal town with an entourage of carefree hookers and Italian scofflaws who had earned the town the notorious tag, the ‘Mafia paradise’, just like in Fulgencio Batista’s Havana.

Eduardo’s father, Gianni, was no better, and, according to his wife, Marella, had a series of women who included Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Italian actress Silvia Monti.

When news broke that Kenyan police had raided a private villa in Malindi and arrested Edoardo for possessing drugs, it did not surprise anyone in Italy, or those who followed his family’s escapades. The billionaire was called, and he sent his lawyers to Malindi.

The short of it is that the case collapsed, but not before conspiracy theorists argued that the arrest was plotted to deny Edoardo a chance to inherit the leadership of the multi-billion Fiat empire after his father turned 70.

His Malindi friends had told Italian newspapers that Eduardo was set up by drug traffickers who were using the town as the conduit between drug hubs in Pakistan and Europe, while then-Italian ambassador to Kenya, Renato Volpini, thought there was much more to the story.

At the time, Malindi was the playground of Casanovas, drug lords and tycoons – a triumvirate structure that also earned it the title Riviera of Kenya, thanks to the cash flows from sleaze and tourism.

The Mafia had become the prime investors in casinos. There was also talk that since Eduardo had started a drug rehab project in Malindi, he became the target of traffickers who were worried that this son of a billionaire might oust them.

Then, on the morning of November 15, 2000, news broke that Edoardo’s body had been found at the bottom of a 200ft viaduct in northern Italy. His car, the engine still running, was parked at the side. The question that arose was whether he, indeed, died by suicide or was pushed to his death.

The saga surrounding Arror and Kimwarer dams – the scandal we co-share with Italians – is the continuing story of Italians in Kenya. And it all started with the Malindi station when they thought they could go to the moon.