Joshua Kulei (left) and Nicholas Biwott. PHOTOS | FILE
Of all the posse of career civil servants, politicians and advisers who were in the inner circle of President Daniel Moi during his 24 years at the helm, two of them emerged extraordinarily wealthy in a manner that has often been called into question.
Nicholas Biwott, a former Cabinet minister who was buried this week in his farm in Elgeyo Marakwet, and Joshua Kulei, President Moi’s personal secretary, rose from obscurity and by the time Moi left power in 2002, they had joined the exclusive club of Kenya’s billionaires.
Over the course of Moi’s presidency, they built enviable business empires spanning nearly all sectors of the Kenyan economy. Their businesses stretch beyond Kenya’s borders all the way to Namibia, Australia, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg.
However, the Opposition often claimed that their wealth was corruptly acquired by looting Kenya’s fragile economy at an industrial scale through fat kickbacks for contracts for mega projects and by manipulating the financial sector to their advantage but to the detriment of the majority.
Biwott’s enormous wealth coupled with his closeness with Moi gave him unrivalled political clout which he used to ruthlessly silence the president’s critics and made him one of the most feared and reviled figures in the Kanu era.
Biwott represented Keiyo South constituency in Parliament from 1979 to 2007 during which he became the public face of the excesses of the Kanu administration. On the other hand, Kulei was content to be the man in the shadows but wielded power quietly but effectively.
A former warder, he represented President Moi’s business interests, a privileged position that gave him the opportunity to build an impressive business portfolio of his own which later became a source of friction between him and Moi’s sons, Gideon and Philip.
“While Mark Too (former Nominated MP who died in January this year) was taking care of his political issues, Kulei was taking care of the business side of things,” said a former State House operative during President Moi’s era, who requested to speak freely in the background so as not to appear as disrespecting the retired president.
Physically, Biwott and Kulei look like brothers. They are both diminutive, soft-spoken and deceptively shy. But their dour nature cleverly masks a determined ruthlessness and unbridled ambition for capital accumulation.
The two shared little else. Biwott and Kulei were never really close friends, according to a top city lawyer who once represented President Moi. “Biwott looked down upon Kulei because of his low education,” he said.
“However, Kulei relished this harmless, underdog perception that Biwott had of him. He set out to prove wrong those who thought less of him,” the lawyer said. Despite their differences, Biwott and Kulei were pragmatic enough to tolerate each other in service of President Moi and in their common pursuit of wealth.
The extent of the business dealings of the trio was revealed in a report prepared by Kroll and Associates, a private investigative company based in London in the United Kingdom, which was contracted by the Narc administration in 2003 to trace the loot allegedly stashed abroad by Moi and his associates.
Kroll submitted their 106-page report to the government in April 2004 but it was never made public until it was leaked in August 2007 by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. The report revealed that Kulei represented Moi in more than 50 companies operating in all sectors of the economy.
“It has been reported that Kulei holds serious investments in London, including a palatial residence in upmarket London, where his children have always attended school. Further sources confirm that Kulei has two properties in Surrey, the larger of which is owned by ex-president Moi,” said the report.
Some of the companies jointly owned by the former president and Kulei include Sian Roses on a 60:40 basis. (The name is derived from Kulei’s family name Chemusian). They also co-own Ngata Flower Farm in Nakuru on a 50:50 basis, the report said. Furthermore, Kulei and Gideon each owned 12.5 per cent of Siginon Freight, a transport company, while Kabarak High School owns 75 per cent, the report said.
The ownership of these companies could have changed over time since the trio have since divided up most of the property they co-owned. Just before Kanu was booted out of power, Kulei relinquished most of the property he held in trust for President Moi, said the Kroll report.
It was at this point that he ran into trouble with Moi’s sons, Philip and Gideon, who believed that he had conned their father. “Gideon kept convincing his father that Kulei may have more money than him as a result of using the ex-president’s name,” said the Kroll report.
Fearing for his life, “it is understood that it was during the time that Kulei contemplated leaving Kenya to live in London,” the report said.
Sovereign Group Ltd, which is located at Trans National Plaza on Mama Ngina Street in Nairobi, is Kulei’s holding company. The company owns Maasai Ostrich Resort in Kitengela, Merica Hotel in Nakuru and diatomite mines in Kariandusi near Lake Elementaita among other businesses.
He still has a substantial stake in the Standard Group Ltd, the Mombasa Road–based media company that owns the Standard newspaper and KTN television. Kulei is the single largest shareholder in the company with 38 per cent, while Moi and his son Gideon jointly own 52 per cent and the remaining 10 per cent is owned by the public.
On the other hand, Biwott’s flagship investments include the Yaya Centre in Hurlingham, Kenol-Kobil chain of petrol stations and Air Kenya Ltd. He is believed to have a significant interest in HZ Construction Company as well as Safaricom.
Some of the businesses that Biwott co-owned with Moi include the Nakuru based-Lima Ltd, one of the biggest dealers in farm equipment in Kenya, and Trans National Bank. A source said that the Moi family has no interest in the Kenol-Kobil petrol stations as it has been long rumoured.
Ironically, there are few companies that Moi, Biwott and Kulei co-owned, which perhaps reflects the uneasy relationship that Biwott and Kulei enjoyed. The Nakuru-based National Milling Corporation, which has since gone under, is one such company which was jointly owned by the trio.
But given the array of businesses that the trio owned, it is possible that there are many more businesses that they still co-own of which little is known about, as evidenced by their fight dating back to 2012 for two pieces of land in Nairobi worth billions of shillings.
The case pits Moi and Biwott on one hand against Kulei whom they accuse of trying to defraud them of the unidentified pieces of prime land. They claimed that Kulei, through a company called Belgo Holdings, was holding the land in trust for Moi, a claim which the former president’s aide denied.
Despite the lawyers of the three billionaires exchanging harsh letters, the matter has never made it to court, something that would have helped shed more light on their business dealings.
By the time the Narc administration received the Kroll report in 2004, it was deeply mired in a corruption scandal of its own – the Anglo Leasing scandal – through which the government is suspected to have lost billions of shillings in fraudulent security contracts.
Narc, which had come to power on an anti-corruption platform, had lost face to act on the Kroll report. After it was leaked by WikiLeaks in 2007, government spokesman Alfred Mutua, who is now the governor of Machakos, dismissed it as a shoddy piece of investigative work.
Furthermore, Narc’s resolve to pursue Biwott and Kulei over corruption suffered a blow early in the days of the Narc administration after President Kibaki reportedly told his Cabinet that every corruption suspect in Kanu except his predecessor was fair game. Moi was to be left in peace.
“It was impossible to pursue Biwott and Kulei and leave out Moi yet their business dealings were so intertwined,” said Moi’s former lawyer who asked to speak in confidence.
“Touching either of the two would lead to Moi and this is what Kibaki had expressly said no to. Investigators were very limited in what they could do,” he added.
In the end, the Narc administration never charged Biwott or Moi with any of the political or economic crimes that it claimed the two were guilty of. And with Biwott’s death, the chances of this ever happening have quite literally been buried six feet under.
During the former Cabinet minister's funeral on Thursday, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto pledged to defend the Biwott family over the allegations of corruption that have followed the patriarch to the grave. “We will make sure no one touches them,” DP Ruto told the mourners.