The flamboyant tycoon behind Mpumalanga’s infamous R50-billion Dolphin Deal has been arrested in Kenya after almost a decade on the run.
Ketan Somaia’s arrest on Thursday last week comes as his South African associates, including Mpumalanga Parks Board (MPB) chief Alan Gray, finally go on trial on 77 theft and corruption charges each for their alleged role in the dodgy deal.
Teflon-coated Somaia managed to avoid any immediate facedown with the law in Kenya, however, and was released without being charged just 24 hours later on direct orders of Kenyan attorney general Amos Wako.
The apparent legal bungling inflamed Kenya’s stridently anti-graft Parliament, which immediately called for Somaia’s rearrest amid cries of ”cover up!” and ordered Wako to resign or himself face charges. Wako attempted to downplay the outcry, but Kenya’s Justice Ministry on Thursday hurriedly ordered Somaia’s passport and other travel documents confiscated pending possible rearrest.
Somaia originally fled into exile from Kenya 10 years ago after government investigators accused him of fronting a $5,5-million paramilitary and police equipment tender scam on behalf of powerful political cronies in President Daniel arap Moi’s inner circle.
He defied repeated parliamentary summonses to return home to testify about the tender fraud, and even managed to retain control of his extensive Kenyan business empire from the Dolphin Group’s luxurious new ”global headquarters” in Dubai.
Trading on the fame of his Block Hotels brand, Somaia courted the MPB and then Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa in 1996, wining and dining them at South Africa’s most expensive hotels.
Somaia made such an impact that Phosa introduced him to then minister of defence Joe Modise at a secretive meeting at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton in September 1996 to discuss a proposed arms deal supposedly on behalf of the Kenyan military. Modise initially entertained Somaia, but eventually rebuffed his proposal when the charismatic businessman was unable to produce Kenyan
government credentials, and after the country’s local military envoy denied any knowledge of the deal.
South African anti-corruption probes ultimately derailed Somaia’s 50-year contract to commercialise Mpumalanga’s flagship game parks in return for a $50-billion payment to Phosa’s government.
Somaia continues to insist the deal was legitimate, but ”disinvested” from South Africa by closing Dolphin’s swish Sandton offices in late 2000 and selling his shares in a string of private hotels, including the Royal Hotel in the historic town of Pilgrim’s Rest.
His once mighty empire in Kenya also appears to be crumbling, with controversial former business associates, including the Kenyan ”goldfinger” Kamlesh Pattni, contesting ownership of key assets.
Pattni, who won notoriety in Kenya’s Goldenberg scam that fleeced the Central Bank of Kenya of millions of dollars in a fraudulent gold trading scheme in early 1990s, is contesting Somaia’s ownership of the flagship Block Hotels, the United Touring Company, Nairobi International Casino, Delphis Bank International, Dolphin Holdings and Marshalls East Africa — the company that holds the Peugeot brand franchise in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Pattni claims to have invested $25-million in the companies in 1992. Somaia is defending the challenge in the Nairobi High Court.
Local media report that Somaia’s growing financial woes forced him to return from exile in a last-ditch bid to negotiate a settlement with Kenya’s new ruling National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) in return for evidence on secret bank accounts and other
corruption by the former Moi regime.
Authorities have confirmed they grilled him for two days before his arrest on Thursday, and that they intend pursuing the matter further.
”Police have to do much more than just interrogating perpetrators of corruption,” said Presidential Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Integrity, John Githongo, last Friday.
”I am disgusted and embarrassed by what is going on in this [Somaia] matter,” Githongo said.
Once publicly feted as one of Moi’s ”golden boys”, Somaia’s fate may depend on just how much he remembers from the golden years. — African Eye News Service