/ 2 March 2023

The whistleblower’s burden: How a life is dragged into chaos

Biswick Tiyamalu Kaswaswa
Biswick Tiyamalu Kaswaswa

Biswick Tiyamalu Kaswaswa, who was born in 1981, excelled at school and in his tertiary education. While at college, he was recruited by Deloitte Malawi — a member of a leading international partnership of chartered accountants. After rapid progression as an audit clerk, he completed his Association of Certified Chartered Accountants UK board exams in record time and was admitted as a professional chartered accountant in 2006. 

He was transferred to Deloitte Barbados, where he honed his auditing skills between 2007 and 2011, whereupon he returned to Malawi. He worked in various jobs, while teaching undergraduate students accounting part time.

In June 2018, he was recruited by South Sudanese energy company Trinity Energy to serve as their financial manager working in their head office in Juba. He was alarmed to find that, in contrast to the standards of good governance that he had been taught, the company operated its network of filling stations on a mainly cash basis, with thousands of South Sudanese pounds and US dollars kept in sacks. 

This cash was collected and exchanged, without any controls, checks or balances, and with no systems to ensure the control and reconciliation of stocks of fuel with cash received, or the use of the banking system to ensure safekeeping and the proper authorisation of expenditures and disbursements.

He reported his concerns to the board of directors. They pretended to share his concern, but as soon as he tried to implement changes in the way that Trinity was doing business, he experienced resistance, and his relationship with his employers began to rapidly deteriorate.

By October 2018, four months into his contract, he realised that Trinity Energy was in fact a sophisticated money-laundering operation dispensing bribes to government officials and corrupt politicians, under the veneer of a legitimate commercial fuel-distribution operation. Based on his professional code of ethics and personal values he made the decision to become a whistleblower.

After considering his options, he decided to make a weekend trip to the Malawian embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to report to Malawian diplomats that he was amassing damning information that would have considerable ramifications once publicly released. It would put him at increasing risk because of his refusal to condone the corrupt business model that had become the culture of the company.

However, he did not realise that the company surveillance apparatus was closely monitoring his movements. His flight to Dar required a stopover in Kigali, Rwanda. While waiting for his connecting flight, with only his passport, $26 000 of his earnings in his wallet, and the clothes he was wearing, two police officers intercepted him. 

He never made it to the Malawian embassy but instead found himself taken into custody, searched and effectively kidnapped by his employer in collusion with corrupt authorities in both Rwanda and South Sudan. He spent a month in the notorious Mageragere Prison while Rwandan authorities “investigated” an allegation from Trinity Energy that Kaswaswa was fleeing the country having stolen $350 000. 

Without a formal extradition hearing, and with not a shred of evidence to substantiate the allegations, after a month the Rwandan authorities unlawfully and against his will handcuffed him and put him on a flight back to Juba. He spent Christmas at the mercy of South Sudanese police officers in cahoots with private security from Trinity Energy.

Thus began a brutal ordeal of torture at the hands of officials determined to break Kaswaswa and force him to confess to a non-existent crime, to stop him from his intended course of action to blow the whistle on the corrupt practices he had witnessed first hand at Trinity Energy.

Fortunately, he proved to be far more resilient than his persecutors had bargained for and a frantic call to his older brother in Malawi in turn enabled his family to alert Amnesty International to his plight. Amnesty quickly ensured public scrutiny and provided him with legal representation, Juba-based human rights lawyer Godfrey Victor Bulla. 

Bulla did a superb job of thwarting the stalling tactics of Kaswaswa’s accusers to subvert a fair trial and, after 16 months, was finally able to show the presiding judge that the complainants had overplayed their hand and that the process was simply a retaliation strategy to try to silence a whistleblower.

The judge found that there was no evidence to support the charges brought. In handing down judgement he said that the only documentary evidence before him showed that Kaswaswa was in fact an accountable accountant — someone any reputable company or audit firm would want to employ.

Knowing that Trinity Energy had in fact further incriminated themselves by the vexatious and meritless abuse of legal and criminal procedure, Bulla advised his client to get out of South Sudan as quickly as possible, before still more drastic measures could be devised to permanently silence him.

At a time when the Covid pandemic was spreading and no planes were flying, Bulla organised for Kaswaswa to be secreted out of the country avoiding border guards. After a 3 000km road journey he arrived back home to the arms of his anxious family.

Fortified by having survived against all odds, and despite needing time to heal from the trauma, he returned to his original mission — to expose the corrupt practices he had seen at Trinity. However, without a job Kaswaswa and his family found themselves having to endure a different form of hardship as resources declined and fears of further retaliation rose when his disclosures were eventually made public.

Fortunately, The Sentry, an organisation that seeks to disable multinational predatory networks that benefit from violent conflict, responded to his emails and commenced a methodical process of investigation to verify and corroborate his allegations. That process has taken another two years. Instead of re-entering society Kaswaswa has had to lie low and concentrate on the task of assembling the evidence to ensure that his suffering and endurance is not wasted.

The Sentry has now released its report, paving the way for sanctions against the perpetrators to remedy the gross injustices suffered by Kaswaswa and to fortify him to continue.

Four days before the report was released he was attacked while shopping. He managed to escape what appeared to be an attempted abduction and is back in his safe house. However the retaliation has not ceased and Trinity Energy and their corrupt government partners have resorted to a smear and disinformation campaign through the media and legal threats against The Sentry.

While The Sentry is shielding Kaswaswa from legal reprisals at the international level, he needs pro-bono legal representation to vindicate his rights within African governance institutions.

While the governments of Rwanda and South Sudan need to be held accountable for clear breaches of international law, the government of Malawi, by contrast, can boast of a citizen who has shown exceptional ethics and conscience. He deserves national and international honour.

However, international civil society and media need to continue to advocate for restorative and remedial action to ensure:

1. The recovery of his personal belongings. He left South Sudan without having been paid the salary due to him and without having had his belongings returned to him, including his laptop, external hard drive, iPad, cellphone, academic certificates and national ID.

2. Investigation and prosecution of torture in the hands of South Sudanese officials and private security staff from Trinity Energy.

3. Payment of salary arrears by Trinity.

4. Consequence management for illegal extradition by the Rwandan government.

5. Withdrawal of all trumped-up charges by the South Sudanese government, currently on appeal.

Despite having an impressive CV Kaswaswa has had to endure disappointment, betrayal and the stigma that whistleblowers invariably suffer, another scapegoat cast out into the desert of social stigma and isolation. He is not simply unemployed, but unemployable, until the five-year gap in his employment record can be explained on his CV. Public awareness needs to rise and he needs to be fully vindicated.

He has two daughters aged 19 (in college) and 10 (in primary school) and is solely responsible for them. His siblings and friends have provided support over the past two years and funds have been raised to provide a temporary safe house and psychological counselling to help him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Besides supporting his family, going into open society requires the extra expense of close protection and security, repairs to his home which has been vandalised in his absence, and funds for further psycho-social support to heal in body, mind and spirit.

John G Clarke is a social worker, lay theologian, filmmaker and writer seeking to “write’” the wrongs of the world by ensuring that human rights acquire meaning as a basis for restorative justice and peacebuilding.