The second installment of Joseph Nderitu’s journal described the experience of being detained with murderers in Keko Prison, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when the only thing you have done wrong is to work for a big business that can be squeezed when the government needs money. The final part of Joseph’s story describes the plea bargain negotiated by Vodacom’s lawyers and why pleading guilty is preferable to fighting for justice.
11: Out Here in the Fields
When the prisoners are in the yard, each group of friends creates an area for themselves. This is known as the maskan. One cannot just show up and sit in another group’s maskan as that would be rude and can be taken as an act of aggression. Prison has boundaries and it is important to be conscious of territories. They may not be marked but they definitely exist. They serve the purpose of maintaining order and keeping us all out of harm.
We are invited by Paul, who we met previously at the holding cells of the law courts in Kisutu. Paul is an old schoolmate of one of the Vodacom crew. His maskan is located behind one of the TV screens in the sheltered yard. Obviously our friend is very influential here. Paul’s maskan is staffed by prisoners who look as if they are on his payroll. They clean it and also wash his utensils. His staff includes expatriates, such as Pakistani drug smugglers, who are also skilled in the art of hospitality. From the first day, they treat us like royalty. Whenever we show up, they quickly pull out buckets from some place or other and we use the buckets as seats. Sometimes they also offer us their heavily spiced tea.
Paul is a gentleman, well read and well travelled. I hit it off with him as soon as I realize he likes Mario Puzo’s work. I think he fancies himself as the Don Corleone, a character that I also admire. Despite working for the Mafia, the Don had plenty of good advice to offer. His ability to see the big picture was something I have admired ever since I read the first book about him. Paul lets me raid his personal library, which is a carton full of books. He also gets daily newspapers and I always visit his maskan to check the dailies.
Paul was thrown into prison because of tax evasion. He explains to me how the Director of Public Prosecutions reached his conclusion, and it seems to me that the DPP’s office can be guilty of some very weird reasoning. Essentially, Paul renegotiated a contract because the cost of implementing a project changed mid-stream. He had not even received the revised payment, at which point he would have remitted the tax portion. When the revenue authority folks showed up and grabbed the revised contract, they compared it to the original contract and accused him of hiding money. That amounted to denying the government revenue and hence economic sabotage.
The maskan is a nice place for watching people. The old Pakistani who cleans the utensils has a young assistant who will graduate from prison as a highly qualified dish washer. There are boys who sit arranging and re-arranging containers of food. I also watch the four Eastern Europeans and the Chinese man who play Scrabble all day. This makes me wonder how fate conspired to have these sojourners meet in an African prison. Who needs more evidence that the world is a global village?
My people-watching pastime is paying off. I have never imagined I would ever meet a reality TV star. Yet here I am sitting next to a former Big Brother Africa contestant who was busted with diamonds in some corner in Tanzania. There is a Muslim cleric who is preaching to young converts and they sit imbibing wisdom from the sage of Keko. Of course, right opposite this religious group is the middle-aged man who reads pornographic magazines in full view of everybody, with his hand caressing his obviously excited member. Who can blame him for preferring alternative entertainment? Maybe God has abandoned him and he has taken to pleasuring himself in the sun. To each his own.
The water-man is in charge of the taps and he reports to ‘work’ at around 2pm. This prisoner has a lot of power. When he turns on the taps, the crowd of water mongers surges forward. He wants them to queue and to maintain order, using a pipe to mock-whip those who are out of line. Those who continue to disrupt will feel the full lash of the pipe across their backs.
The bell ringer is also a very important prisoner. His bell signifies feeding time and it also calls us to go for the final count of the day before we retreat to the cells.
Prison activity never stops. There are 1,400 men moving, shouting, laughing, explaining, protesting, feeding, watching television, sleeping, playing… these are the sights and sounds of Keko and they are consistent from day to day. It is difficult to measure the passage of time. All of the while, the TV is either showing news, movies or sports. The moviegoers are quiet, those who watch news are very pensive, and those who watch sports are rowdy.
I watch flies when I grow tired of watching people. The yard has enough flies, attracted by the morsels of food dropped by prisoners during feeding time. The gutter that surrounds the yard has dirty water and is a favourite place for the flies. Before we go in for the night, a band of prisoners collect the dirt into large sacks – food, empty bottles, banana peels, bottle tops, odd bits of cloth and all manner of dirt.
It is amazing how much trash human beings create. The scavenging band puts the rubbish into two green plastic tanks that stand near the entrance of Block 4. This rubbish remains here all night and will be picked in the morning. I think this rubbish is quite lucky. Whilst we, the human wreckage, remain barricaded behind the iron grille, the rubbish enjoys the fresh air of the yard, waiting to be carted off somewhere tomorrow. And from there it shall rejoin the circle of life. I contemplate putting a message in a plastic bottle and wonder how far it would go. Then I decide that would be nuts. It is better to keep a journal.
12: Dinner with Aristotle and Friends
Once we go back into the cells, those who were lucky to be visited during the day can take their supper. Those who were not visited but kept some leftovers from the prison lunch may also tuck in. Afterwards, the talking in the cells is pretty much the only entertainment we have, although the droning of male voices reduces as the night progresses.
Our cell has the liveliest debates and we have a different topic each day. One evening we are discussing food. Somebody asks, “why do experts advise us to eat fruits and vegetables before the main meal?” From that point, everybody becomes a food expert. Theories of digestion are given. Lining the stomach with roughage is given a possible reason. Somebody suggests the fruits are more nutritious and fill the stomach hence ensuring we do not eat too much. One person says the fruits should be eaten first so that if they have any germs, because they were not properly washed, when we eat the warm food, it will go and kill the germs. This sounds implausible but nobody contradicts him. Sometimes it is better to hear voices from other people because that quietens the voices in your head, which are invariably worse.
We also discuss other topics of interest. One night, the drug dealers tell us about cocaine, heroin and speed. We discuss the markets for these drugs and why cocaine is preferred by the affluent sections of society. Japan is described as a very lucrative market. A kilo of cocaine will fetch upwards of USD 30,000. Transiting the load via Philippines is a good idea; the narcos assure me the drug war being carried out in the Philippines is all make-believe. Well, that is not what I read but who am I to argue with the experts? The selection of drug routes is key. When moving drugs via Africa, the airports and ports of Dar es Salaam used to be the best because of lax security and porous borders as well as a safe intermediate point (inbound and outbound) at Zanzibar. Now with the new president in Tanzania and the new law which has made narcotics offences non-bailable, it is better to go via Nairobi. None of the drug dealers use their own products.
Towards the end of this very enlightening discussion, Tunde summarizes his career solemnly. He says the drug dealer is also an addict. He may not use his own drug but he is addicted to the easy cash and the highs of dealing with thousands of dollars just by hopping on and off a flight. I have never thought of it that way. As I sleep, I have a nightmare where I am sniffing cocaine but it goes in as powder through the nostrils and comes out as blood through the mouth and the more I try to stop sniffing it, the more I lose the battle. From that evening onwards, I do not want stories of drugs at night. Too spooky.
Whenever we have extra food, we share it with the occupants of the cell across the corridor. That requires some coordination. We put the food in a container and tie it to a rope. The free end of the rope is thrown across the corridor. The guys across start pulling the food across slowly, carefully so as not to spill even a morsel. It is also a risky operation because the rope is contraband. We are not supposed to have such things in prison because of the risk of suicide. When you are lying on hard concrete night after night, staring at the lone lightbulb high in the ceiling, suicide becomes an attractive possibility. I don’t ask how the rope got into our cell. This cell has two men accused of trading narcotics across international borders. Smuggling a rope into a cell is probably a walk in the park for them.
After dinner there is some reading and discussion of cases. We collectively formulate defence arguments. Some prisoners come up with better pleadings than their lawyers. The Criminal Procedure Act is memorized here. One must not just be familiar with it. It is important to know it better than the half-assed lawyers who abound in town. High court rulings are perused for precedent. We review the court proceedings contained in the dailies to gain more insights into cases.
13: Thou Shalt Be Known as the Club Man
On Saturday night, I remind my cellmates, “today is Saturday”. They all look at me askance. Chukwu responds, “so you want to go to the club?”. From that point, I assume a new name – the Club Man. I rather like this moniker. It sounds ominously dangerous. When you hear my name, I bet you are not sure which “club” gave me the name. It could be that I like partying. It could be that I am in prison because I like clobbering people to death. Even though nobody is after me, such ambiguity about the origins of my name may one day come handy.
Some of the prison guards are quite nice. Others are very rough. The senior ones are generally polite and we can discuss many things with them. They are very candid. They tell us, “Vodacom just needs to pay up and you can go home. Your innocence does not matter. There is no way you are going home without paying”. They remind us of the cases of Zantel and Halotel – two telcos which found themselves in the same predicament. It is all about the money, they declare.
In the first few days, the junior warders are difficult to deal with. They exert their power by insisting that we squat when talking to them. At first I find it difficult to deal with and I inwardly resent such humiliation. Then I realize it is all a mind game. Those who show resentment are humiliated further. Those who show full acceptance of the system are pretty much left alone. As time goes by, we no longer have to squat when talking to the warders. I am starting to feel very grown up. When colleagues from Vodacom visit, I can smile. I see the worry on their faces and I do not want them to go home worrying.
14: Waiting for Godot
Behind the scenes, tough negotiations have been taking place between Vodacom and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are briefed whenever we meet with office colleagues and the lawyers. The DPP has already indicated that he will oppose bail at all points so Vodacom should not even think about applying.
Days pass. We wait. Nothing happens. We wake up. We bask in the sun all day. We eat. We read. We sleep. We go from mood to mood – sometimes happy, sometimes depressed. All the while, the machine that is Keko Prison runs on schedule. I am reminded of a short story that I read in the anthology Looking for a Rain God and Other Stories. Are we, like the poor sucker in the Prison Monger story, just an unfortunate part of the wreckage that mankind, on its onward march, has left behind?
Finally the lawyers come with the plea bargain. We gather in a meeting room not too far from the Warden’s office. It is a tough moment. We know we did not do the things we have been charged with, but the only way to get out is by admitting we are guilty. That will pave the way for Vodacom to pay the fine so we can go home to our families.
Being a foreigner, I am not allowed visitors. Each day, colleagues from the office visit and they tell me my wife and mother are waiting outside. I hold on to the hope that they will be allowed to see me. Visiting time ends. The hoping continues the following day. Now the only realistic chance I have is signing on the dotted line and putting my thumbprint in the assigned space. If I do that I will be allowed to go home.
This is the toughest decision of my life. Ever since I walked into the world of telecoms, I have dedicated my time to preventing and detecting ways in which telecom companies lose money. By doing this I have done my best to ensure governments receive the tax owed to them. This is because telcos do not pay tax if they lose money. Now, I have to sit here and admit that I am guilty of a fraud that has cost the Tanzanian government over USD 2mn. This amounts to denying my very soul. If I am guilty of this, that would be a small matter. The bigger picture is that committing this crime would mean 13 years of my life have been devoted to a scam.
My mind settles amidst the turmoil and I see things clearly. I decide they can make us sign all types of papers. They can splash our names all over the media because Tanzanian journalists have been cowed into parroting what the government says without any meaningful analysis. They can label us any way they want because if we want to change the narrative we must stay in prison as the court case drags on. They have all the levers in this case but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot change the truth. And, no matter how long it takes, the truth will come out. With this realization, I am finally calm. We execute the plea bargain. I can even smile. I wonder how many times this charade has played out in rooms like this one. Maybe one day we shall know.
15: A Trip to the Theatre
On our last day in prison we are taken to court in the big green bus. We are inspected before we board. One warder wants to confiscate my prison notes. I anticipated they would attempt this so I have written mostly in shorthand. Interspersed in the notes are quotes from the Bible and I tell the warder that I have been documenting my daily moments with Jesus Christ.
When he scans my notes, I point him to the Bible verses. However, I fear he will look too closely because most of them were made up by myself. You can scour the whole Bible and I guarantee you will not find Matthew Chapter 49! I spot one entry that quotes Matthew 49: 1-2.
Jesus warned the disciples against reading literature from the Pharisees. He told them to walk in light, to pray, fast and call on the name of the Most High.
I make a mental note that next time I am in prison I will quote real Bible verses. Luckily this warder does not read much of the Bible so he looks at me the way one would look at a member of weird cult. I stuff my notes back into my pockets and walk away whistling.
The big green bus crawls in the early morning traffic. Dar es Salaam is as busy as ever. The press awaits us at the law courts in Kisutu. Cameras are thrust into our faces. Their flash is blinding and I feel disoriented. I have a slight dry cough and the open window in the courtroom lets in an uncomfortable breeze which makes my cough worse. I hope the judge will not hold me in contempt for coughing and interrupting proceedings. We sit on the bench and are surrounded by photojournalists who click away for what seems like an eternity.
I look at the journalists and smile inwardly. They are taking photos and writing words but they are either too lazy or too afraid to question the meaning behind what they are doing. In the movie, The Insider, I remember Al Pacino asking a media executive who was scared of publishing a whistleblower story, “are you a newsman or a businessman?” Tanzania media has too many businessmen and too few newsmen.
The charges are read and we take the plea. Standing in front of the judge as we say we are crooks, I look at the lawyers from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. They studiously avoid looking in our direction. I suppose it is always difficult to knife a man if you are looking into his eyes. I also spot the lawyer from Tanzania’s communications regulator seated alongside the folks from the DPP. He looks content. They all look happy. For them it is a job well done. I start wondering: do they honestly believe in the work they do? I actually feel sorry for them. How do they sleep at night knowing the misery they cause in order to look good in the media and impress the President? What is the conversation at their dinner tables?
“Honey, today we locked up some poor suckers from Vodacom including their Managing Director.”
“Gee darling, you are on a roll. Didn’t you lock up Zantel and Halotel executives last year? Going hard after the big fish, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I am just getting started. By the time I am done, the MD of every telco will shiver at the mention of my name.”
“The President must be so happy with you.”
“No doubt, great things are coming our way. When the President gets reelected, I hope he remembers me.”
“It’s just a few months to the election. You are already in his good books so I know you will be just fine.”
It has become very fashionable for Tanzanian government officials to speak tough, do all manner of vile acts and present their backs to be patted – as long as it appears that they are supporting the President. The President has not made a secret that he thinks the corporate world is just a big thieving set-up. His fights with the mining sector took a very bizarre turn where complaints turned into threats, and threats turned into arrests. It seems the people under him fall upon themselves to prove that corporates are stealing. Yet, the folly of sycophancy is that if His Excellency woke up today and said that corporates are the new age messiahs, these same people would be rushing to shine our shoes. They would be lining up to tell him, “Sir, see what a great job I did with these shoes?” What a farce!
However, I understand. The men and women who serve despotic regimes do not do so because of ignorance. Some are highly educated and are very much aware that the direction the country is taking is not right. They are simply cowards. They are motivated by fear and a sense of self-preservation. This makes them desperate for approval. If their master declares that adding a second set of wings to a dead ostrich would make the bird fly, they would be the first ones out of the door looking for feathers and glue. Reason and knowledge are shunted. Exhibit A: the spineless men and women standing in front of the judge telling lies as part of their daily tasks. As the court proceedings progress, I feel sorry for these people. How empty their lives must be if this is the height of their achievements.
The judge is done with us. He orders that we pay the fine and if we do not pay the fine, we shall be brought back to him for sentencing which will include a custodial stint. He stands up. His potbelly is a thing of wonder and I cannot help staring. It reminds me of a balloon. The buttons are stretched tight. As he walks down the steps from his chair, I feel as if am looking at the black version of Luciano Pavarotti. Can he belt out a tune? It would be nice if he offered us a rendition of Lucky Dube’s Prisoner but instead of a reggae tune, he should mix it up with an opera performance à la Pavarotti. We are in the theatre of the absurd, after all.
We are herded out to a small room at the back of the court whilst Vodacom wires the money. Down the staircase, more photos are taken as we take the walk of shame, only I don’t feel any shame. I feel sorry for the taxpayers who coughed up money to finance this show. I also feel sorry for the shareholders of the companies that are being extorted in this way. Behind these empty and high profile victories, innocent people are losing. The lawyers bring us sandwiches and soda for lunch. We chat with the policemen who are guarding us; they are very charming after we pass the sandwiches around. I feel sorry for them too. Reporting to such a noble job, doing it so diligently, while all along they are just innocent cogs in a mightily screwed up system. Surely a man’s life should count for more than this?
Two hours later, the fine has been paid. Wonder of wonders, the final figure is different – TZS 5.28Bn. I wonder how this was arrived at but my mind is too tired. 5.89Bn, 5.25Bn, 5.28Bn – what does it matter? We, the hostages, are free to go home. As I walk out of the court into the arms of my wife, I know this injustice will be visited upon more people. We were neither the first, nor are we the last. If anything, we are amongst the luckiest ones to have walked this path – our stint in prison was very brief. I also feel I learnt a lot. I do not know for how long this mess will go on and I do not know how many people will be afflicted by this odious malady. I just know it will go on.
I will read our twisted story in the newspaper tomorrow. For now I just need to go home, to be with Sophie and to lay on a bed that has a fan suspended above it instead of a lightbulb that you can never switch off.
The complete prison journal of Joseph Nderitu, former Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom Tanzania, can be found here.