On this day last year, Joseph Nderitu was being held at Keko Prison in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Though innocent of the crime, Joseph was charged with participating in a fraud conspiracy that was said to have cost the Tanzanian government millions of dollars in lost taxes, though the prosecutors quoted inconsistent figures at different times. As a consequence of these charges, Joseph faced the prospect of being detained indefinitely. Tanzanian law denied him the right to ask for bail, and previous cases showed there was no likelihood of an early trial. As a Kenyan, Joseph was denied visits from his family and his only support came from his Tanzanian work colleagues.
Joseph was working as the Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom Tanzania when he was arrested along with four other Vodacom executives, including Managing Director Hisham Hendi. Several state-run enterprises were on the verge of collapse and the Tanzanian government needed money in a hurry; forcing one of Tanzania’s largest businesses to make reparations would provide a quick solution. The Tanzanian government’s treatment of the Vodacom Five mirrored the way they imprisoned executives at other telcos both before and after.
This is the first part of a three-part serialization of Joseph’s prison journal. Parts two and three will be published on consecutive Wednesdays.
Preface: Lest We Forget
I dedicate these prison notes to the men and women who are held in Tanzania’s prisons on trumped up charges.
Some have been behind bars for years without getting the right to a fair trial. Their families and friends wait but they do not know for how long they will wait.
In April 2019, I was remanded at Keko prison, in Dar es Salaam, along with four other employees of Vodacom Tanzania. We were detained without bail for participation in an “economic crime”. This tactic is increasingly being used by the government to arm-twist companies into paying hefty fines.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of those who remain in custody. This is otherwise an accurate representation of events, drawn from the journal I maintained in prison.
I have felt just a tiny bit of the pain that other detainees go through. I was among the lucky ones as my brief stay cannot be compared to what most of the detainees have endured and continue to endure.
These injustices occur under the guise of fighting corruption. I hope the Tanzanian people will see through the machinations of the State and will one day celebrate true liberty.
Joseph Nderitu, Nairobi
1: The Benefit of Hindsight
The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed
Steve Bantu Biko
“It would be a pretty screwed up situation to be killed by a ceiling fan after surviving nine days in prison,” I say to Sophie.
We are lying in bed looking up at the ceiling fan. I am supposed to be taking an afternoon nap but Sophie came into the bedroom and we started talking. I am having problems sleeping at night – the nightmares keep coming. So the daytime finds me quite groggy. After lunch, I now prefer to lie down and close my eyes for an hour or two.
The fan has an inexplicable way of increasing its rotation speed by itself. It spins so fast. At its highest speed, it looks as if it just might come off the mounts and behead everybody in the room.
Sophie says it makes her think of a helicopter whirling out of control.
I need the fan. For a few days after being released from prison, the air conditioner makes me cough badly. Dar es Salaam is especially hot this month so the trusted fan, with its mysterious way of working, has to do. December and January are the hottest months but we are in April and the heat just won’t relent.
I look at the fan and I am reminded how the past few days wildly spun out of control. How did I end up in prison in a foreign land, accused of such a serious crime?
2: Come in for a Chat
It is a normal day in the office. Reports are being written, meetings being held, plans being made and reviewed. I am coming from lunch with a couple of colleagues, managers in my team as well as one more department which I work closely with. We have recently discovered a new spot for lunch where the food is great and the service is excellent. It serves as welcome relief from the food in the office canteen.
We are nearing the office building. A colleague receives a phone call and mutters something about the national security service agents looking for the Managing Director. I wonder why the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service would want the boss of our company.
I get to my desk and I am called to go up to the MD’s office. Apparently the national security people have a letter for the MD and they want him to go down and sign it. Many calls are being made to senior people in government and security agencies to try to get to the bottom of this. Everybody is wondering what this is all about.
Finally, a decision is made to accompany the MD to the police station. By now, the letter has been delivered to his office. It “requests” him to go to the police station accompanied by several managers. I am among the listed ones or rather, my job title is listed.
We drive to the nearby police station, which happens to be at the Oyster Bay area of Dar es Salaam. We have about one hour from the deadline given in the letter. There is a slight drizzle, the heat has dissipated a little. I stand with my colleagues in the rain. We are not so worried. We are all hopeful that this is a matter that will be clarified after meeting with the police. We have cooperated with security forces on many matters.
Sure, we know in the past that executives from other telcos have been arrested and arraigned in court. But we have no reason to expect that will happen to us.
We are instructed to report to another police station, so we drive to the one in Kijitonyama. There is a downpour from the heavens. Some of us stand outside the police station in Kijitonyama, whilst others remain in their cars. It is not clear who we are there to meet; we have been instructed to wait.
3: You Are under Arrest!
A police inspector who looks to be in his early thirties arrives and announces that as at this time, in accordance with some section of the law, we are all under arrest. He informs us that we shall be interrogated, we have the right to call lawyers to be with us during interrogation and that after interrogation, we shall be expected to hand in our cellphones.
The interrogation starts. I am assigned to a policeman who is very bored and looks like he would give anything to be out of here. The line of questioning is odd and I am lost as to why anybody would expect me to have anything to do with the matters being discussed. He asks how Vodacom allocates telephone numbers. Do I know who does it? Do I know the process? Can I give names and/or departments? Of course I also have to give my full name, place of birth, names of parents and siblings, my education background and my professional qualifications and working history.
It is 8pm when we finish and we have to be “processed” before being shown to our cells. Shoes, socks, wallets, jewellery and reading glasses are not allowed in the holding cell. Together with my colleagues, we comply. I feel as if things are moving in slow motion. All I can think is that the cement is cold when your feet are bare.
I pause when I have to remove my wedding band. My mind travels back to three memorable occasions when I have had to remove the wedding band from my finger. Two were very sad situations. The first was when I had to be wheeled in to the operating theatre for an appendectomy. The second was for another operation, to repair the harm done during my appendectomy. I hated going into the theatre, lying on my back and handing over my wedding band to Sophie at the final moment. I would have preferred to walk into the operating theatre, if only to retain a sense of being in control. The third occasion was a happy moment. I had to remove my ring before my family and I swam in a sulphur pool deep in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Now I have to remove my ring and I know it is not for something good.
I give my ring, wallet and belt to one of our colleagues who accompanied us to the station. She looks calm but I cannot help but wonder, when will I get my ring back? That is, if I ever will.
There are 10 of us sharing a cell that is three metres square. Colleagues from the office bring us chicken, chips and soda for supper. They also ensured we had plenty of bottles of water.
4: Accommodation, Courtesy of Taxpayers
It is a long night in the cell at Kijitonyama. We have no watches so telling the time is difficult. The floor is cold, very cold. There are no mattresses. Neither do we have blankets. We spread out on the floor, lying on our backs. Plastic water bottles are now the pillows as they offer some neck support. Mosquitoes are buzzing about. Our Managing Director is asthmatic and the stuffy air in the cell is not doing him any good. The policemen on guard kindly let him stand at the corridor in order to get some fresh air.
There is a man snoring loudly in the neighbouring cell. I have never witnessed such snoring in my life. As we cannot sleep, we while away the time discussing him. We also discuss what awaits us. One of us declares: “We shall either go home quietly tomorrow morning or we shall be hauled off to court and be made famous”.
Morning finally comes. We can hear people moving about. We estimate it is about 8am. The office has sent us some coffee, tea, cookies and sandwiches. We eat silently. We have got some toothbrushes so we brush teeth and wash faces as we wait to face the day. There is water and urine all over the floor of the washroom. There are also some communal bathroom slippers – the government has kindly allowed us to use these. Luckily, we have some medicated wipes so after using the washroom, we all wipe the soles our feet and hope that whatever germs picked up in the toilet are quickly killed.
The door is opened and we are separated into two groups. I fall into a group that has the Managing Director and three others. We are given back our socks and shoes. Our colleagues remain behind. I hope they have better luck than us. I have already sensed the five of us, in the company of the MD, are in for a long rough ride. Detectives are milling around us and they look like they are really anticipating action. I spot some colleagues from the office at the entrance of the police station. They look anxious.
We now know this is the beginning of something that is bigger than we anticipated. Two Land Cruisers are waiting outside. We are herded out of the police station. Two of us enter one vehicle; three enter the other. The child lock has been set on the back doors. With a lot of fanfare, the Inspector sits in the front passenger seat. Two more police officers take their positions next to the rear doors sandwiching us, their prey. We are now passengers travelling under the care of the state, destination unknown.
The detectives exchange jokes.
The cars pull out of the police compound. The driver continually presses the horn; the Inspector authoritatively instructs him to switch on the headlights. We are driving on the wrong side of the road. Cars are getting out of our way and we are picking up speed. I am thinking: what am I guilty of? Could I be guilty without knowing? Maybe I signed a document and framed myself without knowing? Clearly, the state is convinced that I am a dangerous person who has to be swiftly transported somewhere even though I do not know what my offences are. Could this all be a mistake?
We enter the Dar es Salaam Bus Rapid Transit lane which is reserved for “Mwendo Kasi” buses. We are now barreling down this road. It is a clear day in Dar es Salaam, I see people going about their business. There are handcart pushers transporting wares all over town, men and women walking the Dar streets. Life is going on but it seems my life is now in a suspended state.
We arrive at the law courts in Kisutu, near to the city harbour. I breathe a sigh of relief. It seems we will get our day in court. The media is here. My photo has never been in the papers and the only time I was ever on TV is when I was part of a panel discussing mobile money risks in Nairobi in 2018. Now we will be in the papers and on television for some offence or other. Mama, look at me, I am on TV!
We sign in and are led into the courtroom. More photos, more jostling. Then I see a familiar face. Now I know what is happening. One of our corporate clients recently was in trouble for terminating international traffic using a PABX solution that is connected to our network. The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) enlisted our help in understanding the solution and organizing meetings with the client. Subsequently, two employees of this company were arrested. It seems in some twisted logic, it has been decided that Vodacom also has a case to answer. I now know this is not good for us. The court case against this client is being treated as a case of economic sabotage, which means the the suspects are not entitled to bail. If we are enjoined, we shall also be going away for a long time.
The prosecutors read the charges. It is as I expected but worse. We are also charged with economic sabotage. In the one count, the state prosecutors allege that we five Vodacom employees, in conjunction with the two individuals from the other company, organized and ran a criminal racket which caused the government and TCRA to suffer a pecuniary loss of TZS 5,892,513,000. In another count, the same charge sheet alleges that we caused the TCRA to lose 5,250,237,000. Now that is some good cash, equivalent to millions of US dollars, and this is the level of crime associated with a major league criminal racket. I have never been part of any such racket and I know my colleagues are also innocent. However, at this point, that is irrelevant.
It is also unclear if these two counts are the same offence and if so, why different figures in the same charge sheet. Are we liable for TZS 5.89bn, TZS 5.25bn or the combined TZS 11.1bn? I half expect the judge to ask a question but he does not seem surprised. Neither is the judge surprised when the prosecution realizes that they have in fact charged us under the wrong section of the law. The good lady from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions perfunctorily informs the court that the wrong statute has been quoted on the ninth count. She corrects it there and then with her pen. I seem to recall something about defective charge sheets from my Introduction to Law unit in University but it seems those rules do not apply here.
No bail can be granted so we find ourselves back in the court’s holding cells. Our next court date is 14 days away. The cells are hot, the air is thick with sweat. Men are walking around bare-chested. Some are seated on newspapers spread out on the floor. We make friends with Paul. He is a businessman and a gentleman. He tells us to prepare ourselves psychologically but he also assures us that it will not be so bad. He is in for economic crime as well. It seems many people are in for economic crime.
Half an hour later we are taken out of the cell and meet our office colleagues in a vacant courtroom so that we can bid them farewell before we start our journey to the remand prison. I can barely hold back my tears as they urge us to be strong. They have sandwiches, water and cookies. We eat but the food is tasteless and swallowing is difficult. I force it down my throat knowing that I will probably not get my next meal for a long time. I take more water and force down some cookies. I sense my life is over. Tears are welling in my eyes all the time but I want to be strong – eating takes my mind off what is to come.
The company lawyers assure us that we shall be okay. They say we shall be moved to a special wing of the jail that is slightly better and which holds some of the top suspects of economic crime including the former Commissioner General of the Tanzania Revenue Authority. Gee, thanks. It seems we are high profile criminals! Silently, I hope the lawyers are right about our lodging arrangements but I know better than to hope. It has been a period of 24 hours of surprise after surprise.
In the next installment of Joseph’s journal he will write about being transferred to prison and how he coped with sharing a cell with murderers whilst being denied visits by his family. Part two will be published on Commsrisk next Wednesday.