by Alexander Ikawah and Boniface Mwangi
Nesphor sits in my office. He’s a big, heavily built man, at least six foot five, or taller. A rugged US army bag hangs from his shoulders. It looks as though it hasn’t left his back for weeks. He lays it beside my desk.
‘A gift from a friend,’ he explains when I ask about it.
The story he proceeds to tell me is not the story of a friendly encounter, though. It is the story of a friendship betrayed, and of a personal legacy erased. It is the story of many a Kenyan, or African, working in the United States.
It all begins around 2007, when he meets a fellow Kenyan, John Karundo Mukundi – popularly known as “Tony” – in Kansas. Nesphor already knows of him, and that he comes from a well-connected family. They meet through friends in Overland Park, where he lives at the time. It is a place where lots of Kenyans meet for social events. Tony is popular because he files taxes for Kenyans in the US, and he is good at it. They exchange contacts and then lose touch for a long time. During this time, Nesphor hears rumours about Tony having run-ins with the US government about taxes. He doesn’t pay much heed, though. In any case, when you’re in a foreign land where the law is skewed against foreigners like yourself and you hear about a fellow countryman having trouble with the authorities, you are more likely to take their side than not.
In 2017, Tony reappears. He seeks Nesphor out and informs him that he is returning to Kenya to engage in business with his father. He seems optimistic. He doesn’t mention his legal issues at the time and Nesphor doesn’t inquire. He sees no reason not to believe the well-spoken young man. Tony talks about his father, Douglas Mukundi, saying he allegedly has big tenders for road construction and about their plans to expand the business. They then part company again.
The year that follows is a critical year in understanding the deviousness of the plan that Tony has constructed. Nesphor is surprised, but pleased, to find that Tony maintains contact with him through the year, talking more about his business deals in Kenya. He sends photos of himself living an executive lifestyle and, most importantly, tells Nesphor about his first personal investment, Blacky’s Bar and Restaurant in Hurlingham. He sends Nespher photos of himself at the construction site, including video clips and pictures from the gala opening night. His first personal venture, it seems, is destined for success and this time he gets Nesphor’s attention. Nesphor is impressed. The boy is doing it. By now Nesphor considers him a friend. The trap is ready to be sprung.
A year after their last meeting, Tony gets in touch with Nesphor again. This time, he has landed a huge deal. It is too large a deal for him to do alone and he needs help with capital. The deal is to supply sand to a Chinese construction company, called AVIC, at their building site in Westlands. It is an urgent contract and the contractor will only begin paying two weeks after delivery. Tony doesn’t pressure Nesphor. He gives him time to think about it, but also lets him know that the window will close before too long. Nesphor takes the bait. He tells Tony that he is in and puts him in contact with his father, since he would like him to scrutinise the details of the contract. Tony agrees to meet Nesphor’s father in Nairobi. “He is a young man, soft spoken, wears very executive gait. When you meet him, he can pass for a gentleman. He does not talk much, but he talks big.”
That is how Nesphor’s father describes the man he just met. Tony proceeds to take the old man on a roller-coaster of lies and deception around the city. At the time, though, the urgency of the investment made the old man blind to the ruse. He remembers now, signs that should have rung alarm bells for him.
“He used to say he is always very busy at Blacky’s. He would not pick calls, but he would call later and say, “’now we can meet’” then we would get a vehicle to see the site and deliveries. It would be late, about four to five pm and he would just show me, “’those are our lorries and people are busy’”. He didn’t talk to them, he said he doesn’t have personal relationships with the drivers, only with the suppliers back in Mlolongo.”
Tony takes Nesphor’s father to AVIC offices, near Ruaka. Of course, by the time they get there, the offices are closed. AVIC is also involved in the building of the SGR and there had been a land compensation issue around Mai Mahiu. Tony tells the old man that the procurement officer they were working with at AVIC, a Chinese man called Bruce, is also at Mai Mahiu. Tony named the joint enterprise NessTony – for Nesphor and Tony – and created fake documents showing an agreement between AVIC and their company, which he did not register, though he sends fake documents for Nesphor to sign, claiming the company is registered. Nesphor requests his father to oversee his 50% stake of the business and manage the administration part of the business, as Tony focuses on the operational side.
Tony and the old man take to calling each other ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ in their text exchanges. Everything seems legitimate and Nespher starts to transfer money to Tony through a digital application called Wave.
Over the next 6 Months, Tony slowly begins to transition from a friend and business partner to someone much more sinister. He makes incessant calls to Nesphor, asking for more capital, and applies pressure on his father. He calls Nesphor claiming to be at the AVIC site, then put’s fake Chinese people on the phone as Nesphor listens to them angrily shout, “If you people are unable to supply the material, tell us so that we can hire another company.”
Nesphor depletes the savings he has steadily gathered and even involves friends and family who loan him money that he sends to Tony as well. That isn’t the only thing that happens. The steady flow of cash from his account to Tony’s catches the attention of US financial authorities who begin to investigate him through the digital app, Wave. The last payment Nesphor sends him is in June of this year. By this time, Nesphor has sent Tony a total amount slightly in excess of 10 million and their company is owed a total of 91.77million shillings by “Avic International”. He receives a request for information as part of a routine audit. He sends an urgent request to Tony for all the receipts, invoices, and documentation, so he can provide it to his auditors. Tony begins to stall.
Nesphor’s father suggests that they freeze any further payments to AVIC until they receive documentation from Tony. The old man begins to look for Tony, who becomes extremely hard to pin down. Back in Washington DC, an agent from the Wave app contacts Nesphor. They speak and Nesphor explains the deal to him, giving him Tony’s number to confirm the facts. After a while, the agent gets back to Nesphor. He has spoken to Tony and everything checks out. He promises to close the investigation.
Then a friend of Nesphor, living in the US, gives him a surprise phone call and says he is looking for Tony. It turns out that Tony had spun him a story about the business with Nesphor needing a boost and had borrowed 1 million Shillings with the promise of payment within two weeks. The friend, eager to get a piece of the pie, had sent him the cash. Tony is giving him the silent treatment as well.
Now the truth strikes Nesphor like a lightning bolt. It has been a con all along. He asks for a month’s leave from his job, packs the rugged bag on his back, and comes to Nairobi hoping to find some justice, at the very least, and compensation for his lost money. He discovers the true nature of his ‘friend’ Tony. A felon who had escaped probation after a five-year sentence in the US. He had been sentenced to 51 months in federal prison for filing false federal income tax returns. Tony had pleaded guilty to 14 counts of making false claims and 12 counts of wire fraud. In Kenya, he was a known conman and in court for allegedly assaulting a woman after she demanded money he owed her.
Eunice Muthoni accuses Tony, of assaulting her on the 25th February 2018. Tony is said to have borrowed Sh800,000 from Muthoni and refused to pay her back. When Muthoni confronted “Tony” demanding for her money, Tony slapped and kicked her. At Blacky’s, the manager on hearing Nesphor was looking for Tony, told him he was last on a long list of victims who had come looking for the man they thought owned the place. Tony, it turns out, was well known in the area and had used his access to the premises to con many others into believing he owned the place, including barking orders at staff during phone calls. Blacky’s was the central base of operation for his criminal enterprise. The manager says he chased him away after several complaints.
Nesphor has been looking for Tony for the last one month. He started by asking for the help of the flying squad officers, whose offices are located at Central Firearms Bureau, next to Integrity Centre. He and his dad gave statements and all the evidence they had. The Flying squad officer claim they went to Tony’s residence in Kasarani area, but he refused to come out, insisting that he could only do so with his lawyer. And then his family connections kicked into play. His father called a powerful officer, a Mr. Kingori, who called the flying squad officers, told them to stand down and promised to arrest and bring Tony in for questioning himself. There was no further progress forthcoming from the flying squad after the call from Mr. Kingori.
Nesphor has been to Kasarani Police Station and a sympathetic officer shared with him a brief history of their encounter with Tony, who he said vandalizes people’s property and doesn’t fear the law, since his father allegedly a powerful man in the area. Kasarani Police relayed information about negative encounters with Tony, including rumours that he owned guns and took Nesphor to see Tony’s family residence, a huge imposing place with heavy security, electric fence and CCTV cameras.
Nesphor came to my office as a last resort. He wants the story to be told, and Tony to be exposed for the con that he is. He is sure there are other victims, and that there will be more if he does not get this story out. In total, Nesphor sent 10 million ($100,000) from his personal savings and money borrowed from family and friends to Tony and other numbers associated with Tony, including Tony’s sister. The numbers that received the money are the following: Tony’s personal number, 0790 916 153; Tony’s sister, Caroline Wangui Muthui, whom he had claimed was the girlfriend, 0721 755 374 and 0715 119944.
“What I have worked for in the United States, through hard work and sacrifice, for someone to just reach out and take it… I feel like it has broken a part of me.” He lowers his head and sighs. “Even if I have to dust myself off and start again, at least no one else will be scammed in the same way”. He is no closer to justice than he was a month ago. He is preparing to travel back to the USA, to start from the bottom again. And it really will be from the bottom. Nesphor lost his contract in the USA, after failing to return to work on the agreed date, as he was pursuing this case here in Nairobi.
He was shocked to see Tony had opened a Tinder account using a photo of him with his daughter. He had shared the photo with Tony in response to one of his requests for money, saying “I can’t send you cash, I’m hanging out with my daughter”. He is reported to have changed his night spot from Blacky’s to Homeland Bar near Safari Park Hotel. Tony remains at large. Nesphor is offering Sh 100,000/- to anyone who provides information that leads to Tony’s arrest.
Story has been republished with express permission from Boniface Mwangi. It was first published HERE