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JOHN KAMAU |Sunday March 5 2017 | Daily Nation
It was a small story. So small that it could have passed anyone who never checked the details. But the mention of former Blackwater soldiers — in this newspaper — as the bodyguards of Vicky Goswami, the Indian drug baron who was extradited to the US together with the Akasha brothers, adds a whole new angle to the saga.
When they were arrested in Mombasa, the South Africans — Nolte Barend Dawid, 43, Faivelewitz Marc Anthony, 47, and Seychellois Nelson Vivian George Domingue, 33, and Nedy Conrad Rodney Micock, 43, — were living in opulence.
In one of the rooms were bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label, plus a studio-grade XENYX music machine. This is a premium ultra-low noise, high headroom analog mixer which means that they could hold music parties with this state-of-the-art studio-grade system. Beside the music deck was a Rolex watch box, expensive perfumes — and other signature items of opulence and extravagance.
That was before their short Mombasa sojourn was disrupted by the police on the night of February 10 in connection with drug trafficking.
While the South Africans were arrested at a Mombasa hotel, the Seychellois were living at a villa in Nyali and had entered Kenya on tourist visas with the intention of working as Goswami’s bodyguards, according to their lawyer Cliff Ombeta.
Goswami was always living in fear and last year — and I reported it here — he had told India’s Mail Today that Indian police “are trying to frame me under pressure from the US. Don’t be surprised if some day I am kidnapped and taken to the US.” And he was!
What was known was that Goswami, 56, was the kingpin of an international drug mafia that wanted to set up the multi-billion-shilling business in Kenya and that he, and the Akasha brothers — Ibrahim and Baktash — and a Pakistani Gulam Hussein, had been accused by the Americans of orchestrating large-scale shipments of heroin weighing several hundred kilogrammes and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the US.
But what has never been told is their use of ex-Blackwater soldiers to act as Goswami’s bodyguards — a story that will allow us, later on, to go to the belly of underworld crime and how it is organised.
But did Goswami know the bodyguards he was hiring had been trained by an outfit once owned by Erik Prince, an insider in the US President Donald Trump administration?
LARGEST PRIVATE ARMY
By standards, Blackwater is still (or was) the world’s largest private army and its former members are strewn across all continents taking private contracts to anyone willing to pay a premium dollar.
The Mombasa arrest of these ex-Blackwater soldiers also demonstrates how the group has scattered and the kind of duties they are undertaking in their private capacity. But that is a story for another day.
This is the story of the founder of Blackwater, a billionaire called Erik Prince — a man whose sister is also at the heart of the Donald Trump administration — and his Kenyan connections.
A former US Navy Seal, Prince comes from a wealthy American family and is currently the vice president of his family’s foundation, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. His father, Edgar Prince (he collapsed and died in 1995 inside an elevator) was the founder of a multi-million dollar die-cast machine industry in Michigan and his sister, Elisabeth Dee “Betsy” DeVos is Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.
Actually, the US Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings indicate, according to US newspapers, that Prince was one of the financiers of the Trump campaign and quietly advised the transition team according to a journalist close to him.
That is now being used by Democrats to scandalise the Trump administration because Prince made millions of dollars from the Iraq war where his company, Blackwater was blamed for the killings of Iraq civilians when it served as a military contracting firm. Washington Post once described the firm as a “symbol for mercenaries and impunity in Iraq and elsewhere”.
It was during Blackwaters rendezvous in Iraq that its employees were accused of a mass shooting that left 17 civilians dead after four of its employees were killed in Fallujah leading to an onslaught on the city. One of its soldiers was later convicted of murder and three employees were convicted of manslaughter in a case that forced America to rethink the use of private contractors for military duties.
Prince, a serial investor too, was forced to change Blackwaters name to Academi, in a bid to cover its shady past and shed a troubled image and legacy. He later sold it to a group of private investors and no longer has any say in its running — though its past continues to follow him.
Former associates of the 47-year-old Prince have been quoted by BuzzFeed News, owned by US billionaire Jonah Peretti, that the controversial businessman’s Frontier Services Group now wants to train an army of Chinese retired soldiers to protect Chinese corporate and government strategic interests around the world, “without having to involve the Chinese People’s Liberation Army”.
That is indeed interesting since two years ago, the Frontier Services Group, incorporated in tax-heaven of Bermuda, also entered the Kenyan market by purchasing a 49 per cent stake in a local aviation firm Phoenix tch.Aviation Limited for $14 million (Sh1.4 billion). A few months later, the competition watchdog, Competition Authority, approved in a Kenya Gazette notice full acquisition of the airline which is based at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. That has made Prince to own one of the major logistics and transportation firms in the region.
“We believe Phoenix is the best there is in Africa in its sector of aviation. We are delighted to expand our presence within the Kenyan aviation and business communities,” FSG chief executive Gregg Smith said in a statement. (Smith recently quit FSG after it was announced that the company would be providing security services in support of Chinese government objectives.)
On his part, Prince said the Phoenix transaction “is an example of our commitment to becoming the most capable, most well regarded speciality aviation and logistics business serving the African continent. We will continue to evaluate strategic opportunities to increase our geographic and customer diversification throughout Africa.”
Depending on whom you ask, Prince and his companies are always entangled in controversy mainly because of his past links with CIA who allowed him to execute covert missions. It is perhaps because of his dalliance with the intelligence underworld and senior Washington politicians that he has become a man to watch – a man whose investments are closely monitored by US media.
But Prince has always defended himself against the myriad of accusations. “Since I first enrolled in the Naval Academy after high school, my life’s mission has been to serve God, serve my family, and serve the United States with honour and dignity… the business of war has never been pretty, but I did my job legally, and I did it completely,” says Prince in his biography: Civilian Warriors: Inside Story of Blackwater.
Prince international interests are through the Hong Kong-based DVN (Holdings) Limited which in turn owns Frontier Services Group and also holds a 49 per cent stake in Kijipwa Aviation Limited, another Kenya-based aviation and logistics provider. But two years ago, shortly after Prince purchased the airline, the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) denied it a licence for its Cessna (single turboprop) 172 aircraft which was to offer non-scheduled passenger and freight from its Kijipwa airstrip, located on the grounds of Bamburi Cement in Mombasa.
Questions had then been raised on why Prince, with his mercenary background, had been allowed to acquire a stake in Kijipwa Aviation previously owned by a local aviation veteran, Allan Herd. His Nairobi handlers told the press that Prince’s Frontier Services Group intended to invest $85 million in acquiring 25 aircraft to be based out of Kijipwa’s airstrip.
These aircraft, said a statement, were to be used to provide specialised aviation services as well as aerial surveys of installations such as oil pipelines to players in the country’s blossoming petroleum sector.
That came after Prince had resettled in UAE and had been hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops according to The New York Times. This force was to “defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts.”
Intelligence sources say Prince’s initial aim was to use the Kenyan acquisitions to convert crop-dusters into Air Tractors and does it surprise anyone that Intelligence Online — a professional journal covering the world’s intelligence services — reported in January this year that pilots of Air Tractor attack planes flying from Al Khadim air base in Libya were former private contractors in Blackwater and were on Prince’s payroll.
For starters, Air Tractors are becoming the new weapons of choice and were recently in the news after US State Department approved a $418 million sale to Kenya of up to 12 Air Tractor AT- 802L and two (2) AT-504 trainer aircraft, weapons package, technical support and program management as part of the efforts to counter al-Shabaab terrorists. This matter has been stuck at the Congress which is being told the Sh41 billion sale was overpriced and Kenya could get a better deal from other Air Tractor converters.
Back to Prince, his entry into the inner circles of the Trump administration means his empire might just balloon. It is now thought that Prince may revive his George W. Bush escapades and US news agencies say that he is “hell bent on reclaiming his position as the world’s preeminent private military provider”.
Prince has another military company, Reflex Responses, which has a string of multimillion-dollar contracts to protect nuclear power plants and to provide cybersecurity.
Kenya has had its share of western private security companies buying into local companies as camouflage. A few years back, we had officials of a former private security company Diamondworks, later renamed Energem, invest into a Kisumu factory before it went under.
Diamondworks operated in Africa, with the help of Executive Outcomes whose aim was to protect foreign company assets from “civil commotion”.
With his local links, Prince will be a man to watch and with the discovery of oil, it is said he is keen to tap into the provision of security — if he has his way.
Already, Frontier Resource Group, is known to be working with South Sudan military and owns a company in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two years ago, it announced it was joining hands with an investor to develop a copper deposit in DRC.
In July last year, Prince spoke to Steve Bannon, who at the time was head of Breitbart News, now Trump’s senior adviser. In that interview, Prince described Trump as “the best person to confront terrorism”, or what he calls “Islamic fascism.” That is the agenda that had taken him to Iraq.
Prince is back in the news, thanks to Trump’s victory. His Kenyan companies, Phoenix and Kijipwa are still in place and the spillovers of his ex-Blackwater guards are still loitering in the world searching for contracts. He is also busy building networks in China and elsewhere.
Where [sic] happens after this remains to be seen — and Kenya will be in that picture too. But that a Kenyan investor, with a dubious record, has a hearing at White House is news. (Watch this space).