By John Njoroge
One morning while I was still a reporter at the Independent Magazine, I received a call from a fellow journalist (Name Withheld). My friend asked if I was at work, to which I responded in the affirmative.
He quickly said had a hot story for the Independent publication and that he was driving to my direction.
Within minutes he was outside, asking me to come out with a voice recorder and a notebook (this I guess was for emphasis that we where “going to work”). As was my habit, taught to me by Andrew Mwenda, I told my editors-Charles Odoobo Bichachi and Joseph Were-I was going out, for a “big story” with so and so, who was now outside ready to pick me.
Into his car I went and off we speeded. I was excited.
“So what’s this one now,” I remember asking. My friend was not ready to tell me.
“You will see,” he said.
He lit a cigarette and passed me one as well. We zoomed through the streets of Kamwokya, having small talk, passed down Kira road, up Kabira country club and Cayenne bar and restaurant then, right after, we took a sharp right turn up a small slope to what was then called the Forest Cottages.
Through the gates and into the parking area, he stopped after parking in reverse. He picked his phone and called someone.
“We are here. Yes, I am with him, ok, 10minutes is fine. Ok” he hang up.
He lit another cigarette. Now I was getting worried.
“John, you have heard of this story about a lady who stole money from her husband, the National Forestry Authority Executive Director? You know everybody is looking for him to hear his side of the story. I have found him for you.”
I got excited.
Damian Akankwasa, the man whose wife fled with 900million Ugandan shillings she found under their bed. This man was media hot cake at the time. Every journalist in Kampala wanted to see him.
My mind quickly raced. What questions should I ask? How luck am I? God loves me so much? What will my fellow journalists say? I could already see the praise I would get from my mentor Mr Mwenda. I could already see the headline.
Back then this selfie crazy thing was not there. In fact, we did not know selfies. It had “not yet landed” in Uganda at least.
Thinking back, I wish I had just take a picture with Damian. I had a camera and very nice expensive an back then high tech mobile phone- the Nokia E61i. I think I was one of the few people in this town with that phone.
It was bought for me by my good friend, at the time, Sudhir Ruparelia. But that’s another story.
Soon my friend’s phone rang again and we walked into the restaurant. Seated in a dark blue suit-or was it black- a shirt with no tie, was this humble looking fellow. We walked up to him, my friend introduced me and we sat.
Damian was very soft spoken almost says nothing, Calm, victim-like. Most of the time, he never looked me in the face. I caught him a few times stealing a glance as if to see “is this man getting my lines”
All through the interview, he spoke while closely observing my notebook and my voice recorder.
In short, Damian wanted to clear the air about the source of the money his estranged wife had stolen from under their bed.
He had actually said it before, but I later discovered, he had been persuaded to adopt a “communication strategy” targeting respected publication and give exclusive interviews over that money. Because he was a civil servant and you all know how much they earn.
You see, some of us live in debts. You wake up in the morning and some of the first phone calls you received are from people you either owe money or have to pay for past services rendered. That is if you actually pick those calls. Now when you read or hear that someone had UGX 900 million under his bed, you wonder what God did for him that he has refused to do to you.
Damian made it very vivid and clear to me.
“That money belonged to my brothers. They collected it from sales of matooke, goats, beans, cassava and milk. They brought it to me to buy them land. They wanted to start real estate. They travelled in a bus with that money is suit cases. I put it all in one bag and put it under our bed.”
“I had misunderstanding with my wife and she left with only the money and her shoes.”
Only the money?????
“People say I am building a hotel. But that building behind my house is actually my main house. I am leaving in a boys quarter. It is 5 bedrooms but it is a boys quarter. When I finish my house you will all come and visit.”
All through, I kept looking at my friend, who was very disappointed In how things where unfolding. Not that these things had not been said before but it was in the manner in which they where being said and to what publications. Because at that time Damian Akankwasa was not speaking to John Njoroge but to the Mighty Independent Publications Limited of Andrew Mwenda.
The interview went in circles, about his brothers, traveling with 900 million, in suitcases, in a public bus transport, from Mbarara to Kampala, and then taking bodabodas to his house and counting the money. Really this man must have thought I was on baby fomula.
Once this disaster of an interview was done, my friend and I left. Back to his car, he lit two cigarettes, one for me and one him as we drove out. We did not speak much and I actually did not know where we where going. He did not say and I did not ask.
Down after Kabira country club, my friend expressed his disappointment and asked me to do my job as I saw fit. He told me he had no intention of interfering and that if the interview subject had undressed himself, it was his fault. We agreed to have a beer later in the evening. He took me back where he had picked me.
Damian’s wife allegedly bought cars, land and houses in western uganda with that money. She distributed the cars and land titles to various people who where to pay her slowly.
As NFA director, Damian was allegedly responsible for issuing tree cutting permits. Unconfirmed reports claimed that if you wanted to cut 100 trees, he could give u a permit for 300, 50 extra for you, 150 for himself. All he wanted was his 150trees in cash. So imagine doing that with 2-3 or more people a day.
The biggest scandal or rather money minter was a $13m grant or loan-to the Forestry Authority for 4 projects. In one project alone, $3m vanished and only $50,000 could be accounted for. The documents are public and can be found in court.
Investigations and the courts of law have since cleared Damian of allegations of illicit wealth. His estranged wife was sentence to jail for theft and continues to serve her sentence. Other reports indicate she is a free woman now.
There is however another story for another day.