This story has all the elements of a thriller — a foreign billionaire, a Mossad spy, high level corruption, lies, tax evasion, guns and a dodgy flower business in the hinterland of Kenya.
Last week, and after 45 years, the government appeared ready to close the chapter on Jan Bonde Nielsen’s family presence in Kenya by moving to kick out his son, Peter Bonde Nielsen, who was running the family’s luxurious holiday home, the controversial but expansive 60,000 acre Ol Donyo Laro that straddles Kajiado and Narok counties.
In the world of the Danish billionaire and his family, life is like a scene carved out of a Hollywood movie.
It all started with a lie — before the lie boomed into a dodgy multi-million-shilling flower business that brought in top-ranking Jomo Kenyatta era insiders.
Later, after the venture collapsed, Nielsen brought in the Arne Hasselqvist, a Swedish architect known for designing celebrity homes in the Caribbean. And he designed for the Kenyan-based billionaire a superb home which, according to Vogue magazine, once housed the controversial billionaire George Soros, the lifeline of several non-governmental organisations in the country, plus the Danish and Dutch royal families among others.
Whether the hosting of Mr Soros, the founder of Open Society, is the source of his troubles with the Jubilee government is not clear. But the story of Nielsen is a long running story that we have only seen the tail end.
The elder Nielsen, who began his career as a gardener in the Danish island of Funen, had been introduced to Kenya by Bruce Mackenzie, Jomo Kenyatta’s minister for Agriculture until 1969 and well known for his mutton-chop whiskers. MacKenzie, as we now know, was more than a minister. He was an Israeli Mossad spy or contact and also worked for the British intelligence. In Operation Thunderbolt, a new book released last year, McKenzie’s wife, Christina, is quoted saying he was not a spy “as such” but a “conduit for information flowing both ways”.
Whatever he did for the intelligence units of both Britain and Israel, McKenzie was arguably the most influential white man in East Africa, before he retired to Knowle Park Surrey, in south east England, from where he coordinated his activities in East Africa.
When Jan Bonde Nielsen was first introduced to Kenya by Mackenzie, he was an astute businessman who had built his empire through a combination of wiles and dodges. To his credit, he was the man who introduced the cut flower business in the country when he transferred the activities of his Danish company Dansk Chrysanthemum and Kultur (DCK) to Kenya from Sardinia and Cyprus.
To get land, tax and financial advantages, Nielsen had made various unusual promises. The most bizarre was the promise to build Kenya’s fourth largest town in Masongaleni that was to host 30,000 people, an international airport, cinemas and an international sports stadium in Mtito Andei near the Tsavo National Park.
The entire project was to cost £15 million and was to be centred on a unique 30,000 acres horticultural scheme that would export chrysanthemum cuttings to Europe.
Some proto-type houses had also been designed in Denmark and the first were to be built near Kibwezi. On part of the land, DCK had set aside 23,000 acres of Tsavo as a private game reserve and this was run by a Danish game warden. It was all part of the government concession to him.
To give the project some sense of government approval, some State House mandarins on February, 11 1972, drove Jomo Kenyatta to the new Msongaleni Estate on his way from Mombasa. The President was taken around by the Danish billionaire who was identified by the Presidential Press Unit (PPU) as the “estate manager.” He wasn’t.
And that is where the story of DCK East Africa starts.
Through the influence of Mckenzie, DCK East Africa had started business in 1970 when MacKenzie was still the minister for Agriculture and he never revealed he was also a shareholder.
The minister, or rather the ministry, had signed a 25-year agreement with DCK that gave the company lots of concessions and near monopoly. The company was not only to get access to local financing — which was agreed at 40 per cent of foreign equity plus loans for the first two years and 20 per cent after that — but also some 23,000 acres for free at Msongaleni in Kibwezi and another in Naivasha.
If you look at the initial records of this DCK East Africa, they show it was a subsidiary of DCK international of Denmark which had a share capital of £37,500. Its activities in Kenya were also funded by Danish government organisation Industrialisation Development Fund for Developing Countries as a partnership. What we now know from records is two more companies were incorporated DCK Production Company and DCK Trading which was registered in Switzerland.
Before it was found out, this had become the biggest fraudulent cartel in the flower industry.
It would all start at the farm where DCK Production, which was the grower, would purport to sell its flowers to the exporting company DCK East Africa at a low value.
For its part, DCK East Africa would forward the flowers to its partner DCK Trading Corporation which also had an agreement with a Germany-based company Evergreen Flora as the final recipient.
DCK would then invoice Evergreen which would pay DCK East Africa the value of its under-costed flowers.
The extra earnings would never be taxed and were invested abroad and it took a long time before the Central Bank of Kenya realised that these companies deliberately suppressed the producer prices and undervalued their exports. They then colluded to sell the exported product at exorbitant prices.
Brought on board was Kenya’s then Attorney General Charles Njonjo who was a business ally of Mckenzie. During the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry, the quasi-judicial sitting whose report was released in 1984 was told that two companies associated with Njonjo — Updown and Sulmac — entered into marketing arrangement with DCK East Africa to export flowers to Europe. Others involved in this syndicate included Suswa Limited. All the sales of produce by these companies would be invoiced by DCK East Africa and the extra cash would be banked abroad.
As Kenya became one of the world’s largest exporter of cut flowers, its coffers still remained dry forcing the Central Bank to start questioning the pricing and mis-invoicing. The flower taxes were based on the value of export which was determined by the buyer and seller — and in this case, a chain of Nielsen’s companies. The most sophisticated of this tax dodge involved avoiding remitting foreign exchange by invoicing a chain of companies for the same goods and finally ending up in a dud company which could not pay or settle the bills.
And after they were found out, the German bankers of Evergreen Flora, Scroder Munchmeyer Hengest of Hamburg withheld financial facilities making it impossible for Evergreen to pay DCK East Africa and other firms down the line. As a result, some of the local firms were put under receivership and the taxman could do nothing.
The taxman would later say DCK East Africa cheated Kenya of more than Sh500 million in foreign exchange together with its associated companies Sulmac, Suswa Limited and Updown.
When asked by CBK, local DCK subsidiary claimed Evergreen’s facilities were withheld by a German bank, which indeed confirmed that.
What would emerge later was that Evergreen was a tiny company with a capitalisation of 20,000 Deutsche Marks and not worth the hundreds of millions it was invoiced. To the Dane’s credit, many of the people he introduced to flower farming went on to build a formidable horticulture sector in Kenya with cut flowers earning the country billions of shillings.
As he quit the flower business in Kenya, Nielsen is said to have invested his wealth in a shipping industry as the Msongaleni town project withered like its flower farms. The Daniel Moi government then took back the Msongaleni farm to form a settlement scheme which is today another scandal involving senior Ukambani politicians.
The shipping industry investment, which had started in 1974, would also land him in trouble later on. He had apparently acquired Burmeister & Wain, the world’s largest shipping yard, in 1974 thanks to the millions of dollars he got from the Kenyan farms. But rows with other shareholders emerged and when he was, in 1980, asked to take a back seat, the company succumbed to creditors and filed for bankruptcy.
That year, the Danish national anti-fraud squad charged him with fraud and currency manipulation for allowing one of his companies to buy shares in his ailing Burmeister and Wain shipyard at an unrealistically high premium. He left for self-exile in UK and returned after his case collapsed in 1986.
It was in 1985 — after the collapse of the flower project — that Nielsen purchased Ol Donyo Laro “from a friend” as he continued with his fraud case.
He had few friends left in the Kenyan government by this time, though. In May 1983, Njonjo had been dropped from the Cabinet and a Judicial Commission of Inquiry ordered to investigate claims he was, among other allegations, being groomed by foreign powers to take over the presidency. Mackenzie had died in a plane crash over Ngong in 1978 after Ugandan President Idi Amin planted a bomb in his plane at Entebbe.
But the ownership of Ol Donyo Laro, a tourist a haven in Nguruman Escarpment, has been contested between the Maasai community — who claim it is their ancestral land — and a South African businessman Herman Steyn who claims to be a shareholder Nguruman Ltd – which claims to own the 67,000 acre ranch.
It is this case and run-in with authorities that brought the story of Jan Bonde Nielsen back to the limelight.
Nguruman Ltd, in one of its papers filed in court said Nielsen operated “in secrecy exclusively for his close friends and high-end clients. Thereafter he embarked on a slanderous campaign overseas claiming that his family built the Ol Donyo Laro lodge.” It was also later claimed that both Nielsen Snr and his son Peter had trained at least 64 rangers in “musketry and other manoeuvres” ostensibly for wildlife conservation on a farm that did not belong to them.
So secretive is the businessman that his current dalliance with local politicians is only a matter of speculation. Last year, two Danish journalists Birgitte Dyrekilde and Michael Teschl wrote a book on the man but there was little detail on his Kenya operations. He, at one point, was declared bankrupt to evade creditors and according to his biographers he was always bailed by his friends.
When Nielsen married his wife, it was the Danish Queen Margrethe II who held the wedding party at the Marselisborg Castle at Aarhus for the financially injured couple. The Danish Royal Family would then earn free trips to Nielsen’s Ol Donyo Laro.
The billionaire and his son have been having several court cases in Nairobi and Nakuru over the ownership of the Ol Donyo Laro .
The Maasai have also been resisting their eviction from this property and the departure of Peter Bonde Nielsen whose presence in Kenya as an investor has been declared to be “contrary to national interests” could beckon the end of the family’s interest in the country.
The younger Nielsen has, however, petitioned the High Court to intervene saying that the Director for Immigration, Maj-Gen (Rtd) Gordon Kihalangwa was hoodwinked by a former business partners who wants to grab his real estate worth billions and obtain an unfair advantage on the various court cases.
The case of Nielsen Jnr will be worth watching as he fights the battles that his father started.
In the world of Jan Bonde Nielsen, life is like a scene carved out of a Hollywood movie.