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Confessions of a rogue, shrewd exiled banker

NATIONAL
By Wainaina Wambu | January 15th 2022

Alnoor Kassam Founder of the collapsed Trade Bank.

In 2012, tormented by suicidal thoughts, Alnoor Kassam booked a flight to Kenya to either heal or die.

This was 20 years after his dramatic flight to Canada in a cloud of suspicion of financial crimes related to the collapse of Trade Bank – his brainchild – in 1993.

He had fled ostensibly to protect his life but now wanted to end it by facing the very demons he had regaled in before he fled his birthplace. Kassam, 65, is not an ordinary Kenyan. Before bolting to Canada, his net worth was estimated at Sh7 billion, all of which crumbled like a house of cards.

His greatest perceived enemy then was the “Total Man” – Nicholas Biwott, the former powerful minister who died in 2017 and who was also his former business partner.

“Getting killed would have been easier. They would be doing me a favour,” said the businessman who had courted the idea of committing suicide. “I wouldn’t have to kill myself.”

“I came back because I was feeling suicidal. I realised that I fled my country without concluding my mission,” Kassam recalled of his first-ever return to Nairobi.

“If I was locked up, then that’s alright, I would sit and meditate.”

But the anticipation of danger was misplaced. Instead, he would only lock eyes with some of his adversaries briefly at a Nairobi hotel during his return that only lasted a week.

He explains that the visit’s main aim was to “investigate for myself why I was having suicidal thoughts.” It was also an attempt to “correct” sleazy business dealings of the 1990s in which Trade Bank was a central player.

“Making the decision to travel and not to tell any of my family members (as they would panic) booking the flight and getting on the plane itself was a self-realisation for me,” he said.

His flight from Kenya, where he lost a multi-billion business empire that he’d created as a young man, has haunted him and his family up to this day. Today, the once flashy and affluent businessman who rubbed shoulders with those in power is living a quiet life in Nepal among Buddhist monks as part of a spiritual pilgrimage.

He was behind one of the country’s most innovative and popular banks in the 1980s and 1990s – Trade Bank. The lender was one of Kenya’s most infamous “political banks” that were formed by the powerful and loaned to them on an unsecured basis.

This was during one of the most turbulent periods in Kenya’s banking history that saw scores of financial institutions collapse. Kassam’s banking empire was housed at what is now Integrity Centre, the headquarters of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC). The building used to be known as Trade Bank Centre.

It had fashioned itself to attract small depositors and it’s where banking titans such as Equity Group boss James Mwangi, who now oversees an over Sh1 trillion asset-rich regional bank, cut their teeth.

Mr Mwangi worked as a financial controller.

Kassam also reveals the mega deals of those sleazy days including how he bribed top officials with “briefcases of cash” to protect his budding empire. This was also the era of the start of the infamous pre-export financing scheme where corruption flowed right from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).

Kenya lost billions in scandalous deals such as Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing. Trade Bank was right at the centre of some of these deals, with 23 million Canadian Dollars (Sh2 billion in current exchange rates) said to have been involved in the transactions.

But one of the biggest controversies is the ownership of Yaya Centre, one of Nairobi’s landmark shopping complexes, which Trade Bank had held as collateral before its collapse.   Years later, Kassam confesses that Yaya Centre – linked to Biwott – owed the collapsed bank loans worth Sh400 million, although some amounts had been cleared after much coercion.

A consummate powerbroker, Biwott used his influential networks to build biggest business empires in modern Kenya touching nearly every sector of the country’s economy including banking, energy, real estate, agriculture, transport and logistics.

He kept a low profile but jealously protected his business empire. Kassam claims Biwott’s bad loan with Trade Bank added swell to the circumstances that led to the collapse of the bank.

Biwott had vigorously denied this in press articles after the collapse of the bank, and engaged in a protracted court battle to wrest control of Yaya Centre from the Deposit Protection Fund Board (now the Kenya Deposit Insurance Fund (KDIC) which had taken over Trade Bank assets after the bank was liquidated.

Despite many years of Yaya operating outside KDIC, Kassam stubbornly believes that the mega-facility belongs to the depositors of the collapsed bank. (This story will be told in an upcoming article).

To see if this could be possible was also a part of his first-ever return to Kenya.

He also raises questions on the sale of Trade Bank Centre (now the headquarters of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) and known as Integrity Centre). He claims it was sold for a song. Its reserve price had been put at Sh250 million in the early 1990s.

Kassam also owned a chain of other businesses, including one of Kenya’s first credit card companies as the local franchise holder for Diners Club International.

Besides, he owned a travel agency that served among others, the US Embassy in Nairobi and he held a local franchise for Epson and Compaq computers.

Kassam also had interests in hospitality and real estate in Kenya and Canada where he owned hotels.

Kassam talks about the pain he caused, his burden of responsibility and the most “cowardly” act in his life – fleeing Kenya.

Trade Bank depositors queue for refund of their deposits at the bank's valley road offices in Nairobi. [File, Standard]

His time in business was an era marked by high graft, with banks fraudulently lending to firms belonging or connected to the political class.

Moneyed and gifted in the art of the deal from his young days, Kassam has led an adventurous life including from his student days in London, selling matchboxes in Kenyan slums and running for mayor of his adopted home in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Now, the fourth-generation Kenyan, whose great-grandparents came from India in the 1870s to pursue entrepreneurship, regrets fleeing Kenya and says that he should have stayed to face whatever would come his way.

Kassam is adamant that he’s no fugitive and was never in hiding, however, he’s wary of who this interview might hurt – especially his family. He’s also categorical that this article shouldn’t be about him.

He now, without difficulty, acknowledges that when he was doing business in Kenya his moral principles were rotten. Perhaps, remaining in the country would have been part of his efforts to help “Kenya be in a better place.”

“When I left Kenya, there were 25,000 Diners cardholders and 60,000 Trade Bank depositors. I fled because I was worried about my life and was more concerned about my wife and children.

“I’ve now realised that at the age of 65, my biggest mistake then was to flee Kenya. I should have stayed and faced whatever was coming to me.”

He even attributes Karma – that Buddhist concept stating that what goes around comes back around – to his current poor financial state.

“I created a lot of pain and anguish for a lot of those depositors. It’s fair that I’m the poorest that I’ve ever been in my life … karma … the cause and effect happens in this lifetime.”

During the interview, he reflects on how, for example, he made super-profits from multi-million dollar deals but never spared a thought for Kenyan depositors anguished by the collapse of Trade Bank.

This is an issue he also captures in his unreleased memoirs seen by The Saturday Standard.

“When I was in Calgary where I started my new life, for example, I sold a hotel and pocketed 18 million Canadian dollars (Sh1.6 billion in current exchange rates) but it never crossed my mind even for a second that maybe, I should take off three million Canadian dollars (Sh267,000,000) from the hefty earnings and send it to Kenya to compensate all the small depositors hurt by the collapse of Trade Bank,” he wrote in the book.

He told this writer: “I didn’t have in me the amount of goodness, kindness, or compassion to correct my ills. It was all about me and what I wanted. So I’ve had opportunities to at least repent or feel sorry but I didn’t.”

The last media interview Kassam did with the Kenyan press was in 2006, where he admitted to The Standard that he was a dollar millionaire and doing very well in Calgary. “I am telling my story in part because I want to heal,” he had then said.

This was as he prepared to enter politics and run for mayor of Calgary. (This will also appear in a separate article).

Back home, then Justice Minister Martha Karua had said that the Government was still after him claiming that Kassam had defrauded Kenya Sh1.5 billion.

Kassam, who acquired Canadian citizenship, once again denied that the Kenyan authorities were after him. He adds that the criminal charges against him were all faked.

And the Canadian government did a thorough background check before giving him citizenship including sending investigators to Kenya.

Kassam had fled Kenya under suspicion and charges relating to the collapse of Trade Bank all of which failed in legal technicalities and was cleared.

The Canadian sleuths sought to establish whether he had intended to defraud, forged documents or obtained stolen assets.

He says his brief return to Kenya only reminded him of his ugly past. He found that the “moral fabric” of the country had never changed and it was the same old corrupt country he’d fled.

He only stayed for a week and he even encountered Biwott once at a hotel resulting merely in “eye contact.” 

There was a sense of justice to his return that made him abandon suicidal thoughts, he say.

In his unreleased memoirs, Kassam admits that he was a “crook” who bribed top government officials with “briefcases of money” to ensure the safety of Trade Bank.

“I started a bank in Kenya. It was very successful. The bank was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The bank failed because I had no values, I was too young. I was greedy. I wanted to do everything quickly. I was a criminal,” reads the memoirs completed in 2014.

Upon his return to Kenya, he met with some lawyers, journalists and had even thought of recruiting a public relations firm.

The suicidal thoughts changed thinking that he “could try fixing things a bit” by atoning for his misdeeds in Kenya.

“I met some of the lawyers and they asked me for bribes. They thought that I came to clear my name so that I could do business again.

“I had lived in Canada and had travelled to many countries. There’s no perfect country.” The level of corruption is low in some countries and high in others. “In Kenya, it’s very strong,” he said.

He’d met with the late Joe Nyagah, the politician and minister in both President Moi and Mwai Kibaki’s regime. Kassam says Joe encouraged him to return to Kenya.

“Once I met the lawyers and all the people, I realised that it wasn’t possible for me to do anything to correct me fleeing,” said Kassam of his Kenyan visit.

In his memoirs, he says that he lost all of his Kenyan wealth and his brother who had been his business partner, took him in when he fled to Canada.

“My brother was living in Canada. We were partners... we lost $65 million (Sh7billion) when things turned upside down,” he writes in his book.

He says that when he took off to Canada, he dabbled in 20 businesses including venture capitalism and real estate.

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