by Ben Taylor
In the early hours of the morning of October 11, 2018, the prominent businessman and philanthropist, Mo Dewji (see TA108 and other issues), was abducted outside the Colosseum Hotel in the Oyster Bay area of Dar es Salaam. He was released in the middle of the night ten days later on the grounds of the Gymkhana Club golf course. Mr Dewji (43), reportedly Africa’s youngest dollar billionaire, had been planning to visit the gym at the Colosseum Hotel, as part of his normal routine. Police said he was dragged away by masked armed men as he arrived at the hotel.
Paul Makonda, the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner, said: “They fired a gun and then they opened the gate. Initial information indicates he was kidnapped by whites travelling in two vehicles.”
This kicked off a police operation to identify the perpetrators and to find Dewji. However, the operation did not achieve decisive progress towards either goal, and security forces in Tanzania were left still racking their brains when Dewji was found ten days later.
The Inspector General of Police, Simon Sirro, said the kidnappers dumped Mr Dewji at the Gymkhana Golf Club grounds, close to State House, at around 2am and escaped. Footage showed a tired-looking Mo with dishevelled hair and wearing a t-shirt and jogging trousers as he thanked the police and President Magufuli for their efforts to find him.
Mr Sirro told reporters that the police found four guns including an AK47, three pistols and 35 bullets in the vehicle used in the kidnap. The abductors had tried to burn the car before they fled, he added. “All indications still show that the kidnappers were foreigners,” Mr Sirro said, adding that Mr Dewji told the police that “they were speaking English and very little Swahili.” Dewji later noted that he recognised their accents as South African.
Journalists were shown pictures of a dark blue car, a Toyota Surf, which Mr Sirro said entered the country six weeks before the abduction, from a neighbouring country that he did not name but which is widely believed to be Mozambique.
The motive of the kidnap has not been established, leaving Tanzanians with more questions than answers. The police were not forthcoming with information, fuelling rumours and direct allegations by opposition politicians that even the government was a suspect in this case.
The (UK) Times newspaper reported that some sources had “suggested that the Dewji abduction was planned not to end in his safe release, but the spontaneous national outpouring of distress prompted a change of plan. Although the government shared on social media platforms appeals for information, the president was quiet on the fate of one of his country’s most famous sons.”
A former soldier with experience of South Africa’s mercenary industry told The Times: “Complicity in the plot at a high level would have been needed for two white foreigners to enter and exit the country without detection.”
Questions have also been raised over Mo’s relationship with the government. He is believed to have been among the financial backers of the ruling CCM party in the 2015 elections, but this friendliness with the party seemed to wane after his business was hit with large fines over importation tax.
As far back as 2015, the newly-elected President Magufuli talked tough about the Dewji family’s unwillingness to hand over land they possessed to the government – land that was wanted for the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Lindi, southern Tanzania. The land title was subsequently revoked and handed over to the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation.
The family also owns an expansive sisal farm in Korogwe, Tanga, which had been subject to a separate dispute. In December 2017 the government moved to repossess the land, but learnt that MeTL (Mo’s group of companies) had secured a loan from an international bank using the title.
Dewji was born in 1975 in rural Tanzania. His father, Gulam Dewji, transformed his mother’s shop into a thriving import-export business, which enabled Mo and his siblings to be sent to private schools and exclusive sports clubs. Mo showed a talent for golf, and his father sent him to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Florida. But, when it was clear he wouldn’t make it to a professional grade, he enrolled at Georgetown University, in Washington DC, to study international business and finance.
Dewji returned to Tanzania and joined the family business as chief financial controller and quickly set about expanding the operation. MeTL is now the country’s largest home-grown business employing a reported 24,000 people and accounting for an estimated 3.5% of gross national product (GDP).
He has featured on the cover of Forbes magazine, which ranks him as Africa’s 17th-richest person with a fortune of $1.5bn. He also served as an MP for ten years from 2005, representing Singida Urban constituency for CCM.
“I thank Allah that I have returned home safely. I thank all my fellow Tanzanians, and everyone around the world for their prayers. I thank the authorities of Tanzania, including the police force for working for my safe return,” tweeted Mo in his first public words following the ordeal.