“You should not be naked”, laughed the General. His men looked over, their AK47’s slung over their shoulders, and smirked. I smiled. It had been a long day that began 23 hrs earlier in London, and despite the 40-degree heat and my sweat-stained shirt, I had no intention of being naked. But without resolving my predicament relatively soon that was a distinct possibility.
We had been contacted by a French consultant, the French Fixer, as we referred to him in the office. He wanted to know if we could structure a sovereign-backed bond for an African country utilising its oil and minerals as collateral. Not something that a London boutique merchant bank was asked for every day of the week. After some research, I was sent off to investigate. I was to meet the relevant Ministers and then the President to get an idea of what exactly he had in mind.
It is impossible to fly there directly from London, so I had an 8-hour stop-over in Kenya. The flight left late afternoon, which I prefer with long haul, as I can get a couple of hours sleep. I arrived at 5am at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, as it is now called. It’s a small and primitive airport; long corridors of food stalls and local craft stores. They were closed, as was the business lounge. Not a coffee to be had and just the cleaning crew and I occasionally nodding in acknowledgment of each other. Time passes slowly at first as I pace the softly lit mud-red walled corridors, but gradually the bustle of staff opening the shops and queuing travellers bring the warmth and breathes life into the milieu.
As I trying to squeeze my carry-on bag in to the narrow over-head compartment of the Being 737-700, I can’t help but note that I am surrounded by busy chattering monks wearing bright yellow and maroon robes trying to do the same thing. And there nestled serenely amongst them, the Dalai Lama. He sees me observing this bizarre scene and smiles at me. I settle in to my chair behind him oddly content.
When we land the monks and his Holiness are ushered off the plane and cram into a sparkling mini-bus, by-passing the airport security and disappearing from view. Does the Dalai Lama have a passport? As I start to disembark a microwave like heat hits me and a skin-peeling sun blinds me. My choice of chinos and a white long-sleeve shirt with linen jacket would have been perfect in June for the South of France. Here it was less so. I started to sweat before I got to the bottom of the mobile stairs. I patted my pockets in the vain hope that I had remembered my sunglasses and am guided towards what looks like a shed, but turns out to be the main hall of the airport. I note a concrete husk of a building in the distance, which a Chinese contractor had started to build, but had not finished. More of that later.
My friend, we need to get you some ‘clothes’es’, as he pronounced it, You should not be naked.
In the shed, we are greeting by U-shaped barricade of office desks flanked by armed military personnel. The room is no bigger than an average Starbucks. My co-passengers stare at each other hoping someone will take the lead. No-one says anything. Liberated by my encounter with his Holiness, I step forward and ask a tall lithe soldier, the friendliest looking, where we should go. He points to a crooked hole in the wall. We stare. A tractor, pulling a trailer with our luggage mounted, pulls up, and bags are lopped through the hole. We can’t reach them. Now the system becomes clear. The military personnel pick up a bag each and throw them on the desks, open the bags and search the contents. The owners rush forward, slightly alarmed, but necessarily respectful of the AK47s. When cleared, your suitcase was marked with a large white-chalk cross and you are allowed to leave through a narrow crack in the office-desk defence system. The hall started to empty rapidly until I was the last one left. No luggage! My irritation aside, this was deemed suspicious. ‘Why was I travelling without luggage?’ I wasn’t before I got here. ‘But you have no luggage.’ I know. I was requested to present a specific type of visa (which to my knowledge does not exist, nor therefore could it be required) and the relevant insurance papers or pay ‘a fine’. It is a way to supplement their poor pay. A bit mafia like and understandable, until the fine becomes unreasonable. I had danced this particular dance many times across Africa and in The Stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and India. If you look like you have money, and would pay to remove an inconvenience, there are many scenarios which I have been forced to experience to extract my cash. And I don’t mind offering some travel advice. If the dollar amount being asked for is small, then pay it. If it is too much, for me that’s anything over $100, then ask to see their boss.
So there I am in a police cell, waiting for the boss to turn up. Never listen to my travel advice. An hour later, a soldier collects me and brings me in to a small room. I look around to see 4 armed-guards and there at a desk is the boss, a sergeant, his pistol in front of him. He asks why I am not agreeing to pay the fine. I say that $400 is too much. Well how much do I want to pay? Nothing, I say. He is unhappy with this answer. At this point I should mention my trump card (no not that guy). Remember the General at the beginning of this rambling story. I was his guest. One short phone call later, I am being driven high-speed in a military convoy, including motorcycle outriders, sirens blasting, cars being kicked in to touch, into the heart of the City to meet with the General.
“Matthew, where is your luggage?”, he shouts across the air-conditioned room as I stride towards him. I shrug. “My friend, we need to get you some ‘clothes’es’, as he pronounced it, “You should not be naked.”. But first some water and a local tea. I am tired, but grateful for his offer. My clothes’es have been on me for 30 hours now and I imagine the people unfortunate to be around me were even less keen than I was to be still wearing them. We all know that claustrophobic feeling as your clothes stick to you.
Do you remember the eighties? Starsky & Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard? Well it turns out the owner of “the best shop for men’s clothes” did. Bell-bottom trousers and long collars on shirts were de rigueur that season in the City, and I suspect many seasons before that one. I felt I could deal with the fashion faux-pas as I wouldn’t look out of place, but the strong, and at times over-powering odour of mothballs on all the clothes’es was, as the Dalai Lama said to me with his smile, to be endured.
But back to business. I met with the Minister and the President and indeed the Vice-President. They needed money. Money to build infrastructure for the people. And as we later learned, money to line their own pockets. They could offer oil, gold, copper, you name it they had it…under the ground. Whatever we wanted. I asked about unfinished airport building.
‘That was the Chinese. They promised to build an airport in exchange for oil.’
‘They could not do the oil project because of the fighting.’
The fighting? What fighting?
‘Just some tribal issues.’
Will the Chinese be back?
‘We do not know.’
Without getting in to too much detail the UN, the US, the French, the Germans and two Asian governments all had some say on the financial affairs of the country, each with their own business interests to protect. And rightly so. Promises had been made. Agreements had been signed by a succession of under-qualified Ministers and in some cases illegally.
When I first got in to banking, my boss said, understanding the jurisdiction into which you are thinking of investing our money is important. You need to understand how it works, because even the best assets in the world will not work if there is political or civil unrest, legal and regulatory uncertainty, terrorists operating near by, money laundering, exchange risk, lack of infrastructure, operation difficulty, geographic, ethical….the list is long.
In short, to our wonderfully inquisitive readers and viewers, if you or the company that you are thinking of investing in cannot clearly explain how they mitigate these risks, just walk. Keep your money in your pocket, because the good news is that there are always other deals. FOMO is not part of any investment strategy. After all no-one wants to lose the shirt off their back, no, matter how sticky 😉