unmen wearing masks and firing in the air burst into a spa hotel in Dar es Salaam on Thursday and kidnapped Tanzania’s only billionaire, according to officials in the coastal city.
Mohamed Dewji, a Tanzanian Asian tycoon believed to be Africa’s 17th richest man, was seized shortly after arriving at the gym of the Colosseum Hotel Oyster Bay, one of the former capital’s most affluent suburbs.
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Police said that three foreigners had been detained in connection with the kidnapping.
The bizarre and often conflicting details of the abduction of a figure so prominent he was known by most Tanzanians simply as “Mo” left many in the country baffled.
Paul Makonda, the powerful regional governor and a close ally of President John Magufuli, told reporters that Mr Dewji was kidnapped “by whites travelling in two vehicles.”
Witnesses outside the hotel, however, only spoke of one vehicle and none mentioned the colour of the assailants.
“We were approaching the area when, suddenly, in front of us, four people wearing masks alighted from a small vehicle and shot once in the air,” an Uber driver was quoted as saying by a Tanzanian newspaper.
“They entered the hotel and came out with a person whom I identified as Mo.”
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Adding to the confusion, the city’s police chief, Lazaro Mambosasa, was widely reported as saying that Mr Dewji had been rescued, only to retract the claim later, saying he was misquoted.
A normally sleepy city, Dar es Salaam is not known for high intrigue, and there has certainly never been a case of white men kidnapping prominent individuals reported before.
However, crime involving well-known figures is on the rise. Wayne Lotter, an elephant conservationist investigating ivory-trafficking networks, was murdered in the city last year.
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In September last year, Tundu Lissu, the opposition chief whip and an outspoken critic of President Magufuli, was sprayed with gunfire outside his home in Dodoma, the Tanzanian capital. Doctors in neighbouring Kenya removed nine bullets from his body.
Unlike Mr Lissu, Mr Dewji, who served as a ruling party MP until 2015, has been careful to demonstrate his loyalty to Tanzania’s increasingly authoritarian leader on numerous occasions.
However, there have been reported tensions between the two.
Mr Dewji, who at 43 is Africa’s youngest billionaire, is in effect Tanzania’s only oligarch. Mirroring Russia’s Roman Abramovich, he made a fortune — estimated at USD 1.3 billion — by buying up failing state-owned factories on the cheap during a wave of privatisations between 2003 and 2005. He then took over one of Tanzania’s biggest football clubs.
As a result, Mr Dewji transformed a modest family enterprise into a multi-industry giant that dominates much of the consumer goods sector in Tanzania and has become the country’s largest private sector employer, making up 3.5 percent of the economy.
The president, however, has shown himself deeply suspicious of private enterprise and has indicated a determination to repossess at least some previously state-owned assets.
The president has never stated that Mr Dewji’s MeTL group is within his sights. However, the group’s most important constituent company, East Coast Oils & Fats, was recently hit with large fines after being accused of import fraud.
The subsidiary is an industry giant, accounting for 60 percent of the edible oils market, and has revenues estimated at GBP 300 million a year.
Fines and large tax bills have been used by Tanzania to exert pressure on private and foreign companies. Acacia Mining, a gold miner listed on the London Stock Exchange, was forced to stop exporting from Tanzania after being ordered to pay GBP 144 billion pounds in back taxes and fines.
Mr Dewji, who is married with three children, is known as a philanthropist and has signed up to an initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to give at least half his fortune to charity.