The gangsters hadn’t heard of Brexit. ‘What is this “Breaks it”?’ they asked my friend hours after kidnapping him at gunpoint. At dusk my mate had been driving in Nairobi, with the Wings song ‘Band on the Run’ playing. He pulled over to answer his mobile when a man appeared at his side with a pistol. After letting him and two others get in, my friend was directed to an insalubrious Nairobi postcode, frogmarched up five floors and then beaten on the arms and knees with a golf putter.
Big Gangster emptied his pockets and went carefully through his iPhone emails, messages and contacts list. ‘They got to know where I worked, where I lived, everything.’ Middle Gangster spurned his battered leather wallet, together with his 1956 Omega wristwatch, because it had a wind-up mechanism. Wee Gangster went off to the ATM with his debit card and Pin to steal cash up to the limit. When they demanded more money my friend offered them a cheque. ‘You are very polite, very intelligent,’ Big Gangster observed.
In Kenya we have M-Pesa, digital money you can send over the phone, so towards midnight they demanded he call his family and friends to ask them for cash. He could not let on where he was and he made up a story about a staff member’s wife who had fallen sick in the village and urgently needed help. Incredibly, these late-night calls yielded a largish sum, which my friend then forwarded to the gangsters’ own telephones.
‘I knew by now they weren’t going to kill me. I didn’t panic. I was calm and they sensed it. I tried to deflate their anger, didn’t ask too many questions. If I had a gun I’d get myself into trouble. I figure you’re better talking your way out.’
My friend gently asked after their families and commented that he thought that educating the young generation was very important. Big Gangster agreed, declaring that he was a university engineering student and had to get up early for lectures. Middle Gangster said his sister was a lawyer — and assuming my white Kenyan friend was British, he suddenly demanded to know about the UK’s constitution. After asking for a headache pill to reduce the pain of his bruised knees and arms, my friend attempted a brisk history of the realm’s unwritten constitution, making reference to the ‘rule of law’, the 1689 Bill of Rights and so on. They liked his oration on the subject so much they rewarded him with a cup of delicious, sweet African tea — what we call chai kienyeji — which went through him like a dose of salts. ‘I had to pee every 20 minutes after that.’
The issue of the UK’s constitutional sovereignty suddenly became a hot topic of discussion for the kidnappers after Gangster Number Three was sent back down to the car to retrieve everything he could find in it. He returned with two copies of The Spectator. One carried an article by Rory Sutherland on driverless cars. My friend asked, ‘What do you reckon?’ ‘Crazy man,’ said Big Gangster. ‘Accident waiting to happen.’ Middle Gangster was meanwhile perusing the other issue and he became engrossed in a piece about the forthcoming EU referendum. ‘Brexit,’ he said. They all tried saying it. ‘Brexit! Brexit?’ They asked my friend to explain what this strange thing was and gathered once more to listen to him speak.
He was greeted with blank stares as he tried to summarise the economic arguments for and against. They weren’t much impressed at his discussion of sovereignty, apparently because they found it hard to see that there is a difference between the ‘UK’ and the ‘EU’. He then explained it in tribal terms and asked them to picture the Balkanisation of Kenya along ethnic lines. All three gangsters shook their heads furiously and condemned the idea as primitive and silly. As I’ve told my friend, their response must clearly have been due to his analysis being completely biased in favour of remaining in the EU. Sadly, I am unlikely to get my chance to persuade them he was pulling the wool over their eyes.
Finally at three o’clock in the morning — after an ordeal lasting nearly eight hours — Big Gangster announced they were letting him go. They accompanied him down the five flights of stairs, handed his car keys back and waved him goodbye. Before he went their leader said, ‘I’d like another 100,000 bob (about £700). Do you think you can send it to me tomorrow by M-Pesa?’ My friend nodded enthusiastically. ‘Good man,’ said Big Gangster. And he started calling up the next day, when my friend was already in the company of the police.