We love you, Skippa!’

Nir Gess, an Israeli icon in Africa

August 1, 2019 10:06
We love you, Skippa!’

Nir Gess with President Peter Mutharika of Malawi. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A few weeks ago, Nir Gess was flying from Liberia to Paris with his business partner, Benda, an Air France flight that made a brief routine stopover in Sierra Leone. As usual on this flight, passengers continuing on are not required to disembark, and Gess and his friend remained in their seats while a local cleaning crew tidied up the business class cabin. An elderly member of the cleaning team overheard the two Israelis chatting and ventured, “You are speaking in Hebrew, aren’t you?”
After confirming that they were, the man said, “You know, many years ago there was an Israeli man in Sierra Leone. We loved him very much; he did so many good things for us here.”
Benda, who was already familiar with the story, listened intently and asked, “What was this man’s name?” And the man replied, “I don’t know his name; we called him ‘Skippa.’”
Gess kicked his friend gently in the shin, suspecting what would come next. But Benda was on a roll.
“What did he look like, this man?” Benda continued. “Like me, or like my friend here [indicating Gess]?”
“No, not like you.”
Benda is short and bald, unlike Gess, who is very tall and silver-haired.
“He was more like him,” said the man, pointing to Gess.
“So what would you say,” said Benda, “if I told you that this is Skippa?”
The man scrutinized Gess. “No, no way... but I could believe you that he is Skippa, on the condition that he tells me where he used to live in Sierra Leone.”
Gess then asked the man if he had heard of Kabassa Lodge, and the man turned pale as he said, breathlessly, “It is Skippa.”
He called over his fellow workers excitedly. “Look, Skippa is here!!” And the workers quickly surrounded the two Israelis, asking to touch Gess and be photographed with him, until the alarmed flight attendants arrived and asked them to leave the cabin. The workers left and went down to the tarmac, where they formed a group and chanted: “We love Skippa! We love Skippa!”

In 1981, 23-year-old Nir Gess was stationed with the Israel Defense Forces’ prestigious Unit 730, responsible for safeguarding the country’s VIPs, politicians, ambassadors as well as top army officers. He worked with many of them including Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, as well as then-incumbent defense minister Ariel Sharon.
In those days, Israel was experiencing a total embargo by the Arab League, headed by Gen. Muammar Gaddafi, president of Libya, who forbade all the emerging African states from having any kind of relations with Israel. There would be no diplomatic relations, they would accept no aid, and they would also miss out on everything Israel had to offer: trade, commerce, technology, etc. Israel, in turn, would receive no African support in the United Nations.
However, in 1981, Congo’s president Mobutu Sese Seko invited Israel’s foreign minister, Gen. (res.) Ariel Sharon, to visit Kinshasa, capital of the huge central African state of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire).
Sharon was accompanied on this visit, as on many similar ones, by his personal bodyguard, Nir Gess. Aware of the benefit the Congo could reap from renewed relations with Israel and in defiance of Gaddafi’s directives, Mobutu and Sharon proceeded to negotiate. Sharon was keen to invite his host for a state visit to Israel, but Mobutu was hesitant. Sharon asked him if he feared traveling, if he feared for his life. “No, not in my own country, I feel very safe here,” he replied. “It’s only when I am traveling abroad that I feel daunted.”
Sharon pondered for a moment before coming up with a brilliant idea: He suggested that from that moment on, anytime the president wanted to travel out of the Congo, all he had to do was make Sharon’s office aware of it and “this young man here,” indicating his own bodyguard Gess, would fly out to be at his side.
Thus began a two-and-a-half-year period in which whenever and wherever Mobutu traveled outside of the Congo, Gess was right there with him, ensuring his safety. Indeed, Gess accompanied Mobutu to Korea, India, Kenya, France and other places, and the two developed a warm, personal relationship.
When Gess was released from Unit 730 and posted to Paris to take up the position of chief security officer for El Al, he took leave of Mobutu, who promised, “If one day, when your contract in Paris is over, you decide you would like to do business in Africa, you are welcome to come here to the Congo and I’ll help you get established.”
Following four event-filled years in Paris, Gess’s contract with El Al came to an end, and he decided that the next stage in his career would consist of returning to Africa and taking up Mobutu’s promise to introduce him to the business opportunities offered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
After a brief return to Israel to get organized, he set out for Kinshasa, booked into a hotel and set about trying to arrange an audience with Mobutu. However, after a week in the capital, he found himself unable to arrange the meeting. Although he’d formed quite a close friendship with the president during their time together, as a private person he now found himself with no official channels through which he could inform Mobutu that he was there. So he packed his suitcase, checked out of the hotel and waited for his departure time.
But then his luck changed. The hotel he’d been staying at provided the venue for the wedding of a member of Mobutu’s family, and he arrived with a large entourage. He spotted Gess and called him over.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Why didn’t you let me know you are in Kinshasa?”
Gess explained that he had been unable to contact the president, and he couldn’t continue to stay at that hotel and was obliged to return to Israel. The president told him to remain in the Congo.
“Place your suitcase in my car and come join me in the wedding festivities,” Mobutu said. “Afterward, you’ll come back home with me and be my guest.”
Gess didn’t return to Israel. He stayed with Mobutu for three months during which time he was introduced to the country’s top exporters of rough diamonds, and his wife joined him in Kinshasa about two months later.
After obtaining the necessary license, he started exporting raw diamonds to Belgium. However, it was soon apparent that there was no profit under the current system, whereby the country’s bank exchange rate was many times lower than that on the street, which meant that any currency deposited in the local bank would depreciate immediately. Thus, there was no profit and no one was making any money.
Gess decided to do something, to think differently, and he developed an original system of his own, whereby he would import rice from India and Pakistan and sell it locally in return for local currency, and he would then use this to pay for rough diamonds. These he bought directly from the producers, whom he paid in local currency, and exported them to Antwerp. With the dollars he made from the sale of diamonds in Belgium, he bought more rice to sell locally. Thus he was able to build a large and very profitable business with an excellent turnover, which provided him with a life of prosperity.
When Mobutu became sick and grew progressively weaker, Gess would accompany him to Paris on several visits, and was with him while he was having medical treatment.
Gess decided to return to Israel, and at Christmas 1990, he and his family – by then there were already two small children – left Kinshasa, stopping on the way in Mombasa for a brief vacation.
It was there that Gess received a surprise phone call from Attorney Amnon Zikhroni, then-legal counsel for Israeli businessman Shabtai Kalmanovitz, who had extensive business dealings in Sierra Leone. Kalmanovitz had been arrested and tried for espionage on behalf of Russia, and as Zikhroni said, he was about to go to jail for a great many years. Zikhroni had followed Gess’s business dealings in the Congo and offered to hand over Kalmanovitz’s entire “operation” in Sierra Leone to Gess, on condition that Gess pay the legal fees Kalmanovitz owed Zikhroni.
Gess sent his family back to Israel, and he joined Zikhroni in Sierra Leone to see the “operation.” It looked good and Gess agreed to the deal.
It was in Sierra Leone that Gess, by then 32 years old, really fell in love with Africa, and began to feel he really was a “player.” Until then he had felt he wasn’t being taken seriously enough, but once the extent of his influence on the diamond trade became known, even the Diamond Syndicate in London began to see him as a force to be reckoned with, and that he was a serious player in the international diamond business.

GESS BECAME the biggest exporter of rough diamonds in Sierra Leone, and was also the greatest importer of rice in Sierra Leone. His most substantial competitors were a group of Lebanese merchants who did everything in their power to bring him down. Indeed, threats were made on his life, and at least eight attempts were made to kill him. But he proved to be invincible.
And he was popular with the people.
Once a week his shipping company, Skippa, delivered a huge consignment of rice – the staple diet of the people in Sierra Leone – and the people would flock to the port to buy the excellent quality and inexpensive rice, which he sold at a price many times lower than that of the rice provided by his Lebanese rivals.
He also owned a fleet of 20 fishing boats that would bring in 20 tons of fish every day. Five tons of the catch consisted of seafood, shrimps, lobsters, crabs, etc., while the remaining 15 tons would be fish, which Skippa was handing out for free to the “mammas” who came to the port every day to collect their share. This infuriated the Lebanese competition. Here was this whippersnapper selling inexpensive, high-quality rice and providing free fish to the population at large. No wonder he was popular.
And he was accessible – Gess would walk through the markets, talking to stallholders and visiting people in the villages. Everyone knew the young Israeli and loved him.
The Lebanese felt they had to get rid of him quickly, and approached the inspector general (a fellow Muslim) with offers of a hefty bribe for his help in doing so. James Bambay Kamara, the inspector general, promised his help, and told them to leave it to him. He would strike at the right moment.
Shortly before Christmas 1991, when preparations were under way for the holiday, Gess received a phone call from the president, asking him to attend an urgent meeting early the following morning. He was at the president’s office at 7:00 a.m., and was received in the presence of most of the cabinet ministers as well as the inspector general and the military and police chiefs of staff. After exchanging civilities, the president explained that Sierra Leone was in the throes of a cash flow crisis, the banks were empty, and there was no money with which to pay salaries and administrative charges.
At that time, Sierra Leone was inundated with immigrants, all wanting to cash in on the diamond rush. In order to buy diamonds from the producers, they withdrew local currency. But they did not replace that money in the banks, which rendered them virtually empty.
In order to overcome the crisis, the government had placed an order with Thomas de la Rue for a suitable supply of local bank notes with which to fill the depleted coffers. The notes had been printed and were ready for collection in London, but there was not enough cash – about $2,000,000 – in Sierra Leone to pay for them. The president therefore asked Gess to travel to London and to pay for the notes in dollars, after which he would be repaid with some of the local currency he brought back with him.
Gess agreed and was provided with an agreement signed by the officials present, including inspector general Kamara. Gess was also equipped with a Power of Attorney to present to De La Rue plc in London, in order to release the banknotes.
It all went smoothly and Gess returned with the banknotes, which were duly deposited in the Bank of Sierra Leone. Salaries were paid and everyone was happy.
Except for the Lebanese competitors, who envied the young Israeli’s popularity and success and constantly strove to bring him down.
They had reasons for their envy. They were not as daring and audacious as he. Whereas he imported weekly shiploads of excellent quality rice from Pakistan and India and other Far Eastern countries, which was enough to provide for the entire population while charging much lower prices, their rice arrived in small containers and cost considerably more. They did not succeed in bringing him down, but continued to try to find a way of ridding Sierra Leone of Skippa.
Enlisting the help of the inspector general and taking advantage of the president’s brief absence from the country, the competitors laid a trap for Gess that resulted in arrests, misuse of power and considerable embarrassment to the ruling authorities.
Although it was a humiliating, unpleasant and frightening experience, Gess did not lose hope knowing that he was in the right, that it was all part of an attempt by his competitors to set him up, and that the people knew the truth and were firmly on his side. Moreover, on his return, the president of Sierra Leone issued an official apology and things soon returned to normal.
With the onset of the civil war in Sierra Leone, Gess returned with his family to Israel for a brief while, before moving to Florida.
Although after leaving Sierra Leone he no longer maintained a home base in Africa, he never stopped his involvement with the continent. He continued to travel back and forth from Florida to Africa to oversee and conduct his various business interests, meeting people and developing relations with African leaders and business people.
For 10 years his family lived and flourished in Florida, while he traveled to Africa on various missions.
In 2006-7, Gess became involved in an oil-mining project off the coast of Liberia, working with an Italian company for several years until oil prices dropped to such an extent that it was no longer profitable to mine in the sea, and the project was frozen.
Since 2011, Gess has focused his activity almost solely on Africa, developing agricultural projects and building relations throughout the African continent. Two years ago, a cigarette manufacturer in the Ukraine contacted him with a request for a supply of tobacco from Malawi, where the soil and weather conditions are excellent for the cultivation of certain tobacco leaves. His company would grow and subsequently export the tobacco to the Ukraine, where it would be used in the production of cigarettes.

OVER THE last couple of years, Gess and his partners have established their base in Malawi, where the company cultivates mainly fish, vegetables, tobacco and medicinal cannabis. He is very proud of the results of this work in Malawi, and dreams of turning the country into a showcase for Israeli-African relations.
Malawi is one of the few African states that have always maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, and has never severed itself from Israel in response to threats on the part of other leaders. It is a peaceful country, has not known civil war or government takeovers, and Gess himself has great respect for President Peter Mutharika, who was returned to power for a second term in May following a clean and democratic election. Mutharika is a president who genuinely cares for his people, and there are currently plans in progress for him to make a state visit to Israel in the not distant future.
When Gess describes Malawi, his eyes shine with love and admiration, saying that although Malawi is not wealthy, it is blessed with a population of hard-working people, highly motivated to improve their country’s economic status. It also has exceptionally intelligent children who “are born intelligent, with a profound desire to learn and develop.”
However, there is still a shortage of schools and trained teachers in the country, and Gess and his partners are privileged to participate in establishing well equipped, state-of-the-art classes, with the aim of adding more such classes every year in every school in the country. There is also a teacher-training project under way to counter the shortage of trained teachers.
And there are plans for water purification projects and fish farming ponds alongside giant Lake Malawi, to provide the population with clean drinking water and fish, which is an essential part of their staple diet.
Gess and his associates are proud to be involved in these projects, in the belief that their help provides a worthwhile contribution to the country’s and the people’s future.
He is now 61 years old, with a history overflowing with action and excitement, and one wonders where this large, gentle, soft-spoken man will turn his energies to next.
An autobiography, perhaps?

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