In one of the reviews of the book Tide of Fortune, the Madhvani family is referred to as “the Rockefellers of Uganda, the most famous Indian business family in East Africa”.
Giles Foden writes in the review: “The Madhvani family had everything. Then, in 1972, under Idi Amin’s military dictatorship they lost it all. They were thrown out of the country and had their businesses snatched away... Moving from the sylvan shores of Lake Victoria to war-stricken glass factories in Lebanon, Tide of Fortune is an astonishing account of fortunes made, lost and found again…”
The book was written by Mr Foden on behalf of Manubhai Madhvani, the man who took over from his brother Jayant Madhvani and further grew the business.
The founders are now long gone, and the Madhvani Group, which according to its own website is worth $200m, is now at the centre of a dispute between two Madhvani grandchildren.
The duo are grandchildren of Muljibhai Madhvani, the founding patriarch of the Madhvani Group of Companies, which is heavily involved in the economy with interests in sugar production, power generation and production of ethanol and other industrial alcohols.
The group is also involved in the production of tea, steel, matches, sweets, confectionaries and packaging materials. It also has a leg in the tourism, construction, real estate, insurance and software production.
The eldest grandson, Mr Nitin Jayant Madhvani, has written separate letters to both the police and the head of State House’s Anti-corruption Unit, Lt Col Edith Nakalema, calling for an investigation into the activities of his sister, Ms Nimisha Madhvani, Uganda’s Ambassador to Denmark.
Fight over property
In a June 22 letter to Lt Col Nakalema, Mr Nitin accuses his sister of holding out as a director in the Madhvani Group of companies and abusing her power in order to gain control of his and the family’s assets.
“Nimisha Madhvani…has been abusing her position in government to threaten, intimidate and harass my family and staff in order to gain control over my home, assets and those of my family,” the letter reads in parts.
The children of the late Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani - Mr Nitin, Ms Nimisha and Mr Amit Madhvani – own up to a fifth of the Madhvani Group’s assets in Uganda. The rest is owned by the families of Jayant’s four brothers – Manubhai Madhvani, Pratap Madhvani, Suresh Madhvani and Mayur Madhvani.
Indian culture dictates that control of family property is the preserve of male children, a practice which has lately come under challenge from the modern generation. That seems to have set the stage for the conflict between Mr Nitin and his sister Nimisha.
It was not possible to talk to Mr Nitin Madhvani for this article, but sources close to him indicate that there is a feeling that the actions of his sister are being fueled by some of his uncles and cousins with whom he has a long running disagreement over the management and control of the groups’ operations.
In the letter by Mr Nitin, Ms Nimisha is accused of intimidating people in order to “gain control of her elderly and vulnerable mother’s wealth”, and both her brothers’ interests in their family business.
“She has taken advantage of her brother Amit (Madhvani’s) mental limitations and her mother’s (Ms Meenaben Madhvani’s) major cognitive impairments to control their affairs and property,” the letter reads in parts.
Neurological reports issued by Dr David Basangwa in Uganda and doctors Corole Kuhle and Christopher Klein of the Mayo Clinic in the United States indicate that Ms Meenaben suffers from dementia and Alzheirmer’ disease due to old age.
Mr Amit, on the other hand, suffers from limited mental abilities occasioned by reaction to a vaccine early in his childhood.
The ambassador is accused of obtaining signatures of her mother in order to facilitate her “agenda of gaining control of other family affairs and property”.
One of the documents referred to is a letter dated October 18, 2012, which she directed Mr Amit Madhvani to “immediately” sign, scan and return to her.
Mr Nitin argues that it is reasonable to question how their brother was to understand such a document given his limitations.
Ms Nimisha is also accused of having opposed the family’s decision to take their mother to the Mayo Clinic in the United States for cancer treatment and neurological assessment.
“Nimisha opposed, possibly because she did not want a further official neurological diagnosis, which could be used to prevent Ms Meenaben Madhvani from signing documents that Nimisha presents to her,” Mr Nitin wrote.
Mr Nitin also accuses a mobile telephone service provider of assisting Ms Nimisha to bar their mother’s telephone line from receiving calls.
Security dragged in
Ms Nimisha is also accused of using her connections in government to drag the office of the Inspector General of Police and that of the Minister for Security into fighting on her side.
Sources familiar with the matter say Security Minister Gen Elly Tumwine telephoned Mr Nitin’s son, Mr Hrishikesa Madhvani, on the night of March 27 and warned him that security agencies would intervene if he did not immediately leave the family’s home in Kakira.
Gen Tumwine, sources knowledgeable on the matter say, issued the directive after receiving information that Mr Hrishikesa Madhvani had locked up his grandmother, Ms Meenaben, in one of the rooms.
Gen Tumwine neither denied nor admitted having ordered Mr Hrishikesa out of Kakira.
“I know about the problem in the Madhvani family and we are trying to find a solution to it. I discussed the matter with Mr Nitin Madhvani, but what we discussed is a private matter. It is not for public consumption,” Gen Tumwine told Saturday Monitor by phone on Thursday afternoon.
On May 8, one of the house staff, Mr Ganesh Panchanlat, was ordered to report to the Central Police Station in Jinja and was questioned on the basis of a complaint that was said to have been written by Ms Meenaben, alleging that her life, that of her daughter Nimisha and son Amit, were in danger.
A highly placed source in the Madhvani Group hierarchy, who asked not to be named both because he is not authorised to speak for the group and also due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Saturday Monitor that the matter at the police was only resolved after the intervention of the top management of the Group.
The sources said: “It was unthinkable that the cook who has been working for the family for more than eight years could suddenly have turned against them. Luckily, Mr Nitin called and urged the cook to stay and we also pointed out to the ambassador (Ms Nimisha) that it would not be easy for them to enroll the services of another cook.”
According to the letter Mr Nitin’s wrote to Ms Nakalema, workers in Bungalow One, as the Jayant Madhvani family home is known, are on tension on account of harassment from his sister.
We were unable to reach Col Nakalema for a comment on the progress of investigations since our repeated phone calls to her known numbers went unanswered and she also did not respond to messages we sent to her.
Ms Nimisha declined to talk to Saturday Monitor for this article. Despite having earlier expressed interest in responding to the contents of her brother’s letters, subsequent telephone calls and text messages to her known mobile number went unanswered over a period of more than two weeks.
This is not the first time that members of the family are involved in a fight over assets.
In April 1989, The Los Angeles Times published an article, “Powerful Dynasty: All in the Family Feud Rips Uganda”, which highlighted the disagreements that raged on in the Madhvani family business following the fall of the Idi Amin regime.
The Madhvani brothers accused Ms Meenaben and Mr Nitin of having returned to Uganda and struck an agreement with President Milton Obote which gave them control of the family’s assets.
The other brothers objected to the move, which resulted in an arrangement in 1985 under which the youngest and oldest surviving Madhvani brothers, Mayur and Manubhai, took control of the sugar factory at Kakira in Jinja District, leaving the rest of the assets to Ms Meenaben Madhvani and her son Nitin to rehabilitate.
The family, however, later accused Ms Meenaben and Mr Nitin of failure to do the job.
“She was in the forefront and these companies were not running, and other members of the family were not being permitted to participate in a meaningful way,” Mr Manubhai’s son, Mr Kamlesh Madhvani, was quoted as saying then.
In a board meeting in January 1989, with Mr Nitin present, the family placed all the companies under the umbrella of Muljibhai Madhvani and Company and hired executives to oversee their operations.
Ms Meenaben blamed the development on Mr Manubhai Madhvani.
“All the wealth has deteriorated, and whatever’s left he wants to grab… In 1985, we agreed to let them run Kakira (the sugar estate) because we thought it would calm them. But I think I overtrusted them,” she said.