Debt tussle drags shadowy Coast tycoon back into the limelight

Mr Tahir Sheikh Said.
Mr Tahir Sheikh Said. 

About 16 years ago in 2000, Tahir Sheikh Said made headlines for giving a seven day ultimatum to the late vocal politician Shariff Nassir to pay up a Sh1 million debt or be sued. Today he is the one fighting debts signalling his crumbling business empire.

Tahir, might be a popular name at the coastal city of Mombasa but the mention of TSS leaves no doubt who you are referring to.
The Mombasa tycoon is widely known by the acronyms of his names, with the brand being associated with most if not all of his vast business empire.

For 48 years the man has dabbled in almost every sector, trying his hand in businesses with a promise of growing his fortunes.

He started off in 1968 transporting building materials, fuel, coffee and tea across the East African region including Zaire, Sudan and Egypt.

His investments now span coffee export under Juja Coffee exporters, shipping, cotton ginning and salt in addition to the TSS Bus Company, Pop-in fuel station and TSS Grain millers in the industrial area of Shimanzi.

While some have been successful and operate to date others such as the Al Wahat Beach hotel that he built in Nyali in 1993 have not stood the test of time.

The hotel had been styled along the conservative Middle Eastern taste which include a ban on alcohol making it hard to sell resulting in long periods of closure.

The TSS Building on Nkurumah Road in Mombasa was among the first modern sky scrapers to be built in the coastal town’s central business district in the early 2000 and the centrally located landmark building can still be seen from afar.

His wealth grew during the retire President Daniel arap Moi era to include vast parcels of land at the Coast even though he did not exhibit political ambitions, he was a well-known Kanu financier and believed to have contributed millions of shillings to the 1992 and 1997 election campaigns in support of Mr Moi.

At one time TSS served as the Lamu Kanu chairman and was close friends to political bigwigs in the region including long serving Mvita MP, the late Nassir, though the duo turned rivals in 2000 leading to the ultimatum.

The genesis of the rivalry was said to have been the closeness TSS enjoyed with Mr Moi turning Nassir envious.

As his wealth grew so did his philanthropic streak contributing to religious causes and activities he believed would better the local communities.

His deep pockets turned him to a king maker in coastal politics backing candidates in Kanu with some of those said to enjoy his blessings including former Lamu West MP Fahim Twaha who is also said to be his son in-law.

TSS wealth seems to be following the trajectory of the former ruling party Kanu with the pearl of his business empire, TSS Grain Millers, being recently put in receivership.

Unexpectedly out of service

Ever since news of his companies being put under receivership hit the headlines, the easily accessible office numbers have either gone unexpectedly out of service and those which have gone through remain unanswered.

In court documents, the billionaire blames the change of fortunes on mismanagement by his children and brother in-law after he stepped aside from the day-to-day running of the businesses in 2010 due to health problems.

Mr Said stated that last year he began receiving notices from financial institutions and was shocked to learn that from 2010 the companies have gone through a massive borrowing spree for the purposes which he had no knowledge of.

The 73-year-old is said to be in default of more than Sh8 billion owed to three banks. This means he is holding five per cent of the total bad loans in the country.

In a signal that the tycoon is not going down without a fight he declined to provide his financial statements to the appointed administrator of the company, forcing the receiver to grope in the dark in gauging his financial status.

KCB-appointed administrator, PVR Rao, was forced to call all creditors of the company to register with him while offering evidence of their claim.
TSS, who had been listed as one of the largest land owners in the country in a wealth report released in 2014, has also engaged in several court cases largely surrounding land ownership in Lamu.

The billionaire’s name featured prominently in the Lamu land inquiry conducted by the National Land Commission following orders from President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Land issues were said to have been at the centre of violent clashes witnessed at the Coastal in early 2014 forcing President Uhuru Kenyatta to revoke land titles.

TSS is one of the wealthy men whose title deeds were cancelled.