WE Charity was “the best and only organization” capable of administering $912 million in youth volunteer grants, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But a closer look at WE Charity reveals a troubled organization in turmoil. In March, WE laid off the majority of its staff. A CBC report revealed that the chairs of WE Charity’s boards of directors in Canada and the U.S. both resigned in the spring, and almost everyone else serving on those boards either resigned or was replaced.
And as WE Charity is now scrutinized each day in the Canadian press, a story has emerged of criminal activity and fraud by the leadership of WE’s Kenyan operation in 2017.
In a recording made by WE co-founder Marc Kielburger and obtained by Canadaland, Kielburger can be heard patiently listening as a senior employee, Peter Ruhiu, describes in detail how he paid off Kenyan government officials who were investigating Free The Children (FTC), WE’s charitable organization in Kenya, and as Ruhiu repeatedly threatens the life of another FTC employee.
Kielburger tells Canadaland, through his lawyer, that during the conversation he was actually working with the Kenyan police, who initiated the phone call in order for Kielburger to surreptitiously collect incriminating information on his own employee. Neither Kielburger nor his lawyer have responded to a request for documentation to support this claim.
At the beginning of the recording, Marc Kielburger is heard explaining that he had received a text from Peter Ruhiu, at the time WE’s country director for Kenya and Tanzania. Kielburger said that he was now following up to understand the circumstances.
Once reached, Ruhiu proceeded to brief Kielburger on “a big situation” that had emerged which “opened up hell” for WE’s Kenyan operations.
At the time of the call — July 23, 2017 — FTC was being investigated by Kenya’s NGO Co-ordination Board, a body that oversees non-governmental agencies operating in the country, including charities. The board had placed a “caveat emptor” hold on a parcel of land owned by Free The Children, preventing it from being transferred, pending the results of an inquiry into the NGO.
Peter Ruhiu casually told Kielburger how difficult it was for FTC to get the government officials conducting this inquiry to accept payments.
“They have already taken of course a huge chunk of cash,” he explained. “It took us eight hours to give him the first load of cash. Because he did not trust us. Obviously, because you know, he’d probably been burned in the past.”
With this difficulty behind them, the organization was now “so close” to achieving their goals, Ruhiu said. But then their relationship with the government’s compliance team became jeopardized by the actions of one of his FTC colleagues, a man named Santai.
Santai Kimakeke is a former senior director of Free The Children, who worked for the WE organization for 10 years.
In the recording, Ruhiu explained to Kielburger that Kimakeke accidentally turned one of the government investigators against FTC, when Kimakeke was attempting to secure a visa extension for his wife Jodie, also an employee of WE at the time. Kimakeke wanted to learn the last name of an investigator he knew as Steve, so he sent him a nominal electronic payment via the platform M-Pesa. If Steve accepted, Kimakeke would receive a confirmation email containing Steve’s last name and phone number.
But Steve did not accept, Ruhiu explained to Kielburger. Instead, the attempted payment roused Steve’s suspicion that Kimakeke was trying to entrap him on behalf of FTC and then report him to the Kenyan police for taking bribes. Kimakeke’s apparent blunder enraged Ruhiu, who vented to Marc Kielburger in a series of threats against his employee.
Peter Ruhiu: I don’t know what the fuck, I don’t know what the fuck. I just don’t give a fuck why Santai did that. I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand it.
Marc Kielburger: Did you, did you chat with him?
Ruhiu: No. No, because, you know, right now, honestly, if I had a gun, I would shoot the motherfucker dead, right now.
Ruhiu: You know, it is — Marc, I — I’m not very good with words, but I’m trying to express to you how bad this is.
Kielburger: I understand.
Ruhiu: So I just, I don’t know, if I see Santai, what’s going to happen, honestly. I don’t know.
Kielburger: Okay. Pete, maybe there was an error. I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure. I don’t really know how these things work. So…
Ruhiu: It’s not an error. Honestly, I could call my guys tonight and take care of this guy. I’m not even joking. He’s not going to jeopardize my life, your life, a lot of people’s lives.
Kielburger: Okay. So, Pete, how can I help?
Ruhiu: So please, first and foremost, we need to fucking find out what the hell Santai is trying to do.
Ruhiu asked Kielburger to contact Santai and advise him not to come to work the next day, and Kielburger enthusiastically agreed to do so.
The consequences of making enemies of the Kenyan government’s regulators were explored in detail as the conversation progressed. Ruhiu explained to Kielburger what would come next if Steve passed word up the chain that WE was trying to entrap them.
Peter Ruhiu: Hopefully, hopefully just praying to God that he hasn’t told his boss. Because if he has, and he’s such a motherfucker. It took us eight hours to give him the first load of cash. Eight hours. Because he did not trust us. Obviously, because you know, they’ve probably been burned in the past. It took us eight hours to give him the cash. And now if it comes up, he hears about, he’s going to be like, “Fuck you. You’re going for a full audit. And not only full audit — full audit with fucking prejudice.” Every arm of this fucking government is going to come down hard on us, from tomorrow.
Marc Kielburger: Okay.
Ruhiu: There will be, there’ll be officers from every fucking conceivable government arm in this compound tomorrow.
Kielburger later asked for more detail on exactly what the Kenyan authorities would do if crossed.
Kielburger: I appreciate the phone call. This is obviously mission-critical. So, I get it.
Ruhiu: Yeah. Yeah. Mission-critical, and also our lives are right now, without… A bureaucrat has our life in his hands, he can fucking do whatever he wants right now.
Kielburger: But, Pete, can I, can I just, I’m simply, humbly seeking clarification on that. What, what can they do?
Ruhiu: First thing, they walked us through in the [inaudible] through what he does. So basically, they shut down — [Nairobi Governor Evans] Kidero and the other politicians and the NGO, the USAID NGO — they freeze accounts.
Ruhiu: ASAP. And then [inaudible] also come with police.
Ruhiu: And then they get other government agencies involved. The [Kenya Revenue Authority], the main one. Central Bank. The criminal DCIO — Department of Criminal Investigation.
Kielburger: But on what basis?
Ruhiu: On what basis? They have so many bases. Oh gosh. They have so many. They have so many.
Kielburger: ‘Kay. Okay.
Ruhiu: Yeah, so many. First and foremost, the letter that Santai wrote. After clearly [inaudible] saying, you know, get the hell out of this country. You know, they’ll obviously bring in immigration, like how did this happen? You know, so immigration people will be involved.
Ruhiu: Like, you know, “How did she get a visa?” It was clearly stated, we gave her two visas. So she has to leave.
Ruhiu: The fact that, you know, we’re running an NGO is not a, not a so-forth. And, um, you know, the member of the board is also the chairman? You know, that’s already, you know… They are all criminal offences, basically. That’s why they involve the DCIO.
Ruhiu: Of course, another nail in the coffin, you know: they obviously alert the media.
Kielburger: Mm-hmm. Okay.
Ruhiu: When I say gates of hell have been opened, you know. I’m actually literally using the word “hell.”
At another point in the conversation, Ruhiu says, “It’s Armageddon. It’s over.”
The call concluded with seeming agreement on how to salvage the situation. Ruhiu suggested that he arrange a meeting between Marc Kielburger and members of the NGO board, in which Kielburger would disavow Santai.
Peter Ruhiu: So if I need to put him under the bus. I swear, if it’s five fucking buses, I’ll throw him under the five fucking buses.
Marc Kielburger: Okay. Okay, Pete, I understand what you’re saying. I don’t know what to say. I totally understand what you’re saying.
Ruhiu optimistically suggested to Kielburger that “We all will come out of this clean.”
On April 27, 2018, the Kenyan NGO Co-ordination Board released its “Investigation Report On Free The Children.” The report recommended that the caveat on the charity’s parcel of land be lifted, as they were satisfied that “the land would be used for charitable purposes” and that they had “no concerns with the charity.”
Canadaland has learned that Peter Ruhiu remained WE’s country director for Kenya and Tanzania until March 19, 2018 — eight months after Marc Kielburger says he recorded, at the request of the Kenyan police, Ruhiu recounting what he had described as “criminal offences.”
According to Howard Winkler, counsel for WE Charity, the investigation into Peter Ruhiu was a success for WE and the integrity of the organization was restored.
Read Winkler’s full response below.
Ruhiu was terminated and charged by Kenyan police with a variety of crimes, to which he signed a witnessed confession. Winkler did not provide this confession.
Reached at his home in Kenya, Peter Ruhiu declined to provide further comment.
Canadaland has seen a different written statement by Ruhiu, given to Kenyan police on October 7, 2018.
In his own defence, Ruhiu made many allegations of criminal behaviour which Canadaland cannot verify at this time.
Of relevance here, however, is Ruhiu’s assertion in the statement that when he signed his earlier confession, he had done so at gunpoint.
Email statement and attachments from Howard Winkler, counsel to WE Charity:
Updated at 5:25 p.m. EDT on July 3, 2020, to add a sentence concerning a follow-up request for documentation and to change the lede to the past tense.
Top image: Marc Kielburger on stage during WE Day Toronto at the Scotiabank Arena on September 20, 2018 (Dominik Magdziak/Getty Images).