Police launched a criminal investigation Thursday against a Swiss diplomat and his Ugandan beauty queen wife over accusations by a young mother that the couple kidnapped her infant son.
The couple deny the allegations, saying Maureen Nanyazi Mawejje signed away her guardianship rights. The mother's supporters say the case fits into a troubling trend of rich Westerners stealing babies from poor mothers who lack the resources or know-how to fight back.
"If this is happening in Kenya, where at least we have rules and regulations, imagine what the rest of Africa is like," said Tom Chavangi, executive director of UNICEF-funded Children Legal Action Network, which is providing the mother with legal aid.
The woman claims the couple invited her and her son to live with them, was tricked into leaving the country, then found herself locked out of the house when she returned.
Chavangi says his organization has seen around 70 similar cases in Kenya of wealthy families allegedly seizing children from poor families since it opened 10 years ago — and suspects that's only a tiny fraction of cases since most go unreported.
Acting on a CLAN complaint, Nairobi police processed charges of kidnapping, child trafficking and perjury against Swiss citizen Renaud Gerber and his Ugandan wife Grace Mungoma, formerly Miss Uganda.
The complaint claims the couple had stolen the baby and forged documents to prevent the mother reclaiming him.
Gerber, who enjoys diplomatic status as a U.N. employee, declined interview requests. But his lawyer, Ian Maina, says the mother freely gave up the toddler, despite apparent discrepancies in the two documents the couple provided to support their claim.
'She was very good to me'
Mawejje, who never went to high school, says she was befriended by the couple shortly after she gave birth in March 2007; the father was a Spaniard who had abandoned her. She was working as a clothing trader in Nairobi when she met Mungoma.
"She was very good to me, even buying clothes for the baby, giving some money for food," Mawejje, 25, recalled.
The couple invited Mawejje to move into their home. A few months later, Mawejje says, they asked if she and her son would go to Switzerland on holiday with them.
She briefly crossed over to her native Uganda to get a visa for the trip. When she returned, Mawejje said, the couple — and the baby — were gone. Guards had been ordered not to let her into the house.
After several failed attempts to file a complaint with Kenyan police, a police station in Nairobi finally agreed to hear her case. Mawejje says Gerber promised in the presence of the officers that he would produce her baby the following week.
Instead, according to the mother and officers at the station, he showed up with an affidavit — on which her signed name was misspelled — claiming she had given up the child. His lawyer declined to comment on the document, seen by The Associated Press, or any alleged discrepancies.
"He was standing in front of my face saying I had signed the documents and he wasn't even embarrassed," Mawejje recalled. "So the police chased me away."
Mother wages court battle
The mother said she lodged a civil case in Kenya after being denied police help. The couple initially pleaded diplomatic immunity. When that was rejected, the court issued several orders for the couple to produce the child, and even an arrest warrant.
But weeks into the case, the couple's lawyers suddenly produced another set of guardianship papers from Uganda that appeared to show Mawejje signing away the rights to her child.
She says the papers were falsified — stamped three weeks after she had lodged the civil case, when her travel documents show she was not in Uganda. The AP has seen both the purported guardianship papers and the woman's travel documents.
The magistrate ruled the court had no jurisdiction and referred Mawejje to Ugandan justice.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe did not return calls seeking comment. The U.N. has declined to comment on the case.
Despite the hurdles, the Ugandan mother is determined to win back her baby boy.
"I will fight them in the courts here, I will fight them in the courts in Uganda," Mawejje said. "And one day I will tell this as a bedtime story to my son."