A world high on drug money: Implications for Kenya

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Ernest Garai

The appetite for narcotics all over the globe seems to be insatiable, and it is growing every year. The visibility of Kenya’s involvement in a global trade system, estimated to be worth $352 billion (Sh35 trillion) annually, has increased both in participation and effect.  Risk acceptance and its evasion is perceived to be the main challenge for individuals associated with the trade, which has created an allure among those willing to play the high risk high reward game that is international drug trafficking.

Popular discourse in Kenyan media and general social interaction tends to revolve around naming prominent individuals in society and politics alleged to have amassed their fortunes through drug trafficking. These conversations will typically extend towards allegations of widespread money laundering in sectors of the Kenyan economy such as banking, retail and real estate The real long term effect of Kenya’s growing role in the global drug trade system may be missed by many. Some may even see the influx of large amounts of foreign currency that often go towards property development and other popular money laundering activities as a plus for the country.

Kenya finds itself at “war” on several fronts. There is an ongoing war on extreme poverty, a war on insecurity, and the ever present war on menacing corruption. The growth of drug trafficking has the potential to make these significant challenges grow from difficult to insurmountable. It is by no means a far-fetched idea that in years to come, a war on drugs can find itself among a repertoire of the most significant national challenges aforementioned.

A threat assessment by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggests that an increase in the number of seizures of large consignments of heroin and cocaine alludes to East Africa’s increased involvement as a transit zone of narcotics to South Africa and Europe. These seizures represent only a small percentage of the actual flow of narcotics to the region. Under-resourced port authorities in both equipment and skill, coupled with large scale corruption, enable a large scale flow of illegal narcotics and weapons.  Cocaine and heroin, the highest valued narcotics, are transported in elaborate routes by air and sea through geographically dispersed port systems. These trafficking routes will always leave behind a trail of destruction as the lethal but precious cargo makes its way to the final destination.

We spoke to Anthony Kang’ethe, co-coordinator of the oldest provider of alcohol and drug rehabilitation services in East Africa – Asumbi Treatment Centers. He believes that one of the main drivers behind the increasing number of cases of drug addiction in Kenyan society is the ease of access. Kenyans from all walks of life are falling into the drug addiction trap and society thus far has been slow to recognise and react to the menace.

“Availability of hard drugs at lower prices in comparison to developed societies means that narcotic products are able to penetrate all socio-economic classes in Kenya. This has important economic and social implications for those who fall victim, along with their families, who often also bear the brunt. Heroin use, especially among those in lower socio-economic classes, raises grave concerns over public health,” he says.

Sharing methods that are as unsanitary as they are dangerous have been observed. Blood flushing, for instance, a method of reusing heroin, involves a user withdrawing blood from an individual that has just injected heroin and injecting that blood directly into their own bloodstream. The war on HIV/Aids, an area where Kenya has made strides over the years, now faces new challenges in the form of the spread of the disease via blood flushing and other injection methods used by those inflicted by heroin addiction.

One may think that the threat of the infiltration of narcotic products into the Kenyan society may be limited owing to our conservative nature. However, this could not be further from the truth. Iran, an Islamic Republic founded on conservative constructs, serves as ideal example of how no society is immune from infiltration of narcotics. Amid the destabilisation of neighbouring countries, Iran found itself directly on the path of one of the largest flows of Heroin on its way to European markets from the Middle East. This, coupled with high unemployment rates, has led the country to record four million heroin addicts out of a population of 70 million people. This astonishing statistic has led to their brutal, costly and perpetual war on drugs as the government seeks to limit the damage that the opiate products have already done. Iran’s choice to step up their efforts in confronting drug trafficking was also made necessary due to national security concerns, as the relationship between the two became increasingly defined and visible.

Kenya is no stranger to the effect of organisations that threaten peace and security. The Al-Shabaab terrorist group, like any other organisation, needs to fund its operations, one way or another. Although evidence on direct linkages has been difficult to establish, there is increased speculation that the group earns a significant amount of their revenue from the heroin trade. In 2014, the Australian Navy seized 400kg of heroin worth Sh13 billion off the coast of Somalia. This bust was recorded as a significant win, as it cut off funds to terrorist groups operating within the region.

Aberfoyle International Security, in their role of analysing security issues in the Islamic world, suggest that Al-Shabaab is involved in smuggling heroin from Afghanistan, who then involve organised crime gangs in Nigeria that handle the transportation of the product to European target markets. This enables them to buy sophisticated weapons, communication equipment, achieve influence on local communities, as well as get new recruits in order to extend their terror campaigns in the East African region. This kind of access to adequate and reliable funding creates an organisation that is able to sustain itself and impose a never-ending threat to the security of Somalia and her neighbours.

The war in Afghanistan exemplifies how significant the narcotics trade can be in enabling the existence and longevity of insurgent groups. In Afghanistan, there exist two seasons: opium harvest season and armed conflict season. The opium harvest season enables respite for soldiers from both sides of the conflict, and it is also a time for hefty revenue collection for the Taliban and related groups from harvests from their vast opium fields. This revenue is thereafter used to purchase more arms and supplies for the conflict season, which follows shortly after the harvest. Essentially, the trade of narcotics helped sustain an insurgency that the most powerful military in the world failed to eradicate after more than 15 years of relentless war.

Many countries are unwillingly established as narcotic transit points, and what often follows is an evolutionary cycle in which the trade manifests effects on various factions of a country’s economy and society. The allure of drug money also often results in the evolution of the industry itself. Nigeria, for example, is going from being a key transit point to a manufacturer of narcotics. In March 2016, Nigerian drug agents arrested four Mexican nationals in the Southern Delta State. The foreign nationals were charged with helping Nigerian business men build an industrial scale Meth lab, capable of producing billions of dollars’ worth of methamphetamine (crystal meth) for export to the growing Asian market.

The West African drug commission has for a long time been warning authorities that drug lords are corrupting politicians and law enforcement, with some even running for office themselves.

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