Why our current tricks won’t end drug trade

Politicians own the pawns, users are jobless and hooked, the police and courts are hungry for easy money; it is an unwinnable matrix

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Sachets of confiscated drugs.

By Newton Arori

Following last month’s attacks by terrorist gangs in Bamburi, Mombasa, which left 13 people dead, Interior CS Dr Fred Matiang’i met with politicians and top security bosses at the coast in a high level meeting from which he emerged with the edict, ‘We are commencing an unprecedented effort to deal with this issue of drug peddling. It is believed that there is a connection between drug use and criminal activities, so to stem the latter, you must deal with the former. ‘It is going to be a painful exercise, but we are prepared to start the journey.” 

The war on drug peddling in Kenya has been waged for decades, with marginal to zero levels of success. As we shall see later in this report, this has been largely the result of corrupt institutions and a subservient political elite.

While recreational drugs such as khat have been with us since pre-colonial times, the trade and use of ‘designer’ drugs (mainly heroin and cocaine) is relatively new. The drug business at the Kenyan coast and the country at large is traceable to small-time heroin traders who flourished in Mombasa and Malindi during the tourist booms of the 1980s. Drug trafficking proper took off in the 1990s when drug lords in Mombasa with connections to Pakistani producers and western markets began transporting heroin through the Mombasa port. The Kenyan coast was therefore a point of transit before it became a market itself. Chief among the pioneer drug barons was the Akasha family. 

The Moi era 

Drug cartels thrived under the Moi presidency by using their newfound wealth to bribe law enforcement agencies and bankroll political campaigns, which further solidified their influence. This is hardly surprising, given the inextricable link between money and politics in Kenya. It is estimated, for example, that in the last general election, a successful gubernatorial campaign cost at least Ksh. 500 million. 

In 2000, the Akasha family patriarch, Ibrahim Akasha, was murdered in Amsterdam by a Yugoslavian mafia over a trade deal gone sour. The feud allegedly originated from the non-payment for a Ksh 200 million heroin consignment he delivered to the Netherlands in 1999. Some believe he was murdered by rivals. Whatever the cause, the senior Akasha’s death was significant in Kenya’s drug trafficking landscape. It led to infighting within the family for the control of the family empire. As a result the family was not only weakened, but brought into sharp focus.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that there was a change of guard at State House. It meant that the drug cartels’ former patrons were out of power, and the new regime wanted a piece of the drug business cake. Those two events – Ibrahim Akasha’s assassination and KANU’s defeat in 2002 – marked the beginning of the crime family’s woes, from which it would never quite recover.  

In the following successive years, well connected local politicians and businessmen took advantage of this temporal void left by the Akashas to get into the drugs market themselves. A US embassy dossier tabled by in Parliament by then Internal Security Minister George Saitoti in 2010 named six members of Parliament in connection with the drug trade. Saitoti would later die in a plane crash believed to have been orchestrated by the drug syndicates.

Indeed, it is not unusual for drug lords to deal ruthlessly with anyone who dares get in their way. GSU officer Erastus Chemorei’s killing in 2005 was linked to the disappearance of the largest ever drug consignment ever nabbed in the country: Sh6.4 billion worth of cocaine. At the time of his death, Chemorei was manning a warehouse in Embakasi, Nairobi, where the seized haul was kept. A documentary by KTN’s investigative journalists Mohammed Ali and Dennis Onsarigo revealed that Chemorei was killed extrajudicially by fellow police officers at his home in Kitale. According to witness accounts, Chemorei was shot dead after he refused to surrender the keys. As a cover-up, the police sensationally claimed that Chemorei was a wanted criminal, but failed to explain why he had not been arrested and charged with the alleged offences.

The fall of the Akasha empire 

Growing concern, international pressure and, most importantly, lack of political clout, finally led to the extradition of the Akasha brothers and two of their associates to the United States to face drug trafficking charges in 2017.

The trial exposed the worrisome extent to which drug dealers are able to manipulate local authorities. A long-time associate of the Akashas, Vijay Goswami, told a stunned New York courtroom that he and the Akashas had paid Sh400 million in bribes to Kenyan police, politicians and prosecutors in order to carry out the drug trade unhindered. Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha themselves confessed to stealing chemicals from Kenyan government laboratories after bribing officials. The trial culminated in the jailing for 25 years of Baktash Akasha in August this year.

Goswami’s confessions echo the sentiments of former Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa, thus: “Drug barons have bought some of our officers… We have information that police vehicles and ambulances are being used to transport drugs within Mombasa County and the Coast region.

25 YRS
Prison sentence handed to Baktash Akasha by a  New York court for drug trafficking.

Further, says the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs:

“Stemming the flow of illicit drugs is a challenge for Kenyan authorities. Drug trafficking organisations take advantage of corruption within the Kenya government and business community, and proceeds from drug trafficking contribute to the corruption of Kenyan institutions. High level prosecutions or large seizures remain infrequent.”

According to the Bureau, only a tiny fraction of the drugs believed to transit in and through Kenya is seized by the authorities. Due to a lack of political goodwill and institutional capacity, arrests rarely lead to convictions. When convictions occur in Kenya, they are for lower level couriers and distributors.

It is highly unlikely that Baktash Akasha would have been convicted had his trial taken place in Kenya.

While the law provides for seizing of property obtained with the spoils of drug trafficking, tracing the proceeds of the trade is not a walk in the park either. As award winning investigative journalist Ken Opala writes in the Daily Nation, ‘…the present day (drug) kingpin is a complex creature, who juggles a matrix of illicit activity – tenderpreneurship and political brokerage, money laundering, smuggling, gun running, wildlife and timber poaching and human trafficking.”

A major cause of drug trafficking is joblessness, as Mombasa County commissioner Evans Achoki points out. 

“The challenge facing most youth in Mombasa, as it is in other parts of the country, is unemployment… it leads to idleness that in turn leads to drugs. Once addicted, they have to look for money to buy drugs, so they get involved in theft.”

Kenyan Coastal youth, most of them jobless, have borne the brunt of the multi-billion dollar drug business. NACADA estimates that 20,000-50,000 Kenyans inject heroin. Of these, 82 percent are below 35 years. The injection is typically done via shared needles, placing the addicts at a risk of various diseases.

Flawed legislation 

Besides the problems of political patronage, corruption and unemployment, Kenya’s legislation on drug trafficking has significantly slowed down the war against the vice. Kenya’s primary legislation regarding drug trafficking is the Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act of 1994. The Act criminalises the ‘possession of, and trafficking in, narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and cultivation of certain plants.” 

It prescribes a fine of Sh1 million and seizure of property for the offence of trafficking. Given the high value of drugs such as cocaine, this fine is unlikely to deter the major players in the drug trafficking syndicate. Meanwhile, it is excessively punitive to low level transporters. The Act also criminalises drug use. Section 5 of the Act provides:

“…any person who—(a) smokes, inhales, sniffs or otherwise uses any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance; or (b) without lawful and reasonable excuse, is found in any house, room or place to which persons resort for the purpose of smoking, inhaling sniffing or otherwise using any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance; or (c) being the owner, occupier or concerned in the management of any premises, permits the premises to be used for the purpose of—  (i) the preparation of opium for smoking or sale, or the smoking, inhaling, sniffing or otherwise using any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance; or (ii) the manufacture, production, sale or distribution of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance in contravention of the Act; or (d) has in his possession any pipe or other utensil for use in connection with the smoking, inhaling or sniffing or otherwise using of opium, cannabis, heroin or cocaine or any utensil used in connection with the preparation of opium or any other narcotic drug or psychotropic substance for smoking, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of two hundred and fifty thousand shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or to both such fine and imprisonment.

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NACADA estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 Kenyans inject heroin. Of these, 82 percent are below 35 years.

This expansive provision is not only unwarranted but harmful. For one, the fear of a jail term or fine causes many drug users to conceal their problem instead of seeking treatment; many have died in hiding. There is also high social stigma against addicts wherever drug use is criminalised. Second, jailing addicts puts them at an even greater risk of using drugs. It is far easier to get drugs in jail. There, prisoners mostly share needles, putting them at risk of contracting diseases such as HIV.

Proponents of criminalising drug use suppose that the fear of jail deters potential drug users. So far, unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this position. The government resources used to incarcerate drug users could be channelled to better use, for example treatment of the addicts.

With the fall of the Akasha empire, and government’s apparent newfound zeal in fighting the narcotics business, the drug problem in Kenya seems to have subsided, at least for the moment. Yet we must not be fooled, the fall of the Akashas was occasioned more by their dwindling fortunes and resultant falling out of favour with Kenyan power brokers than it was about successful deterrence methods. It is doubtful that they would have been extradited had they still been funding politicians’ campaigns. 

The war on drugs can be won only with sustained efforts and genuine political goodwill. The Judiciary and the Police are key players in the fight, and it cannot be won if those institutions are mired in corruption as they currently are. The Government must strive to create jobs for the youth. Relevant legislation must also be reviewed to conform to international best practice.

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