By Peter Thatiah
They drive at breakneck speed. Holstered inside most drivers’ heavy jackets are licensed pistols. Under the passenger seat you will find sheathed Somali swords and for the veterans, another revolver, often illegally acquired.
Most are high on the drug and their pockets bulge with generous pocket money. They are the transporters of Kenya’s most lucrative cash crop — miraa.
But that is where the ‘good news’ ends. From that point, the key operational words are secrecy and physical aggression.
Miraa farmers in Meru’s Kangeta area with their day’s harvest
Those who have been in the business say it is controlled by cartels. Membership to the cartels is to be protected religiously.
Miraa farmers in Meru’s Kangeta area with their day’s harvest
To the new entrants, starting up is a really dangerous undertaking.
No police officer dares to stop the vehicles for speeding. Many drivers who spoke to CCI boasted that they would never stop even if a police officer stops them when on the way to the airport.
They say they would only stop on their way back after depositing the miraa. No one steps on the way of big money.
Grown in a section of Meru North that is atop the Nyambene hills, miraa is the green gold of the region. It has been growing in the area for longer than the oldest residents can recall.
Discreet escort cars
On daily basis, speeding pick-up trucks are seen on the Meru-Nairobi highway mostly in the afternoon ferrying the drug to the airport. Usually, there is an escort car behind driving discreetly at a distance.
For decades now, there has been a booming export trade with the drug mainly destined for Somalia and some European countries. Today, miraa trade has been taken over by shadowy cartels.
Shootings and set-up accidents are integral part of the business, CCI investigations established.
From the time miraa is taken from the farm to the minute the customer buys it in the streets, the middleman is the king. And not anyone can be a middleman.
Joel Mithika, a miraa farmer at Muringene in Meru North, says: "There are two cartels nowadays. The people who buy miraa from the markets here are not the same people who export it. There is a cartel of buyers, consisting of Meru natives and Somali businessmen. The group consists of mainly financiers and they don’t grow the drug. They know the terrain well and they have an impressive network on the ground." Joel Mithika, a Miraa farmer in Kangeta, with his harvest. Photos/ Peter Thatia/ Standard
Joel Mithika, a Miraa farmer in Kangeta, with his harvest. Photos/ Peter Thatia/ Standard
The second cartel involves the exporters of the drug, he says. The exporters are mostly men of Somali origin. This works to their advantage because Somali warlords control the airports and airstrips where planes carrying miraa land.
For the price of two or three bales of miraa, the warlords allow the planes to offload their cargo.
Anyone joining the cartel is required to have joined the big league first by working for the cartel leaders for some years.
Outsiders are not tolerated. In the case of a new entrant ‘unknowingly’ trying to join the business, the cartel leaders will politely send emissaries to tell them to back off.
"When you don’t heed their advice, they will send a message that you have to either choose between your life and the business," Mithika says.
The consequences are always grisly for those who do not heed the advice.
The trader is usually eliminated by professionals who would leave no trails of their actions.
A dealer, who did not wish to be named, says the latest victim was a newcomer who perished along Thika Road near Thika town.
He reveals: "The new trader had been warned for almost two months but he thought it was some bad joke. Just two weeks ago he was followed from Meru and once they were sure the man had delivered his consignment, they waylaid him at Thika. A big truck just drove into his pick-up truck. The police treated the scene as a normal accident and the whole things was forgotten."
In the 1990s there was a hue and cry over killings of prominent businessmen in Meru, mostly by shooting.
Cloaked as normal crime, most of the killings were miraa cartel wars.
Today, the rule of the game appears to have changed. The cartel leaders choose ramming their targets with a truck, leaving no clues behind.
Another case involves a woman dealer whose vehicle was run over by a truck along Murang’a-Nairobi highway. Identified only as Halima, the woman of Somali origin had been warned by some dealers in Meru to get off the business or face the consequences.
The threats continued for two weeks before the hit men swung into action.
For sometime, our source says, she became elusive and kept on operating despite the increasing threats.
A dealer who witnessed the threats being made says the woman decided to play clever and changed her route.
Instead of using the shorter route from Meru through Mwea to Nairobi, she decided to be making a rather winding detour taking her through Kutus, Sagana, Murang’a to Nairobi.
It wasn’t long before the cartel leaders realised that she had been dodging their snares. They simply tracked her to Sagana, where she was ran over by a hit-and-run truck.
Police spokesman Erick Kiraithe says they are not aware of the existence of the cartels.
"There could be a possibility that these cartels exists but the police force has never launched any formal investigations into them," he says.
He says police have never received complaints from anyone concerning cartels in the miraa business.
He says police will investigate if victims of these cartels launch formal complaints.
The impassioned protection of the drug’s trade emanates from the tidy sum that is made by a delivery from the slopes of Meru to the airport in Nairobi.
According to Simon Kobia, a dealer, grade one of the drug fetches around Sh750,000 per pick-up truck once transported to Nairobi.
Grade two is worth between Sh300,000 and Sh400,000 while grade three fetches between Sh100,000 to Sh150,000.
According to findings by the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR), the trade is currently worth over Sh15 billion annualy. With absence of requisite regulation and taxation, the trade is wholly in the hands of cartels that range from farmers in Meru to Somali warlords in Kismayu and Mogadishu.
With the discovery of another variety of the drug that grows faster and offers more intoxication, the growing of the variety is spreading to neighbouring areas mostly in Embu.
The growth of the new variety, called Muguka and which is very popular in Nairobi and other big towns, has attracted a new breed of cartel operating from Embu, and which is equally vicious.
John Ireri, who deals in Muguka, says the base of these cartels in Nairobi is Pangani and the Grogan market.
He says: "You have to pay anything from Sh10,000 to 40,000 to this cartel to be allowed to deal with the drug. There have been no fatalities that have been involved when dealing with these new cartels but the writing is clearly on the wall," he says.
"Just last month they stabbed two men who had refused to pay up. The men didn’t die but didn’t dare to report to the police either," he adds
With the popularity of Muguka growing by the day and many farmers getting into the business, the cartels are in turn getting more organised.
At Embu town, for instance, the cartel members will place hirelings at the main bus stage from Miraa growing areas. If they don’t recognise your face, the young men will simply snatch the drug from you.
As CCI witnessed, this is done in broad daylight, especially at around 10am, when the drug arrives from the miraa growing areas.
With the absence of trucks to ferry Muguka, the growers have devised a way of transporting their product using vans.
Says Ireri: "The vans drive at breakneck speed. Every aspiring dealer is required to ride in these designated Nissans, which do not stop at the bus terminus. They drive straight to the market."
Many dealers claim that they are forced by colleagues to board certain vans, where they are asked to pay a form of tax called Mukei.
Cartel leaders organise gangs at Embu to snatch Muguka belonging to non-compliant dealers on sight.
If you resist, they will stab you. As usual, they will have used a second party to perpetuate their crime. No one can trace the reprisals to them but the dealers can only disobey them at their own peril.