How illicit trade in guns, sugar thrives along porous border

Some smugglers use donkeys to transport goods from Somalia’s border town Bulla-Xawa to Mandera.


Even as the move by Government to close of refugee camps in northern Kenya generates heated debate, reports about smuggling of goods in the region only add fuel to already burning fire.

Dadaab is indeed more than just a refugee camp. Over the years, it has mutated into a major smuggling hub for sugar, rice pasta and electronic goods. Investigations by The Standard on Sunday reveal that illegal immigrants, some of whom have acquired Kenyan ID cards, smuggle more than 15,000 bags of sugar worth more than Sh72 million daily through the porous border with Somalia.

More dangerously, the culprits sneak into the country illegal arms and ammunitions, posing a serious security threat. It is the latter threat that persuaded the Government, through Interior Cabinet Secretary  Joseph ole Lenku, to order the refugee camps closed. Officials of the UNHCR have, however, vowed to defy the order maintaining that the refugees can only leave the country on assurance of their security and better life back home. 

In the meantime, however, the activities of some of the refugees are only but helping to reinforce the Government’s case. Owing to the illicit trade in sugar in the north, Kenya loses Sh5 million in tax revenue daily. Most smuggling is accomplished through connivance of Government officials working in North Eastern including police, Kenya Revenue Authority, Customs officials, the Provincial Administration and the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

The smuggling is conducted in the vast Dagahley, Hagardera and Ifo refugee camps in Dadaab District in Garissa County. Refugees in the Dadaab camps have established links with their relatives back home in Somalia, who bring in imported goods such as sugar from Kismayu Port in southern Somalia.

Unlike in Garissa, where the sourcing of sugar is done by dealers in refugee camps, smuggled sugar which enters via Wajir and Mandera is procured by local Kenyan businessmen and Somali nationals, some of whom have illegally acquired Kenyan IDs. These traders have relatives in Somalia or connections through clan linkages. In an average week, 50 lorries with a capacity of 500 bags, each containing 50kg sugar, enter Wajir town, some offloading their cargo, while others proceed to Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale towns in Marsabit County.

Smuggling has been ongoing along the Kenya-Somalia border since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in the 1990s. It has created an ‘untouchable’ community of millionaires, mainly Kenyan Somali traders, who are protected by a ragtag army in their trade deals. The millionaire smuggling community also includes Government officials who receive huge kickbacks to let in the goods. An eight-week investigation by this reporter, with support from Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG),  established sugar enters through the border towns of Liboi, Mandera, Elwak, Hullugho and Wajir.

Kenya produces 500,000 metric tonnes of sugar annually, while the consumption is approximately 800,000 metric tonnes, leaving a shortfall of 300,000 metric tonnes. This shortfall is supposed to be imported from the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) region.

It is this shortfall smugglers exploit when bringing in sugar. The sugar enters Somalia via the ports of Kismayu, Bosaso and Mogadishu and mainly originates from Brazil, having been packaged in United Arab Emirates (Dubai).

However, smuggled rice comes into Kismayu from Pakistan.

Smuggling is made attractive by the fact that the cost of sugar production in Kenya is about $600 (Sh51,000) per metric ton, which is way above the average production cost of $400 (Sh34,000).

Locally, milled sugar goes for up to Sh120 a kilogramme whereas the smuggled sugar costs as low as Sh50 a kilogramme in the towns of Wajir, Garissa and Mandera. It means smuggled and imported sugar is cheaper than locally-produced sugar.

Following frequent incursions by the Al Shabaab militia into Kenya resulting in sporadic killings, including the shoting of security agents such as administrative police officers, a number of security border posts have been closed down. This has led to major security gaps in the border.

 Due to the increased sugar imports into the Kenyan market during the last six months, retail prices have slightly fallen compared to the same period last year as reflected in the price of sugar in North Eastern.

The smuggling is perfected by cartels that operate from refugee camps through links with their clans in Kismayu. They raise money and send it to their relatives in Somalia through forex bureaus locally known as ‘hawalad’. Their contacts in Somalia, upon receipt of the money, load the ordered quantities of sugar onto waiting lorries and trucks for onward transportation to the border points.

 Illicit deals

 It is at this point that Kenyan traders and brokers get involved in the smuggling. Once the lorries and trucks loaded with smuggled goods get to the border, the Kenyan dealers, who have established illicit relationships with Government officers and security agents, intercede. They pay these officials huge bribes to facilitate the trucks to cross the border. 

A notorious smuggler in Ifo refugee camp, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being victimised for betrayal by his colleagues, says on average, 60 lorries of mainly 25 tons, popularly known as ‘miguu kumi’, carry 500 sacks each weighing 50kgs across the Kenya/Somali border at Dobley, every week.

Usually, 30 trucks offload their cargo in the three camps, while the remaining 30 proceed to Garissa, Modagashe and other small towns on the outskirts of Garissa town, in a process coded as ‘Warabiis’ (feeder) by the smugglers.  According to information we gathered, those found transporting 200 or more 50kg bags of sugar bribe senior security officials with at least Sh130,000, whereas those trafficking 200 bags and less part with a minimum of Sh85,000.

Smugglers prefer ‘sorting out’ the police before the trucks arrive instead of allowing the vehicles to be impounded.  Our smuggler source said: “We usually pay the ‘baraxat’ (pseudonym for bribe in the Somali language) through Kenyan brokers.

These brokers usually have good contacts and are highly trusted by Government and security personnel because of their long established relationships. Bribes amounting to between Sh100,000 and Sh130,000 are paid out to be shared among some Government officials and security agents along the route from Liboi to Dadaab, which include refugee camps of Dagahley, Ifo and Hagardera.”

When the intermediary agents pay bribes, the money is shared between officers at roadblocks and amongst their seniors.

Investigations established that there are about 17 organised brokers from Liboi to Dadaab as well as in Garissa and Modagashe areas, whose responsibility is to ‘smooth’ the way for incoming trucks as soon as the drivers report their departure from Kismayu. The Kenyan brokers and many Somali nationals with illegally acquired Kenyan identification documents usually drive around in Four Wheel Drives with tinted windows.

They enjoy unlimited access to many security areas and get preferential treatment at police stations and KRA offices. They move in and out of police stations, customs and KRA offices to pay off bribes so that their vehicles are allowed to cross unimpeded.

The vehicles travel in convoys of 10-20 lorries at night when there is less movement along the routes getting through security roadblocks uninterrupted and unchecked.  In order to reduce the frequency and amount of ‘baraxat’, smuggling is conducted through five main routes popularly known as ‘cut lines’ or ‘panya routes’ used to transport ‘barmuda’ (Somali for smuggled goods). The preferred routes are Karuraax 1 and 2.

 The other routes

Others are Dobley (Somalia) -Madax-Baagey- Ifo- Garissa- Modogashe (99 kilometers) Dobley-Degelema –Abdi Sugow- Balambala-Ifo or Garissa or Dagahley or Hagardera (110 km).  They also include Dobley-Degelema-Hameey-Welmarer Waldena- Amuma – H/dera- Fafi–Garissa and the 150km Shabah- Dedejabula- Sarif-Biyamadow-Dagahley.

The latter route is lately being avoided because of increasing mobile patrols and road barriers erected by bribe-seeking security officials who may not necessarily be on duty.  The smugglers’ journey from Kismayu port city to refugee camps in Kenya may take about 10 to 12 hours and they usually travel at night to avoid security personnel. They avoid security not for fear of arrest, but extortion.  Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in conjunction with forces from the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) have since taken control of Kismayu port. It would be expected that with their control, smuggling would subside. On the contrary, facts on the ground indicate that this is not the case.  Financing of sugar imports in Somalia is through the export of huge amounts of charcoal from Somalia to the Middle East.

According to a UN report two years ago, charcoal worth  between $35 million (Sh 1.5 billion) and $50 million (Sh4.2 billion) is exported from Kismayu per year. The export of charcoal is thus the bloodline that brings other contraband into Kenya.

 When KDF took over Kismayu, it disregarded a UN request to uphold the ban of the export of millions of tons of charcoal at the port. 

Consequently, the importation of sugar and hence its smuggling to Kenya has continued unabated despite the take-over of the port by military personnel. 

For instance, Dadaab Acting Deputy County Commander, Bernard ole Kipury, acknowledges that smuggling of contraband goods, mainly sugar from Somalia, is a big problem that cannot be overlooked.

He blames the smuggling in Dadaab on its proximity to the border and the involvement of wayward Government officers. He says the Government is committed to fighting the menace. According to Kipury, “efficient policing of our porous borders with Somalia is a very tasking endeavour.” He says there are more than 40 routes which smugglers use interchangeably to sneak in illegal goods. To adequately fight this, he said, the Government would require about 1,500 soldiers to cordon off the borders or install high-tech surveillance cameras “which may be impossible at the moment.”

But the fact remains that the challenge is not that of numbers of officers required for deployment.

The challenge is corruption, lack of patriotism and indiscipline by officers deployed in the region.

As a consequence of illegal imports of arms and ammunition, banditry has for many years become rampant in the region. Further, the illegal trade in charcoal and sugar is believed to be funding the activities of Al Shabaab, the Islamist militia that has been fighting Somalia authorities amd causing insecurity in Kenya, including the recent Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Osman Abdi Ibrahim, the Chairman of Dadaab District Peace Committee says smugglers bring in firearms and ammunition hidden underneath smuggled foodstuffs, taking advantage of the fact that their vehicles are not inspected by security officers. These firearms are later used in criminal acts in Kenya.

Wajir County Police Commander David Kuria says he is liaising with other stakeholders in the county to come up with fresh strategies to deal with the menace. Wajir East Deputy County Commissioner Jacob Warengo says security stakeholders are working on new ways of dealing with the smuggling by making random and incognito crackdowns on business premises.