A few years ago, Mombasa gained notoriety for being an international drug trafficking hub and route -- a tag its been struggling to shake off.
The port city’s drug story is reminiscent of scenes from from the 2018 celebrated American-Colombian crime drama series “Narcos”.
It is a story of private beachfront, yachts and jets, tonnes of cocaine or heroin, and gun battles in the streets and inside exclusive clubs.
The fall of Ibrahim Abdalla Akasha and his sons, Habab, Ibrahim and Kamaldin brought some relief in the fight against narcotics.
But perhaps the biggest sign of the State’s intent to win the war on drug barons was the sentencing of seven foreigners to life imprisonment by a magistrate’s court last week.
Mombasa Chief Magistrate Martha Mutuku sentenced the foreigners for trafficking heroin worth Sh1.3 billion.
The seven are Yousuf Yaqoob, Mohamed Saleh, Yakoob Ibrahim, Saleem Muhammad, Bhatti Abdul Ghafour, Baksh Moula and Pak Abdolghaffer.
For decades, Ibrahim Abdalla Akasha, the patriarch of the Akasha family, wielded immense power and connections in Mombasa through threats and money that bought influence in Kenya, southern Africa and the Middle East.
In Kenya, his family was untouchable. It was only in early 1990s that his son Habab became the first victim of the drug empire after he was jailed for ten years by a Tanzanian court.
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After he was set free from a Tanzanian jail, Habab kept off drugs trade and operated a spare parts business in Mombasa.
Multiple scholarly articles blamed failure to successfully prosecute the Akashas for the flourishing drug trade in Mombasa.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has on several occasions cited Mombasa as a transit point for drugs to Europe and America.
On May 2, 2000, Akasha was felled by an assassin’s bullet in one of Amsterdam’s red light districts. However, this did not end the drugs trade in Mombasa.
Two years later, on March 28, 2002, his son, Kamaldin, was shot dead outside his petrol station in Makupa, Mombasa. The death was blamed on one of Kamaldin’s stepbrothers.
Media reports and interviews of some security agents indicated that the feud within the polygamous Akasha family was fuelled by his sons’ quest to be the heir apparent.
After Habab quit the drug trade and Kamaldin was killed, Baktash inherited his father’s vast financial empire.
On October 24, 2018, Baktash and Ibrahim pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking charge in the United States Federal Court -- by then no single member of the Akasha family had been convicted in Kenya.
A year later, in August 2019, Baktash was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and in January 2020, his brother Ibrahim jailed for 23 years.
The convictions in the US sparked an outcry, with Kenyans online accusing the Judiciary of ineptness or being compromised in the war against drugs.
The then Chief Justice David Maraga said the Akasha case was not only an example of weakness in the Judiciary, but the entire government’s effectiveness in the war on drugs.
But the Akasha family claimed they were victims of propaganda by rival businessmen and families.
The drug menace had spread to Kwale, Lamu and Kilifi, where in 2004 a large haul of heroin was found in Malindi.
The judicial system has often been blamed as the weakest link in the war on drugs.
There have been a series of busts and arrests of suspected drug barons in Coast, including the 2004 incident when cocaine worth Sh6 billion was found stashed in a house in Malindi and inside a speedboat, and in Nairobi.
This dwarfed the first huge consignment found in Chale Island, Kwale, in 1996. The suspects, mostly foreigners, were deported and found their way back.
But the State’s failure to prosecute suspects linked to the 2004 cocaine haul led to the resignation of the then Director of Public Prosecutions Philip Murgor, sparking outrage from Western diplomats.
In 2014, former President Uhuru Kenyatta reinvigorated the war on drug trafficking, leading to the extradition of the sons of the Akasha to the US to face drug-related charges.
Last Friday’s sentencing of six elderly Pakistanis and an Iranian to life imprisonment in Mombasa was the culmination of the war started by Uhuru.
The seven convicts had been hired as crew members for Armin Darya vessel, which was intercepted in the Indian Ocean by American operatives on July 15, 2014.
In what was perceived as a bold move in ending impunity, the former president supervised the bombing of the ship in the Indian Ocean despite existing High Court order to preserve it as a court exhibit.
“We will not allow drug barons to use the courts to frustrate our resolve to eradicate this scourge. For years, they have been hiding under the court process,” said Uhuru then.
Justice Maureen Odero said the destruction was “premature”, adding that “most probably the identity of the vessel owner would have been revealed,” had it not been blown up.
Other judges questioned whether the destruction of the heroin was done per the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act of 1994 and regulations published in 2006.
In August 2015, Kenya Navy again blew up a Singaporean-registered luxury yacht off the Coast, laden with narcotics in Kilifi in another case aimed to discourage the trafficking of drugs.
Multiple police reports revealed that the yacht, MV Baby Iris initially owned by a British national was laden with heroin worth Sh22 million.
It was also revealed that on April 10, MV Baby Iris had ferried wealthy Western tourists between Kenyan ports, Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam, Madagascar, and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
Seychellois Clement Serge Bristol, the yacht’s pilot, and Kenyans Ahmed Said Bakar, Mohamed Bakari Mohamed, Sharifu Mzee Mohamed, and Ahmed Hussein Salim, were charged with trafficking heroin.
Delivering her judgment last Friday, Mutuku, lamented about the convicts’ oath secrecy after they declined to name the owner of the heroin worth Sh1.3 billion found in their vessel.
“I find the crew members culpable. The vessel’s GPS was off and the drugs were well concealed, and they didn’t exonerate themselves by telling the court the ship’s owner and who sent them,” said Mutuku.
The chief magistrate surmounted several hurdles during the hearing of the case. At one time, the convicts claimed she had no jurisdiction to hear the matter.
After they failed to remove Mutuku from the case, the convicts employed another trick to delay the case after they demanded a new interpreter fluent in Persian language.
One of the convicts, Pak Abdolghaffer wanted the case against him to start fresh so that he could be accorded a fair trial as stipulated in the Constitution of Kenya.
In his application, Abdolghaffer wanted a new interpreter, claiming that the current one that was provided was not well-versed in Farsi and Parsi languages.
He told the court that he does not understand Hindu, Urdu, and Arabic languages and that the current interpreter Amin Junega was not well-versed in the Farsi language.
In her judgment, Mutuku said the prosecution produced enough evidence to convict the accused crew members and proceeded to convict them under section 215 of the CPC.
The section states that: “The court having heard both the complainant and the accused person and their witnesses and evidence, shall either convict the accused and pass sentence upon or make an order against him according to law, or shall acquit him.”
“I hereby, sentence the seven accused to life imprisonment and also to pay a fine of three times the value of the drugs, over Sh.1.3 billion,” said Mutuku.
The court placed special emphasis on the transnational nature of the crime and that although the nine were elderly and had stayed in custody for nine years, the court had no option. A Mombasa-based human rights group, Commission for Human Rights and Justice executive director Julius Ogogoh said the sentence was the first of its kind in the war on drug trafficking.
“Once drug barons know that in Kenya, we destroy ships and yachts, however expensive they are, and suspects are jailed for life, they will not dare to use Mombasa as a transit route,” he said.
In 2019, Mombasa was named a new drug trafficking hub and route for heroin and cocaine destined for Europe, according to a feature story by France 24 TV.
The report by Jean Michel Renovic and Catharine Hamilton showed how heroin and cocaine from Asia and Latin America transit through Mombasa Port before finding its ways to Europe and Dubai.
The feature indicated that most of the heroin reaches the port of Mombasa through ships from Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.
The original routes of the Middle East and Balkans are experiencing an immigrant crisis, thus giving birth to Mombasa as a safe destination for the traffickers.
It is estimated that the drug trafficking syndicate churns 100 million Euros profit per year for the kingpins.
The report attributes the new route to the poorly monitored Kenyan Coast allowing the traffickers to smuggle drugs into the country using small boats and yachts.
The porous border of Lunga Lunga makes it easy for traffickers to smuggle drugs into Mombasa from neighboring Tanzania.
The feature by France 24 TV indicates how the unmanned port has led to increased use of heroin and cocaine in Mombasa, with the numbers soaring from 2,500 to 5,000.
The traffickers now connect to Europe and Dubai from Nairobi directly, with some using South Africa and West Africa.