On the night of March 22 this year, a convoy of ten 25-tonne trucks carrying sugar smuggled from Somalia was stopped by Kenya Police Reservists (KPRs) on a smugglers’ route in Wajir East constituency.
A stand-off ensued after the drivers and loaders refused to open the cabin doors as they made frantic phone calls.
The eight KPRs stood their ground and refused to let the vehicles leave. But not long after they received a phone call, reportedly from a senior police officer, that made them change their minds.
The truck drivers, it emerged, contacted a notorious smuggler who enjoys the protection of local officials and secured the intervention of the senior police officer.
The Standard has obtained an audio clip of the telephone conversation in which the officer is heard instructing the KPRs to negotiate with the smugglers and let the vehicles through.
“Elewana na huyo mtu na uache hizo magari (reach a agreement with the smuggler and let the vehicles through),” said the senior officer.
One of the KPRs said they were ordered not to interfere with the convoy.
A smuggler in a refugee camp who spoke on condition of anonymity said about 60 lorries, each carrying 500 sacks of sugar (each weighing 50kg) cross the Kenya-Somali border at Dobley every week.
Usually, the trucks, popularly known as ‘miguu kumi’ (10 wheels), ferrying sugar and other contraband come from Diif, Somalia, some 40km from the border.
The cartels use 165km of dirt road routes from Diif-Ibrahim Ure-Hambalash-Wajir town of Wajir South, and in Wajir East. Konton-Riba-Qarsa-Riba-Wajir (185km).
A two-week investigation by this reporter established other popular sugar smuggling routes are the border towns of Liboi, Mandera, El Wak and Hullugho.
“We don’t know what these vehicles are carrying. They may be transporting arms and even facilitating the crossing over of terror operatives,” said one of the KPRs.
The Government has posted an additional 200 KPRs in centres along the porous Kenyan-Somalia border to beef up security but such interference by senior Government officials has undermined their operations.
Sugar smuggling is a multi-billion-shilling business. High-level connections with the security apparatus, politicians and other institutions has ensured a thriving and untouchable syndicate.
Once the trucks loaded with smuggled goods get to the border, the Kenyan dealers, who have established illicit relationships with Government officers and security agents, intercede.
Five cartels led by a Hassan control the Wajir market. They pay the officials huge bribes so the trucks are allowed to cross the border.
Hassan tried to bribe this reporter and his colleague with Sh100,000 each and when they rejected the bribes, he issued death threats. The journalists were helped by two KPRs to flee. They reported the matter to the county police commander.
North-eastern Regional Commissioner Mohamud Swaleh promised to follow up the matter.
One of the KPRs who aided The Standard's investigation has since been deprived of his gun and suspended.
“As an officer manning the porous border, I am now unarmed and have received numerous death threats from the cartels. I have also heard county security heads are planning to take my colleagues’ guns. I will pay with my life. We cannot allow sugar cartels to destroy our peaceful nation”, said the KPR.
Smuggling has been a thriving business 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.
Corrupt Government officials receive huge kickbacks to let the goods in.
Kenya’s annual sugar production is 500,000 metric tonnes against a consumption of approximately 800,000 metric tonnes.
The shortfall of 300,000 metric tonnes ideally should be plugged with imports from the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa region. It is this deficit that smugglers exploit.
The smuggled sugar is cheap - by more than half the price of the commodity produced locally.
The cost of sugar production in Kenya is about $600 (Sh51,000) per metric tonne, which is way above the average production cost of $400 (Sh34,000).
Given the high cost of production, local sugar retails for up to Sh120 per kilo. The smuggled sugar costs as low as Sh50 a kilo in the towns of Wajir, Garissa and Mandera.
Shops in Wajir are awash with goods from Somalia, whose quality has not been certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards. This serves to knock Kenyan-made products off the market.
The cheap sugar imports enter Somalia via the ports of Kismayu, Bosaso and Mogadishu, and mainly originate from Brazil, having been packaged in Dubai.
Besides sugar, smuggled rice comes to Kismayu from Pakistan.
Following frequent incursions by Al Shabaab militia into Kenya, a number of security border posts have been closed down. This has led to major security gaps at the border.
Due to the increased sugar imports to Kenya during the last six months, retail prices have fallen slightly compared to the same period last year as reflected in the price of sugar in North Eastern region.
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’.
After receiving the money, their contacts in Somalia load the ordered quantities of sugar onto waiting trucks for onward transportation to the border points.
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 to be shared among Government officials and security agents along the smuggling routes in northern Kenyan counties.
Our investigations established there are about 25 organised brokers in the three counties 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 drive vehicles with tinted windows.
They enjoy unlimited access to many security areas and get preferential treatment at police stations and Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) offices. They move in and out of police stations, customs and KRA offices to pay bribes so that their vehicles are allowed to cross unimpeded.
The vehicles travel in convoys of 10 to 20 lorries at night, when there is less movement along the routes, getting through security roadblocks uninterrupted and unchecked.
Is Kenya totally unable to rein in this illegal trade? The challenge is not lack of enough of officers to deal with the unscrupulous merchants. The challenge is corruption, lack of patriotism and indiscipline among the officers deployed in the region.
And as a consequence of illegal imports of arms and ammunition, banditry has remained rampant in the region for many years. Further, the illegal trade in charcoal and sugar is believed to be funding the activities of Al Shabaab.
Abdiraman Hussein, a member of Peace Committee in Wajir, says the smugglers also bring in firearms and ammunition hidden underneath the smuggled foodstuff. They take advantage of the fact that Kenyan security officers do not inspect their vehicles.
These firearms are later used in crime in Kenya.
Asked about the smuggling of sugar, Wajir Police Commander Steven Ngetich said: “I have just heard about your encounter with the sugar cartels and KPRs. We will launch an investigation but so far, we don’t have a conclusive report that we can make arrests.”