One morning in 2016, Maina, a trader, was woken up by loud knocks on the door of his one-roomed house in Mai Mahiu town, Nakuru County.
Alarmed and still groggy from sleep, he stumbled to the door only to be met by two plainclothes detectives who bundled him into a waiting saloon car without offering an explanation for his rude awakening and arrest.
What would follow was a day-long ordeal of intense interrogation that he says left him scarred for life and informed his decision to flee the town, never to return.
But why would detectives waste their time on a small-time trader like Maina? Acting on a tip-off, they wanted to know the source of the cooking oil he stocked in his small shop.
Apparently, the oil had been stolen from a relief food truck headed to South Sudan.
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And what is worse, the truck driver had “overturned” the truck and claimed that most of the products he was ferrying had been stolen in the process.
“This is a business (theft of goods on transit) that has made a lot of people millionaires. There’s a sophisticated racket that would go to any lengths to protect it. Woe unto you if you’re caught in the crossfire,” said Maina in a cautionary tone.? Though Maina was found innocent, explaining that he was a victim of purchasing the product from the “wrong supplier,” his story sheds light on a criminal network operating on key Kenyan highways.
Mai Mahiu, loosely translated to “hot water” in Kikuyu, is the capital of this racket. In the underbelly of this sleepy town enclosed by an escarpment, lies a well-connected criminal syndicate of self-styled highway bandits.
The winding road to the town from Nairobi is a nightmare for motorists, many of whom have plunged into the valley below in an attempt to avoid the gaping potholes in most sections.
Long-distance trucks line up the town’s dusty streets that are dotted by cheesy lodgings, bars and brothels; it is Kenya’s version of sin city.
Trucks are waylaid and goods stolen sometimes through collusion between the bandits and the drivers.
Drivers who are not part of such sleazy enterprises are easily killed if they resist.
An in-depth investigation on illicit trade and theft of goods on transit by Financial Standard revealed how deep the rot goes, roping in rogue law enforcers.
Here, we were told we can get almost everything from fertiliser, seeds, sugar, wheat and maize flour, dry maize, cooking fuel, cement and hardware materials including nails, timber and fibre boards, whose source is questionable.
What is ironical is that the town, with an estimated population of 50,000, does not have any factories or a bustling market. The goods are simply stolen from trucks on transit, repackaged and consequently sold to the public.
Even relief food to refugee camps in northern Kenya or war-ravaged neighbouring countries is not spared by the cartels that seek to profit from the illicit trade.
In a bid to escape the authorities, cereals transported as part of relief food once stolen are emptied into new sacks or containers and resold through brokers who are part of a well-oiled conveyer belt for the illicit trade.
The town is less than a two-hour drive from Nairobi and 50 kilometres northwest of the capital. It is also the entry point to Nakuru County, bordering three other counties - Kiambu, Nyandarua and Narok. Its geographical location is important because it’s a conduit for goods transported through the northern corridor. It is, therefore, the main route for various transit cargo.
Our investigation revealed that after goods are loaded from the port of Mombasa, they make their way to Nairobi then to Naivasha (through Mai Mahiu), then Narok, Bomet and finally to Kisumu through Nyamira town.
Vehicles headed to Turkana or even South Sudan can also use this route.
The potholes and heavy traffic do not stop unscrupulous truckers from carrying out their illegal mission.
Agricultural goods, motor vehicle spare parts and even relief food, including that which is donated by global NGOs and Western governments, are transported through the route.
Most of the relief food is destined for Turkana County, home to the Kakuma refugee camp, one of Africa’s biggest camps. To get a glimpse of the murky underworld of the illicit trade marked by betrayal, dirty money and even murder, the Financial Standard team posed as buyers of cereals.
We had received information about a truck transporting relief food to South Sudan from the port of Mombasa.
After establishing contact, the broker promised to get us a 50kg bag of lentils for not less than Sh5,000.
In this case, the broker had colluded with the truck driver who kept updating him on his journey and the intended time and date of arrival in Mai Mahiu.
However, things did not go according to plan, and the driver did not stop in the town after he developed cold feet, fearing that he would be exposed as he was part of a convoy of other trucks.
Following multiple interviews with players in the illicit trade game, the Financial Standard was able to gather information on how the highway bandits operate.
Once the trucks make a stopover in the town, the organised highway bandits strike. The theft depends on whether they have an agreement with the truck drivers. The bandits also attack random trucks mostly at night.
The goods are then repackaged at the “stores” ready for the market.
The cereals are sold in towns such as Limuru and Kwambira in Kiambu County and neighbouring Naivasha town. Buyers also come from as far as Gitaru and Nairobi. Kwambira is also a thriving hub for illicit trade.
Peter Mbugua, a former truck driver dreads making a pit-stop in Mai Mahiu town even for a quick meal or a drink.
Besides the fear of being identified as a target by the illegal trade cartels, he is also wary of the gangs siphoning fuel from his truck during such a stopover.
More riveting is the revelation of how goods are stolen from the trucks without detection.
Mbugua explained that the theft occurs despite a special seal issued by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) at the port of origin and placed on the container doors to prevent tampering.
It is against this that KRA has introduced a new electronic system to track and monitor cargo on transit dubbed the Regional Electronic Cargo Tracking System (RECTS). This, the taxman says, has “significantly” reduced theft cases.
Once inside, the unscrupulous traders in cahoots with truck drivers use a thin pipe that is sharpened on one side to pierce the sacks and siphon an “insignificant” amount of the product on transit, say just over 100 grammes.
By siphoning the grains and foodstuffs such as lentils, flour, rice and sugar in small amounts from approximately 500 (50Kg) bags in a single container, the highway bandits get surplus bags that they repackage and sell.
The bandits partner with brokers who help sell the products that are hidden in “stores” just outside the town.
Mai Mahiu is also known for the sand business which is run in a cartel-like manner. In an interview with Financial Standard, Kenya Transporters Association (KTA) Chief Operating Officer Mercy Ireri decried the rise in the illicit trade of goods on transit.
Ms Ireri further highlighted the Webuye-Eldoret route as another thriving hotspot for theft of goods on transit.
Langas town in Eldoret, she said, is another notorious hub for the highway bandits. Ireri said truck drivers in the area are often lured by hitch-hikers at night.
Despite being entitled to certain allowances and overtime pay, some rogue drivers are keen to earn an extra shilling by carrying passengers along their routes.
She explained that most of the commonly reported cases of theft have one thing in common -- prostitutes feigning to be in danger and urgently needing a ride. Unknown to the truck drivers, the women usually work in collaboration with the highway gangs and in some cases rogue police.
“At night, prostitutes seduce drivers and ask for lifts to Eldoret. After that, everything goes horribly wrong for the drivers,” said Ireri.
She said the women of the night wait to get to an area with police presence and claim to have been raped by the drivers.
The rogue police officers then arrest the driver in question and take him away for questioning away from the truck during which time the thugs jump into action.
Other hotspots include Mtito-Andei and Kalulu on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway.
This story was produced in partnership with the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications through the Kenya Impact Fellowship project.