Inside Lake Victoria’s vicious extortion cartels

By Isaiah Gwengi | Oct 25, 2019
Kenya Marine police officers patrolling the lake. The officers have been accused of colluding with criminals who extort Kenyan fishermen. [Isaiah Gwengi/Standard]

The long-held view that Lake Victoria is a vast productive resource for all to share, is fast changing.

In its place is an unpleasant pattern — thanks to runaway greed fanned by shadowy cartels operating on the vast waters — that has seen Kenyan fishermen reduced to hostages by criminal networks that not only steal but torture them.

This God-given treasure shared by three East African countries as well as Siaya, Migori, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Busia counties, today enriches only a few.

Torture, extortion and harassment, have become a new nightmare for thousands of fishermen trawling the waters of what is Africa’s largest freshwater lake.

Given that Kenya has the smallest share of Lake Victoria’s waters, totalling six per cent, most of the fishermen move to Ugandan waters to fish.

Rogue officers

Hundreds of fishermen have been arrested by Ugandan security officials, detained and made to part with huge sums of money for allegedly trespassing into our neighbour’s territorial waters.

It has now emerged that some of these arrests are not only illegal, but were stage-managed by rogue Ugandan officers in collaboration with their Kenyan counterparts.

Multiple sources have described the arrests in the lake as a huge money-minting industry as cartels stage-manage arrests and demand kickbacks and fines.

Investigations by The Standard have established that the extortion ring is controlled by rogue police officers, money transfer agents, fisheries officials, traders and revenue officers, who mint millions from the underworld trade.

Because of a strong currency and ill-equipped security personnel to undertake patrols in the lake, the underworld kingpins have created a thriving enterprise and new entrants are not tolerated.

According to our sources, anyone joining the business is required to have pledged allegiance to the rules of the network through familiarisation with the kingpins.

“If you resist, the cartel leaders organise gangs to impound boats belonging to non-compliant fishermen. You can only disobey them at your own peril,” says our source.

In a bizarre incident, a 26-year-old girl was murdered and her body dumped in a pit in Usenge town early this year in what appeared to be a warning as reports emerged that the victim’s employer – a fish supplier in the town – had sponsored a powerful candidate in the Beach Management Unit (BMU) elections and his rivals were unhappy with this.

Boat engine

In yet another incident, a prominent businesswoman was robbed of a new boat engine worth Sh250,000 at gunpoint, two days after she bought it.

The woman, who was a new entrant in the fishing business, had been warned by some dealers to get off the business or face the consequences.

“When you don’t heed their advice, they will send a message that you have to either choose between your life and the business,” says our source.

Last year, Ugandan soldiers arrested three Kenyan Administration Police officers alongside three fishermen. Sources linked the incident to wrangles over control of the lake.

“We had rushed to respond to a distress call from fishermen when we were met by heavily armed men who disarmed us and took away our belongings,” narrates Martin N’gonde, a victim of the attack.

With the trade becoming more lucrative and many fishermen getting into the lake, the cartels are getting more organised.

Ugandan authorities have said that to fish in Ugandan waters, Kenyan fishers have to purchase engines from Uganda.

It has had a huge impact on Kenyan fishers, with no choice but to comply.

According to the fishermen interviewed, a new boat engine costs between Sh150,000 and Sh250,000. Some have changed their engines; others have not.

Even those who have engines from Uganda have been harassed and ended up abandoning fishing.

Besides torture and killings, the kingpins have devised a new system of getting money by demanding monthly protection fee.

After preparing a list of all boats operating in the lake, the group then opens a database, including the name of the boat, its colour, owner’s name and beach of origin.

When circumstances demand, they also issue registration plates for easy identification of the boats.

“After doing all these, they will call boat owners informing them the amount of money they will be required to pay every month. This is where the real extortion starts, as your boat (s) will be constantly impounded if you fail to comply,” says Peter Oluoch, a victim.

Illegal fishing gears

According to the victims, the vice is more pronounced in Hama Island which has been an unofficial toll station where fishermen are tortured and extorted by Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) officers over claims of using illegal fishing gears or trespass.

Once the money has been paid, a small note indicating the nature of the offence and the amount of fine is issued. Kenyan police officers are offered about ten per cent of the Sh30,000 collected from every boat to turn a blind eye.

“It is a chain that ropes in our own police officers who have been providing vital information about the number of boats in the lake and the contacts of their owners,” says one fisherman, adding that they have asked the counties police bosses to take action to no avail.

Michael Okoth (not his real name), a fisherman in Siaya, told us how he paid Sh40,000 to Abdikadir Mohammed, a coxswain, after a senior Kenyan police officer made him believe that he (Mohammed) was a senior security officer in Uganda and that he would facilitate release of his boat.

“We met at a hotel in Usenge town and I was shocked to see the person I know being introduced as the officer who wanted to release my boat,” said Okoth.

Okoth added: “It dawned on me that this was an organised criminal network. I decided to pay the money and travelled to Hama Island two days later to pick my boat.

As The Standard witnessed, the extortion is sometimes done in broad daylight under the watch of Kenyan security officers.

The impassioned protection of the cartels by police emanates from the tidy sum that is made from the fines that are usually between Sh30, 000 and Sh50, 000.

Maxwell Ogolla, a fisherman at Sori beach, Migori County, says they have little faith in police because they are part of the cartels behind the extortions.

Bondo MP Gideon Ochanda says extortion and theft in the lake is an intricate and elaborate affair.

“The harassment and theft in the lake is the genesis of the security patrols that has now evolved into an extortion ring,” he says, arguing that there is need to get other solutions to end this problem.

Siaya County Commissioner Michael ole Tialal admits there is a problem and the Government has launched a crackdown on the cartels. “Extortion is not encouraged by any government and we are going to ensure it ends,” says Tialal.

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