Garissa — Al-Shabaab operatives posing as traders are doing business with Kenyan merchants as a way to fund the militant group's terrorist activities, according to Garissa County Commissioner Mohammed Maalim.
"The trade proceeds, especially from the sugar imports, are going to the coffers of the militant group," Maalim said April 15th during a town hall meeting with local merchants at the Garissa Guest House. "The militants are relying on the trade to sponsor their violence."
The import of Somalia-produced sugar is worth an estimated 100 billion shillings ($1.2 billion) annually, according to Garissa County Development Officer Kenneth Rutere, but much of it is not declared to Kenyan customs officials, making it the country's largest illicit market.
According to the Kenya Sugar Board, the industry regulator, Kenyans consume 800,000 tons of sugar annually, but domestically produce only 500,000 tons.
To meet demand, more than 50,000 bags are imported daily into the north-eastern region from Somalia, some of which is smuggled in illegally, Rutere told Sabahi.
Weapons smuggled in sugar sacks
Maalim said government investigations revealed that al-Shabaab ventured into the sugar trade after it lost control of Kismayo in September, thereby losing its steady stream of revenue raised through taxing goods at the port.
Investigations also revealed that weapons are being smuggled into Kenya in the sugar sacks, he said.
"Some of you are being used [unknowingly] to bring these explosives and guns that are fostering terror in Garissa town," Maalim told local merchants, adding that the Kenyan government is monitoring the activities of some traders due to suspected links to al-Shabaab.
Some local merchants are unaware that they are dealing with al-Shabaab militants in the sugar trade, Maalim said, while others willingly trade with them. He urged business owners to be conscious of the country's security while making purchases.
"Kenya has its own sugar-producing companies in the western region. The traders should place their orders from our local companies for the products until we stabilise our security," he told Sabahi.
Securing the nation is a joint effort, he said, admonishing hotel proprietors for not recording the identities of their guests, thereby making it easy for criminals to escape. He also criticised private hospital operators for treating assailants injured in gunfire exchanges with security officials without reporting them to the authorities.
Enhancing trade, profits and security
North-eastern regional Police Chief Charlton Mureithi appealed for co-operation from residents, saying the threat from al-Shabaab still exists.
"It is a fact that cross-border trade is an essential part of our economy, but we have realised that some unscrupulous traders collude with some security agents to deny the government much-needed revenue from imports and consequently risk the country's security," he told Sabahi. "We will now deal with the group sternly after the distractions of the elections."
He said border patrols and mobile security units have been strengthened to hunt down smugglers of goods and illegal firearms.
Former Diif Ward Councillor in Wajir County Dagane Siyat said security forces should co-operate to strengthen security checks to prevent tax evasion and smuggling of firearms.
"There are instances when goods are taxed without verifying the contents," he said. "The border customs officials should strengthen their working relationship to ensure deadly weapons do not find their way into the country."
Director of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industries in the north-eastern region Zeinab Sheikh Mohammed said cross-border trade brings in millions of shillings in revenue for the government.
"Many goods enter Kenya from Somalia via the Kismayo port," she said. "They include motor vehicles, petroleum products, textiles, tires, electronics and sugar."
She said it was difficult to police the more than 800-kilometre porous border between Kenya and Somalia, and said outreach efforts encourage traders and business owners to help create a secure business environment in addition to earning a profit.
Ali Mohammed Hassan, a 45-year-old trader in Garissa who imports sugar and other foodstuffs, said he had no reason to suspect his business associates of illegal activity in Somalia, and the revelation that the traders could be funding al-Shabaab activities came as a shock.
"With the revelations, I will be careful because I want to transact clean business devoid of shedding anyone's blood or taking lives," he said.