Kenya: Smuggling Thrives in Western Kenya, With Connivance of Corrupt Officers

22 October 2021

A 19-year-old boy was shot dead on September 20 in a commotion between police officers and a rowdy group as Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) officers attempted to seize contraband in Kakamega County.

The incident has lifted the lid on how far smugglers are ready to go to earn a living.

The multibillion-shilling illicit trade in contraband and counterfeit goods thrives in Western Kenya, fuelled by lethal and aggressive, but untouchable, cartels.

The smugglers enjoy the protection of unscrupulous customs officers, corrupt police and other government officers who are part of the well-coordinated syndicate.

In the incident that involved the interception of a lorry carrying 400 bags of uncustomed sugar weighing 50kg each, police reported that the group attempted to free suspects who had been arrested transporting the sweetener.

Kakamega County Police Commander Hassan Barua said 10 suspects who were arrested were trailing the lorry before blocking the road at Makunga.

The officers were escorting the vehicle from Chwele in Bungoma County to a KRA warehouse in Kisumu when they were confronted by the suspects, who used vehicles and motorcycles to block the road, he said.

The officers had to open fire and call for reinforcements from the Kakamega Police Station after they came under attack, Mr Barua said.

Police feared the suspects wanted to drive away the lorry with the sugar, prompting officers to open fire in the incident that happened in broad daylight.

Booming illicit trade

The incident uncovered the booming illicit trade that has spread its tentacles across Western region counties, with Lake Victoria also playing a key role in the syndicate.

The Busia-Ugunja-Kisumu highway, the Usenge-Bondo-Kisumu road, the Nyadorera-Siaya road and clandestine routes are some common avenues used by smugglers.

The Kakamega incident illustrated the harassment and frustration KRA officers and other government multi-agency teams face in the fight against contraband in Western region, making their work difficult, regional coordinator Pamela Ahago said.

"It is more worrying that members of the community have been roped into this dangerous trend that has seen some of our officers facing hostilities during operations to get rid of non-certified goods," she told the Nation.

The Western region is a thriving hub for contraband from neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. The goods easily find their way into Kenya through the porous borders.

Some islands on Lake Victoria are notorious facilitators of the illegal trade that denies Kenya millions in lost tax.

In this trade, unscrupulous business people target restricted commodities and constrain domestic markets and Kenyan producers.

Lenient court fines for offenders have not helped either, with those arrested easily paying their bail and being set free.

Smugglers can easily settle the fines and get back to carrying on with the illicit trade as soon as they are set free, frustrating the fight against smuggling.

The low fines and the fact that impounded vehicles are released back to dealers has dampened the morale of officers involved in the crackdown. Some law enforcement officers have asked courts to order that vehicles seized while transporting contraband be forfeited to the State.

Counterfeit goods

On KRA's list of notorious counterfeit and contraband goods are sugar, maize, tobacco and alcoholic drinks, which are sneaked in through porous border crossings.

"Other than denying local businesses the opportunity to prosper, the quality and safety of the goods are questionable and could risk the lives of consumers," Ms Ahago said.

Major incidents have been reported at unofficial points on Kenya's borders with Tanzania and Uganda, as the smugglers avoid One Stop Border Posts (OSBP).

"The goods which are disposed in the border towns enter the country through Isebania, Busia, Malaba, Bungoma and Bumala," she said.

KRA has seized goods worth Sh16 million in recent months in Homa Bay and Busia counties, following a multi-agency effort led by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, the Anti-Counterfeit Agency and the anti-drug abuse agency Nacada.

Just recently, KRA took steps to enhance surveillance in Lake Victoria, establishing a multi-agency team, led by the Kenya Coast Guard Service, to work 24 hours to curb smuggling.

KRA also deployed patrol boats to combat the proliferation of illegal trade. The boats are strategically placed in Mbita, Usenge and Kisumu, Ms Ahago said.

Officers from KRA, immigration, the National Police Service and others launched an operation on Lake Victoria islands to flush out suspects dealing in the sale of contraband.

The team has recently extended its operations to the inspection of businesses in the towns of Migori, Homa Bay, Kakamega, Kitale, Kisumu and Bungoma, which are marked as high-risk areas.

Notorious conduits

Around this time last year, several security officers and local administrators were reshuffled in Homa Bay as the government moved to make changes to security structures on Lake Victoria islands in a bid to fight illegal trade between Kenya and Uganda.

This followed concerns over collusion between corrupt security officers and traders who engage in illegal business.

Rhemba island in Homa Bay, located a few kilometers from the Kenya-Ugandan border, is among the most notorious conduits for illicit goods.

Some police officers on the island have been accused of sabotaging security operations on the lake and were on the payroll of the rogue traders, presenting one of the greatest challenges in the fight against smuggling.

While launching the 30-day fight against illicit brews and narcotics in the wake of deaths related to outlawed liquor last month, Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho noted that illicit brews have claimed the lives of over 30,000 Kenyans.

"This national initiative will be taken seriously because of the harmful effects the brews have in our country. We will deal with them decisively," Mr Kibicho said at the event in Thika.

In Migori County, at least 16 people were arrested in different areas in a crackdown where illicit alcohol and other contraband goods were seized.

County Commissioner Meru Mwangi said the unscrupulous traders sourced the contraband in Tanzania. He said the business is thriving, especially in remote villages and informal settlements.

The operation was also conducted in Rongo, Isebania, Muhuru Bay, Kopanga, Nyametaburo, Nyamotiro and Ntimaru on the border with Tanzania.

Low-end liquor

The crackdown was also carried out in Homa Bay County, where most contraband and counterfeit goods get in through the vast Lake Victoria.

Homa Bay County Commissioner Moses Lilan said the team also targeted manufacturers, retailers and exporters of alcohol to check whether they had approved licences and other authorisations, including standardisation marks from Kebs.

Security officers in Kakamega also impounded several litres of assorted low-end liquor of unknown value in a house belonging to a prominent businesswoman in the town.

The operation, led by Kakamega County Commissioner Pauline Dola, found a consignment that included over 2,500 litres of assorted low-end alcohol, bottle cocking machines and 190 packets of Supermatch cigarettes meant for export.

Among the liquor netted were bottles bearing the brands Simba, Signature Vodka, Summer Ice Lite, Blue Rider, Chase and Survivor.

KRA has rolled out a sensitisation programme to ensure that traders understand the protocols on the establishment the East African Customs Union.

"It is strange that some of the goods, like agricultural products, don't attract any levy while traders prefer to use riskier methods that could endanger their lives," Ms Ahago said.

She noted that dealing in agricultural products only requires a trader to get the approval of the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) while the Sugar Directorate is the only body with the authority to issue import licences for sugar.

Meanwhile, KRA is working to improve excise stamps so as to eliminate fake stamps that the traders use to deceive unsuspecting Kenyans.

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