Nairobi, Kenya – A WATER GLASS SHARED BY 200 ADDICTS
In downtown Mombasa, a nondescript office sandwiched between multistoreyed buildings is busy as usual.
Every five minutes or so, gaunt youths, eyes bloodshot, walk into the tiny reception and straight away dash to the water dispenser at the far corner. They refill the only plastic glass next to the dispenser without rinsing it, and eagerly empty its contents before turning to the reception desk.
Between 9.30 am and 10.30 am, as this writer waits for the director of Reach Out Centre Trust, an independent outfit that helps Mombasa residents fight drug addiction, the 10-litre dispenser bottle is already finished, but it is instantly replenished. The office doesn’t seem to have a designated receptionist. But the hushed talk between the visiting youths and any official around the reception ends up in a familiar refrain.
‘Sorry, the methadone [an analgesic drug similar to morphine used in the treatment of heroin addiction] hasn’t arrived yet. We were promised a new batch a fortnight ago but nothing is here yet. But please, do keep checking.’ Then the dejected youths – one in five are female – leave the building. The ‘clients’ (known by the derogatory term mateja), are hooked on madawa, the local phrase for heroin and/or cocaine.
NACADA says 0.1% of Kenyans consume heroin; implicitly, Kenya is a trafficking rather than a consumer country although reports indicate that it is increasingly becoming an end-user
They want to break the habit, and methadone is the only solution they know about. But it has been in short supply lately. Donors had delayed disbursing funds for the acquisition of methadone. Nonetheless, the water appears to cool their nerves – for the time being. By the close of the day, more than 200 clients will have shared the glass, many of them without rinsing it.
Ominously, the casual way they use unwashed glasses (and thereby risk contracting hepatitis B), is the way they share heroin needles – a sure way of transmitting HIV. And as will be seen later in this report, injectable drug users (IDUs) have become the key agents of HIV spread in the country, accounting for about 18 per cent of new infections.
There are dozens of such methadone clinics, first introduced last year at Kenya’s Coast. Nairobi’s Mathare Hospital started administering this medication in 2014; its specialised clinic treats 450 patients daily. The 51 beds in the rehab ward are always full, with each patient staying 90 days. At the Coast, the Malindi and Mombasa government hospitals each treat 200 addicts a day.
The government moved to introduce methadone following the death of addicts triggered by heroin shortages occasioned by clampdowns on drug barons. Over 100 addicts died in 2011, many more in 2013-2014, though the total number is yet unknown.
According to the International Drugs Policy Consortium (IDPC), heroin started to be consumed in Kenya in the cities that were used as transit points (such as Mombasa) before spreading to other regions of the country and to Nairobi. Now, some 20,000 to 55,000 Kenyans inject heroin. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA) says it is monitoring 25,000 intravenous drug users (IDUs) spread around the country. The population that snorts the drug is still unknown but it could be larger than that of IDUs, according to the Anti-Narcotics Unit (ANU) officials.
These addicts are part of the $322 billion global drug market, as valued in 2011. And as will be seen later in this article, East Africa, a key transit hub for drugs destined for Europe and the United States, contributes $10 billion to this business. Kenya is a major player, as a trafficking hub, in this illicit global commerce.
NACADA says 0.1% of Kenyans consume heroin; implicitly, Kenya is a trafficking rather than a consumer country although reports indicate that it is increasingly becoming an end-user. ‘While data on heroin users in Kenya is limited, UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) has warned that heroin addiction appears to be on the rise in the country, particularly along the Coast,’ American online news portal huffingtonpost.com said a year ago.
‘Only a tiny fraction of the drugs believed to transit in and through Kenya is seized by authorities. Arrests rarely lead to convictions. When convictions occur in Kenya, they are of lower level couriers and distributors’
The heroin comes from Afghanistan and gets here via Pakistan. According to experts, things look bad this season. Afghanistan’s opium production could reach a new high – about 8,800 tonnes (which can produce as much as 530 tonnes of heroin). Volumes have been on an upward trend since 2010, and reached a record high in 2014, says the UNODC. Eight per cent of this will pass through the East African region, what the UNODC calls ROEA (Region of Eastern Africa that draws in Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda).
Given that 12 per cent of that is consumed locally, 5 tonnes (with an estimated street value of $1.3 billion) will remain in the region, with Kenya being the major consumer. But other reports indicate a higher figure. About 8 tonnes enter Kenya, according to a Reuter news article of March 2015 headlined As Heroin Trade Grows, a Sting in Kenya.
BLOOD FLASHING: A DEADLY SHARING
A year ago, huffingtonpost.com published a worrying story about Kenya’s drug problem titled Recovering Addicts Battle Kenya’s Exploding Heroin Problem. It said as more heroin flooded into East Africa, more and more Kenyans were getting hooked on it.
‘Drugs are destroying our communities,’ MP Abdulswamad Shariff Nassir has lamented. His Mvita constituency is among those hardest hit by the drugs problem in Mombasa, with other hotspots being Likoni and Kisauni. ‘The courts have to protect our citizens, and that’s not happening.’
The Mombasa ‘carnage,’ in the words of a Coast-based senior medical officer, wasn’t entirely unexpected. As early as 1998, Noah arap Too, then head of the country’s Criminal Investigation Department, the police arm charged with arresting trafficking among other crimes, sounded a warning, as did the United Nations.
Nothing happened. Michael Ranneberger, the United States ambassador who during his tour of duty from 2001-2011 made the anti-corruption war a personal crusade, much to the chagrin of the then regime of president Mwai Kibaki, wondered whether the country’s inertia in fighting narcotics was ‘Incompetency? Lack of will? Or worse?’ as reported in Wikileaks.
The sin of omission has caught up with Kenya. Today in Mombasa, addicts do what is called ‘blood flashing’ – the sharing of heroin-laced blood between those already high and those in need of a quick fix, practised by addicts who cannot afford the drug. This fatal ritual has been going on for about a year now, according to medical experts at the Coast.
Rene Berger, the USAid Kenya HIV/Aids team leader, says blood flashing is putting anti-HIV programmes in Kenya at risk, and warns that joblessness, prostitution and drug abuse are fuelling a ‘sense of desperation’ at the Coast.
Already, injection of heroin is becoming a key factor in HIV transmission. Figures are scanty as no serious research has been undertaken to link the drug to the spread of the disease, but the information available indicates that HIV prevalence among male drug users is 18 per cent while among females it is 44 per cent. (The country’s HIV prevalence is 6 per cent)
Reports indicate that long time addicts have turned to cocktails – combinations of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and the so-called designer drugs such as methamphetamine, and alcohol – to get their fix.
‘It’s clear that the Coast is an entry point, and wherever there’s a path, there are some crumbs left behind,’ Sylvie Bertrand, regional adviser for HIV/Aids at UNODC’s Eastern Africa office, told the press.
TRAFFICKING HOTSPOT: A SURGE THROUGHOUT THE REGION
Each year, the Kenya Police and the UN issue reports on the drugs situation. One of the reports is global while the other is local; one is analytical, the other primarily statistical. Notwithstanding their different styles, however, both reports portray a country that is battling with a drugs problem.
A section called ‘Dangerous Drugs’ in the Annual Crime Report by the Kenya Police details trends in arrests of drug users and traffickers. It reveals a consistent increase in cases related to drugs in the past 10 years. For instance, dangerous drugs (which is the description for heroin, cocaine and meths) recorded a 12% jump in 2014 over the previous year. That year’s report shows that there were 73 heroin cases that led to 94 arrests, and recoveries amounting to 10.5 kilos, 558 sachets, 2,000 litres of diesel mixed with heroin, and 3,200 litres of liquid heroin.
In the 2015 annual report, the incidence of dangerous drugs went up 14% over the previous year.
On the other hand, the UNODC Maritime Crime Programme in its 2014 annual report talks about an ‘alarming spike’ in illicit drug trafficking throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. It says that there has been a ‘surge in rates of drug trafficking throughout the region, particular with respect to heroin’. Another report by this UN agency, Drug Trafficking to and from Eastern Africa, paints Kenya as a country in the grip of drug cartels. It says that ‘a review of drug seizures from 1998 to date indicates an increase in the trafficking of heroin’ in Kenya.
It turned out wasn’t just cars and TVs the clearing and forwarding agencies were clearing. Heroin and cocaine were far better earners. In fact, of the 10 known local drug barons, nine own, or once owned, import and export companies in Mombasa and Nairobi
In a report published this year, the US State Department says, ‘Kenya is a significant transit country for a variety of illicit drugs, including heroin and cocaine, with an increasing domestic user population.’
Kenya’s transformation into a trafficking hub has been picking up speed in the past 10 years. In April 2014, an Australian Navy patrol seized heroin valued at $290 million (about Ksh29 billion) off Kenya’s Coast. This amount is equivalent to all heroin seized in the East African region in the two decades 1990-2009. Today, 40 tonnes of heroin are believed to be trafficked through East Africa annually, up from 22 tonnes in 2013 and four tonnes in 2009.
Alarmed by the amount of drugs coming from Kenya into the West, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) jointly with the Kenya police created a 16-member specialised force called the ‘Vetted Unit’ to track down drugs and drug lords. And as will be seen later in this article, this is the unit that set up and arrested the Akasha brothers (Baktash Abdalla and Ibrahim Abdalla) and their Indian cohorts in a sting operation last January.
The multibillion-dollar trafficking business has attracted international drug barons, created local cartels, and left a legion of ‘mules’ serving jail terms in foreign lands, with dozens of them on death row. The industry’s proceeds are laundered through banks, supermarkets, forex bureaus, clearing and forwarding companies, hotels and real estate, lottery and gaming companies, casinos, hospitals and high-end bars and exclusive clubs.
The statistics that do exist would place a figure on the business as being worth between $100 million and $160 million annually. But these figures are based merely on seizures, and as the US State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs says, ‘Only a tiny fraction of the drugs believed to transit in and through Kenya is seized by authorities. Due to a lack of political will and institutional capacity, arrests rarely lead to convictions. When convictions occur in Kenya, they are of lower level couriers and distributors.’
The deportation of 120 suspected drug barons in 2013 is an indicator of the allure of the Kenya market for the global underworld.
NO LONGER A BLIP ON THE GLOBAL MAP
Indeed, as indicated earlier in this report, it isn’t happenstance that Kenya finds itself in this situation. As early as 1990s, Noah Arap Too, the then Criminal Investigation Department head, had warned about an impending crisis in the country. ‘It will be a hard and challenging job for law enforcement officers,’ to eradicate narcotics in Kenya, he said.
Prior to this warning, Kenya was perceived a mere blip on the global map of heroin. News reports then named countries such as Nigeria, Colombia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, in Kenya, most drug-related stories were about marijuana that was being produced locally. Only a tonne of heroin was seized off the East African coast between 1990 and 2009.
This picture turned out to be deceptive. According to later reports, cocaine and heroin were already here, having arrived during the tourism boom of the 1980s.There were red flags here and there but authorities, either out of complacency or because of corruption or both, declined to read the warning signs.
Attempts to arrest suspected barons have been hampered by the fact that many are in government or have business associates within the government
For instance, drug lord Ibrahim Akasha was at the time assembling a deadly kinship machine that would later torment the West, forcing Americans to demand the deportation of his children to answer charges of transporting drugs to the United States and Europe. The Akasha family ‘controlled drugs along Mombasa to Europe’ as early as the 1990s, according to Wikileaks cables.
Another red flag was the mushrooming of clearing and forwarding companies, ostensibly to cash in on the booming imports of second-hand cars and electronics. By 2007, at least 824 had registered with the Kenya Revenue Authority, a figure that would shoot up to 1,298 by 2014. It turned out wasn’t just cars and TVs these agencies were clearing. Heroin and cocaine were far better earners.
In fact, of the 10 known local drug barons, nine own, or once owned, import and export companies in Mombasa and Nairobi.
And when the drugs business boomed, the barons went ahead to create their own Container Freight Stations (CFSs). At the CFSs, containers are verified, cleared, unpacked and delivered to their destinations. Until recently, these stations were barely policed, and so became conduits through which drugs could be smuggled into the country with relative ease.
Kenyan authorities have thus been sleeping on the job. Apart from an anti-narcotics law – that provides for life imprisonment, Ksh1 million ($10,000) fines and seizure of ill-gotten wealth, little if any concrete action has been taken. In 2009, some 11 years after Noah arap Too’s statement, the Anti-Narcotics Unit, had just 100 officers to police the entire country. They couldn’t even track the 824 clearing and forwarding companies registered at the time.
Now, Kenya is suffering from the sins of omission. That explains why Huffingtonpost.com, views Kenya as ‘a forgotten hotspot of the international drugs trade’.
A CONSUMER REPORT FOR THE UNDERWORLD
There is an Internet portal that prides itself on being ‘a consumer report for the underworld.’ Havoscope.com publishes the global prices of drugs, as well as figures for money laundering, piracy and counterfeiting on the black market. In the latest upload, the price of heroin in Kenya was listed as $1.9 per gram, the cheapest among the 72 countries the Internet portal has surveyed. Brunei’s $1330.04 per gram is the most expensive followed by New Zealand at $717.4 per gram. In the United States, the price is $200 while in the United Kingdom it is $61.
In Africa, South Africa’s price is $35.1 per gram, Zimbabwe’s is $27.1 and Nigeria’s is $6.8.
In one of the cables it has released, whistle-blower Wikileaks confirms the local prices of heroin at between Ksh100 and Ksh200 a gram. The same cables say mules earn between $3,000 and $6,000 depending on the destination of the drugs and how easy it is to traffic them to that destination. Mules can make as many as six trips in a year.
Yet these figures, mindboggling as they are, do not tell the entire story about the Kenyan narcotics business. Heroin here is almost the purest in the world – usually above 80 per cent and ‘readily available and relatively inexpensive,’ according to the Wikileaks cables.
(Addicts wary of contracting HIV/Aids prefer pure heroin because it can be snorted through the nose as opposed to the diluted form used by IDUs).
A number of reasons explain why the drug, though pure, is cheap: Corruption (within politics, government and security agencies), ease of operation by drug lords (entry and exit from the country), geographical location of Kenya in relation to the drug’s origin and destination, a poorly secured and policed financial market, legislation that is not deterrent enough, and the high stake politics that drive the country.
The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, in its 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INSR) says: ‘Stemming the flow of illicit drugs is a challenge for Kenyan authorities. Drug trafficking organisations take advantage of corruption within the Kenya government and business community, and proceeds from drug trafficking contribute to the corruption of Kenyan institutions. High level prosecutions or large seizures remain infrequent.’
Indeed, politics has come in the way of the work of the country’s anti-narcotics agency. ‘Politicians may be opposed to the drug barons in theory but when it comes to business, they are bed-mates,’ says an ANU officer. Attempts to arrest suspected barons have been hampered by the fact that many are in government or have business associates within the government.
Drug lords have contacts in the government, politics (governors, senators, MPs), the religion industry (evangelical preachers) and in the country’s top security agencies
The police source calls it ‘high-stakes politics’ because of the price drug lords pay to protect themselves and their trade. Almost all senior politicians, even those not directly involved in drugs, find themselves on the payroll of the narco-barons.
They have amassed considerable wealth they can use to intimidate and threaten the law and law enforcers.
Sometime back in December 2010, the then Internal Security Minister George Saitoti named in Parliament five lawmakers (Harun Mwau, William Kabogo, Hassan Joho, Simon Mbugua and Mike Mbuvi) as well as tycoon Ali Punjani and long-rumoured unofficial Kibaki second wife, Mary Wambui, all of whom he said were involved in narcotics trafficking. The unprecedented move followed pressure from the international community to have Kenya act against the vice.
A team of police officers formed to carry out investigations into the matter uncovered no evidence to charge the five. Kenya’s leading newspaper, Daily Nation, claimed succinctly that the probe had come ‘up with zero’.
The Interim Report on Drug Trafficking Investigations had said of Mwau, thus ‘No evidence has so far been found to link him with drug trafficking.’ Six months later, the US government declared Mwau a global ‘narco-kingpin’ and moved to freeze his assets. Americans estimate that he is worth $300 million.
Saitoti, who had earlier served as Kenya’s vice president, would die in a plane crash in June 2012. Several MPs, incidentally among them Mwau, claimed in Parliament that he was killed by drug syndicates although they released no evidence to corroborate their charge.
There are politicians and police who facilitate the trafficking of drugs and provide protection to the cartels, there are those who conceal the identity of the cartels, and there are those who get paid to ensure that vessels carrying drugs are not destroyed. And lastly there are those who benefit from drugs seized from traffickers. ‘The nexus is huge,’ says an anti-narcotics officer based in Mombasa.
‘Drugs barons have bought some of our officers and this is very sad… We have information that police vehicles and ambulances are being used to transport drugs within Mombasa County and the Coast region,’ Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa told journalists in December 2015.
Drug lords have contacts in the government, politics (governors, senators, MPs), the religion industry (evangelical preachers) and in the country’s top security agencies.
In 1998, Koli Lur Kouame, then local head of the UN control agency, described Kenya as a ‘port of call’ for traffickers. Since then, various reports have portrayed the country as a major transit hub for drugs.
Kenya has extensive air and marine links to Europe, the Americas and Asia, as well as within Africa.
According to sources, bulk heroin comes from Afghanistan through Pakistan or Iran, often concealed in consignments of sugar, rice, used motor vehicles, second-hand clothes, tea, fish and other imports. It is stuffed in bulk cargo to make it difficult for scanners to detect it at the entry points. The $290 million’s worth of heroin destroyed by Australian Navy in Mombasa in April 2014 was concealed in bags of cement.
UN officials say the coastline between Somalia and Mozambique is the major trafficking zone for heroin. Apart from the official entry points, such as Mombasa and Dar es Salaam ports, this coastline has hundreds of unregulated entry points that emerged centuries ago to facilitate the slave trade and now serve as trafficking points for drugs, humans and smuggled goods. The drugs enter directly through Kenya’s coastline or via its porous borders with Somalia and Tanzania.
The porous borders the country has with Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania ‘provide low risk opportunities … for those engaged in illicit trade,’ Peter Gastrow says in his ground-breaking study, Termites at Work: A Report on Transnational Crime and State Erosionin Kenya, published in 2011.
In Kenya, the heroin is blended and repackaged as tea or coffee and chocolate to avoid detection, then transported through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) or shipped to West Africa, Europe and the United States. Some couriers, especially West Africans and Kenyans, ferry the drug as pellets in their tummies.
Initially, heroin made in Afghanistan entered Europe via Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Balkans, what is known as the Opium Trail, and the northern route via Central Asia and the Caucasus to Russia and the West.
For decades, it was the preferred route for drug networks. But in 2010, authorities in Tanga, northern Tanzania, after arresting four Tanzanians and two Iranians with 95 kilos of heroin destined for Kenya, stumbled on another route, the Smack Track or Southern Route.
The absence of a Coast Guard has made drug trafficking easy. The Navy boats on patrol cannot possibly track all the boats that ply Kenya’s 1,420-km coastline. Authorities are convinced that dhows, boats and big vessels pick up drugs on the high seas on a large scale and transport them to the mainland.
It is not certain how many boats and dhows ply the coastline but Lamu County alone, which covers 45.7 per cent of the coastline, has 4,000 registered boats. The actual number is unknown because most vessels are not registered with the Kenya Maritime Authority.
Kenya’s coastline, and Mombasa port in particular, is like a magnet for traffickers. Kilindini Harbour handles 700,000 standard size containers annually. Only 1% of the containers are inspected. Transit containers and big vessels are barely searched.
Joanna Wright in the UNODC report Transnational Organised Crime in Eastern Africa: A Threat Assessment, claims that there is ‘an awful lot (of heroin) coming in from the (Kenya) Coast’. The country is no longer ‘a backwater producer of marijuana,’ as it was regarded two decades ago.
However, reports indicate that Nairobi appears to be taking over from Mombasa as heroin distribution hub. ‘While international heroin traffic might still be heavy around the Kenyan coast, local supply chains are predominantly coordinated from Nairobi,’ says Margaret Dimova in the report, A New Agenda for Policing: Understanding the Heroin Trade in Eastern Africa.
Kenya’s 43 licensed commercial banks, dozens of microfinance institutions and mortgage finance companies, almost 100 forex bureaus, dozens of Somali-style hawallah networks, and many makeshift or unregistered/unlicensed ‘saving and lending’ organisations, are a major attraction to the underworld.
For years now, Kenya’s relatively developed financial infrastructure has been a boon to drug barons. The country’s 43 licensed commercial banks with their extensive branch networks in the region, dozens of microfinance institutions and mortgage finance companies, almost 100 forex bureaus, dozens of Somali-style hawallah networks, and many makeshift or unregistered/unlicensed ‘saving and lending’ organisations, are a major attraction to the underworld.
There are almost 130,000 money agents in Kenya, working mostly with the mobile money provider M-Pesa.
This vast infrastructure is attractive to drug lords out to conceal their earnings. They can transfer their ill-gotten wealth to their home countries, pay for the ‘goods’ or receive payments for the same, and clean up the money within Kenya by investing in the financial markets, real estate and other properties.
In fact, Kenya is among the 67 countries the US Department of State denotes as ‘money laundering countries of 2015.’ In Africa, only Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Zimbabwe appear in the classification of ‘jurisdictions of primary concern,’ according to its publication, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2016. It states, ‘Kenya remains vulnerable to money laundering and financial fraud. It is the financial hub of East Africa, and its banking and financial sectors are growing in sophistication. Furthermore, Kenya is at the forefront of mobile banking.’
It is for this reason that the Financing Reporting Centre (FRC) was established in 2012 to track such illicit proceeds. However, because of the lack of capacity, the FRC has only managed to process 254 of the 878 suspicious transaction reports (STRs) submitted to it since it was created, and forwarded the results to investigation and prosecution agencies. Nobody has been convicted.
The Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act came into force in 1994. It provided for a Ksh1 million ($10,000) fine and seizure of wealth. At the time, this was regarded as highly punitive and deterrent enough. But as it turned out, the legislation has hardly proved a deterrent.
Indeed, in hindsight, this piece of legislation may be a blessing in disguise for cartels.
Firstly, the drafters lacked foresight; the legislation appears to target marijuana and not necessarily hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin and the designer drugs. If you look at the penalties, in particular the fine, it is clear that authorities didn’t foresee a much higher-value drug. Heroin, cocaine and the so-called designer drugs are pricey. An offender needs just a half kilo of heroin to pay the fine.
In a report published after Kenya’s 2013 general election, the US Department of State said of Kenya, ‘Drug barons use the proceeds to contribute to political campaigns and to buy influence with government officials, law enforcement officers, politicians, and the media.’
Second, this legislation gives judicial officers considerable leeway that they can abuse to let drug barons off the hook – or mete out very lenient sentences. Ideally, the weight of the sentence should depend on the amount of drugs and/or their street value. But as a look at some of the rulings shows, the prices are arbitrary. For instance, in Criminal Case 313 of 2010, some 20 grams of heroin were valued at Ksh200. But in Criminal Case 702 of 2010, in Kibera, 11.054 kilos were valued at Ksh11,054,000 (Ksh1 million per kilo). And in Criminal Case 1302 of 2010, Mombasa, 2 grams were valued at Ksh4,000.
There is also a wide discrepancy in the sentences. In Criminal Case 1176 of 2011, the Mombasa principal magistrate convicted George Awuor Mbwana to 10years and Ksh1 million for trafficking 10 sachets of heroin valued at Ksh3,000 – although this sentence would be reduced to five years in 2014 upon appeal. In Criminal Case 705 of 2009, the Malindi chief magistrate sentenced Carolyne Auma Majabu to life imprisonment plus a Ksh1 million fine for trafficking seven sachets of heroin valued at Ksh700.
According to UNODC’s Country Review Report of Kenya 2010-2015, there appear to be problems in regard to proportionality, consistency and adequacy in sentencing/convictions in cases related to drugs as well as economic crimes, such as money laundering.
A year ago, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero complained about ‘state capture’ by organised criminals. Without mentioning their identity, he said they were providing Nairobi residents with free-of-charge services that are meant to be sources of revenue to counties. He said the underworld individuals were out to purchase political power by using the proceeds of drug trafficking.
This wasn’t the first time such a complaint had come up. Within and outside Kenya, people are convinced that the underworld is not only entrenched in Kenyan society, but that it is influencing the country’s political development. MPs, Senators and Governors, military and police officers, preachers and businesspeople are linked to trafficking but their identities are only mentioned in hushed tones.
None of them has been prosecuted or charged in court for their involvement in the illicit business.
In a report published after Kenya’s 2013 general election, the US Department of State said of Kenya, ‘Drug barons use the proceeds to contribute to political campaigns and to buy influence with government officials, law enforcement officers, politicians, and the media.’
According to CID sources, authorities have isolated four types of networks that drive the Kenyan drugs underworld: The loose or fluid network often cobbled together for a one-off deal – which collapses thereafter; the highly secretive patriarchal or kinship-based networks that control the illicit trade at the Coast; the upcountry syndicates that bring together mostly business allies and their political friends; and the trans-border cartels that bring together Kenyans and foreigners.
Cartels operate on political expediency. Specific cartels emerge during specific political seasons or regimes. That apart, the divisions – sometime blurred – may also be based on location or base of operation of the cartel, smuggling routes, and nationality and family links
Whatever type of network, close relationships among the players, also called nodes, are critical to their conduct and survival – what Margarita Dimova calls ‘compact, supple’ in the report, A New Agenda for Policing: Understanding the Heroin Trade in Eastern Africa.
Normally, the Kenyan cartels comprise just dozens of players who are mostly family members or business partners or acquaintances. Extra hands may be roped in case of extra load or work.
According to sources within the ANU, the cartels combine drug trafficking and smuggling (of humans and goods) and counterfeiting. Thus, Kenya’s underworld never lacks choices; drug lords can easily switch their business to conceal their tracks.
Interestingly though, the networks transform very fast in response to the changing political landscape. In the past 15 years, a number of cartels have collapsed while new ones have been formed to fill the void. The Mombasa-based Akasha organisation went down during President Kibaki’s regime while others emerged, linked to the new crop of politicians at the Coast and further inland.
It is important to note that churches have become key conduit for drug lords. In February 2014, a New Zealand missionary who often travelled to Nairobi was jailed for 12 years for trafficking 6.15 kilos of meths and 2.87 kilos of heroin, all valued at Ksh200 million, to Australia
Cartels operate on political expediency. Specific cartels emerge during specific political seasons or regimes. That apart, the divisions – sometime blurred – may also be based on location or base of operation of the cartel, smuggling routes, and nationality and family links.
Nairobi-based operatives, Kenyans and foreigners, depend on the airports and land routes to transact their illicit business. On the other hand, the so-called Coast Mafia has seized Mombasa port, airstrips at the coast, and myriad docking points on the Indian Ocean coastline.
BRIBING A GOVERNMENT ALREADY STEEPED IN CORRUPTION
For a long time, while Kanu was in power and Daniel arap Moi was president, the narco-trade was controlled from Kenya’s Coast, especially at the port and in Malindi. The Coast Mafia (including the Akashas and a former nominated MP based in Mombasa) and Europeans (Italians and Germans) were in firm command of the business. Kenyans and Nairobi-based West Africans (Nigerians, Ghanaians and Guineans) played the role of couriers or middlemen.
Drug lords used their ill-acquired proceeds to bribe a government that was already steeped in corruption. In the process, the kingpins were able to easily launder money by investing it in real estate, exports and imports, and in trans-shipment.
The Italians, after elbowing out the Germans, invested their proceeds in real estate – constructing 4,000 villas and homes along the beach and on second row plots. There were complains that the villas were hideouts for fugitives but the government did little to investigate the claims. It now emerges that convicted Italian fugitive Leone Alberto Fulvio used Malindi as a hideaway from Italian authorities for close to 23 years. While in Kenya, Fulvio got citizenship, a gun licence and a certificate of good conduct, and was cleared by the Kenya Revenue Authority. His cover would later be blown by the Interpol. He is now fighting extradition.
According to Frederico Varese, the author of the book Mafias on the Move: How Organised Crime Conquers New Territories, Malindi provides an ideal mafia revenue source, and a locale for money-laundering.
On the other hand, the Coast Mafia formed clearing and forwarding companies and got into export and imports and the transport business. And during Kibaki’s regime, they began setting up Container Freight Stations.
THE AKASHA EXTRADITIONS
Earlier this year, a specially selected team of Police officers assisted by America’s DEA spirited the so-called Akasha brothers – Baktash Akasha Abdalla and Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla – and their Indian cohorts Gulam Hussein and Vijaygiri Goswani to the United States to face charges of narco-trafficking.
US prosecutors who sought the extradition say their organisation is responsible for ‘production and distribution’ of large quantities of narcotics. ‘As alleged, the four defendants who arrived yesterday in New York ran a Kenyan drug trafficking organisation with global ambitions. For their alleged distribution of literally tonnes of narcotics – heroin and methamphetamine – around the globe, including to America, they will now face justice in a New York federal court,’ said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
The four were arrested in a sting operation originating with a Moroccan informer in November 2014. It came four months after the Vetted Unit seized 341 kilos of heroin concealed in a ship’s fuel tank.
But it wasn’t until after the murder of their father, Ibrahim Akasha, that Kenya woke up to the fact that it had its prototypical global drug lord. For a long time, Ibrahim, killed in Amsterdam in 2000, was the drug kingpin of the East African region. He controlled Mombasa port and landing sites between Kilifi and Vanga in the south of Mombasa. The Italians reigned unchallenged from Kilifi north to the Somalia border.
Ibrahim’s battles with local businessmen were muted and rarely became public because he never ventured out of the drug business, even as his rivals moved into transport, import and exports, and real estate to launder their profits.
He suffocated the West Africans, especially the Nigerians and Guineans, who were forced to take up the secondary role of couriers or middlemen from their bases in Nairobi. Other Kenyans who have since amassed wealth from drug trafficking also played second fiddle to the Akasha narco-machine.
The Akashas used Mombasa port to bring in heroin and hashish from Pakistan and cocaine from the Americas. It would then be blended with tea or coffee, to confuse sniffer dogs, and then packaged, ready for export to Europe and the United States. He also had associates who did the refining, dilution and repackaging
While the Akashas controlled the maritime routes, foreign networks held sway at the JKIA and the Moi International Airport in Eldoret.
The Akashas’ empire flourished because it was kinship-based. But two things happened that changed the fortunes of this cartel and placed it on a warpath with itself: Patriarch Ibrahim was murdered; and Mwai Kibaki replaced Moi as president of Kenya.
When Akasha senior was killed, his protégés/understudies were left splintered and in confusion. The death stoked a bitter feud within the family that led to several deaths. A number of Kibaki allies used their influence in Nairobi to target the Akashas and get into the business.
It has taken time for the Akashas to rebuild. Now they are part of the supply chain that stretches from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through India into East Africa. US authorities who extradited two of the Akasha sons and their Indian cohorts say their organisation is responsible for ‘production and distribution’ of large quantities of narcotics.
In India, it was reported last year that the Akasha organisation and their Indian collaborators had transported 100 kilos of morphine base, which can be refined into heroin, in January 2016. Some months ago, the Times of India newspaper reported on a plan by the Akasha sons and their Indian collaborators – Vicky Goswami and his former actress girlfriend Mamta Kulkarni – to set up a manufacturing and drug refining operation in Kenya.
ENTER THE EUROPEANS, EXIT THE NIGERIANS
European cartels have also moved into Kenya following the collapse of the Opium Trail. They managed to solidify their base during Kibaki’s regime by creating networks with Nigerians and local politicians.
In the decade from 2003 to 2013, this would morph into what Anti-Narcotics Unit sources called a ‘super cartel’ that roped in several MPs and foreign drug lords. It also recruited security and military personnel and powerful businessmen at the Coast.
The vicious cartel, which coalesced around close allies of president Kibaki, almost wiped out the Akashas and other networks of drug-lords cum politicians developed during president Moi’s time.
The super-cartel is alleged to have been behind the assassination on New Year’s Day 2006 of DCIO Hassan Abdillahi who had been tasked with investigating the theft of containers at the Mombasa Port. Three brothers of Kiambu governor William Kabogo (whom then US ambassador William Bellamy described in the Wikileaks cables as ‘known thug and rich-far-beyond-visible-means’) were arrested over the murder.
The cartel feared that the lead investigating officer was working with the Akashas to target them.
The government’s crackdown on the West Africans has created a void in the heroin trafficking business that has now attracted Kenyan, Tanzanian, Chinese, Indian and Eastern European cartels. Indeed, according to ANU sources, West Africans appear to have lost the heroin market to Asians, Tanzanians and Kenyans following the emergence of the Smack Track route. They had dominated this market so long that they had managed to push the pioneer drug-lords, including the Akashas, out of Nairobi, only to find themselves out of the loop when conflicts in North Africa and parts of Europe made the Turkey route impassable.
It is important to note that churches have become key conduit for drug lords. In February 2014, a New Zealand missionary who often travelled to Nairobi was jailed for 12 years for trafficking 6.15 kilos of meths and 2.87 kilos of heroin, all valued at Ksh200 million, to Australia. Ms Bernadine Terry Prince (aka Pastor Bernie McCully), 42, who was married to a Nigerian, was arrested after she had toured Nairobi, Nigeria, and Cambodia. She claimed she was the Australian chief executive of Oasis of Grace Foundation that has affiliates in Kenya, Ghana, and several other countries. She was a missionary with Oasis of Grace International Church in Nairobi’s Kayole Estate.
Prior to her arrest, she had attended a conference in Nairobi and later spent time in Nigeria and Cambodia. In her defence she claimed that a Kenyan, Mummy Rose, her given her seven backpacks with handicrafts to sell in Australia. The court found drugs and not handicrafts.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has moved to dismantle the cartels that formed during Kibaki era. But his war is unstructured and some of those he is targeting are close allies of his friends. Uhuru first targeted foreigners, clipped the wings of a cartel run by a former assistant minister and later trained his guns on the Coast Mafia, including Joho’s family.
A Senator allied to the ruling party runs a trafficking network that operates from Wilson Airport. According to senior military officials who have served in Somalia, as at last year, authorities in Somalia had confiscated two containers destined for Kenya that belonged to the Senator. ‘One had electronics and the other had a white substance. We couldn’t isolate the substance so it was anybody’s guess,’ a Somali official said. The military officer has since been redeployed elsewhere so it’s still not clear what happened to the containers.
According to the International Drugs Policy Consortium, a policy network that promotes open discussion on drug policy, the Kenya-Somalia border is a playground for drug cartels that operate without fear of being detected
‘Local and international drug smugglers are taking advantage of the limited resources of security forces and borders control like, for example, on the border between Kenya and Somalia where drug smugglers can operate without being detected,’ says the consortium report.
But, in an interview for this report, police spokesperson George Kinoti denied knowledge of the Somalia route. ‘So far, we have not been able to detect drugs trafficking on the Somalia route. The route has not been known for drugs coming to Kenya.’
The Mail&Guardian warns that drugs, crime and dirty money are so entrenched in Kenya that any threat to destabilise this underworld could actually be detrimental to the entire economy
STATE CHALLENGE: NO COHERENT RESPONSE
Kenya’s anti-drugs war is characterised by haphazard half-measures. Authorities appear to dither even as the prevalence of trafficking – illustrated by the number of couriers in jails and large seizure amounts – continues to rise. There hasn’t been a coherent response to the menace. Indeed, responses have oscillated from ‘mute, bizarre or half-hearted reactions, to outright lies to bold admission,’ according to a Western diplomat.
In a recent interview, Kinoti said, ‘Here in Kenya, I can say drug trafficking is a challenge but not a huge problem. Our security agencies are up to the task when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking.’
Hamisi Masa, the ANU boss, told Reuters, ‘Now, it is not just about us here in Kenya …The whole world is involved.’
When he destroyed a vessel seized with 370 kilos of heroin in 2014, President Kenyatta thundered, ‘We will not allow drug barons to destroy the future of our young people. We will track and deal with them decisively.’ Commenting on the destruction, John Mututho, the NACADA boss, promised to reveal the people behind the narco business in Kenya. ‘We are investigating 50 suspected drug barons and we are sure we will recommend action by the end of the year.’
After more than two years, no names have been released.
Few believe the government is serious in its war against the drug barons
The Mail & Guardian, a leading South African newspaper, warned in a recent report that Kenya was hurtling towards becoming Africa’s second ‘narco-state’ after Guinea Bissau. Titled The Making of an African Narco State, the news piece warns that drugs, crime and dirty money are so entrenched in Kenya that any threat to destabilise this underworld could actually be detrimental to the entire economy. ‘Kenya is emerging as a money laundering hub; incredibly, trying to stop the illicit flow of money could hurt the economy more than letting it continue.’
(A narco-state, according to Collins English Dictionary, is ‘a country in which the illegal trade in narcotics drugs forms a substantial part of the economy.’)
‘We are in deep trouble,’ a senior anti-narcotics officer told this writer. ‘The security agencies, the police, the politicians and some mandarins are either in bed with the drug barons or are the kingpins. You cannot isolate the barons.’
According to reports, more than 3,000 Kenyans are rotting in foreign jails, with some serving life sentences while others await execution. Others have died in jails abroad. About 3,000 are in local jails, convicted over hard drugs. The politics of Kenya’s major towns, Nairobi and Mombasa, is now influenced by drugs. While some drug-lords hold top offices in the country – two governors, a Senator, several MPs and other politicians are on the radar of the Vetted Unit, others, including top bureaucrats, police and judicial officers, provide protection to the barons.
‘We are in deep trouble,’ a senior anti-narcotics officer told this writer, but asked that his name not to be published lest he offended his bosses, some whom are allies of known drug barons. ‘Will we get out this? I doubt it. The arresting agency is a prisoner too. In fact, the security agencies, the police, the politicians and some mandarins are either in bed with the drug barons or are the kingpins. You cannot isolate the barons.’
Undeniably, Kenya is a major trafficking hub for drugs. It also has a growing consumption problem. Those interviewed for this report detailed a number of approaches that can help defeat traffickers and trafficking: Detect, deter and interdict. It needs strengthening of the country’s data collection systems, international co-operation, effective border controls, and law enforcement.
LOST AND NOT FOUND: What happens when people go missing in Kenya
It could be an empty bed or an untouched room. An automated horoscope on their Twitter account or a dormant Facebook profile. All that remains are memories. A family photo no one talks about anymore. Things left unsaid. Spaces left unfilled. Some choose to keep them that way in the hope that their loved one will walk back through the door.
But they don’t always do.
Mohammed Abdulkarim, popularly known as Czars, has been missing since October 2006. The teen heartthrob was barely a week away from his final high school exams and on the verge of what looked like it would be a wildly successful music career. The skinny, light-skinned 17-year-old was a national sensation for his song “Amka Ukatike.” Yet that day in 2006, he took a walk from their family home and never came back. Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade.
For Abdullahi Boru, those constant reminders are embedded in his career after his best friend and former housemate, Bogonko Bosire, went missing in September 2013. Bogonko was a pioneer blogger who ran a popular and controversial tabloid. He went missing at the height of the International Criminal Court cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, and from the little we know so far, probably because of them. “I’ve known Bogonko Bosire since 2000 when we joined journalism school. Then after we were done we shared a house as we fit into our first jobs” Boru says. For him, Bosire is still in the present tense, an unsolved disappearance that will one day have a solution. That same year, in December, a senior State House advisor called Albert Muriuki also disappeared. His case too, remains unsolved.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade
For the family of independence hero Kung’u Karumba, one of the Kapenguria Six, that has been a 43-year-long wait. The freedom fighter disappeared in 1974 while on a business trip to Uganda and was most likely caught up in political upheaval. But there has never been any proof of his death, so his family has kept hope alive. In 2004, 30 years after he went missing, his youngest wife Esther Wanjiru told The Standard “I am still waiting for him to show up in his pickup van, KPD 304.”
Without a Trace
“The reasons why people go missing are almost as varied as the people themselves,” a tracing investigator who requested anonymity tells me. Outside of extrajudicial killings and conflict, other reasons why people disappear include kidnappings, accidents and suicide. Someone can leave intentionally because they decided to, or drifted away. Someone can be forced to go missing because of disease or an accident. Mental health conditions rank highly here.
A close friend’s family once lost her 80-year-old grandmother, who suffered from dementia, for three weeks. She turned up in Dodoma, Tanzania with no memory of how she got there. In an email conversation, a lady called Sharon Johnston who lives in New Zealand told me about the fruitless search for her father, Dr. Tony Johnston who had lived and worked in Kenya for three decades. She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight knit circle.
In the course of a week, I counted at least nine missing persons’ posters placed in different digital spaces, including several news alerts. Eight were kids below twelve years of age, and the ninth involving a teen, was deemed resolved after she was found at a friend’s house. I also scoured through a Facebook page called Kenya Missing & Unidentified Persons, which was set up to help families find their loved ones. Although it has not been updated since 2015, the page gives a small sample size of the people who go missing in Kenya. Of about 30 cases posted in a period of six months, most of them were relatively young (17-30 years old) and from a cursory glance, from the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Almost all the cases involving older people, above 60 years of age, mentioned some form of mental illness.
She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight-knit circle.
While Sharon was lucky in a way, most aren’t. Law enforcement agencies do not give priority to missing persons’ cases, and in some of them, are actually complicit. In one recent example, a human rights lawyer called Willie Kimani, his client, and a taxi driver were kidnapped and then killed by police officers. Such extrajudicial killings are at times followed by attempts to hide the bodies, or disfigure them beyond recognition.
Such police brutality and state violence have a long history in Kenya, even before the genocidal ‘50s. In precolonial Kenya, it was not unusual for people to leave and simply never come back. Some died in skirmishes, while others fell sick along the way. Others simply moved and made new homes elsewhere, sometimes leaving even their spouses behind. In the social dynamics of the time, this was not as serious as it is today, but the heartbreak was no less real.
But in that decade of the Mau Mau rebellion, disappearances especially of men from around Mount Kenya became commonplace. This would happen again, in the 2000s as Interior Security Minister John Michuki led a murderous effort to kill off the Mungiki, literally in this case. From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008. He was a young, skinny lad with shaggy hair, and most likely got caught up in the extrajudicial war on the Mungiki.
If someone you know goes missing today, the process goes something like this. You make a report to a police station where a bored police officer records your complaint. Then forwards it to a police station with an investigator from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). If it’s a high profile case then it might get priority, and the digital and physical search will begin immediately. If you are absolutely lucky, and this is rare, then you will never get to hear those debilitating words “investigations are still ongoing” and “the file is still open.”
But more often than not, you will be unlucky. There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark. Access to a telecom company’s data may provide some answers as to the last place a phone was on, as well as the last people the person talked to. A find such as a car or clothes, as was the case with IEBC manager Chris Msando, may hint at a few things, but mostly say nothing. Add to this the fact that the investigation process is so opaque and complicated that it often feels like law enforcement agencies are not doing enough.
Most families supplement this with either searching for the person themselves or even hiring private investigators. A search of morgues is a common go-to solution, but it is often based on the hope that if the person is dead, they would be in the specific morgues the search party is looking into. The same goes for hospitals and hospices, and the search is grueling. At least one independent missing persons’ investigator was described to me as “…someone who walks into morgues the way he would a coffee shop.”
From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008.
There are other avenues. The Red Cross has a tracing department in its offices across the world, including Kenya. The project, called “Restoring Family Links” is designed to help people look for their family members or restore contact with them. Their focus though, is on people who’ve gone missing due to conflict, disaster or migration. Without enough resources to expand this to cover all missing persons cases, even their assistance is limited.
Public appeals for information sometimes work. They can yield information about a sighting or identification of places where the family can start looking. But more often than not, each appeal for information is followed by many false leads. In the search for the teenage heartthrob Czars, for example, one of the earliest seemingly credible leads came from an entertainment journalist. He had gotten it from a source he trusted, and it looked promising at the time. Czars, the intel suggested, was living in Eastleigh, likely in the company of an older fling. That singular statement led to a wild-goose chase with journalists and the musician’s father scouring Eastleigh in vain.
Another infamous false lead example is in the days after Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki was killed. After he disappeared in early March 1975, then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi confidently said he had left the country for Zambia. It took a newspaper report to dispute this, and for five whole days, no one knew what had happened to the charismatic MP. His body was eventually found on March 12, 1975, mutilated.
Two decades before, another missing persons case had stood out in a decade of conflict. Mau Mau leader Stanley Mathenge disappeared one night in 1956, and for years the official story was that he had gone to Ethiopia to seek assistance for the cause. It stopped there, never explaining why the freedom army’s most formidable military mind chose to abandon the cause. Years later, in 2003, a stranger from Ethiopia was feted in his place, not only costing taxpayers’ money but also leaving the government embarrassed.
Like JM, its more likely Matheng’e never left Kenya. The most likely scenario was that his compatriot and power rival, Dedan Kimathi, had him killed and then weaved the Ethiopia story to avoid internal strife. Kimathi was himself shot and arrested later that year.
Some leads seem purely coincidental and others outright suspicious. In the case of Bogonko Bosire, that happened to be a terror attack. The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming. So they looked, through the rows upon rows of dead bodies from the mall, to no avail. A few times since, there has been some activity on his social media profiles. The last, at 5:30pm on August 10th 2016, was a new profile picture and name on his Facebook profile. “From time to time I check his Twitter handle to see if he’s back,” Boru tells me as we discuss his hope that his friend is still out there somewhere.
Where do We Go from Here?
Many cases remain unsolved because there is no coordinated effort to actually find them. Even well-meaning investigators are hampered by one thing, the lack of dependable data. While some patterns are easy to see, most of them aren’t. A child who disappears from home while in the care of her nanny has most likely been kidnapped, but not always. An aging man with a mental condition who goes missing on his way home probably got lost, but not always. A young man who disappears on his way home could have been shot by the police, but not always.
There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark.
What Kenya needs is an integrated system that not only improves information flow between agencies and families, but also provides a support network for both. Part of this could be a searchable DNA and personal profile database for missing persons and unidentified remains. In countries like Scotland, for example, the standard operating procedures of policing give priority and resources to missing persons’ investigations.
There is some hope though. Earlier this year, the National Crime Research Center released a report on kidnappings in Kenya. In it, researchers found that you are most likely to be kidnapped if you are female, under 35 (and especially below 18) by men of around the same age. The report also ranked Kenya number 17 out of 19 in prevalence of kidnappings. It also looked into interventions and found that at least 12 different bodies, most of them government units such as the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are involved in addressing kidnapping cases. Some private organisations include Missing Child Kenya, which provides free resources to search for and rescue missing kids.
Still, there is a long way to go in improving our interventions in finding missing people. In 2008, the US state of New Jersey passed “Patricia’s Law”, a landmark law that describes the investigative process when looking for missing persons. Named after Patricia Viola, a 42-year-old wife and mother who disappeared in February 2001 (her remains were identified via DNA a decade later), the 2008 law was part of a combined effort beginning in 2004 to facilitate communication between agencies to ease the process of finding missing persons. The law not only dictates who should (and must) accept missing persons reports, but also describes stages in the investigation. For example, after 30 days missing, the law enforcement agency is required to take a DNA reference sample from the family. The DNA is run through the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons.
Beyond such a legislative backbone, law enforcement agencies also need dedicated resources and personnel. These can form the core structure to coordinate the effort with other agencies as well as stakeholders such as telecom companies. It would also ease communication with the families and friends, and even ease the pressure on morgues, hospitals and hospices.
The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming.
Dependable data will also help researchers identify patterns, and give law enforcement agencies to investigate. As is, beyond their current training and help from telecom agencies and the public, there is little else to go on. No one knows for sure how many people are currently missing, and without that, it is impossible to actually to solve open cases, and even mitigate future ones. Such patterns can be age, gender, risk, and even location. Disappearances of young women in one specific location, or area, could point towards a serial killer, for example. A string of disappearances of kids could point to a human trafficking ring, or even something more sinister.
Anyone can disappear without a trace. Even people in the limelight like Czars, Bogonko Bosire, and Albert Muriuki. All these cases remain unsolved, but their families and friends maintain the hope that that won’t be the case forever. They are only three in an ever-growing list of people who have gone missing without a trace, leaving behind nothing but memories and a never ending worry. The worry that someone is in trouble, or is somewhere lost, is not easy on anyone. Some families simply seek closure, a body to bury even, or just answers. But they are few and far between, and mostly obtained through sheer luck and at times effective policing.
For some those answers never come. As days become months, and then years, and memories fade, the lingering need to find those we love doesn’t dissipate. The worst, Sharon wrote, is in the not knowing.
A NIGERIAN STORY: How Healthcare is the Offspring of Imperialism and Corruption
As a Nigerian, the greatest scorn often finds you when you argue for Nigeria. Other Nigerians will mock you, denounce you as impractical or a dreamer, when you say that Nigeria is where your future lies. But why?
Nigeria as a heritage that separates the Nigerian from the Black American is awarded a loud (though false) superiority. The Nigeria that is evoked in jollof rice debates is praised. Even the Nigeria that must beat Ghana in the football match is supported. Yet, it remains that the Nigeria that will gain a Nigerian’s abuse is the real Nigeria – with its abusive civil servants, its police haggling for bribes and its megachurches auctioning salvation. This real Nigeria is the child of a mean parent called corruption. It’s useful to trace the family tree of this corruption but also useful to think about the way corruption earns Nigeria scorn to the degree that anyone who argues for that Nigeria is unworthy in some way—or should we say, she who argues for Nigeria is worthy of its corruption?
The Nigeria-corruption association has been repeated so often that it has long since become the small talk of world leaders; David Cameron’s aside to Queen Elizabeth II about “fantastically corrupt” Nigeria is but one example. That corruption touches every facet of life in Nigeria is a banality. As Michael Ogbeidi, a history professor at the University of Lagos, put it so accurately in his article, Political Leadership and the Corruption in Nigeria Since 1960, “Indeed, it is difficult to think of any social ill in [Nigeria] that is not traceable to the embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, particularly as a direct or indirect consequence of the corruption perpetrated by the callous political leadership class since independence”.
Bureaucratic corruption affects healthcare and this is a very old problem both in Nigeria and throughout the formerly colonized world. When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country. The profits of colonial exploitation are so large they inspire disbelief. For instance, the British Ministry of Food made profits of 11 million pounds sterling in some years, according to Walter Rodney. As Rodney’s seminal text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, so clearly explains: this obscene figure of 11 million pounds sterling per annum was the result of artificially low prices set by private capitalist investors in Britain. The British government allowed dummy organizations, like the West African Cocoa Control Board (est. 1938) to lie to and bully African farmers, while pretending to advocate for them. Moreover, farmers were mandated to sell their crops no matter what price they were given. The farmers did not have the might to stand up against the military and political power of the British government. They did not have a choice. They were not economic players in the game, just chess pieces to be thrown around the board. At any rate, 11 million pounds accounts for the profits of just one body, the British Ministry of Food, so we can only imagine the cumulative profits enjoyed by the British Empire.
When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country.
Whatever the final profits, the people of Nigeria didn’t share in the wealth generated from such exports. The people were simply the machinery of the capitalist endeavor. They were machinery in the sense that the colonial political and economic government had absolutely no consideration for their physical well-being. Instead, by allowing missionaries to overrun the landmass, they rid the country of traditional doctors and what is now referred to as homeopathic medicines. For all the superstition and abuse that occasionally accompanied it, traditional medicine functioned as a rudimentary healthcare infrastructure across the African continent. Aspects of these so-called primitive practices have real and proven benefits.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press. Cotton Mather, who is credited with introducing inoculation into North America, wrote extensively about how a West African born slave, Onesimus, told him about inoculation practices. After learning from Onesimus, Mather began interviewing other enslaved Africans who backed up Onesimus’ testimony of being inoculated as children. Mather then tested inoculation on slaves born outside of Africa and when it proved successful, he introduced it to the white population. But as the practice of inoculation became widespread throughout colonial America, and the rest of the West, its origins were conveniently forgotten.
Once the traditional healer was undermined by new religious concepts, Imperial Britain continued to loot the land and exploit the people. Never was there any real investment in an alternative healthcare infrastructure. There are those who quote the 19th century European lie: they brought us civilization; they brought us religion and railways and doctors! But the numbers don’t bear that out. Rodney notes that in the 1930s, the British colonial government maintained a 34-bed hospital for Ibadan when the city had a population of 500,000 people! The colonial government later expanded their medical facilities, but this was only after pressure from nationalist movements set up by people tired of economic and political exploitation.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press.
It’s obvious that the dearth of medical and healthcare infrastructure was inherited by the national government in the 1960s. Understanding this history, it can be easy to excuse Nigeria and the Nigerian elite. In fact, this is precisely the hope of the Nigerian political and economic elite.
But we can’t let this excuse win the day since the post-1960 era hasn’t seen a marked continual commitment to the healthcare infrastructure system. The initial investment in healthcare wasn’t bad. In fact, as AO Malu, of Benue State Teaching Hospital, points out, when the Ashby Commission on Higher Education recommended the expansion of educational facilities in 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence, Medical Faculty at the London College of Ibadan (now known as the University of Ibadan) was expanded and new medical schools were established in Lagos and in Northern Nigeria. The newly independent government continued to found and support teaching hospitals, particularly in the southwestern and northwestern region of Nigeria (Malu).
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology. There is many a “middle class” Nigerian that can testify to their own birth or treatment in a Nigerian teaching hospital. Graduates in this 25-year span, from 1960 to 1985, also willingly testify to the maintenance of the facilities, which is no small thing since it both reflects and demands pride from the facilities’ users. It also reflects real material investment and demands it as well. But all of these testimonies are historical. The testimonies are about what the teaching hospitals used to be. Neglected by federal and state governments, the hospitals are today decrepit artifacts that are stuck with the technology of the last decade. I know one doctor who cried when she visited her alma mater in Rivers State, such was the state of the place with debris and rats. Another physician I know refused to discuss her medical school; she stammered, shook her head in anger and walked away. When she returned to the subject, she said only, “It was never, never like that before. The standard has really fallen.”
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology.
But these “historical” hospitals are still hospitals. They still admit patients and attempt to treat them; they still admit students and attempt to educate them. Their treatment is curtailed by the lack of technological investment, the deteriorating facilities and the stagnated curriculum that Nigerian medical students are afforded. This is not the doing of some late 19th century Briton. It is the result of the rampant and insidious corruption executed by the political elite and their counterparts in the financial sector. As Professor Ogbeidi, notes in his article, citing this 2004 Reuters interview with then anti-graft chief Nuhu Ribadu, “Incontrovertibly, corruption became endemic in the 1990s during the military regimes of Babangida and Abacha, but a culture of impunity spread throughout the political class when democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. In fact, corruption took over as an engine of the Nigerian society and replaced the rule of law”. In other words, the neglect of healthcare infrastructure is a product of recent and present-day choices that continually disregard the health of the people who are the machinery of the nation.
The teaching hospital model was never capable of nor adequate in caring for Africa’s most populous nation. It was a step in the correct direction, but a step that has been halted. As Professor Ogbeidi puts it: “As a consequence of unparalleled and unrivalled corruption in Nigeria, the healthcare delivery system… [has]become comatose and [is] nearing total collapse.”
So what are Nigerians left with? The vast majority of Nigerians who were never able to access teaching hospitals must rely on book doctors and unlicensed and unregulated pharmacies. A book doctor is a person who has learned about the practice of Western medicine solely from books. This book doctor never attended medical school, never sat for a medical certification or license exam and never completed a residency or rotation under the supervision of more experienced medical practitioner. Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises. Neither the federal nor state governments make any attempt to investigate them in the interest of the people.
My experience with the book doctor was fine. He was affable. All the materials I observed were clean and unused. His nurses were well-trained and products of nursing schools. Yet the facility did not have electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, running water, nor a toilet. (Outside of major Nigerian cities, it is not rare to go 2 or more months without electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, this is despite the fact that Nigeria sells energy to Togo, Benin, and Niger.) The book doctor instead powered his facility with a generator and bathroom functions were undertaken in a darkened room at the back of the property. The patients brought their own water.
Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises.
Despite my benign experience, Nigerians die daily from inadequate care from book doctors, just as they die from the inadequate healthcare system throughout Nigeria. Death is the fruit of corruption.
The other fruit of corruption is the bankruptcy of Nigeria’s national wealth.
In making adequate healthcare difficult or impossible to access, the political class is making it an absolute necessity for people to seek medical help outside of Nigeria’s borders. This drives those people who can afford it, to go to African countries like Ghana and South Africa, or ever further to Europe, India, the Middle East or the Americas for medical care. This is an insane situation for a citizen of an oil-rich country.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling. This is money that was made in Nigeria but spent elsewhere; money that should be circulating in the Nigerian economy. Bu a real investment of capital into the construction and maintenance of medical infrastructure would not only stem this but also enrich the country, especially if the construction materials were purchased from Nigerian companies and Nigerians were employed in the labor.
But the same government that is legislating against “medical tourism” is led by President Mohammed Buhari who has become the “face of medical tourism.” President Buhari spent 7 weeks, from January to March, in London before offering up a vague explanation about his health. The lack of specificity was an allusion that was meant to be understood in the mind of the Nigerian citizen as you know we no get oyibo (white man) medicine na. Buhari left Nigeria for London again in May. When the Nigerian populace, aided by journalists, demanded that the President return and govern after an absence of more than 3 months, the president reluctantly returned. He has refused to say how much money the Nigerian government spent on his almost 5-month stay in London. No matter. The failing Nigerian healthcare system is implicit in the president’s long stay in high-priced London and the unstated, exorbitant price tag is yet another example of political corruption.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling.
This drama, of course, comes after the 2010 death of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua whose 3-month medical stay in Saudi Arabia ended when the Nigerian government sent a delegation to “check on his health.” Yar’adua’s absence was explained to the Nigerian people as medical treatment, but during those 3 months, he was not seen in public and this fueled both rumor and a real leadership crisis in the federal government.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
Yet, still the middle class, takes the political and financial elite as “leaders” and follows them abroad. They are not leaders; they are elites by virtue of being on top of the capitalistic structure and because they are elitist, believing that only those at the top should have access to what are now called “basic human necessities,” including electricity and running water. If they were not elitist, they wouldn’t rob the country to the detriment of the health and very life of the people.
In going abroad, middle-class Nigerians are increasingly identifying service sectors and medical acumen with the West. This is dangerous because such identification alleviates the pressure to improve the facilities within Nigeria. The determination to go abroad should instead be replaced by the determination to improve the healthcare infrastructure at home.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
The portion of the Nigerian middle-class that does utilize the healthcare system have little encouragement. Added to the corruption that robs the system is the dearth of physicians who might otherwise provide superior care and demand attention from the political and financial elites. It is not that Nigerian isn’t training medics, but the problems already noted drive them to ply their trade abroad.
A 2013 article by the Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER) is titled “Nigerian Medical School Graduates and the US Physician Workforce” and the title says it all. Despite the corruption and deteriorating conditions, Nigerian-educated medical professionals are skilled physicians who are able to practice throughout the world. This is good for them but bad for Nigeria.
According the statistics of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, at least 4300 Nigerian medical graduates were certified to practice in the United States between 1980 and 2012. That is 4,300 doctors who are not practicing in Nigeria. What would Nigeria be like with 4,300 more doctors? Before answering, consider that this is only one type of certification program doctors in the United States and Canada; it does not account for the medical graduates who have emigrated to mainland Europe, the UK, Australia, the Caribbean nations, India, or the increasingly, alluring South American republic of Brazil. Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria must educate another person to become part of the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses another bloc of people capable of putting pressure on the political class to fix the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses people who might create real national wealth by buying Nigerian made goods and supporting local industry, rather than the cheaply made, imports – the shine shine – that litter the market stalls of the subsistence worker and the Instagram pages of the so-called middle class. With the flight of the medical graduate, Nigeria is left stagnant.
Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
It is this stagnant Nigeria that earns a Nigerian the ridicule of his countrymen. At home, everyone (or so it seems) wants to travel abroad. Abroad, home is just a green-and-white outfit, a party theme on October 1st. Healthcare in Nigeria is a fatal casualty of continued political corruption. Medical tourism will cease only after the government has demonstrated sustained and responsible investment and maintenance of healthcare schools and facilities. Until then, the middle class will follow its political and economic elites in seeking medical treatment abroad; they will spend their hard-earned money in other countries and continue to wonder why death and bankruptcy follow them home to Nigeria.
THE BLACK SPOT: Why The Kenyan Road System Is Designed To Kill
Two road crashes in the first two weeks of November have robbed Kenya of six lives including that of Nyeri Governor, Wahome Gakuru, and once again brought to the fore the crisis of safety on the country’s roads and highways.
As of November 8, according to statistics released by the National Transport and Safety Authority, 2,387 people had lost their lives on our roads. In its 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation shows Kenya’s roads are amongst the most dangerous in the world claiming an average of 29.1 lives per 100,000 people. By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000. Road crashes are among the top ten killers of Kenyans, account for between 45 and 60 percent of all admissions to surgical wards and cost the country up to 5 percent of GDP.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. While the number of registered vehicles on the roads nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, from just over 1 million to just under 1.8 million according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of both accidents and victims actually fell by about half says the 2015 study Analysis of Causes & Response Strategies of Road Traffic Accidents in Kenya. However, what should set off alarm bells is that despite this, the number of deaths barely budged. It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
In the face of such appalling statistics, it is nothing short of outrageous that the NTSA considers a reduction of 4 percent in the number of pedestrians who have lost their lives on the roads as “drastic”. Though overall deaths were down by a slightly higher 5.8 percent, it speaks to the low expectations the Authority has of itself that the numbers it is celebrating do not even come close its own rather modest target of reducing traffic fatalities by 12 percent.
By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000.
The widely trumpeted but almost always short-lived measures that have been taken by the government to address the issue over the last ten years -such the famous “Michuki rules”, the banning of night buses, enforcement of speed limits, introduction of random breathalyzer tests- have barely budged the average annual number of deaths which still hovers stubbornly around the 3000 mark. By contrast Sweden, which has the world’s safest roads managed to slash in half the number of traffic deaths between 2000 and 2014.
What are the Swedes doing right?
Unlike Kenya’s knee-jerk approach, where reactionary legal measures are quickly announced in the aftermath of a particularly horrific crash, with little research, forethought or long-term planning, and just as quickly forgotten, the Swedes have adopted a more systemic, evidence-based method. Unlike their Kenyan counterparts, the Swedish Transport Administration does not believe that deaths and injuries on roads are an inevitable cost of having a functional road network. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” says Hans Berg told The Economist in 2014. Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
This focus on building “a system for the humans” is the central pillar of Vision Zero, the radical policy that since 1997, has governed the nation’s approach to transportation. It is even written into their laws. In the same year, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, “the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system”.
Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead, as Dinesh Mohan notes, the Swedes put the blame on “the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behaviour is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed.”
Vision Zero seeks to not just reduce, but to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads. But it does so, not primarily on the back of enforcement of punitive legislation as is the preferred approach in Kenya. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” says Belin. “If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.”
Enforcement of traffic rules is an important element but rather than merely bullying road users into compliance, the Swedes are building their system around the road users. Safety is not something that is added to the road system; it is an essential component of the system itself. As one analysis of the policy puts it: “Road users are responsible for following the rules for using the system set by the designers. If the users fail to obey the rules … or they obey and injuries occur nonetheless, the system designers must take steps to avoid people being killed or seriously injured.” The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
In Kenya, the approach is diametrically opposite. While the NTSA acknowledges that 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, and blames everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians, it rarely discusses the design of our road transport systems, the behaviour it incentivizes and how such errors are mitigated beyond arresting people and increasing fines.
Take the two crashes referenced at the beginning of this tale. Both happened at notorious “black spots”, one at Salgaa and the other at Kabati. Murang’a County Commissioner John Elung’ata says of Kabati, where the Governor died, that “motorists lose control whenever it rains”. The 14-kilometre stretch between Salgaa and Sachangwan along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway has been the scene of multiple horrific accidents involving trucks. Yet in 2015, then NTSA Chairman, Lee Kinyanjui, whose agency blamed the crashes on “ignorant drivers” could only promise that “over and above fining those freewheeling, we will be recommending an immediate revocation of their licences and this should go to all the drivers. Reckless driving on our roads will no longer be there.” In these cases, administrators seem to have either resigned themselves to the inevitability of crashes or limited their responses to punishment. There was not talk of redesigning the road to eliminate the “black spot”. Instead Kinyanjui promised to “construct lorry park with a capacity of 200 vehicles where the NTSA officers will be checking lorries”.
But one could perhaps cut Kinyanjui a little slack. While the NTSA can only advise the national government on such design changes and mostly appears to confine itself to patrolling roads to catch errant drivers or chasing down jay-walking pedestrians, STA actually owns, constructs, operates and maintains all state roads in Sweden.
Obviously, a road system is more than just the state of the road and transport authorities have to coordinate with a wide array of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and road users. That system includes all factors that have a bearing on behaviour on the road. As such, the commitment to safety cannot be simply a matter for one body, but rather a national, even cultural commitment. As Belin says, “Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context.” It is, after all, the home of Volvo. Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death. A national obsession with safety is definitely a bonus. However, even without one, Kenya can make better infrastructural decisions that would reduce the risk of injury and death.
The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Take the Thika Superhighway, on which Governor Gakuru died, as an example. The road which rumbles through populated areas is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week. The difference between Thika Superhighway and, say, the UK’s M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly that such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behaviour on them.
We can also ask about emergency responses, or rather, the lack of them. And about the safety of guard rails and whether there are better alternatives. Road accidents, even when they do happen, need not result in grievous injury or death. Why weren’t systems for rescuing trapped people and getting them emergency care factored into the design of the road? How can Kenya fix this? And what rules for other existing and future highways?
Perhaps nowhere would such approach be beneficial than in addressing the safety problems posed by Kenya’s public transport system. According to the WHO, in Kenya “buses and matatus are the vehicles most frequently involved in fatal crashes and passenger in these vehicles account for 38 percent of total road deaths.” Although the 2015 study found that matatus only caused about a third as many accidents as cars and utility vehicles considering that matatus make up only about 5 percent of the about 2 million vehicles on our roads, the fact that they cause around 15 percent of accidents indicates a big problem.
The study found that “Kenyan drivers cause crashes largely because of behavioural and attitudinal problems” and that these problems were more acute in drivers of Public Service Vehicles. “While matatu drivers are viewed as crooks, they regard other drivers as amateurs and always try to show them that they have superior driving skills.”
However, adopting the Swedish approach, one would not just settle for blaming the drivers, as the study, the NTSA and pretty much all of Kenya does. Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death.
The late Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems – A Primer described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior. Consider the Kenyan public transport system, which is privately owned and dominated by matatus.
Most matatu crews are not salaried. They basically have a deal with the matatu owner where they deliver an agreed sum every day and get to share what is left over. This means that their daily income is directly tied to how many people they carry and how many trips they make. At the same time, as this Africa Uncensored investigation reveals, most traffic policemen on the road are there, not to enforce the rules, but to extort bribes, matatus being a favourite target. In fact, during vetting by the National Police Service Commission last year, many traffic officers were unable to explain the source of their wealth and the many mobile transactions they seemed to be making. Given that it has been reported that most actually pay their superiors for the privilege of being deployed on the roads, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where they were sending the money.
The rub of this is that matatu drivers have big incentives to stop anywhere to pick up passengers and to make as many trips as possible, even when this means driving like madmen. The police, on the other hand, have little incentive to enforce the law. And given that many powerful government officials and senior police officers own matatus, there is little incentive to fix the problem.
Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that the problem is less incompetent drivers with an attitude problem, but rather the perverse system of incentives which generates the behaviour. Thus the solutions proposed, such as retraining and recertifying drivers, will have little effect. As US philosopher Robert Pirsig, wrote in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” Similarly, retraining drivers without changing the underlying system will resolve nothing.
Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Changing the system would require the NTSA to confront more powerful forces than lowly matatu crews, but is the true measure of the government’s commitment to dealing with the carnage matatu’s wreak on the road. However, it is not just where matatus are concerned that Kenya could benefit from a serious retooling. Rather than shooting from the hip when confronted with speeding or drinking drivers, the country would do well to adopt a research and evidence-based approach which looks at the problem in all its facets. For example, if, as one study found, “mandatory seat belt use laws and beer taxes may be more effective at reducing drunk driving fatalities than policies aimed at general deterrence,” should Kenya be focusing on those?
An important aspect of ensuring roads are safe is ensuring the road system caters for the needs of all its users, not just a few of them. That requires understanding how the roads are actually used. According to the World Bank’s Kenya State of the Cities Baseline Survey released in March 2014, half the labour force and three-quarters of students walk to work or to school. Another 43 percent and 19 percent respectively use matatus. Only 3 percent actually drive to work. Yet Kenyan roads treat pedestrian traffic as an afterthought and, as detailed above, the public transport system is in a shambles. This inevitably creates conflicts and, as statistics show, it is passengers and pedestrians who bear the brunt of the violence on our roads. Similarly, as the use of motorcycle-taxis, or bodaboda, has increased, so has the number of fatalities and injuries associated with them.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage. Well thought-out policies, including pedestrianizing the CBD, have been successfully adopted in cities like Pontevedra in Spain, which eliminated 53 percent of traffic in the city as a whole and 97 percent at its historical centre. “We inverted the pyramid,” its long serving Mayor, Miguel Lores, says, “leaving the pedestrians above, followed by bicycles and public transport, and with the private car at the bottom.” As a result, the city has not had a single traffic fatality in 6 years.
Understanding behaviour on the roads does not require condoning its unsavoury aspects. Rather, it means Kenya can get to grips with the systemic reasons such behaviour is prevalent and why it is destructive. It means, beyond demonizing road users, the NTSA and other stakeholders within and outside the government consider how they contribute to the problem, and what needs to change in order to either eliminate the incentives for that behaviour or to mitigate its effects.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage.
In fact, Kenyan roads are a microcosm of the colonially-inspired hierarchies at work in Kenya and the relative values they place on the time, lives as well as the fortunes of the various classes of Kenyans. At the very top is the political class and those riding on their coat tails, from government officials to the wannabe county potentates for whom nothing is allowed to get in the way of their dash to riches. The tiny middle class is next in line and at the very bottom of the pile are the poor, whose presence on the Kenyan road is barely tolerated despite their vastly superior numbers. When, periodically, their anger spills over in riots and “mass action” they can take over the streets entirely. Like the traffic police, the institutions of accountability simply serve to keep everybody in their proper place. They are there to police the citizens, to clear a path for their betters.
Eliminating traffic deaths and injuries is an achievable goal. But to do it, Kenya must change, not just its roads and its drivers, but itself. The country must revolutionize its approach to the problem and start seeing people as the reason the road system, and indeed the entire rubric of government, exists. In short, like Sweden, it must “create a system for the humans”.
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