Sugar and the Shabaab: smuggling, security, and the Kenyan borderlands


Charcoal exports from Kismayo, largely to Gulf countries, constituted the principal source of al-Shabaab revenue before the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) seized the port in September 2012. Yet the less well-known, reverse side of the charcoal trade – in terms of the direction the goods are moving – is the movement of processed sugar from Somalia into Kenya, a consequence of the Kenyan government’s exorbitant tariffs on sugar imports.

Information provided to me by a regional intelligence source, dating to early 2011 – before al-Shabaab was driven out of Kismayo by the KDF – depicted a sophisticated sugar smuggling network with links to the Kenyan political elite. Through cross-border co-operation with al-Shabaab-linked brokers in Dhobley, Somalia, the smuggled sugar crossed the border to Kenya at Liboi and passed through the Dadaab refugee camps before making its way to the regional hub of Garissa, and then onwards to wholesale markets in Nairobi. The intelligence source speculated that it was likely the KDF had “tentacles” in the business, having taken over control of the Dhobley-Kismayo road from al-Shabaab.

Although al-Shabaab’s defeats in Lower Juba in 2012 mean the group no longer controls the illicit trade, the smuggling networks that operate it are still active. Kenyan sugar prices in the first quarter of 2014 fell from an average of $43 to $36 per 50-kilogramme sack due to illegal imports, Kenya Sugar Board CEO Rosemary Mkok told South Africa’s Financial Mail newspaper. The black market trade is so entrenched that domestic sugar processors routinely import cheaper sugar and repackage it under their own brand.

Mohamed Mohamud Hassan is a former smuggler living in Dadaab’s Ifo camp. Camp life, he said, includes a mini-cartel made up of a few dozen importers controlling the trade in sugar – as well as powdered milk, oil, pasta, rice, cigarettes and clothing items – and colluding to keep the price around KES3,000 ($34) for a 50kg sack. When there are disagreements among members, he said, the price of a sack can drop to as low KES2,200 ($25).

Two or three lorries typically arrive in Ifo every night, each carrying 250 bags of smuggled sugar. Hassan stated that for each lorry, the police officers receive a payoff of around KES100,000 ($1,120), roughly 15 per cent of the worth of the shipment. So lucrative are the illicit gains that branches of the Kenyan security forces compete against one another for bribes. Hassan recalled a night when he was transporting a consignment of smuggled cigarettes and was stopped by an Administration Police (AP) patrol demanding a payoff. “We couldn’t agree on an amount. They wanted too much,” he said. Having no legal jurisdiction to arrest and hold the smugglers themselves, the officers handed them over to the local police station. This second group of officers were more amenable to negotiating a financial arrangement. They then agreed to help Hassan evade the AP patrol, still lurking nearby. “So the police took the cigarettes to the camp in a police car,” Hassan laughed. “When the AP officers asked about them, they said that customs agents seized them.”

The sometimes under-appreciated link between corruption and national security is nowhere more salient than in Kenya. Author Michela Wrong addressed the issue in a May 2014 Foreign Policy article: "What perhaps most frustrates the government's critics is its failure to trace the causal connection between grand corruption and deteriorating security in a country once regarded as a rare 'safe' African state."

Illustrating the point, the four perpetrators of the September 2013 Westgate mall attack had crossed overland from Somalia into Kenya some four months prior, possibly somewhere around Liboi. To view the ease of their entry into Kenya as a distinct issue from the ease with which smugglers crisscross the border would be naive. “The more charcoal exported from Kismayo, the more sugar comes in to Kenya, the more that border policy in Kenya is distorted, the more smuggling of other things takes place, and the more dangerous Kenya becomes,” the regional intelligence source said.

Kenya's leaders have opted to take the easy way out, cracking down on the country's Somali community in lieu of tackling corruption – what Wrong calls the "eating" culture. Future generations of Kenyans are likely to pay the price.

Jay Bahadur

© 2015 Jay Bahadur