Sugar-smugglers whose activities have been linked to Al-Shabaab are still in business, three weeks after one of the terror group’s deadliest attacks in Kenya that killed 148 people.
Investigations by the Saturday Nation reveal that none of the sugar barons were named in the list of 86 companies and individuals whose accounts were frozen on allegations of supporting terrorism.
Reports by the United Nations and a US government agency say there are about 70 businessmen — located in the Somali port city of Kismayu and in Garissa and Nairobi in Kenya — who are brokers in the sugar and charcoal trade.
Garissa was the scene of the latest attack, on April 2, by Al-Shabaab in which 142 university students and six security officers were killed. Reports say the businesses earn the militant group millions of dollars which they use in their terror campaign.
According to a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) and Interpol, Al-Shabaab’s primary source of income appears to be from informal taxation at roadblocks.
“In one roadblock case, they have been able to make up to $8 million (Sh696 million) to $18 million (Sh1.5 billion) per year from charcoal traffic in Somalia’s Badhadhe District,” says the Unep/Interpol report, adding that trading in charcoal and taxing the ports have generated an estimated annual total of $38 million to $56 million for Al-Shabaab.
Earnings from the trade are vital in sustaining the terrorists’ capacity to carry out attacks in Somalia and Kenya.
Kismayu has been controlled by Kenya Defence Forces(KDF) since they captured it from Al-Shabaab in September 2012, cutting off the group’s finances but the militants have since moved into the hinterland where they rake in money at roadblocks.
Although the reports do not name individuals, the Saturday Nation has established that one of the biggest sugar smugglers based in Garissa is related to a senior politician.
He has been operating a lucrative smuggling ring between the port of Kismayu and Garissa, that brings in millions of dollars a year.
The sugar trade has boomed since KDF went into Somalia in late 2011 and has overtaken charcoal as southern Somalia’s leading cross-border trade commodity.
The smuggler has a fleet of trucks that operate between Garissa and Kismayu. On their way to Kismayu they carry Kenyan food and consumer goods and on their way back, they are loaded with hundreds of bags of contraband sugar imported from Brazil.
“There are five checkpoints between Kismayu and Garissa – three by Al-Shabaab and two by the KDF. The sugar trucks are waved through all the checkpoints without any checks. There is a tacit agreement between the owner and these entities and we are sure hefty sums of money change hand in the form of illegal ‘taxes’,” said the source.
The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) office at the Liboi border crossing is also implicated in the scam, through “creative invoicing” or by simply not declaring.
The trucks are also known to use the Kolbio border post where they are driven to Lamu and Mombasa and resold to middle-men as “customed” sugar. They are repackaged and made to look like local sugar.
With Mumias Sugar, Kenya’s biggest producer of the commodity in financial doldrums, sugar importation has become even more lucrative.
The news could undermine confidence in the list of terror associates.
Intriguingly, while the list included two human rights groups — Muhuri and Haki Africa — and money transfer firms, none of the sugar barons was listed.
It also contains names of clerics who the government has been collaborating with to tackle jihadism and youth radicalisation in Kenya’s Somali-speaking communities.
Sheikh Ummal, a prominent Eastleigh-based cleric, whose name was in the list, has protested his innocence. Sheikh Ummal has consistently criticised Al-Shabaab’s campaign of terror and its intransigence and refusal to seek a political settlement.
He is immensely influential and his anti-Shabaab messages are often relayed on Somali satellite TV channels, earning him death threats from Al-Shabaab.
“This is the kind of guy the government should keep on its side in its ideological fight against jihadism and Al-Shabaab,” a Somali security source told the Saturday Nation.
LACK OF INFORMATION
Those who have been named in the list and have appeared before the counter-terrorism police unit have been shocked at the state agents’ lack of information on the subject.
Father Gabriel Dolan of Muhuri who appeared before the unit together with his fellow board members, said: ‘’We expected a ‘grilling’ and to be furnished with substantive allegations and evidence linking Muhuri with the Al-Shabaab murderers. However, nothing of the sort emerged.
Instead, we faced a team of tired, bored NIS officials who did not want to be identified nor unduly bothered and whose task was merely to give out a fourteen-page document to be filled, returned and ‘you will be hearing from us in two weeks.
“The whole thing may have been sloppy, unprofessional and lacking any shape or direction but the IG Boinett and his NCTC team had already condemned the two organisations by freezing their accounts and now in utter contempt of the Constitution and the rule of law, the burden of proof fell on them to prove their innocence,” Fr Dolan wrote in his weekly column in the Saturday Nation.
The KRA has also raided the two rights groups’ offices, carting away documents and computers for tax audits.
Meanwhile, for the big boys in the sugar and charcoal trade, it is business as usual.
Elements of the KDF have been accused of colluding with Al-Shabaab in the illegal multi-billion-shilling charcoal trade.
In 2014, a report by a US government-funded organisation, which echoed earlier findings by the United Nations, alleged that the KDF mission to Somalia appears to include the charcoal trade.
“Kenya, although formally a participant in Amisom, which operates in support of the Somali national government, is also complicit in support of trade that provides income to Al-Shabaab, its military opponent both inside Somalia and, increasingly, at home in Kenya,” the Institute of Defence Analyses (IDA) said in its report by Mr George Ward, formerly Washington’s ambassador to Namibia.
Kenya’s military chiefs have previously denied allegations of involvement in any illicit activity in Somalia and have maintained that since October 2011, they have only engaged in military action aimed at stabilising the war-torn country. But the accusations have refused to go away.
While businesses of the sugar and charcoal barons boom, most of Garissa town is facing an economic crisis following the attack on the university college.
Traders in the county who spoke to the Saturday Nation said they had been incurring heavy losses since the attack and the dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed by Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet.
Police have also been accused of using the curfew to extort money from residents.