Mansur Surur and how botched cases kept ivory cartels in business

Kenya Wildlife Services rangers display elephant tusks and rhino horns intercepted at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi in 2009. Photo | Reuters

What you need to know:

  • Mansur Surur is believed to be a poaching kingpin.
  • He was arrested this week, marking a potential end to a pursuit championed by conservationists.

On January 10, 2016, just before sunset, Fredrick Muchina was driving on a dusty road near Ruiru town when he was blocked by a saloon car. His vehicle, a Toyota Kluger registration KBQ 242N, swerved as if to give way – but it was too late. He was shot six times in the chest. He died on the spot.

Mr Muchina was on the radar of both the police and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). He had been linked to poaching inside the Solio Ranch in Laikipia and at Ol Jogi, a lavish but private 58,000-acre wildlife conservancy run by French billionaire Guy Wildenstein, who had inherited the estate from his father, Daniel Wildenstein, in 1977. He may as well have wronged the deadly cartels he worked for.

When Interpol seized one of the leading ivory merchants, Masur Surur, this week after he returned on a chartered flight from his hideout in Yemen, it ended the run for a man implicated in the killings of rhino and elephants in East Africa, according to police.

Like Muchina before him, Surur is believed to be a poaching kingpin. Another person involved with Muchina was Guinean poacher Traore Lancini, who was seized in Donholm in October 2013 with six pieces of elephant tusks worth Sh5.5 million before he disappeared into thin air.

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Mansur Surur. Photo | Pool

Although a court was told he was in the company of another Kenyan, Bernard Musau, who was charged as the second accused, Lancini had by May 2015 disappeared into thin air after a few court appearances.

Lancini’s lawyer, a Mr Etole, claimed in court that his client had been “deported” and though the court issued a warrant of arrest, no evidence of such deportation was adduced in court.

After his disappearance, and on July 5, 2017, the prosecution applied to drop Lancini’s name from the charge sheet and Musau – a man who had been used to ferry the ivory – was left to carry the ivory cross alone.

The investigators also told the court – to everyone’s surprise – that they did not take photographs of the recovered goods because there were few scene-of-crime officers in the country. The only photos shown to the court were taken a month and a half later and focused on the vehicle. Was this deliberate?

That omission surprised the Judge and, later on, he lamented:

“It begs how the ivories, which were a critical piece of evidence, were omitted in this process. It could not have been by mistake or oversight. It was a deliberate omission for reasons best known to the investigators.

It was shoddy and tainted with deliberate omissions"

All the same, to seal this gap, an inventory would have confirmed what exactly was recovered with a concession by the suspects. Again, no such record was found necessary to procure, reasons only the investigators could explain,” said Justice G.W. Ngenye-Macharia, while setting Musau free.

Apparently, the investigators and the prosecution had messed up with the ivory case.

“It was shoddy and tainted with deliberate omissions that would otherwise have sealed the case for the prosecution,”  said the High Court judge.

Why Lancini was deported – if at all he was – while facing a criminal case has never been explained. Again, the case was dragged through the courts and was heard by six magistrates from October 2013 to April 2019. By then, the witnesses were either tired or had lost interest in the case. It was a case bound to collapse.

KWS officers had initially ambushed both Mr Musau and Mr Lancini at Choma Base in Donholm and they told the court that they discovered the ivory in the boot of a Mercedes Benz at around 6.30 pm.

Borrowed car

Mr Musau had borrowed the car from his pastor, John Ngari, to ostensibly ferry Musau’s ailing mother for an appointment with a doctor at Kenyatta National Hospital. He later claimed in court that the only items in the car were witchcraft materials “like goat horns” for use by the pastor to exorcise demons from his family.

Later, Musau told the court, Lancini called him after they were released on bail and claimed to have been deported back to Guinea.

The deliberate interference in Lancini’s case meant that KWS was unable to break the cartels and brokers who run the ivory trade. It was also deadly – and those who tried to stop the cartels earned the wrath of their protectors. It was also complex.

Picture this. On the night of January 19, 2014, Muchina – the man who was later gunned down in Ruiru – is alleged to have called George Nderitu, a police officer attached to Central Bank , Nyeri Branch, for an assignment at Solio Ranch where they were to kill some Rhinos near a dam.

They were to meet at 12.30 at Whispers Park in Nyeri. That was according to Nderitu’s wife, to a local daily. He also called another man, William Kariuki, and they all left for Solio Ranch. Lady luck was not with them.

Some gunshots

That night, two KWS rangers, Laban Tendet and Solomon Kipkemoi, heard some gunshots at the ranch and were asked by the platoon commander to lay an ambush at the possible escape route. At 2am, both Nderitu and Kariuki, plus a man who managed to vanish, were sighted.

It was a dark night. The rangers opened fire and killed two of them.

But interestingly, the two rangers – rather than get commended for protecting the rhinos – were charged with murder. That was until Justice Ngaah Jairus dismissed the case thus:

“It has not been disputed that the deceased persons were within the ranch in which the petitioners had been conscripted to protect wildlife. No reason has been given showing  why the deceased could possibly have been in the ranch at 2 am while armed with a high-calibre assault weapon, ammunition and a sword”.

Justice Ngaah was of the feeling that an inquest would have given the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) a chance to show the court that “in exercising his powers, he was not influenced by caprice or whim”.

It was an attempted cover-up of poachers of Solio Ranch.

With a network of police officers and marksmen, Mr Muchina and others in the black market were a deadly force. At one point he abandoned his car at JKIA and fled to South Africa.

Five months after the slaying of the two poachers in Solio, and after Muchina vanished, police stumbled onto a huge heist hidden at the business premises of Fuji Motors East Africa in Mombasa. Police arrested Feisal Ali Mohammed, a man they believed to be the ivory logistician in the region, in a breakthrough hailed by wildlife conservationists.

At the premises, they found 314 pieces of elephant tusks in what KWS hailed as the result of a “well-coordinated partnership bringing together various government agencies and international partners, including the Interpol and Lusaka Agreement Task Force”.

The ivory cartels had for ten years not only turned bold but were also trafficking in drugs and money laundering. In this underworld were Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha – now in jail in the US.

The American court was told that the Akashas, together with Indian citizen Vijaygiri Goswami and Gulam Hussein, a Pakistani, were heavily involved in ivory smuggling. That was according to Gretchen Peters, the head of a US company that helps governments fight transnational crime. But they could not be charged with the ivory-related offences because shipping of ivory from Africa to Asia does not violate any US law.

Big news

That is why the arrest of Feisal Ali was indeed, big news. After all the ivory was thought to have come from at least 120 elephants. And then, as usual, the prosecution and investigations drama started.

The Fuji Motors building, the scene of crime, was demolished. The nine motor vehicles, which were under police custody and which had been used to ferry the ivory, disappeared.

It had taken much effort by wildlife activist Paula Kahumbu to convince Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo to take interest in the case and that is what led to his arrest. Mr Ali was later charged alongside Abdul Halim Sadiq, Ghalib Sadiq Kara, Praverz Noor Mohamed and Abdulmajeed Ibrahim with being in possession of 314 pieces of ivory weighing 2,152 kilogrammes.

While Principal Magistrate D. Mochache found him guilty and sentenced  him to serve 20 years in jail and pay a fine of Sh20 million, he let go of all the other accused. He also left so many issues untied that the case would not survive at the appeal stage. He was, perhaps, not to blame.

This was the same classic loophole in the Lancini case"

Feisal Ali took advantage of the various loopholes identified by the principal magistrate and lodged an appeal at the High Court and before Justice Dora Chepkwony (She handled the Akasha cases as well.). 

Ali told Justice Chepkwony that “no photographs were produced (as) proof” that ivory was indeed found at Fuji Motors. This was the same classic loophole in the Lancini case and on which the Donholm ivory case collapsed. Again, the prosecution had not called the four witnesses who lived in the Fuji Motors compound.

More to that, the magistrate had also not helped either and at Page 60 of his ruling, he had observed: “This is the very difficult process the court went through in piecing together the evidence adduced in court. The investigating officer simply scattered flowers (evidence) in the bush and left it to the court to collect the nectar in order to make honey (Judgment) without his involvement.

The court came up with what I would refer to as a puzzle…the people who could have explained to this court who brought the ivory into the premises were the night guard, the two young men and the cleaner but the prosecution did not find it fit to call them as witnesses ….having failed to call these crucial witnesses, the prosecution failed to discharge that burden”.

Bond release

The case had entered stormy waters from the start when Senior Resident Magistrate Davis Karani released Feisal Ali on bond – against a High Court order that he remain in custody.

An attempt by Assistant DPP Alexander Muteti to have Karani disqualify himself, arguing that he had a predetermined mindset, also failed after the magistrate refused to step aside. Finally, he was interdicted by the Judicial Service Commission. “It was improper for the trial magistrate to clothe himself with jurisdiction and purport to review the orders of a judge,” said Justice Martin Muya.

It is now on record, and the High Court was told as much, that the prosecution did not adduce evidence to show Feisal’s ownership of the Fuji Motors East Africa compound.

It also failed to examine his specimen signature and relied on circumstantial evidence. Finally, Justice Dora Chepkwony set him free on August 3, 2018.

Whether these blunders were deliberate is not known – and it was now clear that the Kenyan investigators and courts were unable to handle ivory cases. And that is why the arrest of Mansur Surur and his pending deportation to the US to face trial will be watched.

Undercover detectives

Like the Akashas of Mombasa, he had been trapped by undercover detectives who claimed to have huge orders for ivory and rhino horns.

Surur is alleged to have engaged the agents and sold to them horns and ivory. He also promised to distribute heroin – and now faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty.

The Kenyan kingpin was working with several others– now under arrest – and they include Moazu Kromah, also known as Kampala Man, Abdi Ahmed and Amara Cherif.

This network operated within Kampala, Nairobi and Mombasa and the US says they are members of a criminal enterprise. Cherif, a Guinean, was arrested in Senegal last year while the Kenyans Surur and Ahmed escaped.

It will be interesting to watch how the deportation order will progress.  During the Akasha trial, the multibillion-shilling underworld of smugglers and kingpins made sure that the case remained here until they were handed over minus the court orders.  For that, is the only way to save the elephants.