How bribe-taking police officers have fuelled illegal ethanol trade


KRA officials inspect 15,000 litres of ethanol intercepted at Mai Mahiu, in Naivasha. The product from Tanzania worth Sh6.7 million, was covered with sacks of maize cobs. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Product is concealed in livestock feed or cereals and taken through the designated entry points such as Busia.
  • But some of the ethanol dealers have not been as lucky. There have been several seizures of illegal ethanol from Uganda.

George and I didn't expect the 16-kilometre drive back to Kenya from the Ugandan distillery that had agreed to buy our 'smuggled' molasses to be dramatic. 

Thanks to their friendliness, the two police officers that we met earlier on our way to Busia Sugar & Allied, one of the 14 distilleries in Uganda, had banished any fears of our being harassed by the law enforcement agencies while on this "panya route." 

But a few minutes after taking the left turn from a border murram road into Kenya at the junction of Okame Technical and Vocational College signpost, we are met two police officers, a male and a female. 

Again, given the last amiable encounter with them’ I expect us to exchange a few pleasantries accompanied with forced smiles before being allowed to proceed. 

This is not the route we used before to enter Uganda, which is why we missed this roadblock. In any case we agreed with our two guides that for the way back to Kenya, we should use a different road, one that was wider for the trailer, which we lied to them was waiting in Kisumu with molasses. The road that we used to enter Uganda could only accomodate smaller trucks.

The female police approaches one of the guides, the talkative one that is on the driving wheel.

She greets us before inquiring: "Where are you from?" "We are from Busia Uganda to see a friend. We just thought we could use this route because it was nearer," explains the guide. 

The route, of course, is not a designated one. 

"Assist me with the (documentation) papers for this car. It is a Ugandan car, isn't it? I need to see the papers," says the police before calling her colleague.

"I don't have the papers, I did not pass through Customs," the guide says, fumbling to get what he alleges to be his registration documents as a clearing agent from the storage compartment.

"I am a clearing agent," says the guide, even after finding nothing to back up his claim. 

"Okay, but where are the papers for the car? That is what I want to see. Clearing agent... even my husband is a clearing agent in Malaba so you can't lie to me," says the police officer.

Meanwhile, the male officer asks for our national identification cards. Everyone provides their ID cards except me. The only document on me that can identify me as a Kenyan is my job card, which I can not reveal unless I want to abort the mission. 

It is too hot so I left my identification card with my jacket in the car which we parked outside Khetia Supermarket, Busia town. 

"And yours?" The police officer asks me.

"I forgot mine in the car," I tell him. 

"Huyu sasa tunaenda na yeye," (We are going with this one."

Luckily, he goes to talk to our guide who has already left the car. After a minute, the guide asks George if he has Sh200. 

George fishes out Sh500 note, gives it to the guide instructing him to tell afande that the additional Sh300 will also take care of my offense of not carrying my ID card. 

The guide asks them whether there is another roadblock ahead and the lady offier assures us there is none. But the male police quips: "If you meet them, just talk to them nicely."

We burst into laughter. But we know that was a close shave. Just before we get onto the Busia-Malaba Road we spot Adungosi Police Station on our right.

Our trailer, chugging and full of smuggled molasses, will actually pass here! Then I remember that earlier, just after we left the two police officers while entering Uganda, a canter truck from Uganda joined the road we had left heading towards the Kisumu-Busia Road. 

"Hio imebeba ethanol (That one is carrying ethanol)," said our guide, before asking George if he could be interested in the ethanol business.

The truck had actually passed by these police officers and this police station.

"People have made a lot of money from this business of ethanol," the guide had said. 

But some of the ethanol dealers have not been as lucky. There have been several seizures of illegal ethanol from Uganda. Indeed, some of it has been intercepted in this area, Teso South sub county, Busia county.

Last year in May, two trucks from Uganda were impounded while ferrying 200 drums of ethanol worth Sh40 million at night. They had probably used one of these routes. 

A year earlier, 34,560 litres of illegal ethanol from Uganda were intercepted at Busia border concealed beneath bags of processed livestock feed. They were being ferried in two separate trucks. 

Malaba, another border point in Busia, has also recorded seizures of smuggled ethanol. And so is Bungoma which also borders Uganda. The Kenya-Tanzania border of Isebania has also been a notorious entry point for illegal ethanol.

A few minutes after getting into the Ugandan territory, having left the two friendly policemen, we come across a makeshift barricade of long dry timber that was pulled aside as soon as our guide showed his face.

"Those ones will demand Sh2,000 from you. If you don't give them, they will stop you and call the bad boys to work on you," said the guide. Once in Uganda, we continued through another maze of roads that at some point passed right through a Chinese Goldmine that was heavily guarded. Mountains and lakes had been artificially created from the mining activity. Eventually we came to a wider murram road that is currently being tarmacked. This road connects Busia -Uganda and Tororo – Uganda. On this road, one side in Uganda and the other side is Kenya. It was not long before we came across the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA's) Regional Electronic Cargo Tracking System (RECTS) double cabin doing “surveillance on the Kenyan side of the road.

After about 20 kilometres, we arrived at Busia Sugar & Allied (Uganda) – a standalone distillery with a capacity of 20,000 litres of ethanol per day. 

After introducing ourselves as molasses suppliers, we were allowed in. Inside, there were three trucks with Kenyan registration numbers offloading molasses. People, who looked like workers, sat idly as the machines hummed.

Our entry (strangers) raised a lot of suspicion and due to security reasons, we were unable to take any photos or videos. 

We, however, had our phones on the record mode. We were informed that only the director of the company was allowed to negotiate molasses procurement matters. We were given a number to call. 

On inquiry, the team there insisted that they were not interested in any other document, whether exportation or delivery documents. 

We were told that our trucks need to arrive, latest, 6.00 am, not later. This corroborated our guides insistence that our trucks only move as from 11.00pm when most of KRA and Police surveillance teams scale.