No need to celebrate yet as more drug lords are still on the loose

From left: Baktash Akasha Abdalla, Gulam Hussein, Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla and Mr Vijaygiri Anandgiri Goswami during the mention of their extradition case at the Mombasa Law Courts in 2016. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Just like in the Escobar case, the exit of Akasha brothers may just open a can of worms as rivals occupy the subsequent void.

  • The local drug network is fluid and fragmented.

  • The Akasha brothers seized the Kibaki-Kenyatta transition to worm back into circulation.

  • Corruption has ensured barons and kingpins never get punished for their heinous crime.

Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar killed more than 2,800 police officers and 1,400 civilians to protect his Sh2.2 trillion annual narcotics empire.

His end came in December 1993 when Americans hauled him from his hideout and pumped bullets into his body. Colombian authorities would hail the killing as major success against the drug vice.

Not long later, the authorities reported a drop in drugs-related deaths. Yet this dip wasn’t because the Medellin Cartel boss was no more. A rival gang was now firmly in control. No turf war.

The rule of thumb in anti-narcotics war: Never rush to celebrate the exit of a kingpin.

Apparently, there is exuberance within Kenya over reports on Thursday that the Akasha brothers had pleaded guilty in an American court to drug trafficking.


Director of Criminal investigations (CID) George Kinoti tweeted thus: “the Director Anti-Narcotics Unit personally flew to the USA having diligently prepared the case and managed to have the two accused persons plead guilty…”.

And according to Haki Africa NGO executive director Khalid Hussein, “if their properties can be attached and the funds used to help drug abuse victims, this will be good”.

Yes, the two, Baktash Akasha and Ibrahim Akasha, and cohorts face long jail terms. But this development should excite nobody, for their withdrawal may just occasion a ferocious turf battle for the control of Kenya’s Sh100-Sh160 billion industry, based on figures published in

Morsels from the Akashas cartel are so alluring, rivals would relish to grab them.

In fact, the latest development is unlikely to be apocalyptic to the Akasha cartel, as it were. Didn’t this kin-based network survive its founder, patriarch Ibrahim Akasha Abdallah?


Just like in the Escobar case, the exit of Akasha brothers may just open a can of worms as rivals occupy the subsequent void.

Two reasons explain this. First, as stated above, there’s likely to be fallout in the local and regional drug kingdom, which could occasion a scramble for the void left by the Akashas. Two, the ineffectiveness of the country’s corrupt and unimaginative anti-drug strategy — which is haphazard, zigzag, and ad hoc — won’t be a deterrent, as has been the case in the past.

The local drug network is fluid and fragmented. Implicitly, it is hardly under the control of a single cartel.

Even elder Akasha, widely regarded Kenya’s prototype global drug kingpin, had to wrestle with nascent competitors. In fact, he was felled by a rival in 2002. His sons, Baktash and Ibrahim had to climb on graves to revive the fortunes of this kinship cartel.


A research paper published last June, eighteen months after the Akashas’ rendition, says Kenya is in the vice-like grip of multiple drug lords. “It is difficult to put an exact figure to the number of kingpins and barons involved in Kenya’s drug trade … The country’s narco-industry is controlled by syndicates that are fluid,” says The Heroin Coast: A Political Economy along the Eastern African Seaboard.

“In the past fifteen years, a number of individuals and groups have collapsed while new ones have been formed to fill the void. In addition to local traffickers, numerous foreign individuals and foreign networks have been involved in the heroin trade in Kenya.” Shortly after Akasha’s assassination, a more rapacious form of drug lord seized the resultant vacuum. This ruthless criminal — unlike the Akasha cartel that was protected by police — sought political patronage to buttress its fortunes.

The new form of drug lord embedded in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. They were investors, ready to be bolstered by foreign barons.


The Akasha cartel is the prototype drug dealer. Its livelihood chiefly depends on a thriving drug trade where proceeds from this illicit is recycled. But the present-day kingpin is a complex creature, who juggles a matrix of illicit activity — tender-preneurship and political brokerage, money laundering, smuggling, gun-running, wildlife and timber poaching and human trafficking.

This new type can ably “combine the shadow economy, politics and business,” according to the report by ENACT (Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organised Crime), which exposed Kenya’s soft-underbelly.

Just months ago in July, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) claimed companies abused sugar import regulations to bring narcotics into the country.

“Kenya, the region’s economic powerhouse, hosts a highly dynamic and active matrix of illicit activity” — corruption, money laundering, counterfeits, smuggling, (and) tax evasion,” the report says.


This Kibaki era network that drew among others, top politicians, senior bureaucrats and people loosely known as “business tycoons”, was extremely powerful and ruthless. So, when Uhuru Kenyatta ascended to power in early 2013, he first targeted the weaker link — foreign cohorts.

By July 2013, less than three months in power, he had deported more than 130 suspected drug lords. Thirty deportations took place in 2016, and so far, 60 have been sent home. The Kenyan kingpins, who included governors and MPs, lost ground.

The Akasha brothers seized the Kibaki-Kenyatta transition to worm back into circulation.

“In Kenya, which one could characterise as a market where there is ‘multipolar competition’, drug traffickers have either campaigned directly for political office or they are often linked to political interests. Here, no single group dominates and there is significant competition among a spectrum of players,” notes the ENACT report.


And this brings to focus the other reason why Kenyans shouldn’t be excited about the Akashas imprisonment. Corruption has ensured barons and kingpins never get punished for their heinous crime. The so-called mules, the poor fellows who physically ferry the drugs from one destination to another, are the ones who get arrested and prosecuted.

Kenya’s anti-drugs war is a prisoner of corruption.

During President Kibaki’s tenure, barons embedded themselves in government and Parliament. They funded the many nascent political parties. Since then, two serving governors, a former governor, and a number of serving and retired politicians have been extensively linked to drug trafficking yet they operate without punishment.

The Akasha’s made the cardinal mistake of declining to bankroll political patronage, according to sources.

That’s why, to circumvent Kenya’s security system that is prone to lethargy, corruption and political arm-twisting, America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was forced to create a special 16-member “Vetted Unit” that investigated and subsequently nailed the Akashas.

At the moment, Kenya still sits in unenviable position in terms of winning the war against hard drugs. The country sits on a key route for global heroin trade. Since 2010, the Smack Track or Southern Route, has the East African coastline as the central distribution nerve for drugs from Afghanistan destined for the West.


Unlike the traditional Opium Route, the new path avoids conflict-hit eastern and central Europe and rather uses eastern Africa as the route of choice. International magazine The Economist described it as a “circuitous route to smuggle heroin from Afghanistan to Europe, passing through East Africa”.

According to ENACT, “the East African heroin market is best understood as forming an integrated regional criminal economy based on the transit of heroin from Afghanistan to the West, and with a spin-off trade for local consumption”.

Nairobi, the locus of Kenya’s political power and densest node of economic activity in the country, is also a key hub.

Many heroin kingpins began their careers here, because they could take advantage of being able to rub shoulders with certain political actors and there were facilities for money laundering, the report notes.

Instructively, the Akashas and accomplices were charged in an American court. Not Kenyan. Would they have been prosecuted and successfully convicted in Kenya? Very unlikely.


Two of the seven individuals the then US President Barack Obama listed as global drug kingpins are Kenyans. Nobody is asking for their rendition. Or rather, there doesn’t seem to be any will to have them face the same fate as the Akashas.

The anti-narcotics strategy is haphazard, off-target and impulsive. If anything, the government has ceded to NGOs its responsibility to eradicate narcotics among the populace.

“Unless authorities develop an integrated strategy against the drug menace, Kenya will continue to hit headlines as a key trafficking hub,” says a foreign diplomat.