Detectives probing the illegal importation of a huge consignment of cigarettes are trying to solve the puzzle of the 49 containers that were found to be only a quarter full.
The intrigues behind the consignment imported from Montenegro has taken investigators more than eight months to piece together, with details carefully covered in shadow names and companies, some of whose records no longer exist at the registrar of companies.
The consignment that was previously believed to be some 196 million sticks of cigarettes; at least five sticks for each Kenyan including children, has now put Kenya on the spot as a major illicit tobacco trading and transit point as the tax-evading cartel keep investigators burning the midnight oil to track its path that now has a strong Europe connection.
Even more puzzling to the investigators is how a house help was used to ship the consignment of 44 forty-foot containers of premium cigarettes and later abandoned at the inland container depot in Embakasi once authorities raised eyebrows on their tax records.
Shipping manifest data seen by Sunday Nation show that the cigarettes were shipped in two consignments, 44 containers by Quality GS Limited registered in the name of Rose Chebet (a house help) and Xplico Insurance Limited owned by a Kenyan, Mr Patrick Ndirangu and two foreign nationals Keith David Beekmeyer (American) and Mr Altaf Husein Bhurawala (British).
Quality GS limited is no longer available in the registrar of companies records in what may have been either faked up name or removed from official records.
Both shipments were loaded at St Petersburg two weeks apart according to the bill of lading but it remains unclear why the goods destined for Kenya did not raise eyebrows until they arrived for clearance where they were not only meant to evade tax but also stayed 25 per cent full for months without raising eyebrows.
It was only after the start of the ongoing crackdown led by the multi-agency team on illicit trade that Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) listed the cigarettes among the goods that were meant to be destroyed in June.
The move was called off at the last minute before the story of the near-empty containers erupted from a reliable source.
KRA maintains that the cigarettes may have been smuggled out of the port before they were shipped into Kenya in what now gives a European connection to the complicated syndicate running a multibillion illicit trade on tobacco among other products.
“It is believed that once the cigarettes land in the free zone at Bar, they are offloaded. The shipper then declares as full containers destined to Kenya to avoid an audit trail but in essence a very small percentage of the cigarettes are shipped into the country. The bulk of it is smuggled to Europe and other countries,” KRA Commissioner of Investigations and Enforcement and his Customs and Border Control counterpart wrote in a joint response to our queries.
The smuggling ring is said to use the free zones like Dubai as they make their way into the country turning Kenya into a country used on paper to dispatch the goods from their countries of origin in the illicit trade and tax evasion racket.
The investigations that are still ongoing will also focus on the role of the Danish shipping line, Maersk Line which was used to carry out the illegal import causing their containers to be detained at the ICD in Nairobi for close to a year now.
The shipping line could not readily disclose how much revenue it had forgone in the ten months’ detention of containers as they were observing a silent period before releasing results but maintained they had fully co-operated with KRA to unravel the mystery behind the imports without a consignee to claim and 75 per cent missing mysteriously.
Maersk Line Eastern Africa Managing Director Mads Skov-Hansen told the Sunday Nation that the cargo carrier’s containers were still being detained by KRA but the firm distanced itself from both the contents and what may have happened to the cargo en route to Nairobi.
“It is always the customer who is responsible for stuffing and sealing of containers,” Mr Hansen wrote back.
KRA could not directly answer whether the shipping line had fully co-operated with the investigators but gave a general statement that sought to lay responsibility on the shipper at the same time point to an existing loophole that illicit importers can largely exploit by simply mis-declaring what they are importing at will.
Combined with the shipping line’s reply that it relies on customers to ‘fulfil regulatory obligations’, KRA seemed to agree with the shipping line’s defence that they would just accept what the customer declared their cargo contents to be.
“It is the responsibility of the shipping lines to exercise due diligence to ensure correct goods declaration from the load port. However, in line with the international shipping practice, goods are usually delivered to the shipping lines already sealed by the exporter/supplier. The shipping line may therefore not take full responsibility of cargo contents but rely on declaration by the exporter. A disclaimer is usually issued in form of “Said To Contain” (STC) terminology in the Bill of Lading,” KRA said in a statement to Sunday Nation.
Sources within the Embakasi depot intimated that only one man appeared to enquire about the cigarettes to transport them to South Sudan but disappeared when he noticed the goods were under scrutiny.
The story of the smuggled cigarettes has had several dramatic turns including a bloody phase in November 2017 when four people attempted to hijack the metre gauge railway train in Taru-Kwale County. Police are said to have shot and killed two people in the process. Very few people even wanted to talk about this incident with Kwale County Commandant Tom Odero saying he needed more time to verify the incident as he had not been deployed to the county then but two officers from the railway police confirmed they knew about the event which they could not speak openly about it as their junior ranks prohibit them to do so.
Investigators say even the Xplico Insurance Company which painted the ironical phase of the illicit trade with a health insurance provider importing cigarettes for the same clients it aims to safeguard may walk scot free as the probe nears it’s tail end where the cargo is expected to be destroyed.
Managing Director Michael Muriithi had earlier told the Sunday Nation on phone that they had been contacted by KRA over the contraband cargo but distanced the company from the consignment despite manifest data identifying the firm as one of the consignees with a bill of lading number 961657767 and manifest numbers 140266.
The fate of the house-help whose identity may have been wrongly used in the shipment also remain unknown with even the port police sources including seniors at the ICD remaining tight-lipped over when and whether she had been arrested.