State capture: How drug lords control political power in Kenya

Saturday April 20 2019

Instructively, the Akashas' case in the US has excited a public convinced it is definitive in Kenya’s fight against hard drugs. And this exhilaration is because American authorities earlier promised to swoop down on Akashas’ accomplices — judges, police officers, politicians, and many other public servants who aided or abetted the enterprise founded by Ibrahim Akasha, the poster boy of drug trafficking in Kenya.


Yet the possibility of Americans prosecuting the Akashas’ allies and accomplices — and other top local drug lords — is almost zero. Or to put it in another way, the chance that Kenyan drug kingpins and barons will be spirited to America is remote — unless there is a radical shift in politics in 2022. And if Americans attempt to come for the Akasha collaborators, it won’t be a walk in the park.

It will be extremely difficult for Kenya’s political establishment to relinquish its benefactors to Americans. There are explanations for this, apart from the fact that their international operations were linked to the US. The Akashas were an easy target because they failed to bankroll politics and, therefore, fell out of favour with power brokers. Kenya wouldn’t have surrendered the Akashas to America had they been controlling political power.

“After (the patriarch’s) death, the family continued to traffic drugs, but there was infighting, and (it) came under scrutiny as the face of Kenya’s heroin trade. As a result, they began to lose political protection, culminating in their extradition,” according to the report The Heroin Coast: A political Economy Along the Estern African Seaboard, published in June 2018 by Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organised Crime (ENACT) through funding by the European Union and considered groundbreaking research into the heroin economy on the East African coastline.

It’s instructive to note that during Mwai Kibaki’s presidency, the Akasha crime kinship went underground after it was overwhelmed by rival drug cartels controlled by five top politicians at the time.



To buttress its fortunes against rivals such as the Akashas, one of the cartels connected to elements at State House even imported the so-called Artur brothers as hatchet men.

Two, the newest drug lord is no longer the apolitical criminal or the political lobbyist but the top politician, and if you like, the government itself. The owners of the heroin and cocaine trade are those who now control regional and national politics and business — and by extension the two sets of government. They are firmly embedded in politics and governance. So, how do you extradite the government? Or, who will extradite the government?

During the Akasha trial, the head of Kenya’s anti-narcotics unit, Salim Massa, said in a sworn affidavit that the government “ordered the expulsions of the Akashas on its own volition”. Instructively, Kenya had arrested the Akasha brothers in 2014 yet, by the time they were extradited, they had not been charged with drug trafficking.

While it’s politically viable to hand over to foreign legal jurisdictions fringe drug barons like the Akashas, it’s obviously imprudent to surrender the political franchise. “Franchise” meaning the barons who work for the benefit of the political establishment. According to ENACT, “for decades now, the political patronage system (in Kenya) has been influenced by money — cash that is needed to bribe, buy votes and manipulate the political process … Political slush funds come from those involved in transnational crime, including drug trafficking”.


The modern Ibrahim Akasha isn’t the original morsel drug lord of the 1990s who only dealt in the destructive merchandise because cleaning the ill-gotten wealth wasn’t a hustle nor illegitimate, for laws against money laundering were either absent or too lenient to deter the crime. The new drug kingpin is a dollar billionaire controlling a matrix of illicit business, not just drug trafficking.

What we have is a big-time politician or influential business person who handily combines drug trafficking with real estate, all forms of trans-border smuggling, counterfeiting, poaching, and manipulation of public procurement, and embracing it with legitimate business such as banking or money lending, civil construction, clearing and forwarding, and the service industry.

This is an influential person able to covertly conjoin crime and legitimate business, in an atmosphere of complacent and expedient politics whose philosophy is that money buys political authority. Real business merely facilitates illicit trade. Yet this diversification is not just to make it possible for the drug lords to stay afloat during a slump in any of their businesses. It is to circumvent the harsh banking regulations and to avoid a financial paper trail.

Drug trafficking is a hugely risky venture. But it is extremely profitable — in fact more handy than Kenya’s newest cash cow, tenderpreneurship. Unlike procurement manipulation, which often leaves a paper trail, the evidence in drug trafficking is always the mule who is often sworn to secrecy. The big fellow, the drug lord, will always survive as mules rot in jails.

“One of the notable evolutions in Kenya’s criminal economy is the increased integration of drug networks and political office. Money derived from heroin and cocaine has been used to fund multiple election campaigns, and drug traffickers themselves have campaigned for political power funded by drug money,” says the ENACT report — based on over 240 interviews in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. The report quotes a source who quips, “They (Kenya drug lords) are no longer seeking to compromise the political system … They are seeking to control the political system”.


The current Uhuru Kenyatta succession politics has exposed an urgent need by the political class to amass wealth to fund election campaigns. Thus there has emerged ferocious individuals ready to compromise public procurement to make political fortunes in a blatant mix of crime and political power.

Against this background, it becomes increasingly obvious that the government and/or controllers of politics will unlikely relinquish their benefactors to foreign lands like America. The goodwill will not be there. And this partly explains why all major heroin and cocaine seizures have been at the hand of external forces — in particular the Combined Marine Forces that patrol the Indian Ocean against Somali pirates — and not Kenyan authorities.

“In general, people we spoke to were extremely cynical about the prospect for any major change, including efforts towards dismantling Kenya’s illicit networks, as the structural features that allow for the current situation show no signs of changing.”

All told, Kenya’s narco-industry is widespread, beyond the understanding of the common person. It’s deeply entrenched in national politics and governance and has thus become the first-choice playground for foreign networks under the protection, or in the employ, of top Kenyans. That’s why the country is eagerly awaiting the Director of Public Prosecutions to furnish Parliament a list of Kenyan drug traffickers, as recently demanded by Chief Whip Benjamin Washiali.


As stated earlier, the Akashas may be the prototype drug enterprise. But the controllers of the trade are entrenched in the country’s governance system. As long as they provide the requisite balance in this highly ethnicised Kenyatta succession politics, the possibility that they will be prosecuted — within and without Kenya — is remote. If anything, there are Kenyans being sought by foreign or international legal jurisdictions but the government has conveniently declined to play ball, as it were.

The Akashas extradition may have been alluring to the then political power brokers eager to curry favour with the then just-elected President Donald Trump. A leadership weighed down by the International Criminal Court indictments and accused of benefiting from a stolen 2013 election was seeking international legitimacy. This is no longer tenable in Jubilee’s second and last term.