Kenya’s Drug Barons

In April and November last year, the Australian navy seized two consignments of heroin off the coast of Kenya, totalling 787 kg and worth about USD278m. Another haul was made in July when Kenyan police found 342 kg of heroin in the tank of a ship docked at the Mombasa port, making it the biggest ever single seizure of drugs in Kenya coastal city. The three seizures roughly equalled the amount captured by 11 east African governments between 1990 and 2009, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

von Lorenzo Bagnoli , Lorenzo Bodrero


The hauls proved once again how Kenya and East Africa waters have become a key export route for heroin from Asia to Europe.


Kenya’s drug routes

In December 2004 a seizure marked a turning point in Africa drugs trade. It was the biggest ever: 1.1 tonnes coming in a vessel docked at Mombasa port. Cocaine has been seized in Malindi, Mombasa (837.5 Kg) and Nairobi (304 Kg). The street value was estimated in 80 million USD. Narcotics allegedly came from Colombia through Venezuela. 

This large cocaine seizure haul involved all the big players both in politics and drug trafficking in Kenya. 

John Harun Mwau, Kenya’s Most Dangerous Drug Trafficker

Politician and businessman, John Harun Mwau, was born in Kenya in 1948 to a humble family. But by the 1990s, he was a rich man. Two decades later, he is richer still. Last year, the Mwau family was named in the 2014 ‘Wealth in Kenya’ report as one of the richest in the country.

And the US government is currently seeking to confiscate 750 millions dollars he has investied there: in 2011 Obama’s administration blacklisted him in the “Kingpin act”. 

Mwau’s vast wealth is not from honest hard work. He is Kenya’s biggest drug trafficker, and in two decades has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from illegally moving cocaine into Kenya, the United States and Europe.

Mwau began his career as a sharpshooter in the Kenyan police in his 20s. He joined the Kenyan parliament in the Kilome province in 1992 under his own brand new political party: PICK (Party of Independent Candidates of Kenya). He left his seat in 2013.

Mwau ran also for the Kenyan presidency in 1992. He lost. But then president, Daniel Arap Moi, offered him the role of head of the newly-created Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority. His job as „transparency upholder“ lasted just a few months.

After keeping a low profile for several years, he emerged again as a major importer of electronic goods from the Middle East and Europe. But troubles for Mwau started in 2004.

In December that year, Kenyan authorities seized in Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi an astonishing 1,21 tonnes of cocaine. The African Business magazine suggests the cargo came from Venezuela and Colombia, and was destined for Ireland and the Netherlands. It was the largest drug haul ever in Kenya’s history. Shortly after, investigators raided the depot of Pepe Enterprises Ltd, a Mombasa -based company allegedly owned by John Mwau. The company has a warehouse located at the Athi River in the outskirts of Nairobi, where it is suspected that part of the narcotics shipment found its way there. The same newspaper reported that Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) „refused to identify a prominent Nairobi hotelier being investigated over the shipment“. 

The 2012 report “Termites at Work: Transnational Organized Crime and State Erosion in Kenya“ released by the International Peace Institute (IPI), highlighted that Mwau has „also been contracted by the government over many years to operate an inland container depot at Athi River in the outskirts of Nairobi, known as the Pepe Container Freight Station“.

The report named Mwau as a violent drug dealer involved in money laundering and contract killings. „In 2008,” the report continues, “John Harun Mwau, following his appointment as assistant transport minister, appears to have been responsible for Kenya’s container transport arrangements“ and „for the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), which controls all ports of entry and inland container terminals in Kenya“. The manager of the depot was charged for drug trafficking but was acquitted for lack of evidence”4.

“Mombasa port is like a tunnel. All illicit business happens here and it is controlled by traders supported by customs personnel and powerful people in government. Whoever controls the port controls the illicit business in Kenya“

IPI interview with Njuguna Mutonya, former bureau chief of Nation Media Group, Coast Province, August 18, 2010.

But the toughest blows to Mwau’s jaw were yet to come. Prior to 2007, Mwau was under investigation with two other suspects for having allegedly provided large sums of money to the election coffers of the PNU (Party of National Unity), headed by Mwai Kibaki, at that time the Kenyan president.

Mwau resigned from his trade assistant minister post in December 2010 after Internal Security minister, George Saitoti, informed the Parliament that MPs Ali Hassan Joho, William Kabogo, John Harun Mwau and Gideon Mbuvi, and Mombasa tycoon Ali Punjani were being investigated for alleged drug trafficking.

According to local press reports, Mwau’s resignation came one month after U.S. ambassador for Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, handed over a detailed confidential report made by American anti-narcotics agencies. All U.S. assets in which Mwau held more than 50% shares were frozen. The U.S. Treasury Department believes Mwau used overseas tournaments and his status to start moving narcotics. In the same period, Mwau visited Colombia quite often: according to top sources, Mwau set up his links with drug traffickers at that time.

The accusations thrown in the Parliament by former minister Saitoti were based on a joint investigation run by US law enforcement and Kenyan government. Strongest allegations moved the investigation at the beginning, less concrete in the later evidence. 

The confirmation is John Harun Mwau’s investigation: in February the “Interim report on drug trafficking investigations” by Kenyan police concluded: “No evidence has so far been found to link him to drug trafficking”.

In 2012 the main accuser, professor George Saitoti, died in an helicopter crash on the outskirts of Nairobi: Al Shabaab militias and drug traffickers are the main suspects for the disaster. Investigations have not yet found anyone guilty.

In 2011, the United States sanctioned Mwau under the Kingpin Act, and is currently working to seize $750m of his investments there. 

Adam Szubin, the Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) in the US Department of Treasury, told journalists: „We view [Mwau] as among the more powerful and active narcotics traffickers in the region.“”It’s not a quick or short process. We built a case slowly and carefully to ensure that it is soundly built“.

“The US never apologises for killing its enemies, real or imagined.” Mwau said in 2011. “They will violate other nations’ airspace and eliminate their targets. The task of justification is left to themselves“. Mwau also claimed that he had every reason to believe that the move by the US government to designate him as a significant foreign narcotics drug trafficker was tailored to make him an easy target for elimination.

In January 2014, the National Authority for Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Kenya (NACADA), invited by John Harun Mwau to say whether they had any evidence linking him with the drug trade, cleared the former politician of any involvement in drug trafficking. But, as reported in the Daily Nation piece on the subject, “Nacada is a State agency and chairmen of such institutions do not have the powers to clear individuals of any past or present allegations“.


Politics and Drugs: The Johos Brothers

A report issued in 2010 by the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and cited in Parliament by then Internal Security Minister George Saitoti says that MPs Joho, William Kabogo, John Harun Mwau, Gideon Mbuvi and Mombasa tycoon Ali Punjani, are among the most dangerous drug traffickers in the country. The document is also signed by then U.S. ambassador Michael Ranneberger.

The report describes how Abubakar Joho and his brother Ali Hassan are in charge of a multi-million euro trafficking empire.

Abubarak is the first one of the two to enter the drug trade. In the early ‘90s he begins working in a clearing and forwarding company and later finds a new position in the vehicles business. Once he finds out the owner of the company had died during the Rwanda genocide he decides to take over and starts diverting vehicles destined to Rwanda into the Kenyan market. But vehicles soon become less lucrative. 

His guts tell him to move on to more profitable business, the one flourishing in and around the port of Mombasa. Here he finds employment in a company that clears container from ships to the quay, and vice-versa. According to the U.S. report, Abubakar Joho „was the clearing agent for containers that held one ton of cocaine in 2004“. 

The influence of Abubakar on Ali Hassan is the one typical of an elder brother towards his younger. According to the American document, it was Abubakar who insisted and convinced Ali Hassan to enter politics. And so he does. 

A young Ali Hassan Joho runs and wins the 2007 elections as a representative of the Mombasa region in the national parliament. Shortly after, the report suggests, his career in the drug trade begins. 

The report reads that the political campaign that grants him the regional political seat was founded by Swaleh Kandereni, Billy Mahandi and Swaleh Ahmed who are all arrested in Mombasa under drug trafficking charges in 2010. According to the American document, Kandereni allegedly was a major supplier to dealers in the coastal town of Malindi. Another of Joho’s influencial campaigner „was suspected narcotics trafficker Ali Punjabi“, the report reads.

It is since 2010 that the Kenyan Anti Narcotics Unit suspects Ali Hassan Joho to be involved in the narcotics trade. The report fails in providing more details on such claim. Due to Joho’s „political position and financial resources it is unclear what [Kenyan] police intended to do with evidence“, the report ends.

Ali Hassan Joho is elected as governor of the Mombasa county on March 4, 2013. 

Together the brothers own Prima Bins & Pest Control, an import-export company in charge of waste management and rat- killing, based in Mama Ngina Drive, Mombasa. It is through their company that the pair move drugs across Kenya. U.S. officials also identify Israeli company Amiran Kenya Ltd, owned by Israeli businessman Andy, as a crucial actor in the criminal network.

Andy appears closely connected with a Mombasa-based man, nicknamed Adamo, one of Joho’s trusted operators. The American report insists that both Mwau and Johos have own companies based at the Kilindi port, in Mombasa, where the cargo seized in December 2004 was heading: “Some of the cocaine [from the 2004 haul] had been stored at the Pepe Container Freight Station CFS, a facility owned by Mr Harun Mwau”.

Ali Hassan Joho also appears as a close acquaintance to Mary Wambui, activist and among the fiercest promoters of former president Kibaki’s political campaign. Wambui, after being Kibaki’s personal counsellor, took his parliamentary seat in 2013. According to the U.S. report, Wambui met often with Hassan and promoted his candidacy for a seat in the regional parliament of Kisauni in 2007. 

From Netherlands with Love, the Akashas

Sitting on the throne of drug barons in Kenya is the Akasha family. The world came to know their name when the forefather of the family Ibrahim Akasha brought to court in 1996, charged on drug trafficking. Ibrahim Akasha is a Swiss-based billionaire, the value of whose estate was estimated at USD 100 million, and who owns property in Amsterdam, the Middle East and Asia. Following Ibrahim’s reign, in 1998 it was his brother’s turn: the allegation was for a heroin possession worth  USD 140.000. In his absentia, Ibrahim Akasha hired a Yugoslavian conduit to ship his consignment to Europe. This new agent was linked up to an international syndicate based in Amsterdam: at the top of the Dutch gang was Sam Klepper, a notorious drug trafficker born in the Netherlands. Akasha’s inside men in Amsterdam were the Barsoums brother, Mounir and Magdi.

For a couple of years the new collaboration between the Dutch and the Kenyan gangs ran smoothly. The equilibrium cracked in 1999 when the payment for a drug consignment failed: the event sparkled an internal feud then ended when the Akasha abducted the Dutch gang’s Yugoslavian agent from which they managed to cash in USD 211.000.

Sam Klepper had it in 2000, while Ibrahim Akasha was shot dead while walking hand-in-hand with his wife in Bloedstraat [Blood Street], Amsterdam. It is likely that Mounir Barsoum pulled the trigger. Some days before Ibrahima Akasha had received a phone call from Magdi Barsoum inviting him to Amsterdam. He had obtained the Dutch visa in Spring 2000, just in time to avoid to be caught by the police who found 4.7 tons of heroin worth Sh940 million in the up-market Nyali Estate, Mombasa, the Akasha’s home. Kenyan state was preparing to seize all the family assets. In the end, all the operation was a failure: they didn’t succeed in breaking the Akasha’s empire. 

For a feud that stopped, a new one started: this time Klepper’s gang was fighting against a Yugoslavian gang led by the famous drug dealer Streten „Jotcha“ Jocic which joined the syndicate. Yugoslavs pushed for executing Ibrahim Akashah. The feud kept leaving fresh blood on the turf: in October 2000 Keller was killed, followed by the Barsoums brothers in 2002 and 2004. 

Since the ‘90s, drug dealing has always been a trademark for Akashas. According to Kenyan intelligence, The Netherlands was the final destination of the huge haul of 1,2 tons of cocaine cargo seized in 2004. They suspected that the Akashas were the men behind it. The US Drug Enforcement Agency „had spent years infiltrating Akasha and alleges that the gang is part of a heroin supply chain that stretches from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through east Africa to the cities of Europe and the United States“, wrote Drazen Jorgic in a Special report by Reuters. „In documents filed in a court in the Southern District of New York on November 10th, 2015, the U.S. prosecutors alleged that the Akasha organisation was responsible for the „production and distribution“ of large quantities of narcotics in Kenya, Africa and beyond“, continues the report.

The family today is composed as follows:

  • Baktash Akasha Abdallah — considered by intelligence sources as the new boss.
  • Ibrahim Akasha Abdallah — younger, he follows Baktash
  • Nichu Akasha Nichu — runs a garage in Parklands area, in Nairobi

In November 2014, the U.S. government requested the extradition of Baktash Akasha Abdallah, Ibrahim Akasha Abdallah because of what the DEA stated about their trafficking, delivered to The US. 

In a report, Baktash is described as the leader of an organised crime and drug trafficking network and his bother Ibrahim, a chief lieutenant in Baktash’s alleged drug trafficking activities.

Four suspected top drug traffickers in Kenya awaiting extradition to the United States were freed on bail Monday, amid concerns of east Africa’s growing importance as a smuggling hub.

The four — two Kenyans, an Indian and a Pakistani — were arrested last month with 98 packets of suspected heroin, with the US issuing an Interpol “red notice” for their capture and request for their extradition

Standard Digital, November 12th 2014

In March 2015 Baktash paid a 30 million shillings (USD 325.000) bail to be freed. According to US court documents and to Akashas’ lawyer, the DEA sting started in March last year.