Kenyan army profiting from illicit trade that props up al-Shabaab

Kenya Defence Forces and Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers take part in a joint-patrol at a charcoal depository formerly under the control of Al Shabaab militants in Burgabo, south of Kismayu in Somalia. (File) Photo: Reuters, File

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Kenya’s military has been accused of taking a cut of the illegal sugar and charcoal trade in Somalia that provides the bulk of funding for terror group al-Shabaab which it is meant to be fighting.

A report by Journalists for Justice, a Nairobi-based civil society group, claims the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF), which receive training from the British army, earned around $50 million (£33 million) a year from taxing the goods travelling through the port of Kismayo, close to the Kenyan border, where it has a base.

It said that despite the avowed seriousness of the Kenyan military campaign in Somalia follow attacks by al-Shabaab on its soil that have cost 400 lives, its senior commanders were abetting the al Qaeda-inspired group through corruption while its foot soldiers sat in their bases.

One diplomat quoted in the report described the illicit trade in sugar and charcoal, which is thought to be worth between $200 to $400 million annually, as “shocking” and “inimical to national security”.

Journalists for Justice suggested that Western partners would not make public their complaints to the Kenyan government on the issue for fear of compromising crucial cooperation over counter-terrorism operations in the region.

A worker takes stock of charcoal sacks at a depository formerly under the control of militants Al Shabaab in Burgabo, south of Kismayu in Somalia (File) Photo: Reuters

A worker takes stock of charcoal sacks at a depository formerly under the control of militants Al Shabaab in Burgabo, south of Kismayu in Somalia (File) Photo: Reuters

Senior diplomats have, however, chosen to speak out about spiralling corruption more generally, on Thursday issuing a joint statement describing the country as at “crisis” point because of it and threatening travel bans on those found to be involved.

“Corruption is undermining Kenya’s future,” said Bob Godec, the US ambassador, reading a statement signed by a dozen ambassadors from countries including the UK, France, Germany and the European Union.

“When evidence of corruption is found, those responsible must be prosecuted and, if guilty, appropriately punished – regardless of position or wealth.”

Christian Turner, the UK High Commissioner, declined to say who would be banned but acknowledged there was “a list” of corrupt Kenyans.

“People shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of ill-gotten gains in London or Geneva or anywhere and we will assist Kenya in any way to stop this.”

Kenya ranks close to the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index and the diplomats’ rare show of force came after a month of newspaper stories regarding fraud and government misspending allegations. They include that the devolution ministry made massively inflated purchases such as buying simple pens for $85 each, along with sex toys, condom dispensers and a piano with public money.

There are 4,000 Kenyan troops in Somalia as part of a wider African Union force of 22,000 troops which has in the past year driven al-Shabaab out of many of its strongholds.

In a foreword to the report, George Kegoro, a prominent Kenyan human rights lawyer, said the cost to Kenya of its war on al-Shabaab was more than 400 deaths in terrorist attacks since 2012, along with massive disruption to its tourism and education sectors because of the poor security situation.

“Kenya’s very survival is dependent on the capacity of the country to stem the wave of insecurity that terrorist attacks associated with al-Shabaab has wrought on the country,” he wrote.

Journalists for Justice said it interviewed more than 50 people with “intimate knowledge” of KDF activities, including senior serving officers, UN officials, Western intelligence officials, local residents and journalists.

It said the charcoal and sugar business, both ostensibly shut down because of the revenue they provide to al-Shabaab, had the “protection and cooperation of senior political and military figures”.

It also accused the KDF of widespread human rights abuses in Somalia including air strikes on “crowds of people and animals”.

A Kenyan government spokesman dismissed the report as “absolute garbage” while a Kenyan army spokesman denied involvement in either the sugar or charcoal business.

“How can you sit down with Shabaab one minute, and the next you are killing each other?” said Colonel David Obonyo.

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