Kenya shares a long, porous border with Somalia, the war-torn Horn of African nation that has been without a central government for 20 years now.
But, the border itself has been a beehive of activities with a thriving cross border ‘black market’ taking center stage. Basic commodities, such as foodstuff, and illegal firearms often find their way into neighboring Kenya and other East African countries through the 680-kilometer-long, isolated border.
According to residents, the illegal trade of essential items and arms smuggling has become the order of the day in the semi-arid northern Kenya region. Mohammed Yusuf reports from Kenya-Somali Border
Most people living in the border towns in the area, which also borders Ethiopia to the north, are allegedly engaged in smuggling and other illegal trading activities in order to earn a living. Kenyan officials say cases of insecurity along the border have increased dramatically as a result of the proliferation of the illicit small arms into the region.
Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, has suffered massively due to the influx of the illegal weapons in the hands of Somali insurgents. Although the 37-million-strong East African nation has beefed up its security operations along its borders, suspected militants of Somali origin have continued to cross into her territory.
Observers say there are no customs border posts at the entry points and therefore hundreds of people crisscross the borders every day.
Hassan Ismail has been working in the ‘black market’ for six years. His father is a smuggler too. Ismail says he smuggles corn-flour, vegetable oil and other essential goods to Kenya.
“We do smuggle food stuff, we also smuggle relief food, and people who are living in the Kenyan border need these goods as they cannot survive without these goods,” he told Somalia Report.
He says his business has been doing well, though he admits that those who smuggle ammunition risk of being arrested.
“It’s not dangerous what we do, but people who smuggle ammunition and guns risk of being arrested,” he said.
North Eastern Kenya is a popular route among firearms smugglers. After feeling the heat from neighboring Kenya, the Somalia authorities set up military courts in areas under the control of their forces so as to punish soldiers caught being involved in the illegal trade of firearms.
The setting up of the military courts has helped reduce the infiltration of the illicit weapons, as well as restricting soldiers from selling their weaponry.
But some members of the Somali forces are allegedly employing new tricks to carry on with the illegal trade of firearms without being detected by the army commanders.
Salat, who prefers not to give his last name for security reasons, is one of members in the Somali national army force. He recently narrated to Somalia Report how some of his colleagues are engaged in the illegal activities.
“They fire around aimlessly. If you happen to visit the areas under our command, you will hear sounds of gunfire even when our enemies are 30 to 40 km away. They do this so as to get away with couple of ammunition,” he said.
Salat says most of them manage to save 10 to 15 bullets a day, the “brokers come and collect them.”
A local resident said most of the items on sale in the black market include goods, weapons and ammunition. “It’s a scandal,” he said, adding that Kenyan security officials often conduct regular swoops in the area.
“But they don’t stay long and the smuggling goes on and on,” he quipped.
A Kenyan security official at the border who did not want to be identified confirmed that the illegal cross border trade was a reality.
“We are really faced with a big challenge on arms smuggling and it’s very hard to control the area as there as so many routes that one can use to enter,” he confided.
“When you are in a border town, neighboring a country like Somalia, a lot really happens. We are aware of people smuggling arms along these borders, but sometimes we choose not to arrest them for our own safety because the arms smugglers can revenge,” he said.
But the officer said they erect regular check points inside the Kenyan territory, especially in neighboring towns, namely Wajir and Garissa, where they are able to net some of the offenders.
Kenyan Somalis living in North Eastern Kenya depend on goods from Somalia, as they are reasonably cheaper compared to those obtained in their own country.
Ismail says for the last couple of months they have not been able to smuggle any goods into Kenya due to shortage of trucks coming from the Somalia side.
“I have to adapt to the situation that we are facing now. With many areas now being under the control of government forces, we don’t seem to receive goods from Somalia,” he said, adding that he is trying to smuggle goods from Kenya into Somalia, a venture that he terms to be expensive.
In the beginning of this year, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces seized control over some parts of the region from the militant al-Shabaab. This has caused suffering among ordinary Somalis who are now faced with starvation after the rebels reportedly blocked trucks delivering relief food from accessing towns in areas. As a result, no basic essentials are reaching to North Eastern Kenya, as well.
Aisha Abdi, 45, is one of the internally-displaced persons, who used to receive food aid when humanitarian relief agencies used to operate inside Somalia. She would receive five bags of corn from the aid organizations but she would sell four bags and remain with one bag.
“I used to sell my aid food given to me by the aid organizations and later sell them to business people,” she said.
She said she would sell them so as to get money to buy other foodstuff, like rice, wheat-flour and vegetable oil. “How do you expect me to feed on maize alone for two months?” she asked.
Ismail admits that he has been buying relief food from the refugees, adding that he doesn’t force people to sell their food.
But, El-wak district commissioner, Ibrahim Adan, told the Somalia Report that business along the border has subsided due to the increasing insecurity inside Somalia.
“There are no humanitarian agencies in southern Somalia, and people haven’t received aid for a long time now,” he said.