It was a mistake. Ten tons of ivory and 190 kilograms of rhino horn sold over a seven year period, according to the indictment. It was actually much more than that. Much, much more!
Liberian national, Moazu Kromah, pled guilty in March 2022 to three charges relating to wildlife trafficking for offences committed in Africa but transacted in U.S. dollars. In his plea for leniency letter (read Kromah statement) submitted to the South District Court of New York, he thanked the court for the opportunity to “give some information about myself and the circumstances that led me to make the mistakes which bring me before you.”
It seems a little understated. If we are to believe Kromah and his counsel’s combined written submission’s to the court, he suffered great personal tragedy through the Liberian civil war, spent a period of time in a refugee camp in Guinea, before finding a home in Kampala, Uganda in 1992. Kromah wrote: “In an effort to provide for my family, I sought out other opportunities to gain income. This pursuit of income ultimately led me to some unsavoury characters who promised me the ability to earn large sums of money.” In this case, ‘some unsavoury characters’, is represented by 495 phone contacts (from phone data) from all continents on the planet excluding South America.
Kromah’s counsel added that his client was “a first time offender whose recent criminality appears to be an aberration in a heretofore law-abiding life”, how “Mr. Kromah’s recent choice was poor”, and that “he (Kromah) found himself in the U.S.A. solely for his failure to conform to its standards”. To be sure, Moazu Kromah, a first time offender in the United States, was anything but in most elephant range states of Africa.
From a wildlife crime perspective, his prosecution in New York, for crimes committed while he was in Kampala, was a test case; a first by which an African based accused, was tried in a United States court for wildlife trafficking offences committed in Africa while transacted in U.S. dollars.
While Kromah was “handed over” to U.S. authorities in June 2019, the roots of the investigation trace back to late 2015. The EAGLE Network and the Natural Resources Conservation Network (NRCN), both wildlife crime investigative NGO’s, arrested Kromah’s son, Bangaly Kourouma, with two tusks of 26 kg, that he was using as samples for a proposed two tonne ivory sale to an undercover buyer.
On attaining bail, Bangaly Kourouma, fled Uganda for Guinea but was enticed back to Uganda in early 2017 through another undercover operation by The EAGLE Network.
This led to, what many consider, a landmark arrest on February 17th, of Kromah and his two sons, Bangaly and Mohamed, by the EAGLE Network and NRCN with Uganda law enforcement support. 1303 kg of ivory were found in the Kampala home, with tools and equipment, to cut, weigh and package, ivory and rhino horn. Significant intelligence relating to Kromah’s cross-continent operation was also recovered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officially joined the investigation later in 2017 and incorporated another confidential source into the mix.
The second co-accused on the indictment was Guinean national, Amara Cherif. He was arrested shortly after Kromah, also in June 2019, while in Senegal. Besides this indictment, Cherif was also wanted on an Interpol Red Notice for his part in a 1279 kilogramme ivory seizure in executed in Tanzanian in June 2016. Cherif was officially extradited and flown to New York in April 2020. Together, they were charged with three offences relating to wildlife crime and one for money laundering, all offences transacted with U.S. dollars.
There was also a drug component to this investigation. Kenyan nationals, Mansur Mohamed Surur, and Abdi Hussein Ahmed, were charged on the same indictment with the same wildlife and money laundering offences in addition to a charge alleging conspiracy to possess and distribute 10 kg of heroin to a New York buyer. A fifth individual who was not on the original indictment, Kenyan national, Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh, has also been charged with the same conspiracy to traffic heroin offence but with no wildlife offences included.
As this is written, Mansur Surur and Amara Cherif have both entered into plea agreements and are due to be sentenced September 14th, and October 12th, respectively. Badru Aziz Saleh was extradited to the U.S. in June, and Ahmed, recently arrested, was ordered extradited by a Nairobi court on September 1st.
On August 18th, 2022, with the wildlife conservation justice community watching closely, Moazu Kromah received a 63 month jail sentence. This included the 42 months he had already served in two New York jails. He was left with 21 months remaining.
District Judge Gregory H. Woods, stated that he agreed with the prosecution that a significant sentence was necessary to send a “loud and clear message”, a message that such large-scale wildlife trafficking warranted serious consequences.
In a similar vein, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams commented: “Today’s sentence demonstrates that those who are responsible for the decimation of global populations of endangered and threatened animals protected by international agreements will face serious consequences.”
The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, also endorsed the sentencing through a press release, stating that the conviction and sentencing was “sending the strongest possible message that together we can defeat the illegal wildlife trade.”
At the same time, many observers globally were stunned, describing the five year three month sentence as token, a pittance, farcical or a travesty. In many African elephant range states, a five year sentence is handed down to a first time offender with a 100 kg of ivory or much less.
In a Nairobi, Kenya court in 2018, Paul Njogu Muthoni, was handed an eight year sentence when found with 155 kg of ivory in a Nairobi home. The ivory had been supplied by the Kromah group for onward transit.
In 2020, a Tanzanian court in Dodoma region sentenced Pastor Sekandi Mkombola to 20 years in jail after finding him guilty of possessing two tusks.
In Malawi in 2021, in a high profile case, Chinese national, Yunhua Lin, was sentenced to 14 years in a Malawi prison for dealing in rhino horn and money laundering. He will be deported at the end of his sentence.
In the most recent case, in the Kampala Standards, Utilities and Wildlife Court, on September 2nd, 2022, Chief Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu, sentenced two men to ten years jail less time served, for killing by poison, six lions and ten vultures in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
A Mistake of Mathematics or a Typo?
There were three charges on the indictment relating to wildlife trafficking. Charge two and three related specifically to the acts of selling rhino horn by the accused to the confidential source, one kg in March 2018, and five kg the following July. On both occasions, the rhino horn was shipped to the U.S.
The first charge was for ‘conspiracy to traffic wildlife”. The information pertaining to this charge (from an elephant ivory perspective) was that the “Enterprise” had trafficked 10 tons of elephant ivory, such weight estimated to have involved approximately 100 elephants, that this trafficking had occurred between December 2012 and May 2019, and that it violated the respective wildlife Acts of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.
100 elephants killed, however, does not equate to 10 tons of ivory. The generally accepted average tusk weight is 4.5 kg per tusk or 9 kg per elephant. Therefore, 10 tons of ivory would, by recognised average, equate to 1,111.11 elephants and not 100 as stated in the both the indictment and Kromah_prosecution submissions. Commonly, 4.5 kg is rounded up to 5 kg, thereby making 10 tons of ivory equate to 1000 elephants. It is not difficult therefore to see the possibility of either an undetected typo or error in mathematics. If the 63 month sentence was in any way factored on 100 elephants and over a seven year period, that would be a problem from the get go. Remarkably, the error stood for over over three years uncorrected.
A Mistake in Seriousness of Conduct?
The Kromah group, consisting of Guineans, Malians, Congolese, Ugandans and possibly even Gambians, selling primarily to Chinese, Vietnamese and Laotian buyers, trafficked an amount of ivory far, far in excess of 10 tons. I have been tracking the Kromah group since 2015 (from a distance and unknowingly at the time) through arrests/seizures and subsequent prosecutions in the Kenya courts. Evidence and intelligence from wildlife crime court monitoring, taken in conjunction with DNA analysis completed by Dr. Samuel Wasser and the Center for Environmental Forensic Science, indicates that over 100 seizures ranging in size from 25 kilograms to 8800 kilograms, can be attributed or linked to the Kromah group. While the indictment states approximately 10 tons, my own calculations, going back to mid-2012, totals at approximately 117,200 kilograms of ivory or 117 tonnes. That would equate to approximately 17,200 elephants killed for their ivory; not 1000, not 100.
It is to be remembered that these numbers refer to actual ivory seizures. When one considers the law enforcement indicator matrix that contraband seized is approximately 5-10% of the actually amount trafficked, taken in combination with the fact that Kromah was in business for at least seven years so was clearly making a profit, a theoretical extrapolation of ivory trafficked could easily be in excess of 500 tons.
It is very difficult for many to comprehend that one group, headquartered in Kampala, Uganda, could be shipping ivory from elephants killed in Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, and out of sea ports and international airports located all over sub-Saharan Africa. But that was happening and it was not information before the Judge Gregory H. Woods.
Perhaps a March 2021 report, sponsored by Basel Institute on Governance and entitled: “Working Paper #35 – Social network analysis applied to illegal wildlife trade between East Africa and South East Asia”, could have been part of the submission. The report, authored by Jacopo Costa, was based on data found in Moazu Kromah’s two iPhones at the time of his 2017 Kampala arrest.
The report, despite being devoid of names, indicated that Kromah had 495 contacts. These contacts were broken down as follows: East Africa – 245, West Africa – 177, South East Asia – 43, and the remainder divided between the Middle East, North America, Europe, and North/Central Africa. It is difficult to comprehend how he “was a small part of a larger organization in Uganda” as claimed in his leniency letter to Judge Woods.
DNA and Other Evidence
An analysis of available DNA evidence relating to the Kromah group may have also provided useful context to the presiding Judge. In a 2018 peer reviewed report by Dr. Samuel K. Wasser et al, “Combating transnational organised crime by linking multiple large ivory seizures to the same dealer”, detail was provided whereby 14 large ivory seizures made in Africa and South-East Asia, were linked by way of what was referred to as genetic matches of ivory tusks. This describes the circumstance when two tusks from the same elephant were found in different seized shipments.
As an example, a seizure made in Malaysia in December 2012 yielded genetic matches with five other seizures made prior to and after that seizure: a 1500-kilogram seizure in Sri Lanka in 2012, a 726 kilogram seizure in Togo in August 2013, two seizures made in Mombasa days apart totalling 4852 kilograms in October 2013 and two seizures in January 2014, made days apart in Togo and totalling 4100 kilograms (this was DNA analysed as one seizure). Three of the five were containerised in Kampala and 10 of the 14 genetically linked seizures also originated from Kampala.
If this genetic match evidence was not enough, a second, more recently published report entitled: “Elephant genotypes reveal size and connectivity of transnational ivory traffickers”, expanded on the 2018 report. Wasser et al in this study expanded the analysis by matching seized elephant ivory DNA from parents, siblings and half siblings from 49 different seizures.
From the 49 seizures that were the subject matter of the comparison study, 35 seizures indicated a strong connectivity to the Kromah group. In addition, genetic matches (now referred to as direct matches) were found between the February 2017 seizure when Kromah and sons were arrested, with a 625 kg seizure (also reported as 1286 kg) made in South Sudan in June 2016, and a 2019, 3299 kg seizure made just outside Kampala (a case that is still before the Uganda courts). All three of those seizures contained ivory that had leached from the secure Burundi government ivory stockpile.
In addition to the 35 seizures referenced above, and while researching that report, a further 45 non-DNA analysed seizures, were discovered to share some type of link or connectivity with the Kromah group.
A Mistake in Rule of Law
While wildlife conservationists were ecstatic with the Komah’s 2019 arrest, ‘rule of law’ proponents were more on the ‘bristling’ side of the equation. Amongst all the hype, there was no mention of any judicial proceedings or legal process that facilitated Kromah’s travel from Kampala to New York within 24 hours. The word “expelled” was often used but never extradition (there is currently no extradition treaty between the United States and Uganda). Some may have gone as far as calling it an “extraordinary rendition”; defined as an “extrajudicial practice, carried out by U.S. government agencies, of transferring a prisoner to a foreign country for the purposes of detention and interrogation.” Moral justification was not part of the definition.
While there was certainly some agreement between governments to facilitate Kromah’s ‘expulsion’, it was equally certain that it was not done through a constitutional legal process. By all appearances, his arrest, despite its sanction by both involved countries, was illegal. The same was evident in the expulsion, again to the United States, of four members of the Mombasa based Akasha drug cartel in January 2017. The difference in that case was that a legal proceeding had actually been commenced two years previous.
In the Akasha case, it was later revealed after their “expulsion”, that the Akasha’s et al had conspired to pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to the judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials” in Kenya to ensure the extradition hearings went their way. The Cabinet Secretary of the Interior, Fred Matiang’i, later admitted at a public event, and referring to the Akasha ‘expulsion’, stated it was an indictment on the Kenya’s judicial system that had the brothers not been extradited to the U.S., they probably would have no chance of facing the law in Kenya. Could the same have been said for Kromah?
Show Us the Money
Moazu Kromah stated in his letter to the Judge, “I was poor before this and I am poor now”. His lawyer wrote in submissions that “Mr. Kromah has never lived a lavish lifestyle and has few personal possessions”. Is that believable?
When Kromah and his two sons were arrested in 2017, the residence from which they were operating was described by the Uganda Wildlife Authority as an “opulent and expansive house”. The prosecution, at that time, stated that between 2014 and 2017, Kromah had disguised the illicit origin of $190,000 USD that he had received from the Vannaseng Trading Company in Laos and deposited in a Kampala bank account.
It was also reported that as part of that 2017 arrest, the Kromah group had tried to negotiate a $50,000 bribe to law enforcement officials.
In addition, Kromah was known to make frequent trips to Mozambique to visit Ahmed Mahabub Gedi alias Ahmed Mohamud Saleh. Gedi, of Somali origin, was a hawala agent while running a travel business in Mozambique, linked to a similar agency in Edmonton, Canada. He was captured in Kenya in July 2017 in a net with six others, after police raided a house near the Jomo Kenyatta international airport and found 217 kilograms of ivory being packaged for air freight to Thailand.
Gedi, at the time, provided to the police a five-page written statement that he had travelled to Nairobi for the sole purpose of facilitating payments relating to the ivory shipment for Far East buyers. Gedi was released on a $10,000 USD cash bond after an unprocedural bail hearing and has never been seen again. He is still on the Interpol Red Notice list.
The ivory and rhino horn trade are a lucrative business. Kromah and his group had been in the business for at least seven years. The group was providing ivory and rhino horn for major buyers in China, Vietnam, and Laos. Kromah’s lack of assets is simply not believable.
As this is written, the status of any possible asset’s investigation is unknown. The only forfeiture order before the court relates to the seized rhino horn.
Integrity not the Only Difference between Justice Systems
In a case study by the Wildlife Justice Commission, it was stated: “The case appears to present the Kromah network as a wildlife trafficking network first and foremost, which engaged in heroin trafficking opportunistically rather than as part of its usual business activities.” When one examines the investigational timeline, the heroin sale was made after that of the two rhino horn sales. Some may ponder if in fact the drug transaction was injected into the investigative scenario to add to the strength of the case, particularly for the purposes of the extradition.
A wildlife trafficking charge under U.S. legislation has a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment as opposed to the drug trafficking charge with a 25-year maximum. Therefore, it is a strong likelihood that Surur, Ahmed, and Saleh, with the addition of a 10 kg heroin charge, will receive a significantly higher sentence than the 63 months of Kromah and probably Cherif, for dealing in over 100 tonnes of ivory and 130 kg of rhino horn.
When Amara Cherif was extradited, the trial regarding the ivory seizure for which he was on the Interpol Red Notice list, was still before the Tanzanian courts. If he had been extradited to Tanzania instead of the United States, he would almost certainly be facing a minimum of 20 years of incarceration.
Twenty years of jail is certainly what many wished for Kromah but that was never going to happen in the South District Court of New York. Kromah was facing four charges. In the spirit of a plea deal, it was to be expected that at least one charge would be dropped. That would leave only 15 years as a maximum sentence and maximum sentences do not happen in plea agreements.
United States justice sentencing guidelines, as referred in the pre-sentence report, provided for a range of 78 to 63 months incarceration for Kromah. That number was based on a number of factors including the economics of the crime. The prosecution agreed to the lower amount on the range at 63 months.
Therefore, from the perspective of specific and general deterrence, if a maximum sentence for an ivory or rhino horn trafficker in Africa (dependant on jurisdiction) can be up to or exceeding 20 years jail with a substantial fine, is the American justice system model the one to follow?
On the other side of the coin, Ugandan and many other African criminal justice systems are plagued by what could be called “inconsistent integrity”. One of the primary factors for Kromah’s group remaining active for at least seven years was through the significant protection it received from criminal justice and political actors within the countries of operation. The probability of Kromah et al being convicted of dealing in 1303 kg of ivory found in a Kampala home in 2017 was essentially nil. (It was during the related search that an internal INTERPOL document referring to Kromah was found).
These “inconsistent integrity” issues within respective criminal justice systems are not going to dissipate by themselves in the foreseeable future. Bearing that in mind, and the substantial overall costs incurred for the “Enterprise” investigation against the results obtained, is this model of joint forces investigation with a prosecution before United States courts sustainable?
The arrest of Kromah and his sons in February 2017 was by way of a sting operation and thorough investigation through a combined effort of The EAGLE Network and NRCN, in cooperation with Ugandan investigators. The January 2019 arrest in the Kampala area of two Vietnamese nationals with 3.3 tonnes of ivory (supplied by Kromah) was another NGO/Uganda investigation joint venture. In Nigeria, arrests and seizures of massive amounts of pangolin scales and ivory in the past year were again through NGO (Wildlife Justice Commission) intelligence gathering and investigation, working in cooperation with Nigerian authorities. Where the wheels start loosening, however, is in the courts.
The Wheels Fall Off in the Courts
In the February 2017 arrest, Kromah was released on bail by the courts and he continued his wildlife trafficking business. The rhino horns he sold to the confidential source were transacted while he was out on bail. In the Vietnamese 2019 arrest/seizure, the 2 primary accused were released on bail and to the surprise of no one, fled the country. The prosecution is now essentially on ‘hold’. The headline in a recent Mongabay article; “Half-hearted prosecution lets ivory traffickers escape in Uganda”, says it all.
In Nigeria, the challenge, after solid investigation, will be attaining a suitable result within a fragmented justice system that has had essentially no recognisable success in previous wildlife crime cases.These recent cases would indicate that it is time now to provide more focus and resources on the prosecution and the courts. This is where the good wildlife crime related investigations are being de-railed. This is not new information. For whatever reason, while considerable resources have been allocated to law enforcement and investigation, towards capacity building, technology and vetting, scant attention has been paid to what is specifically happening in the courtroom.
While nobody likes to acknowledge that the more learned of our society, the lawyers, prosecutors, magistrates, or judges, can be bribed or coerced, they are, unfortunately, no different from the public service of which they are part. In Kenya, the reason for having realized only one conviction in a major ivory case (and most supplied by Kromah) in the last 12 years is not solely because of poor investigations. Vincent Opyene, the head of NRCN, stated in a recent interview; “corruption can manifest at any stage during the investigation – police, judiciary or at the directorate of public prosecutions”.
This would perhaps be a time to re-visit, in a more committed fashion, the courtroom monitoring or trial observation initiative. The concept of courtroom monitoring or trial observation is not new. There are a number of organizations throughout Africa that conduct their own version of this; TRAFFIC (Tanzania), African Wildlife Foundation (Kenya), Space for Giants (Kenya and Uganda), Speak Out for Animals (Zimbabwe), Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (Malawi), Eagle Network (West Africa) and SEEJ-AFRICA. Recently, the Basel Institute on Governance began court monitoring on the progress of corruption cases for the International Centre for Asset Recovery in Kenya. While a number of these organizations use the initiative primarily as a mentoring and data gathering initiative, it can be used as a corruption risk mitigation stratagem.
In a similar vein, there is presently a Trial Observation mission happening in Kenya where high ranking jurists from a number of African countries are attending the Supreme Court, listening to petitions relating recent election. On conclusion, they will “produce a comprehensive report after the trial observation to contribute to a more professional, independent, impartial, and accountable Judiciary, a more independent legal profession, and better adherence to the rule of law and international legal standards…” Could this be a template to follow in relation to wildlife crime cases that are deemed vulnerable; a caveat being that they be active, objective, vocal and public, in the observation/monitoring process.
The Duke of Cambridge remarked that the operation’s “complexity has been skilfully met by a global alliance of international law enforcement agencies, governments, NGO’s and private sector organisations”. This was true. A high-profile international wildlife trafficker and four co-conspirators were taken out of the game at a time when there was no likelihood of success in Uganda.
Having said that, and clearly with the benefit of hindsight, the passing of a five-year three-month sentence on the primary target, behind the international trafficking of well over 100 tonnes of ivory, from across the African continent to southeast Asia markets, has left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Perhaps it is best to refer to this operation as a qualified success, chalked up as lessons learned, not to be repeated.
Judge Woods and the South District New York Court believed, using the old adage, “Justice was done and was seen to be done”. On the eastern side of the Atlantic, not so much.
Author’s Note: In presenting this perspective, I am in no way minimising the thousands of man hours, the dedication, determination, and perseverance of all who were part this operation. For that, I thank you.