Kenya Can Talk the Talk, but Can it Walk the Walk?
On July 19, 1989, Kenya stood the world on its ear when it burned 12 tonnes of seized ivory at Nairobi National Park. It was an acknowledged publicity stunt but also an emphatic statement of Kenya’s position on the ivory trade. The ivory burn was considered a success and was most certainly a factor when a few months later, CITES essentially banned the international trade of African elephant ivory. Since that time, Kenya has been unwavering in its stance on prohibiting the international sale of ivory for any reason.
Paradoxically, this steely resolve and eloquence seen on the world stage has not been mirrored in the courtrooms of the country regarding its prosecution of major ivory trafficking cases. The prosecution of ivory logistician Feisal Mohammed Ali, became the poster boy of this failure, after his 2016 conviction was overturned two years later by a higher court. Since 2016, Kenya has registered three more acquittals in major ivory trafficking cases. Kenya has yet to register a single conviction in a major ivory trafficking prosecution dating back to 2009.
And so sets the stage for the Surur, arrested on arrival in Mombasa ten weeks ago on a charter flight from Yemen, is wanted in the United States. In a 2019 grand jury indictment registered in a New York South District court, Surur was named as a co-accused with three others; Liberian, Moazu Kromah (the apparent ring leader), a Guinean, Amara Cherif, and a fellow Kenyan, Abdi Hussein Ahmed. They are charged with wildlife offences relating to the trafficking of rhino horn and elephant ivory and the subsequent money laundering. Surur and his Kenyan counterpart, Hussein Ahmed, are together facing the lone drug charge of conspiring to distribute more than 10 kg of heroin in the United States.
This group of four is referred to in the indictment as a “transnational criminal enterprise”, or “Enterprise” for short. While based primarily in Kampala, Uganda, it is alleged that they were actively involved in all aspects of trafficking ivory and rhino horn in Kenya, Mozambique, DR Congo, Guinea, Senegal and Tanzania. DNA analysis of many of the related seizures, (completed independently of the investigation) present compelling evidence that the ivory origins included many other sub-Saharan countries. The clients were invariably Chinese or Vietnamese cartels or African brokers selling to the same cartels.
The numbers referred to in the indictment; 10 tonnes of ivory, ivory from 100 elephants, 190 kg of rhino horn, are minuscule fractions of what was actually shipped to the Asian destinations, primarily of Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and various Vietnamese ports.
This “Enterprise”, with strong West African connections, operated for at least eight years with virtual impunity. They suffered some arrests over the years but convictions were minimal. It is difficult for one to believe that their success could have been achieved without political interference at a very high level. Moazu Kromah, himself, had been arrested in Kampala with 1.3 tonnes of ivory in February 2017 in a case that was still before the Uganda courts with no end in sight.
Feisal Mohamed Ali did ivory business with the “Enterprise” and Feisal worked for the Akasha drug family. Two of the Akasha brother’s, Baktash and Ibrahim, were the subject of the last high profile extradition process in Kenya. In November 2014, the two brothers with two others were arrested in Mombasa for the purposes of extradition to the U.S. on substantive drug trafficking charges. Their extradition process continued for three years before the U.S. apparently had enough. In January 2017, “arrangements” were made between the U.S. and Kenya, away from the influence of the Mombasa courts, and the four accused were flown to New York.
It turned out to be for the best as in October 2018 it was revealed that the Akasha’s had conspired to pay “, prosecutors and law enforcement officials” in Kenya to ensure that the extradition hearings went their way. To date, none of these corrupted persons within the criminal justice system have been publicly identified.
This is the backdrop as the extradition process continues in Milimani court in Nairobi on October 7th. Moazu Kromah is still in a New York prison after his Kampala arrest and reportedly now looking for a new lawyer after a recent guilty plea deal did not materialize. Amara Cherif, also arrested in June 2019, is in a New York prison as well. He had been hiding in Senegal, already on the Interpol Red Notice relating to his involvement in an ivory seizure in Dar es Salaam in June 2016. He was finally extradited to the U.S. in April 2020. He pled not guilty to his charges. There is no news of Abdi Hussein Ahmed. Recent media outlets make reference to a co-conspirator, Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh, but his relationship to the “Enterprise” is not clear.
The initial glitter of the Surur arrest started flaking off last week when it was revealed that this was not the first arrest of Surur relating to the indictment. Despite initial police claims in Mombasa that they had been looking for Surur for two years, evidence was presented at the Milimani court indicating that Surur had actually been arrested in Kenya just over one year previous.
While the exact circumstances of the arrest are muddied, it is clear that Surur did appear in the small court within the periphery of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in July 2019 for reasons relating to the US indictment. What is not clear are the exact circumstances surrounding his release. The indicators point to a communication breakdown between involved agencies. In any event, Surur was not held in custody and shortly thereafter fled Kenya for Yemen. Breakdowns in communication between agencies is often a sign of “irregularities”.
All but one of the above depicted seizures have been linked to the “Enterprise.” There are more.
While the investigation into the “Enterprise” was not Kenyan, this cartel had a significant impact on Kenyan elephant and rhino horn populations. There are presently four prosecutions ongoing in Mombasa for ivory trafficking related offences, two of them are entering their eighth year. All four are either definitively linked to the “Enterprise” and/or have Kampala roots.
From a wildlife crime perspective, this extradition will be a litmus test for Kenyan courts. The fact that Noordin Haji, Kenya’s head prosecutor, personally represented the State at Milimani court in this matter has to be seen as a sign that Kenya recognizes the importance of this case.