Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Usonko: Drug Trafficking & The Emergence of the Kenyan Lumpen Bourgeoisie

Onyango Oloo Explores the Danger of Kenya Becoming a Narco-Neocolony

In Zambia it is Kinyanja. In South Africa it is Tsotsitaal. In West Africa it is Pidgin. In the Seychelles and Mauritius it is Creole. In Congo it is Lingala.

In Kenya, our patois is called Sheng- a portmanteau appellation created by splicing together “Swahili” and “English”. Sheng is of course more than that-borrowing from these two official languages as well as Gikuyu, Dholuo, Luhyia, prison argot, other Kenyan languages and constantly new fangled words. Back in 2003 when I was still living in Montreal, I discovered to my shock when I picked up a slim Sheng dictionary on the streets of Nairobi that “Sankara” the name of the Burkinabe revolutionary leader that I had named my son after, was also at that time a current Sheng name for cop. I shuddered in disgust because at that time Sheng speakers did not have a lot for members of Kenya’s notorious corrupt and brutal police force. Mercifully, for whatever reason, “Sankara” never really gained acceptability, quickly falling into disuse as Sheng speakers reverted to the old mainstays- “Karau” and so on.

Right now one of the most popular Sheng words is “Sonko”.

So popular in fact that one of Nigeria’s most prolific and talented music hitmakers

-D’Banj –has adopted it officially as his nickname via his Facebook page. Feuding telecommunications behemoths in Kenya- Safaricom and Airtel (formerly known as Zain aka Celtel nee Kencell) have used the moniker in their fiercely contested promotional campaigns where they promise/threaten their subscribers to transform overnight into “Sonkos”- Sheng for “very rich people”.

Wycliffe Asalwa, a very good friend of mine and an editor with one of Kenya's media houses, provided the following origins of the word, soon after he saw the first version of this essay on Facebook earlier today:

"ORIGINS OF SONKO. The name Sonko, which the new Makadara MP, Gidion Mbuvi, has adopted as his alias has a dirty West African connection, claims Simon Nandi, a former resident of Nairobi’s Eastlands now based in Europe. Says he: “It came from Foday Sankoh, the brutal Sierra Leonean rebel leader who was financed by former Liberian President Charles Taylor from the sale of diamonds. The name Sonko came into popular use in 1994 in the ‘Beirut’ area of Jericho at the height of Sankoh’s brutality in Sierra Leone.”

Perhaps the most well known “Sonko” in Kenya today is the youthful MP for the Nairobi area urban constituency of Makadara-

Gidion Mike Mbuvi Kioko
(known by a host of other pseudonyms as well) who in 2010 unleashes ripples of shock in the political mainstream when he defeated two former MPs backed by Kenya’s largest parties to win the seat in a by-election.

Mike Sonko-as Mbuvi is popularly known- is not famous for his oratorical, debating or legislative prowess.

Ruefully and unfortunately for him, he is a household name for all the WRONG reasons.

The police and the daily newspapers have fingered him as a criminal fugitive who once escaped from prison. He has been indicted on fraud and other illegal conspiracies.

Most sensationally, the Internal Security Minister recently included Sonko as being among six members of the Kenyan National Assembly who were being investigated for drug dealing. He is ostensibly among the list of six Kenyan prominent individuals banned from entering the United States for the same narco-related contagion.

Back in his Makadara backyard, Mike Sonko has the allure and grassroots street credibility of an African-American gangster rapper in the inner cities of the US. He is adored by many of his youthful adherents for populist moves like employing hordes of urban Nairobi youth from the seamy Eastlands slums as drivers and touts operating his sizable fleet of matatu public transport vehicles. He is cherished for letting lower income commuters board the same matatus free of charge on select days during the week. Heck, sometimes he is right there in the rickety contraptions bumping over the potholes, suffocating in the infernal traffic jams with his loyal voters! In late 2010 when he had been hauled to the Kibera Law Courts and there was a danger that he would be airlifted to the Shimo-la Tewa maximum security penitentiary on the outskirts of the coastal city of Mombasa, hundreds of his supporters jam and barricaded the court facilities in a desperate attempt to block such an eventuality. In the ensuing and inevitable clashes with Kenya’s trigger happy cops, one of his youthful supporters was actually shot dead.
It is a long time since a youthful Kenyan life was lost in such a questionable “cause”.

Colourful and eccentric as he is, Mike Mbuvi is not the only, nor is he the richest or even the original Sonko.

Long before him there were others who enjoyed that dubious Sonko“honour”.

For instance about five years ago there emerged the controversial politician Stanley Livondo who would literally “rain money” perched on his hired helicopter hovering above famished and excited crowds at raucous election rallies. At around the same time, Stephen Mwanga, the youthful aspirant for the Ugenya seat now occupied by Lands Minister James Orengo was dishing out wads of cash to rural dwellers in the former Nyanza province.

Almost twenty years ago, the incumbent Lugari MP and former cabinet minister Cyrus Jirongo forever etched his name into the collective Kenyan psyche after the 500 shilling note was named after him because of his penchant of dishing out money in that denomination as part of the infamous plot to rig former KANU dictator back to power known as YK92 whose other architect was disgraced former cabinet minister William Ruto.

Among the six MPs named by Saitoti are three other very prominent “Sonkos”- Kilome MP and former assistant minister Harun Mwau aka “The Boss”; William Kabogo, the NARC-Kenya tycoon and Juja MP and Kisauni MP and ODM National Organizing Secretary Ali Hassan Joho.

The common thread linking almost every Sonko I have mentioned above are the allegations-founded or not- that they are among the leading Kenyan drug pins-what the Tanzanians, in their own patois, refer to as “Wazungu wa Unga”.

A recent, very detailed dossier-available at this link-on drug trafficking in Kenya exposes the personal, business and underworld links between Mwau, Kabogo, Sonko, Joho, the bling bling Kenyan rapper Prezzo, Kamkunji MP Simon, former nominated MP Rashid Sajjad and Mary Wambui. We find out for instance that Kabogo is Mwau’s son in law and former driver and we see connections between Stanley Livondo and some of the characters cited above. Even former President Moi gets mentioned, albeit via the alleged gun running operations to the Congo of his favourite son, Gideon. Some of Moi’s other sons have in the past been linked to the drugs trade, although we cannot comment authoritatively as to their relative guilt or innocence.

What is fascinating to me, for the purposes of this current essay is to examine how prominent Kenyan drug lords have made the transition from the criminal demi-monde to “respectable” society through money laundering via a network of front companies and ultimately seeking political office-as Mwau, Kabogo, Joho, Livondo, Mbugua and Mwanga have done.

What the dossier LEFT OUT are the persistent rumours I have heard swirling in the Kenyan capital over the last year that probably the BIGGEST drug baron in Kenya is none other than Amos Wako himself!

A friend of mine who comes from a certain European country also intimated to me that George Saitoti too, has been linked to drug trafficking through some shady South Korean businessmen.

Could be a wild and baseless allegation for all I know.

And remember those shady Artur brothers and their connections to the powers that be around Kibaki and his ministers? Well, one of their job descriptions was drug smuggling.

What does this all tell us?

That slowly, but inexorably Kenya is gradually degenerating into a Narco State.

If you look at the list of leading suspected drug pins, their straddle across the political divide, with some of them holding very key positions in the two coalition parties. With the ill-gotten swag, they can bolster their political influence by donating generously to the respective war chests of some of the leading contenders for 2012. In return they will purchase a long lease of immunity from prosecution, thus perpetuating the culture of impunity.

Is it possible that President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila are unaware of serious allegations that are now in the public domain about some of the people who have jostled so close to them?

I do not know.

In Imbuga’s seminal play from the mid 1970s, Betrayal in the City- the head of state (a thinly veiled reference to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, some observers aver) was portrayed to be an innocent hostage of evil aides around him. A notion that was not borne out by the reality on the ground.

Whatever the case, Kenyans should reflect on how Russia degenerated into a narco state in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of its leading politicians and businessmen were and are still linked to organized criminal syndicates with a lot of interest in drug trafficking.
In the context of implementing the new constitution, are these the leaders that the new Kenya needs in the unfolding dispensation?

Me thinketh not.

To put things in perspective, Kenya is a relatively minor cog in the global narcotics industry.
Who are the major players?

Here is an excerpt from an investigative study commissioned by the United Nations:

…South America produces almost all of the world’s cocaine, and North America consumes half of it. (Most of the rest goes to Europe.) The American hemisphere produces more than half of the world’s cannabis herb, and 10 percent of North Americans smoke it at least once a year. The illicit trade in heroin, synthetic drugs and chemical precursors is predominantly intra-regional. In short, drug demand in the Americas is largely satisfied by drug supply in the Americas. The problem should be treated as a hemispheric security issue. The victims are the countries and communities caught in the cross-fire. Drug-related crime and the violence that it fuels in Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and Mexico are a threat to public safety and an impediment to development. It is what the public and foreign investors fear the most. Weak law enforcement enables drug trafficking, which, in turn, undermines the rule of law even further. It is no coincidence that the countries most affected by trafficking have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Narco-trafficking is also posing a threat to urban security, from Toronto to Tierra del Fuego. Gang violence and gun-related crime are on the rise. Some neighbourhoods have become combat zones. The problem is spilling over across the Atlantic. West Africa is under attack from Latin American drug traffickers cashing in on a strong Euro and increasing demand for cocaine in Europe. In the past five years, the amount of cocaine transiting this vulnerable coastline has grown at an exponential rate. (The Threat of Narco Trafficking in the Americas, October 2008, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime).

And of course it is public knowledge that within the United States of America, it is an official state body, the CIA which contributed a great deal in flooding the richest country in the world with cocaine, heroin and other narcotics. Please click on this link and this other one for more information on the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in fostering drug abuse and the narcotics criminal networks. For this reason US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger can afford to be smug and sanctimonious about the Kenyan drug trafficking mess.

Having said that, let us not MINIMIZE the magnitude of the problem.

Yes, Kenya is a minor cog in the global pecking order, but our country is quickly becoming a MAJOR CONDUIT of drugs destined for the lucrative North American and European market via links from Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia. And that is where our Sonkos (whatever their real names are, and remember there are dozens of them in high and low places) come in.

What are the immediate and long term political ramifications of all these developments?

Well, 2012 is coming up and SEVERAL of the ALLEGED drug traffickers cited above have boldly declared their interest to become Governors of their respective counties. They have allied themselves openly to the leading presidential candidates for the election slated for August next year.

With their money, their gangs, their corrupt networks and their affiliations to some of the suspected Kenyan masterminds of the 2007-08 post election carnage, the stage in my view, is being set for what the late Saddam Hussein would have dubbed the Mother of All Election Year Violent Outrages.

We should not rule out a spate of political assassinations, kidnappings, rape and other violent attacks on perceived political opponents or even a bloody coup de tat organized by these characters come 2012. The stakes are very high because the drug connected Sonkos of the tainted Kenyan political elite craving the ultimate prize: seize control of the levers of power and COMPLETE THE TRANSITION to Kenya becoming a thoroughbred Narco State.

If you think that the above paragraph is a specimen of unadulterated conspiracy theory hogwash, consider the following excerpt from James Petras:

The Lumpen-Bourgeoisie: The Triple Alliance of the Neo-Liberal State, Narco-traffickers and the Unemployed Poor

The least studied, but most dynamic, and, possibly best organized social movement in Latin America today is the right-wing drug trafficking movement. Headed by a powerful narco-bourgeoisie, with strong ties to the military and neo-liberal state apparatus and with armed lumpen-cadres drawn from the urban unemployed and landless peasantry, the ‘Lumpen’ Movement has created a powerful and social presence in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and elsewhere.

It was the agrarian neo-liberal policies that prepared the ground for the ‘mass base’ of the rightist-movement. The promotion of mechanized agro-export agriculture in Colombia, Mexico, Peru and America uprooted millions. State terror and paramilitary death squads drove millions of peasant families from the land and into urban slums. The large-scale importation of cheap, subsidized agricultural produce from the US wiped out many thousands of small-scale family farms. The stagnant of manufacturing sector was unable to absorb the migrants into labor-intensive work. This created massive numbers of young rural unemployed landless and urban workers, who could be either recruits for progressive social movements or recruits for the narco-industry. Cultivating coca and opium, refining and smuggling the drugs and soldiering for the drug lords provided a livelihood for these desperate young men and women. The deep economic crisis and stagnation of the 1990’s and early 2000’s created a large mass of young unemployed and under-employed workers in the cities ripe for employment by the narco-gangs who paid a living wage for an often deadly occupation. The links between right-wing political parties, banking, business and landowner associations has
been demonstrated repeatedly throughout Latin America. In Colombia, drug traffickers have become landowners after their death squads devastated peasant communities suspected of supporting leftists or progressive organizations. ‘Sicarios’ or ‘hit-men’ are mostly young men from working or peasant class background who ‘work’ for business leaders and multi-national corporations as assassins. They have killed hundreds of trade union and peasant and Indian leaders each year in Colombia alone. Over a third of the members of the Colombian Congress, the principle backers of President Uribe, have been financed by the drug cartels. Uribe has long-term ties with prominent narco-traffickers and death squad militia leaders.

In Mexico, drug traffickers have recruited widely among the impoverished peasants. In many Mexican states the narcos have purchased the services of thousands of government officials from top to bottom. In the absence of employment and a social safety-net, many of the poor find work in the narcotrade.

Narco-traffickers have established alliances and business associations with upper class financial
groups engaging in joint ‘philanthropic’ activities, such as handing out cash and delivering needed services to the poor. Narco-traffickers eventually wash their illegal earnings through major banks in the US, Canada and Europe and then invest in real estate, tourist complexes and landed properties. Narco-trafficker organizations and death squads have worked closely with right wing movements in Sta. Cruz (Bolivia), with rightist political parties in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as in Mexico and Colombia.

The ‘lumpenization’ process operates via two routes: In some cases, young unemployed males directly recruited via neighborhood organizations; in other cases the dispossessed, bankrupt and downwardly mobile farmers and long-term unemployed workers are gradually forced into the ‘illegal’ market.

The long-term, large-scale process of stagnation, despite the periods of export growth, marginalize the rural poor and accelerate their impoverishment without generating compensatory stable, urban employment paying a living wages. The ‘lumpenization’ of these displaced, marginalized and workers, produced by the crisis and class polarization, is accompanied by the rise of a ‘lumpen culture’ with its own hierarchical structures, where the few at the ‘top’ develop ties to the
and state elite and the masses at the ‘bottom’ aspire to a degenerate kind of middle-class consumerist life-style.

By the first decade of the new millennium, the rightist lumpen-narco movement far exceeded the progressive popular movements in terms of power and influence in Mexico, Colombia, Central America and some countries in the Caribbean, like Jamaica. The relationship between the ‘legal’ rightist and the ‘narco’ rightist movements is one of collaboration and conflict: They join forces to oppose powerful rural and trade union movements and progressive electoral regimes. The lumpen-narcos provide the 'shock troops’ to assassinate progressive leaders, including elected officials and to terrorize supporters among the peasantry and urban poor. On the other hand, violent conflict between the rightists can break
at any time, especially when the lumpen-elite encroach on the state prerogatives, business interests, ties with imperial drug enforcement agencies and raise questions about the legitimacy of the bourgeois class. ( Petras, August 2009).

What can we do to PREVENT the rise of a Kenyan Narco State?


Do what we have always done when we are confronted with dictatorship, repression, corruption and sloth:

Organize and Resist.

A thing easier said than done.

Since there is a lot of “doing” to be done, I will leave my concrete and very specific suggestions out of the internet. Sometimes, political action plans are not really bloggable (if there is such a word).

Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya
Tuesday, January 11, 2010 11:38 am


Anonymous said...

Interesting writing.
I would urge you to have a look at the roles played by non-Kenyan actors in the plot you lay out.
Perhaps you could also look at the elimination of drug trafficking in Afghanistan, and the subsequent resurgence of trafficking once the Taliban were routed. And, of course, you might want to check out the coincidences between the presence of Muslim youth, suspected terror networks, and drug kingpins.

tnk said...

excellent in-depth article. covers a lot of ground

even more important lays some foundation block or at least implies that action must be taken. would sure like to know what we can do about this

Khisa Caleb, Nairobi-Kenya said...

Meticulously writen, founded on researched truths emblemmed with the realities that face us every other day. What suprises me is the nature of government response to this- the wine, dine and while with them on a daily basis as they infiltrate the media with all manner of sentiments purotedly meant to turn the public away, a public that hardly lives long with an opinion just as the nature of politics of the country. Kenyans must rise up and take up there state from these criminals- not the terrorists, not the drug dealers, not the dealers with militants and not the financers and planners of election violence- you name them. Yes, we must rise up!

Anonymous said...

It's the ballot in 2012. That is before the bullets start to flower like it is in SA

Dr. Nkule Laibuta
A Medical doctor - Psychologist.
Nairobi, Kenya

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