From Shashamane, a town in central Ethiopia, smugglers have created two routes to get bhang to Nairobi and authorities say they are boldly hauling huge consignments stashed in oil tankers.
Following World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie donated a large parcel of land for Rastafari movement settlers from the West Indies to return to their ancestral homeland in Africa — Shashamane.
Shashamane, located in the Misraq Shewa Zone of the Oromia region, 241 kilometres (150 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa, is known for its cannabis cultivation, largely meant for local consumption.
That was until recently when smugglers resorted to markets in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, where the drug, though illegal, fetches good prices because it is considered high quality.
The porous Kenya-Ethiopia border is used by drug traffickers to get their illegal consignment to Nairobi and beyond.
The international airports in Nairobi and Addis Ababa have been the key entry points for other illicit drugs into the region, primarily due to the frequent commercial flights from Asia and the Middle East.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) drug lords are searching for new routes for traffickers to get narcotics into the city.
Further, the UNODC added that the eastern Africa region is attractive to international drug trafficking syndicates as they are quick to exploit non-existent or ineffective border (land, sea and air) controls, limited cross-border and regional cooperation, as well as serious deficiencies in the criminal justice systems.
The border town of Moyale in northern Kenya is now an entry point for large hauls of bhang widely grown in southern Ethiopia.
Reports indicate that since the start of the year, police officers, especially in the vast North Eastern region were asked to be more vigilant in blocking the drugs from being smuggled across the border.
With the police on high alert, the smugglers had to find other ways of getting the bhang through the Kenya-Ethiopia border. According to our sources, once the bhang leaves Shashamane, it heads down south to the border points of Moyale, Sololo, Corolla, Uran and Dukana.
To pass through the police checks, the smugglers bribe their way in to the Kenyan side, which, according to our sources, is the easiest roadblock to pass. The smugglers use boda bodas, small vehicles and donkey carts.
From these centres, the bhang is moved to Nairobi using either of two routes. The first, according to our sources, is the Moyale-Nairobi highway via Marsabit and Isiolo. On this route, the smugglers use public means, mostly buses.
In June 2019, two women were arrested with four kilogrammes of bhang in Marsabit on a Nairobi-bound bus. According to the police, the women had wrapped the bhang around their bodies, underneath their buibuis.
On May 20, 2019, detectives trailed a tanker from Moyale to Nakuru. They impounded it and seized bhang weighing more than a tonne. It had a street value of Sh3.6 million.
A week earlier on May 12, police in Samburu had intercepted bhang worth Sh8 million in a lorry that had developed mechanical problems at Kirimon. Three weeks before this seizure, police in Marsabit had found five kilogrammes of bhang hidden in the tyres of a car coming from Moyale.
Use government vehicles
The second route runs from Funannyata in Sololo to the Yamicha plains of Merti Sub-county in Isiolo.
Because of the terrain, most smugglers use Land Cruisers and in some instances, government vehicles, to avoid scrutiny at police roadblocks.
From Yamicha, the vehicles pass through Quro Bisanowo, Sabarwawa and Kom in Merti, then through Lososia to either Archers Post or Gotu.
The two routes connect in Isiolo town, and the smugglers then use the Nanyuki-Nairobi highway into the city. They take the consignments to Eastleigh, Majengo and Nigeria in Mlango Kubwa, all located in the north-east of the city centre.
Once there, the middle-men take the bhang to dealers, who repackage the drug and give it to small distributors in the city. The people who distribute the bhang once it lands in the city have the protection of police officers.
A senior police officer based at Vigilance House told the Nation on condition of anonymity that rogue police officers and immigration officials had benefited from the business.
“It is clear that the drugs keep moving into the country from across the borders and it is almost certain some powerful people are benefiting,” said the officer.
The officer further said the bhang business in Kenya had powerful people behind it and it has seen his colleagues pay a steep price for being honest.
He compared the business to air trapped in a paper bag: “When one squeezes one side, the air will move to the other end and when everywhere is squeezed, the paper bag will burst. That is the sad reality about this business.”
On May 2020, two General Service Unit officers were arrested while transporting 600 kilogrammes of bhang worth Sh15 million in a government vehicle at Gotu in Isiolo County. The sergeant and constable attached to Mariara Police Station in Meru County were arrested by a multi-agency team while moving the narcotics in a pick-up truck from Moyale.
In February, this year, police in Marsabit arrested three suspected drug traffickers — two police officers and a woman — at Laisamis on the Moyale-Isiolo highway. They also found a revolver and 13.5 kilogrammes of bhang with a street value of Sh195,000. The two police officers were based at Sololo Police Station in Isiolo County.
How bhang is concealed
A source revealed to this reporter that the bhang is sometimes stashed in gas cylinders and transported from the border and into Nairobi.
“Whenever we find the police at a road block, they usually let us go because all they can see are the cylinders,” our source said.
In March, this year, detectives arrested one man with 56 bales of bhang, which was packed like second-hand clothes bales and weighed 466 kilogrammes.
In May, last year, a lorry driver was arrested after he was found transporting 135 bales of bhang from Ethiopia. According to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), the narcotics were hidden inside the fuel tanker.
“Police rarely stop tankers, especially those that transport petrol and when the dealers hide their bhang inside, they are certain that it will be safe,” our source said.
In the past one year, more than five fuel tankers transporting bhang worth more than Sh150 million have been seized by officers attached to Kasarani, Ruiru, Nakuru and Kahawa Sukari police stations.
What is worrying the police is how traffickers have increased the volumes of bhang they are transporting at a go and the development of new methods of transport aimed at evading the authorities.
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Sometimes the smugglers hide the rolls of bhang in the spare wheels or make additional compartments underneath the lorries and buses.
“There is higher consumption of bhang, that is for sure; and it is not just a Kenyan thing. It is a global thing because we have children as young as nine now using bhang,” says Mr Vincent Muasya, a director at the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada).
So why the Ethiopian bhang?
Shash, as users call it within the city, has been touted as the best bhang in town.
Some users we spoke to say they buy a stick of bhang at Sh50, but prices can go as high as Sh200 depending on what part of the city you are in.
Patricia, not her real name, says she likes smoking the Shash when she has had a rough day at work.
“Working in a demanding environment comes with a lot of pressure and on those days, I just call my guy and he drops a stick or two at my work place. I will then walk out to our usual joint, puff and chill for like 30 minutes. After that am as good as when I arrived in the office in the morning.”
Yvonne, however, prefers to take bhang in confectionaries such as cakes, muffins or cookies. The snacks cost her between Sh100 and Sh200 a piece.
“My cookies keep me awake mostly when I have deadlines to beat, but I have a friend who smokes bhang so that she can eat. She normally doesn’t have appetite for food, and she will only eat when she takes a few puffs,” Yvonne added.