The Akasha conviction is a landmark in (foreign) law-enforcement responses to the drug trade. But removing ‘kingpins’ often has unintended consequences. New players are already emerging.

The Akasha brothers took over their father Ibrahim Akasha’s drug-trafficking syndicate following his murder in 2000, which had been trafficking Afghan heroin through Mombasa since the early 1990s. For nearly two decades, the brothers led this massive criminal enterprise, diversified into other drug markets (including trafficking Mandrax to South Africa and supplying Colombian cocaine to Europe) and developed interests in other regional criminal markets, including ivory, rhino horn and arms. Following their arrest in 2014, they were forcibly extradited to the US on 29 January 2017, to stand trial in New York along with accomplice, Vicky Goswami. Both brothers pleaded guilty to offences relating to narcotics, weapons and obstruction of justice. In August 2019, Baktash Akasha was sentenced to 25 years in prison; his brother’s sentencing is scheduled for November 2019.1

In response, Kenyan authorities have increased the pressure on criminal figures operating in Mombasa, which has long been an epicentre of narcotics trafficking in East and Central Africa and was the stronghold of the Akashas’ organization. Kenyan security personnel have intensified their crackdown on drug-related crime, and Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i has argued that there is a ‘clear nexus’ between a recent upsurge in gang violence in the coastal city and struggles for control of its drugs markets.2

Matiang’i also stated that authorities are investigating 30 influential Mombasa-based businesspeople for connections to drug trafficking, although their identities have not been revealed. This follows the arrests of 18 other local businessmen and politicians in late August, among them a member of the Mombasa County Assembly, Ahmed Salama.3 Salama is reportedly a key ally of Mombasa Governor, Ali Hassan Joho, who has previously been identified as a major drug-trafficking figure.4

Among the 30 currently under the microscope is Ali Punjani, a wealthy local tycoon who operates a fleet of haulage, clearing and freight companies in Mombasa. Punjani is considered one of Mombasa’s leading drug traffickers and a natural beneficiary of the void created by Akasha’s imprisonment, having been a long-time rival of the brothers.5 Punjani is reportedly also sought by US anti-narcotics investigators and has been identified by the US as a high-profile suspect since being named in a confidential dossier in 2010.6 A 20-strong multi-agency security team raided Punjani’s residence in Mombasa in mid-August, and although Punjani was travelling to India at the time, his wife and a number of employees were arrested.7 Subsequent reporting has suggested Punjani has returned to Kenya and that the police have been instructed not to arrest him.8

Key to the long-standing success of the Akasha syndicate was the brothers’ exploitation of their links to corrupt officials. As described by the US Department of Justice,9 following their arrest in 2014 they were able – through bribes paid to Kenyan police, judges and political figures – to achieve repeated adjournments and delays of their trial in Kenya, to obstruct their extradition to the US and even to continue running their drug-dealing operation.10 Leading Kenyan officials and confidential government reports have denounced widespread corruption in the Kenyan judiciary, specifically among magistrates who have protected drug traffickers from prosecution.11 Reports have suggested that the US authorities are poised to indict and extradite several high-profile Kenyans in connection with the Akasha case. Although the names have not been made public, the list reportedly includes judges, sitting governors, a former cabinet secretary and a prominent lawyer.12

While the US prosecution has shone a light on how police, judicial authorities and politicians have helped provide drug traffickers with cover and protection, more cases are emerging of the direct and active involvement of public servants in drug trafficking, posing an additional challenge for the Kenyan authorities. Recent cases are Mombasa principal magistrate, Edgar Kagoni, who was arrested in September and charged with the disappearance of Sh30 million (about US$300 000) worth of heroin held in court as evidence.13 Kagoni has since filed a petition to stop his prosecution, arguing that a magistrate cannot be arrested over his judgments. In August, police officer Hamdi Yusuf Maalim was arrested along with six others suspected of being part of a trafficking network operating between Likoni and Diani, on the Kenyan coast.14 Raids at Maalim’s home resulted in seizures of three kilograms of cocaine and two kilograms of heroin. Police reported that the group were distributing drugs to Garissa, northern Kenya. Leading police figures, including the inspector general of the National Police Service, Hilary Mutyambai, have issued warnings to police officers collaborating with drug-trafficking organizations.15

Although this evidence is anecdotal, it seems that Kenya’s judicial and law-enforcement agencies are dealing with a new wave of institutional corruption, even as investigations into the judicial protection of the Akashas and their associates remain ongoing.


  1. See

  2. See

  3. Mohamed Ahmed, Police unmask top suspects in Coast drug syndicate, Daily Nation, 18 August 2019,

  4. Mark Shaw, Simone Haysom and Peter Gastrow, The heroin coast: A political economy along the East African seaboard, ENACT, June 2018,

  5. Ibid. 

  6. See

  7. See

  8. Mohamed Ahmed, Mystery surrounds fate of suspected drug dealer Ali Punjani, Daily Nation, 9 September 2019,

  9. See

  10. This was the testimony of Vicky Goswami, their long-term accomplice, who claimed they spent US$4 million on bribes in Kenya, though it is not clear over what time period, see Daily Nation, US court jails Kenyan drug lord Baktash Akasha for 25 years, 16 August 2019,

  11. Moses Odhiambo, DCI links corrupt judges to drug cartels, The Star, 11 May 2019,

  12. Vincent Achuka and Brian Wasuna, US seeks top Kenyans over Akasha drugs, Daily Nation, 15 August 2019,; Masolo Mabonga, US set to arrest judges, Kenyan politicians linked to Akasha brothers drug syndicate, Tuko, September 2019,

  13. See

  14. See

  15. See