Kenyan fish dealers allege extortion by Uganda cartels

Trucks wait for clearance at Burumba in Busia-Kenya border last year. Ugandan officials at the border have been accused of extorting money from Kenyan fish exporters. PHOTO/DAVID AWORI 

What you need to know:

  • Ugandan officials have, however, tasked the traders to furnish them with details of the people they claim are extorting from them for action.

Some Ugandan officials have come under the spotlight for allegedly extorting hundreds of millions of shillings from traders exporting salted fish from Kenya to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). 
This is reportedly being done through cartels at the borders of Busia, Mpondwe, and Elegu. 

Fish exporters say officials from the Busia border fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture in eastern Uganda and some at the Mpondwe border point in western Uganda, reportedly demand at least Shs31m from each truck to be allowed transit from Uganda to the DR Congo.

Failure by exporters to bribe the officials leaves the consignment impounded, and fictitious charges and hefty fines imposed on them. 
Mr Hassan Omari, a Kenyan fish exporter at the Busia border, said in a well-orchestrated move, the officials had restricted the export of fish to only four companies, making it hard for Kenyans to transit their fish to DR Congo. 
“We are simply using Uganda as a transit route for our fish to DR Congo; so, for a sister country to come up with a policy that our fish has to go through Ugandan companies amounts to interference with international trade,” Mr Omari said on Wednesday. 

Formerly, he said, they have been paying Shs6m as “hire fees” to the truck owner, which has now been raised to Shs9.8m for each company truck, adding that company owners charge traders Shs8m for each consignment. 

Ms Sarah Nabwire, another fish exporter who reportedly paid Shs2m last December to get a fish export license from the MAAIF, said she has not received the permit to date and is being forced to use the four companies, which are charging high fees to hire out their trucks. 

According to her, each time a trader has to export fish, they are forced to make payments of Shs8m to the licensed company for each consignment of fish, while an extra Shs9.8m is paid for hiring a truck from the very companies. 

At the Busia border, Ms Nabwire claims Shs3.5m is paid as a “clearance stamp”, while another Shs5.2m is paid to a clearing agent to clear the fish consignment.Shs1.5m is reportedly paid at Kikorongo Mpondwe border to “sort out” Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU) officers and Shs3.5m to “guard” the fish. 

According to her, the cartel takes over Shs31m from a single truck, which she says is their would-be profit and capital.
Maj Joseph Labu Cherop, an intelligence officer at the FPU, however, said he was not aware of any extortion by his team at Kikorongo. He promised to investigate the matter and get back with further details. 

“If our officers are involved, that is news to me; I will interrogate this allegation and get back to you,” he said in a brief telephone interview.
Maj Cherop, however, asked this publication to provide the number plate of the trucks, which were reportedly impounded by FPU officers at the Kikorongo checkpoint. 

This publication, which has withheld details of the truck for security purposes, established that the truck was impounded on April 21 on charges relating to lacking a license to transport fish. Three of its occupants, including the exporter, driver, and his turn man were detained. 
The exporter told this newspaper that whereas the truck had a Kenyan license to transport fish, authorities reportedly impounded the consignment and paraded them before the court in Katwe where they were fined Shs1m. 

To secure their freedom, he said they had to pay Shs15m to unknown officials, through some women traders at Kikorongo. 
Mr Seif Yusuf, another Kenyan fish exporter, said the four companies and 10 trucks licensed to transport fish either belong to top Ugandan officials based in Entebbe or are for cartels working closely with MAAIF officials.
The law 

The international customs law on goods under transit allows customs clearance formalities to take place at the point of destination. 
In Uganda, goods under transit are cleared under the single customs territory agreement, implying that goods under transit are never subjected to any form of taxes and levies until they reach their final destination. 

The National Cross Border chairman, Mr Godfrey Oundo, said policies being implemented amounted to “non-tariff barriers to trade”. 
He said it would, therefore, be bad for Uganda, which is a key member of the East African Community, to violate the common market protocol, which allows free movement of goods from member states within the region. 
“We import and export goods, including fuel, through Kenya; should Kenya copy what we are doing?” he asked. 

He added that in 2022, Kampala and Nairobi signed a bilateral trade agreement where both countries agreed to allow free movement of salted Kenyan fish through Uganda to the DR Congo. 
According to him, “We are seeing Uganda violate its treaty which it signed with Kenya with these restrictions on the transit of Kenya fish to DR Congo”. 

In 2022, officials from the MAAIF impounded trucks carrying Nile Perch from Kenya destined for DR Congo at the Mpondwe border post, alleging that it was immature and had been smuggled to Kenya, salted, dried, and repackaged.
 All the fish consignment was then driven to the Fisheries headquarters in Entebbe. 
Following that development, the Kenyan Parliament convened and demanded an explanation on why Uganda would impound fish from Kenya, which was in transit to a neighboring country. 
Govt responds
Mr Joseph Bwanika, a director in the MAAIF, said Uganda has not implemented illegal policies. 
“The fish is from Kenya destined to Congo and we can never be involved in regulating this trade because these are goods which are simply under transit through our territory,” Mr Bwanika said. 

He denied that there were four companies licensed by his ministry to handle fish export and provide trucks for hire to exporters, adding that as MAAIF, they had no business discussing which truck a trader hires and the amount he pays to secure it. 
Despite Mr Bwanika’s denial, a MAAIF official at the Busia border showed this publication a list of four companies that are reportedly handling fish exports. 

We have withheld the lists of the companies because we could not independently verify if they are benefiting from the alleged export monopoly or if they are duly registered in Uganda.
He further dismissed reports of extortion, saying as a ministry, none of their officials was involved in taking bribes from the traders, adding that all the money, which is paid in the form of fees, is paid directly to the bank or Uganda Revenue Authority (URA). 

“Whoever has concrete information that one of us took money should report to police,” he said, denying that there was a deliberate move by the ministry to stop some traders from getting export licenses for fish. 
He said the delay in giving a license to Ms Nabwire was due to “verification processes” and “system failure” by the tax body.
The State Minister for Fisheries, Ms Hellen Adoa, too, dismissed the claims by traders as “baseless”, saying as MAAIF, they have not imposed any restrictions and illegal fees on the Kenya fish trade. 
“If there is any ministry official implicated in implementing these policies and taking bribes from traders, he or she should face it as an individual, not MAAIF as a ministry,” Ms Adoa said.
She further dismissed claims that the ministry had denied some traders, among them Nabwire export licenses, saying they had instead kept requesting those interested to apply, but by March 30, when the grace period expired, only 10 companies had tax clearance and as a result, they were the only ones eligible for licenses. 
Bank and MAAIF documents provided by Ms Nabwire indicate that she paid money on December 31, 2023, but since then, her license had not been issued by the ministry. 
“I was supposed to have been given the license in January, but the officials have kept dodging me to date,” she said. 

The 2022 row, dialogue 
   In March 2022, Uganda announced that it would compensate Kenyan fish exporters whose merchandise officials confiscated on October 1, 2021, at the Mpondwe border in Kasese District.
   The decision followed a meeting between Kenyan and Ugandan officials at the Malaba-Busia-Kenya-Uganda border.
    Kenyan fish farmers claimed Ugandan officials had confiscated fish worth more than $400,000.

    Ugandan officials made a verification visit to Kenya’s Lake Turkana where most of the fish originates. After several meetings, the issue of compensation was resolved.
    Kenyan fish traders operating in Busia Town export fish to eastern parts of upper DR Congo that border Uganda. Their exports end up in Bukavu, Kisangani, Goma, and other eastern DR Congo cities.
    However, Ugandan officials disputed the source of the fish claiming the Kenyan fish exports originate from Migingo Island and Lake Kyoga in Uganda, a claim that Kenyan fish traders denied.