Living and Learning in Kenya: Recollections of a PhD Candidate's UNODC Internship on Maritime Trafficking

14 Nov 2016 - 14:30

Carina is currently in the second year of research for her Ph.D. on combatting maritime trafficking around East Africa. Her research looks at how counter-piracy responses can be useful to combat heroin and ivory trafficking.

East Africa, like many other African regions, is plagued by high levels of organized crime. The region is targeted by both ivory traffickers exporting tons of elephant tusks from the region’s ports, and drug traffickers shipping Afghan heroin to East African states for onward shipment. This I knew before I visited Kenya, because that’s what the books said. But books can only teach you so much and after one and a half years of researching a region where I had never been before, I was finally able to embark on a journey to complete a 3 month internship with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Nairobi. From excitedly flying over Kilimanjaro in June to my return over its snow-capped peak in October, I could never have guessed just how much I would learn in those three months.  Being based in the UN office allowed me access to people with a wealth of knowledge and many years of experience, all of who have not only contributed to my learning experience, but have become mentors and friends too.

The United Nation’s (UN) office in Nairobi is the organization’s headquarters in Africa. It is also where its Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP), where I was to be an intern, is headquartered. The GMCP was initially established as the UN’s Counter Piracy Programme, but following the dramatic decline in piracy, it has morphed into the GMCP. It felt unreal that I was based in the same office as the people who have been credited with coordinating the international effort which led to the near eradication of piracy off the coast of Somalia.

My work with the GMCP primarily involved conducting research on heroin trafficking via what is known as the southern trafficking route. This route extends from the Makran coast, which is a  stretch of coastline bordering southwest Pakistan and southeast Iran, and into the Indian Ocean, using East African countries as transit zones. The route uses mainly maritime trafficking to transport large quantities of Afghan heroin on board dhows from Pakistan and Iran to other Asian countries and East Africa, from where it is rerouted onward to places such as Europe and South Africa. The advantage of maritime trafficking is that much larger quantities can be trafficked, with consignments being broken up into smaller quantities upon reaching land and then being rerouted via road, air or other maritime routes. Coincidently, a large amount of cocaine was seized inside a shipping container in Mombasa shortly after I arrived in Kenya. This was an interesting shift away from heroin which is trafficked by dhows and raised concerns that cocaine traffickers may be hoping to mimic the success of heroin traffickers who traffic an estimated 22 tons of heroin through East Africa annually. This Mombasa seizure gave me the opportunity to conduct research for the UNODC into possible containerized heroin trafficking through the East African region which, apart from the latest cocaine seizure, remains to be confirmed by more seizures, but has been suspected for a long time.

While in Nairobi I also had the opportunity to work with the UN’s Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime, which was a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge on illicit wildlife markets and poaching in East Africa. For two weeks I helped facilitate a training course on crime scene investigations, allowing me to work closely with officers from the Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS). The training was based in a nature reserve and was facilitated by two South African wildlife crime scene experts who have done extensive work in southern African countries, including South Africa’s national parks. The training highlighted the importance of proper investigations in order to ensure a successful legal finish and conviction. It covered everything from processing the initial crime scene to giving evidence in court. It was great to see the high quality of training taking place and the trainers, guest lecturers and KWS officers all shared their unique insights on how best to clamp down on poaching networks and protect Kenya’s wildlife.

While most of my days were spent doing research at the UN compound in Nairobi, I had a series of interviews to do for my own research. These interviews were the highlight of my trip and took me all over Nairobi, into living rooms, harbours and offices, but also to Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. Most of my ‘colleagues’ at the UN were people I previously could only dream of meeting, but suddenly they were only a desk or a building and a coffee away. Interviews sometimes took place while monkeys were running around on the grass next to us or while a prayer was being broadcast from a mosque in Stonetown, a gentle reminder that I was rather far away from home!  

No matter who I met with in my quest to learn more about maritime crime, from police officers to game rangers, NGO workers, lawyers, researchers and doctors, I was always humbled by the willingness of every person I interviewed to share their knowledge and passion for their cause, whether it was piracy, ivory or heroin. Not one person refused my request for an interview and every participant went beyond what I expected of them, some taking me along on official duties and inviting me to join them at the home of an ambassador for an insightful discussion. One such research participant was kind enough to invite me to visit orphaned elephant calves in Tsavo East National Park, where 3 to 4 year old elephants are slowly released back into the wild. Most of the elephants were orphaned due to poaching. That was probably the moment that my trip and my research finally felt like a reality, along with a visit to a heroin treatment programme offering methadone treatment to recovering heroin addicts. It was during both these visits that I realized, even though we spend our days, and sometimes nights, behind a boring desk, there is someone or something who you hope your research can have an impact on, even if it is the tiniest of impacts.    

The East African region is often portrayed as  uninterested in or unable to fight the organized crime menace that it is currently experiencing. What is true is that East African countries, like many African states, are yet to realize the importance of securing their oceans in order to clamp down on crime. But they are certainly not unaware or uninterested in addressing organized crime. Instead, what I found were countries with limited resources, but with many committed individuals who are doing their utmost best, despite various limitations due to a lack of resources and to a lesser degree, expertise. Unfortunately, the hard work of the honest civil servant is overshadowed by a handful of colleagues and other high level individuals who are too often implicated in organized criminal activities. This is nothing new, where there is organized crime, corruption is never far away.  Wherever I went and whoever I spoke to, allegations of corruption were always lurking in the background. Everyone was in agreement on one thing, until corruption has been eliminated, there will be no end to organized criminal networks using East African countries and the greater Indian Ocean as a vehicle for their trade. States can therefore ban or permit all the ivory trade they want, tighten border control, patrol the seas and address demand reduction, but as long as corruption is facilitating these illicit markets, you can be sure the heroin will arrive on, and ivory will leave, the shores of East Africa.  

Now that I am back home in Cape Town I am excited to see how my time in Kenya and the conversations I had there will be able to contribute to thinking on how to make East Africa and its oceans safer.