[PHOTOS]: How Nyagatare is battling the drugs menace
It’s about 9:30 am as we arrive at Nyagatare District Police Unit (DPU) as we set out to document the community efforts against drug trafficking and consumption in one of the mapped trafficking routes.
At a distance we see a rather busy police officer speaking with gestures of command at junior staff, “bring them here” he says in reference to law breakers arrested the previous evening.
Senior Supt. Pierre Tebuka, the District Police Commander (DPC) is seeking more information about the previous night’s raid on narcotic drugs traffickers and smugglers.
As we exchange pleasantries, he tackles on the issue of “time” as an important factor. This was in reference to our late arrival for the scheduled interview.
“I have just received information that drug traffickers will be crossing into Rwanda through Tabagwe Sector from neighboring Uganda, if you are ready come with me to the field; you will get all the answers to all your questions,” the DPC says in response to our question on the state of substances in Nyagatare.
Located in Eastern Province, Nyagatare occupies the northeastern extremity of Rwanda and is the largest with an area of 1741 km2 and second most populous district in Rwanda after Gasabo with a pollution of 466,944 as of 2012 census
Nyagatare borders Uganda in the north and Tanzania in the east. Its location brings inherent challenges to curbing cross-border lawlessness, according to the DPC.
About 20 kilometers from Nyagatare town is Tabagwe sector, we head to Kagarama Village in Tabagwe Cell. “It is here that officers always waylay the anticipated traffickers,” explains SSP Tebuka.
Along the way, he, however, makes abrupt spot-checks of motorcycle and bicycle luggage to establish the contents. “We conduct information-led operations, but occasionally also make impromptu roadblocks and spontaneous checkpoints; that is how we arrested the suspects you saw this morning at the station.”
Across Kagarama Village, we see hills of Kamwezi sub-county of Uganda’s Rukiga District. Makeshift structures believed developed for stashing are being constructed in Kamwezi’s Kashekya village by the village folks just about five meters from the white colored concrete border markings.
The savannah-like marshland of the meandering Umuyanja River which forms the natural border between Rwanda and Uganda is notorious known for being the route for traffickers and smugglers in Nyagatare.
Juliet Murekatete, the vice mayor of Nyagatare in-charge of Social Affairs. and the DPC SSP Pierre Tebuka addressing students of Akagera High School in Nyagatare
SSP Tebuka says that most of the people arrested go through natural porous border entry points trying to beat security and migration services at Kiziba border post.
He says traffickers collaborate with other people inside Rwanda, who call themselves Abarembetsi—spotters—who give them information about the presence of police checkpoints.
“They are placed in strategic locations, often with the phone to alert others; they are paid by drug traffickers to facilitate them to beat security by alerting them on safe passage,” said one of the former drug trafficker, who preferred not to be named.
At the illegal border we spot three young men just meters across the border unload what we came to learn that they are substances. We are then told they are frantic spotters. We throw a stone in the bush to confirm this. “We saw a Police patrol car meters away, it’s headed this side,” we claim. This brought an abrupt end to the operation.
“I will get them someday,” says SSP Tebuka after we report to him what we saw. “You see the nature of our borders; it means it’s a cat-and-mouse game. The good thing is that we are making efforts in mobilizing and sensitizing the people to make people-centred policing an effective response tool.”
“Through this community policing bond with the public, other security organs and local leaders, we have been able to identify common entry points given informal names such as Kumusave, camp Kigali and Munturusu where quantities of assorted substances are normally seized.”
“In July and August alone, we intercepted contrabands worth over Rwf22 million and arrested 135 drug traffickers, majority the youth.”
Kanyanga, a crude gin and assorted illicit gins with different brand names such as chief waragi, zebra waragi, African gin, all packed in banned plastic bags, account for about 70 percent of the drugs impounded, according to the DPC.
Of the 14 sectors making the district, he said, the sectors of Tabagwe, Rwempashya, Musheli, Kiyombe and Kagitumba, which border Tanzania and Uganda are the most infested areas.
“We obviously have many challenges such as the geographical proximity, the unleveled legal framework where most of the prohibited substances in Rwanda are not outlawed in neighboring countries,” says SSP Tebuka.
The natural border here is only separated by the banana plantation on the Rwandan side and eucalyptus trees on the Ugandan side.
The situation is exacerbated by the willingness to consume the substances, according to the DPC. For example, a five-litre container of Kanyanga goes for Rwf14, 000 and resold at about Rwf40, 000, and even higher than that if one can make it as far as Kigali.
But the DPC views this in a positive way. “The increase in the price of Kanyanga is because of its scarcity brought about by increased operations and seizures, and strengthened awareness.”
As we chat with the DPC, he’s interrupted by a phone call; another informer calling to give information on drug dealers that had also crossed into Rwanda some 10kms away from where we were. “We shall pursue them with renewed vigor and thank you for your community policing service,” he tells the caller.
“Once in a while there is a specific event that creates a catharsis of the sort. We want to greatly thank the concerned public for helping us in this fight, the relationship between police and the public is good and this will help us serve better and protect them,” he says, before he leaves to pursue the reported drug traffickers.
On several occasion, grassroots leaders have also been implicated in drug related crimes, either as dealers or facilitating dealers. But Juliet Murekatete, the vice mayor of Nyagatare in-charge of Social Affairs, says “local leaders are like any other person, and are under the law; those implicated are fired and investigated.”
“Fighting drugs is one of the major tasks for local leaders as well. If, for example, narcotics are found in a certain area, the local leaders in that area are asked to explain the occurrence. This is one of the resolutions to make the leaders accountable and to make sure that there are no stores in their communities, and dealers identified and reported to the Police,” says Murekatete.
She adds: “Fighting drugs is also entailed in Imihigo (performance contracts) signed between villages and cells, cells and Sectors and Sectors with the district. These measures have paid off in some areas, like Kabare Cell in Rwempashya sector that used to be a drug den, drug-related cases are rare today in Kabare.”
“Nyagatare being a cattle corridor, some young people have ventured in the milk business, buying milk from farmers and selling it at higher price at milk collection centers.”
The border marking in Tabagwe Sector of Nyagatare. The makeshift structures are on the Ugandan side.
According to Masai David Kwizera, the executive secretary of Kabare Cell, although the area is not on the borderline, it was previously being used as the conduit of illegal products leading to Nyagatare and other areas.
"We have sensitized our residents that collaborating with drug dealers and consuming substances are counter-productive and criminal," Kwizera narrates.
Over the years, fighting trafficking, making, sell and use of illicit drugs has been one of the priorities if Rwanda National Police (RNP).
As part of the response, RNP mapped out about 80 routes between Nyagatare and Burera districts, used by traffickers. The corridor has informed the force’s operations, continuous awareness in partnership with other institutions.
Under the new penal code in its article 263, any person convicted of eating, drinking, injecting himself/herself, inhaling or for anointing oneself with psychotropic substances, faces a jail term of between one and two years, or subject to a penalty of community service.
The same article also increased the jail term for anyone convicted of producing, storing, trafficking and selling from the previous seven year maximum sentence to up to life in prison.
According to the vice mayor, the young people are actively diverting their minds into youth development initiatives citing those under BDF and other social support activities under the district, which have given former drug dealers an alternative and better way of living.