March 2, 2020

The ‘Kanyanga’ Gangs Terrorising Gicumbi District As Officials Look Away


Villagers in sectors along Rwanda-Uganda border live in fear. Gangs of men have been left to maraud the area as they go about their business smuggling Kanyanga, a crude alcohol, into Rwanda. Anyone who reports their movements risks death.

Some families are so scared they don’t want to talk, even when their family members have been killed. Reason; why waste time and risk your life when nothing will be done about the gangs.

In this investigation, for the time, we have identified the names and codenames used by the gangs. From the region, everyone knows people by the tag “Abarembetsi”. Local officials know them, but are unwilling to do anything, despite Kanyanga causing havoc in communities.

We found a woman in Gashiru village, Gatoma cell in Kaniga sector, whose husband Katurebe Gaspard was murdered by the gangs. The woman refused to speak to us, saying she had cried enough but no one has helped, so doesn’t see the need to speak anymore. Such is the level of desperation.

In an other location, Habiyakare Sindikubwabo Jean Damascene, 42 years, a former Reserve Force official and father of 5, is incapacitated. He has not been able to work for over a year now as a result of injuries he sustained during a battle with the gangs. He lives in Bukamba village, Ngondore cell, Byumba sector.

Habiyakare Sindikubwabo Jean Damascene, 42 years, a former Reserve Force official and father of 5, is incapacitated. He cannot work as a result of injuries sustained during operation to capture Umurembetsi (one of the Kanyanga gangs)

At the time of he incident, he was called by village head to an operation to arrest Kanyanga gangs. In the ensuing battle, he was seriously injured as seen in pictures. Habiyakare desperately needs help.

“At least if I can get treatment so that I can be able to fend for my family. I will be very glad. Right now it is my wife struggling for us to eat,” he narrated.

Our investigation probed 3 villages in Nyakabungo cell alone. Here, we obtained handwritten lists from local officials of names of the gangs that ferry Kanyanga on bicycles, and sell it around Gicumbi. This crude alcohol finds itself in other regions of Rwanda.

Remember Byumba sector has 9 cells, yet in just Nyakabungo cell, we found 8 gang members. We have their real names, and codenames used for their Kanyanga smuggling – which they do unhindered.

There is Niyonzima Elias (alias Cyevure), Habanabakize Tomas (Karyongo-Tiri), Guhagahungu Ruberi, and Gasimba Meddy. Some are members of the local villages, known to local officials by their codenames including Cado, Twinemugisha, Sikora, and Ubyawenuwe.

Gangs earn 45% profit

The victims of these Kanyanga smugglers are in different sectors around neighboring Burera district also. Narinizeye Innocent from Rugaragara village, Gaseke cell of Ruhunde sector, was also a Kanyanga smuggler and was killed by his colleagues. They accused him of giving information to the authorities.

But then what is important about the Kanyanga business that these men are willing to take all these risks? According different sources, some of whom are ardent consumers of the crude gin, the profit is so enticing.

A 20 liter Jerrycan is bought for Rwf 27,500 from Uganda, and is sold inside Rwanda for not less than Rwf 40,000. This shows the smugglers are able to earn 45.45% profit on every Jerrycan. For a bicycle that can bring in at least 4 jerrycans, the profits are simply too enticing.

Local authorities in the most affected areas say unemployment is another of the major catalysts for people to resort to Kanyanga smuggling and distribution. Iyamuremye Alphonse, the head of Gacyamo village, Nyakabungo cell, Byumba sector, said; “As we are here, you could see them matching with their bicycles. The manner in which they match alone is so scary”.

Another issue is a long standing complaint by residents and local officials that gang members arrested, are not long after, seen back in the community. Niyonsaba Elie, the in-charge of security in Gacyamo village, said: “We are always wondering what really happens when these people are arrested. When they return, they openly brag that their money has released them.”

Northern Province Governor, Jean Marie Vianney Gatabazi, together with Gicumbi district officials and senior security personnel have conducted regular operations to seize Kanyanga and other banned drugs from communities. The most recent was February 11, in Rubaya sector where more than Rwf 2.5m worth of Kanyanga and other crude drugs were destroyed. Such actions are common, yet the Kanyanga keeps flowing in.

Governor Gatabazi has vowed that by end of 2020, smuggling of Kanyanga into that region will be history. But he is up against a deep rooted local fabric that helps the Kanyanga gangs, or the Abarembetsi for that matter, to know when such security sweeps are coming. The Governor is himself aware of the challenge.

“One Umurembetsi confessed to us that the village head gets a cut from the sales of drugs and knows all about the business,” says Gatabazi, “In return, the village head leaks information to the Umurembetsi about impending operations.”

In this cat and mouse game, it is difficult to see how Kanyanga and other drugs can be wiped out from communities. Everyone blames the other. The ordinary people say they are attacked by the Gangs if they give information and have no protection. The local officials point to cases where the drug gangs are arrested, but then are back in the community.

Police in Gicumbi district dismissed any such cases exist. Inspector of Police Gasasira Innocent, the Police Spokesperson for the Northern Province said: “We are not aware of any such cases where suspects are freed from police custody. Any police officer found engaged in hindering the process of bringing these Kanyanga smugglers to book will face the full force of the law, as you are well aware the institution doesn’t tolerate corruption.”

By Mukandayisenga Phoibe

This story was produced as partnership between Radio ISHINGIRO, a community broadcaster based in Gicumbi district, and The Chronicles

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