15 Oct 2019

Car theft in East Africa on the rise

Regional syndicates stealing cars in Africa are making sure they can’t be traced.

Even presidents’ cars are not safe in Africa. A vehicle attached to President Yoweri Museveni was stolen in Uganda in 2018 and recovered in Kenya in 2019. In 2018 and 2014, cars attached to President Uhuru Kenyatta were stolen and recovered in Tanzania and Uganda.

A Kenyan police officer who wished to remain anonymous told ENACT that truck theft was also common between Tanzania and Kenya. Traders use these vehicles, making them easy targets for criminal networks who sell them to Uganda in parts or whole. It becomes difficult to trace a vehicle once it crosses the border.

In 2018, 1 370 vehicles in Kenya were reported stolen. The figure doesn’t account for unreported stolen vehicles – many owners don’t report stolen cars as they don’t believe they’ll get them back.

Adooma Hazim, an INTERPOL officer, says regional car theft syndicates are well organised, having a vertical hierarchy structure with a clear line of command. Cells in each East African country work together through the distribution chain.

The UK and Kenyan governments are collaborating to stem vehicle theft between the two countries

Once a vehicle is stolen, criminals either strip the vehicle for its parts, or get fake number plates, repaint it and send it across the border. A truck full of spare parts can cross borders with forged importation spare parts documents. Immigration and customs officials are also sometimes involved in shifting them across. 

Once in another country the parts are sold at open-air markets. In Kenya they’re sold in the Kariobangi area in Nairobi, in Uganda it’s in Katwe in Kampala, and in Tanzania, the Gerezani area in Dar es Salaam. From Tanzania and Uganda, some of the spare parts are moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

When whole vehicles are moved across the border, there’s no regional shared database on vehicle registration that allows for a common search. This makes it hard to trace a stolen vehicle once it is in another country.

Regional police efforts are evident. Through INTERPOL’s Operation Usalama Watch countries are working towards establishing a common database that can help track stolen vehicles. Some countries, like Rwanda, have already begun checking with INTERPOL records before importing cars.

Many car owners in Africa don’t report stolen vehicles as they don’t believe they’ll get them back

East Africa’s car theft syndicates are also expanding their networks to the United Kingdom. Less than 2% of the world’s containers are checked at ports of entry. From April to July 2019, 16 high-end cars stolen and smuggled from the UK were intercepted at Kenya’s port of Mombasa. Disguised in shipping containers as household goods en route to Uganda, the cars had their chassis numbers cloned so as not to be detected by authorities.

The UK and Kenyan governments are collaborating to stem vehicle theft between the two countries. Through this effort, some stolen vehicles have been recovered and returned to the UK.

The British government is also working with Kenya to address the expanding criminal market beyond East Africa. Whether this will restore public confidence in addressing an illicit trade that has proven to be deep-rooted and growing remains to be seen.

Mohamed Daghar, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS

EU Flag
ENACT is funded by the European Union
ISS Donors
ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.