Nyagatare: Inside the police crackdown on drug traffickers

Juliet Murekatete, the vice mayor of Nyagatare in-charge of Social Affairs, and the DPC SSP Pierre Tebuka address students of Akagera High School in Nyagatare. Courtesy

It’s about 9:30am as we arrive at Nyagatare District Police Unit (DPU). As we set out to document the community efforts against drug trafficking, at a distance, we see a rather busy police officer gesturing at his junior counterpart.

“Bring them here,” he says. He was referring to some suspects that had been arrested the previous evening for allegedly trafficking narcotic drugs. 


Nyagatare is one of the areas that have been mapped out by the police as a route for notorious drug traffickers.


Police has mapped out 80 routes between Nyagatare and Burera districts used by smugglers and traffickers. 


It is in this context that 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 tells us that time was an important factor.

“I have just received information that drug traffickers will be crossing into Rwanda through Tabagwe Sector from neighbouring Uganda, if you are ready come with me to the field; you will get all the answers to all your questions,” he said in response to one of our questions on the state of drug trafficking and abuse in Nyagatare.

Located in Eastern Province, Nyagatare occupies the north eastern area of Rwanda—it is the country’s biggest district with an area of 1,741km2 and the second most populous  after Gasabo District  with a pollution of 466,944, according to the 2012 national census.

Nyagatare borders Uganda to the north and Tanzania to the east. Its location brings inherent challenges to curbing cross-border lawlessness, Tebuka says.

About 20 kilometres from Nyagatare town lies Tabagwe Sector. We head to Kagarama Village in Tabagwe Cell.

“It is here that officers always waylay the traffickers,” Tebuka explains.

Along the way, he makes random inspections of motorcycles and bicycles carrying 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 can see hills of Kamwezi sub-county of the Uganda’s Rukiga District. Makeshift structures believed to have been developed for stashing are being constructed in Kamwezi’s Kashekya village by the village folks just about five meters from the white coloured concrete border markings.

The savannah-like marshland of the meandering Umuyanja River, which forms the natural border between Rwanda and Uganda, is known for being the main conduit for traffickers and smugglers in Nyagatare.

Tebuka says that most of the people arrested here go through natural porous border entry points, attempting 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,” says one of the former drug trafficker who preferred not to be named.

At the illegal border there were three young men just a few metres across the border unloading luggage that we would later learn contained some illegal substances. 

We are alerted that 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 tell them.

This brought an abrupt end to the operation.

Police, local leaders and students in Nyagatare dispose of seized illicit substances. Courtesy

Response efforts

“I will get them someday,” says Tebuka after we report to him what we saw.

He added; “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 mobilising and sensitising the people to make people-centred policing an effective response tool.”

Through this policing relationship between the community and the police, other security organs and local leaders, “we have been able to identify common entry points”.

Police have also learnt informal names such as Kumusave, camp Kigali and Munturusu where quantities of assorted substances are normally seized.

In July and August this year, police say they intercepted contrabands worth over Rwf22 million and arrested 135 drug traffickers. Majority them were 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 per cent 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 affected up areas.

“We obviously have many challenges such as the geographical proximity, the unlevelled legal framework where most of the prohibited substances in Rwanda are not outlawed in neighbouring countries,” Tebuka said.

The situation is exacerbated by the high demand for the substances.

For example, a five-litre container of Kanyanga goes for Rwf14, 000 and resold at about Rwf40, 000 or higher if one succeeds in transporting it to Kigali.

The DPC sees a breakthrough in police’s operations. 

“The increase in the price of Kanyanga is because of its scarcity brought about by increased operations and seizures, and improved awareness.”

Community involvement

On several occasions, grassroots leaders have also been implicated in drug related crimes, either as dealers or facilitators of 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.

The district has included fighting drugs in the performance contracts in villages, cells and sectors.

“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,” the mayor says.

According to David Masai 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 sensitised our residents that collaborating with drug dealers and consuming substances are counter-productive and criminal,” Kwizera says.

 Legal provisions

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, and/or is  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 a  seven year maximum sentence to up to life in prison.

According to the vice mayor, 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.



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