Senior aviation and customs officials at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport have raised the alarm over attempts to import drones into the country.
With more than 100 drones being detained at the airport by Kenya Revenue Authority customs officials, there is growing unease over an increased attempt to sneak the items into the country which is headed for a General Election in less than five months.
Also being held by the officials after recent seizures are four firearms with 71 rounds of ammunition, bullet proof jackets, two-way communication handsets and 20 pairs of handcuffs.
Customs officials said they have been intercepting the items packed as cargo checked into the flights with most passengers simply citing ignorance to the fact that the items are prohibited in Kenya.
Nairobi Region Deputy Commissioner for Customs George Muia told the Nation that through powerful scanners and the vigilant customs officers, the items have been intercepted over time with some as recently as last week.
He said the drones have caused concern given that they have powerful capabilities and tend to form the highest number of prohibited items being seized at the country’s aviation hub.
“We have noticed a trend where people are bringing in drones with high resolution cameras and night vision. We are holding 100 of them because they are items not allowed in Kenya,” he said.
Mr Muia added: “Apart from posing aviation risks, drones are used for spying and one can fly the one with night vision right into your window and record what is happening in the privacy of a room,” Mr Muia said.
Some of the drones intercepted since May 2016 are said to have high technical capabilities, including ability to fly for 25 minutes.
Customs officials alerted the Ministry of Defence after the number of drones being seized shot up. Due to lack of a legal framework, Kenya does not allow any non-military use of drones but there are currently on-going efforts to come up with regulations.
Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) Director-General Gilbert Kibe, who also expressed concerns over the influx of the gadgets, said the National Security Advisory Committee chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta has already approved regulations to pave way for their use beyond military operations.
“Yes, we are aware that there are many drones captured by KRA customs and drones are not allowed in Kenya. It raises concerns coming before we have elections because, as you know, drones pose privacy invasion and security threats,” said Mr Kibe.
He added that all civilians using drones currently are doing so outside the law and will be brought to book once the regulations are gazetted.
Owners of the drones being held at the airport will also be subjected to proper vetting based on the new regulations to decide whether the equipment will be released to them or they be compelled to ferry them back to the country of origin, according to the aviation authority boss.
KCAA is said to have received more than 1,000 applications from Kenyans seeking regulatory approvals to operate the robotic aircraft, signalling a high appetite for their use ranging from private to commercial engagements.
Drones can either be toys, or applied in various fields — including scientific research and commercial use like video production and aerial surveillance on agricultural lands.
KRA officers contacted by the Nation did not readily reveal where the drones were mostly sourced from but those caught with the items are said to have said they were not aware it was illegal for civilians in Kenya to have drones.
In the region, Rwanda allows for use of drones in aerial photography, crop monitoring, search and rescue or delivery of emergency supplies among others as long as one has a licence.
Many African countries have restricted use of drones for security reasons with Ghana handing a jail term of up to 30 years for those found flying unregistered drones while, in Nigeria, a permit can cost up to Sh40,000.
JKIA, which was recently upgraded to category one status, is also said to have tightened surveillance with increasing incidents of restricted goods being nabbed from passengers and cargo in transit.
Among the illegal items being increasingly stopped from entering or passing through Kenya are fake currencies, bulks of debit cards, sex toys and ivory.
The Kenya Airports Police Unit declined to comment on the seizures and referred us to the Kenya Revenue Authority