Fear of terror attacks is driving out people working or doing business in North Eastern where Al-Shabaab insurgents have vowed to disrupt peace.
The insurgents have been unleashing terror targeted at non-Somali people, especially the business community and government employees, since October 2011 when Kenya Defence Forces launched a military campaign to liberate Kismayu from their hands.
Already, 10 schools in Garissa County, which is the worst affected, have been forced to close down. This is after Al-Shabaab killed a teacher at Damajale Primary School in Liboi two weeks ago.
The teacher hailed from Nyeri and his colleagues from outside the region have since fled.
“The schools are located along the border with Somalia and we have advised the teachers to go until their safety is guaranteed,” Garissa Knut executive secretary Ibrahim Mohammed told Nation.
Several traders have also fled Garissa Town following the relentless attacks.
In a bid to curb the rising insecurity, the government has banned movement in the town from 6pm to 6am, a move the outgoing County Commissioner Maalim Mohammed says is aimed at restricting the movement of both taxis and cyclists.
“This is not a curfew, but it is meant to ensure that taxis and boda boda operators, who are sometimes hired by the terrorists, close their business as police carry out their patrols,” Mr Mohammed told journalists recently before handing over the work of commenting on security in the county to North Eastern provincial police chief Charlton Mureithi.
Even in Mandera Town, where Al-Shabaab has been targeting security forces, business closes at 6pm over what the county commissioner says is to restrict movements of people.
So, the non-Somalis or people from down Kenya — as they are commonly known in North Eastern — have no problem doing their business in this border town.
It is in Garissa where the restriction on movement has adversely affected business.
“Garissa, which has been a 24-hour economy, has become a ghost town as investors are running away due to insecurity,” a local trader, Mr Ismail Muhamud observes, adding, all new businesses are being relocated to neighbouring Mwororo and Madogo markets in Tana River County.
People start leave the town as early as 4pm and most of the ‘down-Kenya people’ don’t spend nights there. Instead they rent houses at Mwororo and Madogo, which are across Tana River Bridge that separates Garissa and Tana River counties.
Most people — mainly the non-Somalis — also troop to the centres for food and drinks due to their relative security.
Despite Mwororo and Madogo being next to Garissa Town, terrorists have never dared to extend their attacks to the two centres inhabited by Malakote and Munyoyaya communities.
Tradition has it that the Malakotes usually revenge with great force if provoked by their Somali neighbours.
Before the outbreak of the attacks, Al-Shabaab had vowed to revenge against occupation of their country by the Kenyan military, which has so far managed to take over Kismayu.
They had sworn that once the port, which served as the main outlet for their smuggled goods from Middle East and Asia, is taken over by KDF, they would turn Kenya into a lawlessness State — starting with Garissa.
Questions are now being raised why the Kenyan security forces have failed to contain Al-Shabaab. Or are they losing war to the terrorists?
Police through the PPO, Mr Mureithi, have refused to release the number of people who have died, but most estimates put it at more than 100. All the victims are non-Somalis.
Security forces are also being targeted by the group and this has seen them stop carrying out operations on foot. They are using vehicles to patrol the town, which is under 24-hour surveillance.
Area residents led by their leaders accuse the police of laxity and recently, they formed a vigilante group to protect people and their property.
In their memorandum to Garissa Governor Nadhis Jamaa and Senator Yusuf Haji, they said they would start with a team of 50 vigilantes, who would be stationed at strategic areas of the town to counter terrorists.
“We formed a committee of business people who would be raising money for paying the vigilantes,” Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims chairman Abdulahi Salat said in an interview after they prepared the memorandum.
The Supkem boss said residents were not cooperating with police because the law enforcers were harassing everyone, including those who volunteer to give information.
“Whenever there is an incident, police come and start fighting anyone on site. People now fear them and it is hard for one to volunteer information,” he said.
But Mr Mureithi denied this, saying, they are trying their best and instead accused residents of hiding information. “It is now time that we stopped blaming each other and get down to work to fight the terrorists,” Mr Mureithi told Nation.
Earlier, Mr Salat said that as leaders, they had suggested that all the security officers from the Somali community in Kenya be involved in the operation to get rid of terrorists from the area.
“Police did not buy the idea and we are now asking them to do their operations while in civilian (clothing) to see whether they will make an impact in this war,” an agitated Mr Salat said.
There are others who feel that besides Al-Shabaab threats, some Kenyan Somali traders are using the already existing insecurity to get rid of their business rivals.
“Wherever the Shebab attack, they have to own it. But in some cases, like attacks on the business community, they have never taken responsibility,” a local businessman, who has vacated Garrisa and is not willing to be named, says.
Leaders in the county deny this, and as Mr Salat puts it, “the intention of Al-Shabaab is to divide the Kenyan Somalis with their colleagues from down Kenya so as to win the war”.
“When they (Al-Shabaab) attack the churches, they expect our Christian brothers to retaliate by attacking mosques,” he points out.
And most Somali businessmen who talked to Nation said they cannot be part of the group causing chaos in their town since they have been affected just like their counterparts from down Kenya.
Some junior police officers are also dissatisfied with the work of their bosses, whom they accuse of failing to understand the security measures that should be taken to wipe out the terrorists.
“We should be raiding some of the residential houses here to get rid of illegal firearms and others dangerous weapons but our bosses are only commanding us to look at the identification cards of the suspects. This cannot work as everyone, including refugees, has a Kenyan ID,” an administration police officer, who cannot be quoted as he is not a gazetted officer, told reporters.
He said unless the security personnel change their tactics, they might not win the war.
Militia surrounded the chief’s camp; I knew they had come for me
He only has a group of women food sellers to thank for saving his life from Al-Shabaab militia.
Having had a normal day at work, Mr Omar Khalif was closing his office at Damajale chief’s camp in Liboi location, Dadaab Division of Garissa County, when he was attacked.
Although Damajale is near the Kenya-Somali border, Mr Khalif had no idea the militia were in his neighbourhood as he thought they were only unleashing terror in Garissa Town.
But this time they had changed their tactics. They came in donkeys carrying their goods in carts. Residents did not suspect anything since the terrorists were disguised in Somali solders’ uniforms.
They looked like ordinary Somali soldiers who traverse the dry terrain of Liboi with their goods loaded on donkey carts.
It was the evening of May 25, a Saturday, when a group of 30 insurgents stormed the chief’s camp. Mr Khalif immediately sensed danger.
“I saw them come and surround the camp armed with AK-47 rifles and I realised they had come for me,” the chief told the Nation in an interview from his bed at Garissa Provincial General Hospital where he is recuperating.
Al-Shabaab, he knew had no problem with the ordinary Somali people, but had declared war on those working for the Kenyan government.
Shot in the thigh
This is after the Kenya Defence Forces occupied Somalia and managed to liberate Kismayu Port, which the militiamen had controlled and used to smuggle goods into Kenya.
Mr Khalif remembers the militiamen overpowering his six APs, and shooting one of them dead.
They also shot dead a Kenya Red Cross worker before aiming their guns at him.
“I fled very fast towards some food kiosks at a trading centre next to the camp with the attackers shooting at me five times. One bullet got me as I entered into one of the kiosks. It tore through my thigh and I could not walk again,” the chief narrated as he winced in pain from the bullet wound.
As he lay down bleeding, the militia searched for him but the women in the food kiosk had decided to hide him.
“They calmed me and I stayed there for three hours under their care,” he said, noting that the terrorists were still combing the trading centre with residents quiet about his whereabouts until they gave up and entered a mosque.
The insurgents, Mr Khalif said, later left when darkness fell and that was when the women called a group young men who took him to a local dispensary.
When he was attacked, Mr Khalif said, the other team of 30 terrorists raided the neighbouring Abdisugow AP camp, where they killed two other officers and a boy.
He said that unlike the Kenyan soldiers who always stay clean-shaven, their Somali counterparts are bearded.
“This is why it becomes difficult to differentiate them with Al-Shabaab who are also bearded,” the chief said.
After the attack he was first rushed to a nearby dispensary. Later he was taken to Garissa Provincial General Hospital.
Liboi where Mr Khalif comes from is one of the areas with several cut lines Somalis use to cross over into Kenya although there is a designated border point.
The chief said the Al Shabaab insurgents have no quarrel with the ordinary people except those working for the Kenyan government.
The chief later learnt that residents had spotted the militia but thought they were the Somali soldiers.
“They were about 60 in number. And since they were in Transitional Federal Government uniforms, no one could have suspected them of being Al-Shabaab as it is common to see Somali Soldiers walk around the area,” he pointed out.
Militants move freely across porous border
The porous border and similarities between Kenyan Somalis and their counterparts from Somalia have given al-Shabaab insurgents cover to operate in the country freely.
“Here you cannot tell who is from Somalia as we all look alike and we speak the same language,” Garissa County Assembly representative Nassir Mohammed said.
Many Somali youths crossed over into Kenya after the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) moved into the Horn of Africa country and liberated Kismayu from the hands of al-Shabaab, he said.
“Most of these youths live in Garissa and they have been issued with identity cards at the Dadaab refugee camp,” Mr Mohammed said during an interview with the Nation.
The camp accommodates thousands of Somali refugees, some of whom are said to be sympathisers of al-Shabaab.
The 700-kilometre Kenya-Somalia border has only three designated entry points. They are Liboi, Wajir and Mandera.
Of late, the insurgents have been using donkeys to move freely into the interior parts of north-eastern Kenya.
They use the animals to carry their weapons unnoticed.
Donkeys are the main means of transport in the vast arid region, where the road network has remained undeveloped.
“Al-Shabaab militias use donkeys and donkey carts to enter Kenya from Somalia. They sometimes wear uniforms similar to those of the Somalia forces,” Mr Omar Khalif, the chief of Damajale location in Liboi Division, which is at the border, told journalists at the Garissa Provincial General Hospital.
Five people killed
He has been recuperating at the hospital after al-Shabaab militiamen attacked the Damajale Administration Police camp, where his office is, on May 25.
He sustained injuries after he was shot in the left leg.
A total of five people were killed during attacks by terrorists at both Damajale and Abdisugow Administration Police camps. The two camps, both in Garissa County, are seven kilometres apart.
“The attackers had been sighted by the public carrying goods on donkey carts but they could not suspect them because they were wearing uniforms of Somali soldiers,” Mr Khalif said.
In Liboi, it is common to see Somali soldiers in full uniform freely interacting with the people, some of whom are their relatives.
By MUCHEMI WACHIRA firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Nation – Kenya