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Fading images: How province is fighting one-eyed bandit’s legacy
Thursday December 9, 2004
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Fading images: How province is fighting one-eyed bandit’s legacy

Boniface Ongeri and Victor Obure

Mr Mohammoud Saleh, a former Provincial Commissioner (holding gun), checks out some of the 2,400 guns surrendered by bandits after an amnesty on firearms.
Nothing Except Problems. That’s the tag naysayers gave the North Eastern Province (NEP) as a result of reports of insecurity there.

But thanks to the efforts of the provincial administration, the notion that lawless armed gangs rule this remote province is fading.

It was a province equated with punishment, like the Siberia of the former Soviet Union, albeit much warmer. Kenyan civil servants transferred to North Eastern knew their bosses had something against them whenever they were moved to the province.

Because of insecurity, police officers transferred to the region felt as if they had signed their death warrants.

Wajir District Commissioner Wilson Wanyanga puts it thus: "It was as if you have been handed a death sentence."

In the early 1960s, the Northern Frontier District comprising Marsabit, Moyale, Isiolo agitated to secede and join the larger Somali Republic, prompting the infamous Shifta War. The war soon turned from liberation to looting, killing and mass rape.

An encounter with a bandit was never ruled out.

"It was no fiction. Chances of coming back alive from tracking the bandits was a fifty-fifty affair," says Pius Ouma, the driver of the Wajir police boss. He has been in the province for the last seven years.

"Owning property during those days was like inviting early departure from the face of the earth. Ruthless bandits often attacked shops and other businesses," says Daso Kassim, who has a bullet scar on his belly.

Business did not blossom in the province. Businessmen and investors shied away and took their resources elsewhere for fear of being robbed. To date, the four districts of Wajir, Ijara, Mandera and Garissa have little to show in terms of growth.

At one time, Kanu offices were torched as irate residents vented their anger on the government, which they accused of "commercialising" the insecurity problem.

In those days, residents viewed themselves to be non-Kenyans despite the fact that the region lies within the borders.

And true to that perception, locals cried foul, claiming the government has sidelined the region. As a result, many residents felt more allegiance to the neighboring country, whose residents spoke the same Somali language as themselves.

Some residents of North Eastern Province who moved to major towns like Eldoret have never returned after experiencing extreme want in their birthplace.

The rule of law was absent. Instead, echoes of gunshots and wails for lost loved ones rent the air.

At one time, a Provincial Commissioner, Mr Morris Makhanu, imposed a curfew in an effort to contain banditry, which was further aggravated by constant clan rivalry among the Somali.

At least 180 security personnel lost their lives to gangsters, who were reportedly led by a one-eyed bandit, between 1988 and 2000.

But the 1998 massacre of 13 Administration Police officers during a botched security operation in Mbalambala Division of Garissa District was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Horrified members of the public came out to protest the bandit menace in a demonstration that put the provincial security committee on the spot.

It was claimed that a senior member of the security committee was hiring arms to the bandits.

The fears were confirmed when several bandits shot in an ambush were found with police bullets believed to have emanated from the controversial Eldoret bullet plant.

At the height of the Shifta War in late 1980s, another PC, Mr Ben Kaari, rounded up several thousand residents at a playground in Garissa Town in a futile effort to make them produce the gunmen who killed a District Officer before torching his office and an official Land Rover.

The residents are still reeling from the aftermath of the Wagalla massacre, where more than 5,000 people were said to have died in the hands of the police.

The ugly scene attracted human activists across the globe amid claims the community was harbouring "freelance gunmen" to frustrate government efforts to restore peace.

The current Provincial Commissioner, Mr Abdul Mwasserrah, says the government had used millions of shillings in security operations in the region. The money, he lamented, could have been used in other development projects.

However, security personnel are still held with a tinge of fear because of their cruelty.

Police sent to the region were trained for two months on how to deal with bandits, whose scorched-earth tactics would leave the average robber agape.

Civilians in their thousands died in the 38 years that the one-eyed bandit clandestinely ruled the province. Neighbouring Eastern and Coast provinces were not spared either, as the attacks spilled over, leaving terror in their wake.

But while many other Kenyans shake in fear of spiralling crime in the country, residents of North Eastern Province now enjoy relative peace.

Today, a villager in a remote location in Muranga District will probably be on the lookout for gangsters. His counterpart in North Eastern would most probably be counting the stars.

Nairobians, whose city is rated among the most insecure in the world after Johannesburg and Lagos in South Africa and Nigeria respectively, would envy the residents of North Eastern.

The culture of carrying and misusing guns among communities in North Eastern Province is quickly changing.

Residents can now travel at night in passenger service vehicles without the police escorts that were a must in previous years.

Up to late 2000, the province was one of the most insecure in the country. Today, it ranks as one of the safest places in Kenya. In fact, its yearly crime figures do not come close to those reported in, say, Kiambaa Division, Central Province, alone.

Recent government statistics indicate that crime in Central Province numbered 22,623 against 661 petty offences reported in North Eastern between 2002 and 2003.

A former Provincial Commissioner, Mr Mohammoud Saleh, who established a parallel security intelligence to check the banditry, feels insecurity has reduced drastically.

During his tenure, Saleh was notable for roving the town in the attire of an ordinary citizen. A few times, he was even arrested and booked in by police in the wee hours of the night.

Residents believe that Saleh, the 13th PC in NEP, held the key to the crime question; he could contain the one-eyed bandit and his ilk.

On October 2001, he put chiefs and their assistants on notice: they would take responsibility for any crimes committed in their locality.

The order came a few days after bandits attacked a bus belonging to Gantaal Company in the notorious Shimberir area, killing 16 passengers, including a senior police officer escorting the bus.

The residents agreed to solve the sporadic attacks through "maslah", a traditional punishment in which culprits pay 100 camels for killing a man and 50 for a woman.

Livestock stolen were also repaid double to the aggrieved community.

In his first few months as Provincial Commissioner, says Saleh, 4,500 firearms and 6,000 bullets were surrendered voluntarily after the government extended an amnesty to the bandits and anyone else keeping weapons for self-defence.

It was reported when the one-eyed bandit leader died in 1993, the gang split into rival groups. He had reportedly been ran over by a vehicle in Wajir Bor Division after he stopped a khat delivery, intending to rob the driver.

But residents, for fear of reprisals, never revealed his hideout.

Saleh understood the residents’ reluctance to identify bandits in their midst. And to prove he meant business, several chiefs and their assistants were arrested for abetting crime.

"The area chief usually knows the people behind crime since they spend time strategizing," he says.

In a bid to save their skin, chiefs did anything at their disposal to rid their locations of crimnals.

Saleh’s method of dealing with local crime did not go unnoticed. In the 2001 Jamhuri Day celebrations, former President Moi awarded him the coveted medal of the Elder of the Burning Spear for his exemplary role in reducing crime in North Eastern Province.

But the award had a dark side to it. Saleh was unceremoniously ejected from his position and moved to Nairobi as a secretary in the Ministry of Labour soon after the historic Narc triumph in 2002 general election.

Some attribute the transfer to an incident that took place a few months before the election. Mr Mwai Kibaki, then the Leader of the Official Opposition, was visiting North Eastern Province to campaign for the presidency.

But Saleh, who was the PC, barred him and his entourage from having breakfast at the government guesthouse in Garissa. Few were surprised when a few months afterwards, with Kibaki as president, Saleh was transferred.

Claims that small arms find their way into major towns of Kenya have not dampened the residents resolve to turn around insecurity in the area.

A recent survey carried out by Oxfam indicated that a porous 1,000-km stretch at the border of Kenya and Somalia was a conduit for illegal firearms.

Mwasserrah says surveillance along the border has been increased.

"We have recovered several guns and bullets from the residents but many are still in the illegal hands. We are doing everything possible including burning the weapons before the residents to prove sceptics wrong that that the weapons eventually find their way out of the province," says the PC.

In the meantime, police can engage in sports activities, a luxury for which they rarely had the time.

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