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Living in the shadow of war against jihadists

By Vincent Achuka | Published Sun, June 11th 2017 at 00:00, Updated June 10th 2017 at 23:24 GMT +3

Tears flowed down the faces of two assistants of Mandera Governor Ali Roba as he narrated the latest attempt on his life by the Al Shabaab terror group that left five of his bodyguards dead.

The governor, who just a few hours before opening up to Sunday Standard was spewing political rhetoric to an almost empty but shiny new stadium on a hot Madaraka Day afternoon, still managed some bravado.

Taste death

“Up to now I find myself calling the name of one of those who died when I want something. Even the death of my father did not impact me the way this has hit me,” he says.

“All of us will taste death. No one is protected against it, but it is very painful when it happens in front of you and to people close to you,” he said.

During the celebrations earlier on, gunshots rent the air for about 10 minutes just outside the stadium. Members of the Economic Freedom Party (EFP) tried to hold parallel celebrations, leading to running battles with security forces.

Surprisingly, there was little reaction from those inside the stadium, quickly reminding whoever was new that they were in Mandera, a county with an average nine terror attacks every month. Gunfire is part of life.

It is the first impression you get on arrival in the county that makes you feel you have entered into a conflict zone. A prolonged period of insecurity and a war between security forces and the Al Shabaab have altered the lives of residents.

Boda boda business is outlawed and non-Somali-owned businesses are close to extinction after targeted attacks scared away investors. The only bar in the town is inside a police station and the few Christian churches present are under armed guard.

For residents, living in the shadow of the war on terror is like being in a battlefield. Tomorrow is not so certain. At night, security forces take over the town, stopping almost everyone they meet. Hearing gunfire is not strange.

“Every day when sunrise breaks you need to thank God because here the nights are long,” says Raphael Makori, a miner who moved to the town four years ago.

“You can’t tell who is Al Shabaab or who is not. To be safe make sure you are in your house by dusk and don’t leave it for whatever reason until you see the sun.”

And even after temporarily lifting a curfew imposed on the town because of the month of Ramadhan, the Government is still precarious of the situation.

“We shall provide security for those going to the mosque to pray at night but everyone needs to be careful. The time between 10pm and 3am are usually very dangerous hours,” warns County Commissioner Fredrick Shisia.

Snipers

The county’s airport is under round-the-clock security by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) who have turned it into a camp. Those travelling in vehicles alight almost a kilometre away and their bags searched by hand by the military, as snipers watch from a vantage point.

If you have a laptop, you will be asked to switch it on so that the security forces ascertain if it is a weapon detonation system and woe unto you if you don’t have your identity card.

Abdurrahman Yusuf, a traveller on our return flight, says that to avoid being humiliated by the military, you have to learn to arrive two hours early. The deadline for checking in by most domestic flights in the country is 40 minutes to take off.

“If the line is still long and the plane is close to taking off, I have seen a number of times people being told to unpack everything from their bags because there is no time and everyone has to be checked,” says Yusuf.

“It is embarrassing yet so necessary but frequent travellers through this airport learn this with time.”

But once outside the airport, you get the feeling that you are in a county reconstructing itself after a long war by the sheer number of armed security officers on the streets. This fact was even highlighted by Deputy President William Ruto two weeks ago during a visit to the county.

“We have never had since independence a higher number of security operatives in this county than there are today, and as Jubilee we shall increase the number of armoured vehicles and police,” he said.

Apart from the military, there are platoons from the Administration Police (AP), Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), Rural Border Patrol Units (RBPU), General Service Unit’s (GSU) India Company and hundreds of Kenya Police Reservists (KPR).

One of the locals says it would be impossible to ascertain the total number of guns per square kilometre in Mandera town.

Bullet for Sh30

“If I want to kill you here it would only cost me Sh30 for the bullet I will use because I will get a gun from a friend,” says the resident.

“The police and military have their guns and so does the public. You can’t tell here who is armed or not but almost everyone knows someone who has a gun.”

Once in a while, an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) roars past with soldiers peeping from the roof, to the chagrin of the locals.

Then a few minutes later, a convoy of a local politician zooms past at top speed, with chase cars filled with armed police reservists, something that bothers Governor Roba.

“KPR have for a long time been guns for hire. You come from Nairobi and you want to be guarded, you can get as many KPRs as your money can buy,” says Roba.

By driving at top speed, drivers say your chances of survival are higher and it is not in case you get an accident.

“The average speed here is 100 kilometres per hour because you don’t know what is on the road,” says Abdul Mutari.

“You may think you are saving your life by driving within speed limits but at high speed, you are more likely to survive when you hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) because by the time that thing detonates you will be yards away,” he adds.

During the attack on the governor two weeks ago, a vehicle carrying his security personnel, which is normally behind his official car, for unknown reasons overtook him before running over the IED.

Corporal Mohamed Ibrahim, Boniface Mutuku, Ayub Bashir, Abdinasir Adan and Noor Mohamed died, raising the tally to more than 30 the number of people who have died in the last two months in Mandera.

In the latest attack to hit the county, one person was killed and another injured on Tuesday after a vehicle they were travelling in was shot at Chabir-bar in Rhamu town on the Elwak-Rhamu road.

Still, there is a lot at stake and the county soldiers on.

This is because after years of a prolonged lag in development fuelled by marginalisation, bad politics and clan infighting, Mandera suddenly woke up from slumber after the creation of a devolved system of governance in 2013.

In 2014 it witnessed its first ever caesarean section at Takaba Hospital and the following year, the construction of the county’s maiden tarmac road began.

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