A week ago, a Sh11 million lorry laden to capacity with charcoal bags went up in flames at Kanyonyoo on the Mwingi–Garissa highway.
It was said to be a case of arson, following the ban of decades-long charcoal trade in Kitui County imposed by Governor Charity Ngilu.
On Wednesday, the county enforcement team confiscated about 100 bags of charcoal in Mui Ward, Mwingi East, from producers and set them alight. Their owners fled for their dear lives. The ban, which came into force on January 16 with immediate revocation of all licences and permits to transport or sell charcoal and sand outside Kitui County, has made charcoal barons furious.
Following the torching of the lorry, traders in Kiambu County -- who are the majority transporters of charcoal from Kitui -- called for the arrest and prosecution of Governor Ngilu for allegedly inciting the youth to destroy private property.
But the governor absolved herself from blame and insisted that the ban will stay.
“While we sympathise with the lorry owner, the police will need to explain how they lost the truck to arsonists. They need to tell us if they were overpowered or were sleeping on the job,” Ngilu said.
The lorry had been impounded by county enforcement officers and was being escorted by police officers to Kitui police station. It is not clear at what stage the police abandoned the lorry to the arsonists.
The charcoal ban has opened an ugly war front between its supporters and those opposed, a battle which is being ruthlessly fought on the streets and courts of law.
A few days after the alleged arson attack on the lorry, three county government officials, among them county executive in charge of environment John Makau were arrested and spirited away to Embu law courts.
Mr Makau and County Liaison Officer David Mbisi were charged with .... but did not take plea. The two were released on personal bonds and are set to appear in court for for the mention of their case on February 28, 2018.
Two days earlier, James Mulwa, the Mwingi Sub-county enforcement officer, had appeared at the same court where he denied participating in setting the truck on fire. He was released on a Sh500,000 bond and a surety of the same amount.
Ngilu remains unbowed despite mounting pressure from charcoal cartels to lift the ban. She said there has been a public outcry over the wanton destruction of environment.
“It is my duty as a leader to make decisive measures to protect our environment. The ban on charcoal and sand will stay and people must respect that,” she said.
Uncontrolled felling of trees for charcoal burning, she said, had led to adverse effects such as droughts in some parts of the county. “People driven by greed for quick money have destroyed water catchment areas by cutting down trees. This has to stop,” she said.
Mrs Ngilu says the ban is expected to stop the traffic of nearly 200 heavy and light trucks that swoop into Kitui County daily to ferry charcoal.
The web of charcoal cartel has sucked in some senior officials of the national government who reportedly benefit from kick backs from unscrupulous traders, with some operating with fake permits purportedly issued either by Garissa or Tana River county governments.
During a past tour of interior parts of Kitui such as Endau, Malalani, Mutha, Kanyangi, Ngomeni, Voo and Eengamba, Saturday Standard found charcoal burners who had camped in forests for months.
Most of these vicious charcoal burners are drawn from the neighbouring Machakos County. They lease land from poor locals to burn charcoal. Day in day out, their power saws roar with fury as giant trees are mowed down.
When a sizable heap of charcoal bags is realised, the lorries troop in, bringing with them food supplies to replenish the bush merchants’ stock.
When done with one area, the cartels quickly move to another, leaving in their wake untold destruction, impoverished locals and ugly bare land.