Authorities were on the spot following a near eight-hour disruption of transport along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway by protesters.
The blockade from about 6am to 3pm of the highway, which is a gateway to Uganda, DRC Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi, at the junction of Nairobi-Mai Mahiu road and at Rironi, occasioned heavy losses and strained motorists.
Questions were raised on why protesters, who demanded the arrest of Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu following the recent burning in her county of a lorry transporting charcoal, were allowed to cause chaos for so long.
More than 200 vehicles, including saloon cars, public service vehicles and long distance trucks, had their tyres deflated, causing a huge traffic snarl-up.
Owners of lorries that transport charcoal from northern Kenya and their drivers accused Ngilu of inciting the youths to burn their vehicles. Yesterday, Ms Ngilu appeared before the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, which summoned her over the incident.
Ngilu is accused of asking locals to “deal with pastoralists and charcoal dealers” who have invaded the county. Yesterday, the angry demonstrators alleged Ngilu was stoking ethnic tensions and wondered why police had not taken action against her. Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, however, described Ngilu as a champion of the environment.
The protestors on Monday defied orders by Kiambu County Police Commander Adiel Nyange to reopen the road.
Kwambira Garage chairman Peter Ndung’u told the police chief to his face that they could only listen to President Uhuru Kenyatta or his deputy William Ruto.
“We only want President or his deputy to come and address us since we have confidence that they will address our plight. We are not here to destroy anybody’s property, but to raise our voice a bit higher to the authorities. We are peace loving people but we are angry. We want the country to know we are affected and we demand respect,” said Mr Ndung’u.
They also declined to be addressed by the county leadership led by Governor Ferdinand Waititu, who they claimed failed to honour a promise he recently made to them.
Kiambu County Commissioner Paul Wanyanga, who was expected at the scene, did not show up.
Mr Wanyanga sent Kikuyu Sub-County boss Paul Samba who pleaded with the group to open up the highway in vain.
“Your grievances have been heard and will be addressed and now we demand that you open up the road for other users who have nothing to do with your issues,” said Samba.
All this time the group was moving from one vehicle to another deflating tyres.
Some motorists claimed police were lenient on the protesters.
“Had this happened elsewhere say in Busia, we would be hearing gunshots. This is an international highway linking Kenya and other countries yet police are playing with these goons,” said a driver who identified himself as Abdallah. He was ferrying goods to Burundi.
The truck driver said he had been stuck in the jam for six hours.
Also caught up in the chaos was James Kimani who was traveling for a burial.
“My vehicle was deflated at 7.30am as we were traveling to Naivasha for the burial of a relative. We did not know there were riots on this road otherwise we could have used another route. It is now six hours and we are still here,” said Mr Kimani.
Alice Waithera who was rushing home to Kimende to pick a sick relative was also held up in the gridlock.
“I have been here for the last three hours. They have deflated two of my tyres. I was to pick my sister who is critically ill and take her to hospital,” she said.
Peter Chege and his relatives were forced to postpone the burial of their kin in Kinale.
“We tried at 9am but could not move. We drove back and returned the body to the mortuary until may be tomorrow. They are deflating tyres on the other side of the road,” said Chege.
Other frustrated travellers called the newsroom to complain about the inconvenience. “Why should I miss my flight because of this politically motivated action that I don’t know about?” asked a caller.
Also caught up in the jam were students returning to school after mid term.
Businesses along the highway were also not spared. Leaflets urged all traders to close their premises in solidarity with their colleague whose lorry was torched in Kitui early this month.
“Limuru Business Community and committee members wish to request you to keep your shop closed on Monday February 26, 2018...and join us in a strike against the lorry burned by Governor Ngilu,” some of the leaflets read.
Yesterday morning, the protesters used boulders from a road construction site to block the highway.
“We are counting losses since we have not opened our businesses since morning. We fear that if we open the demonstrators will invade our businesses. It is the high time that the Government intervenes to resolve this row,” said Lucy Wambui, a shop keeper at Kwambira trading centre.
However, locals supported the barricade saying the owner of the burnt lorry should be compensated.
On February 8, the lorry, a Mistubishi FH registration number KCC 060P, said to be worth Sh11 million was set ablaze together with the bags of charcoal it was carrying by youths at Kanyonyoo near Matuu town on the Mwingi–Garissa highway.
The attack followed the ban on the decades-old charcoal trade in Kitui County imposed by the governor.
But David Kariuki, the owner of the burnt lorry, said the charcoal was sourced from Tana River and that they have never bought it from Kitui since Ngilu banned the trade.
Mr Kariuki said they buy charcoal from Tana River, Garrissa, Wajir and Mandera counties but to ferry it to Nairobi they have to go through Kitui County.
“There is no other road that we can use while coming from these other counties. We have to pass through Kitui County,” he said.
And the driver of the lorry Joseph Waweru said: “When you use the Thika-Garrisa highway to transport your charcoal from other counties like Tana-River, Garrissa and Wajir, they attack you when you reach Kitui County, saying that it is from the area. This is very unfair and the Government must intervene and stop this madness before the matter gets out of hand,” he said.
Boda boda operators made a killing from passengers going to the nearest towns like Limuru, Uplands and Kimende. They increased their charges from Sh50 to between Sh100 and Sh150.
The traffic jam was finally cleared following a meeting between the transporters and the police.
At about 3pm police lobbed teargas canisters and fired in the air to disperse goons who were harassing motorists trapped in a stretch of about 10km in both directions.
All vehicles with deflated tyres were dragged off the road to open it up.
Ngilu was Monday accompanied to NCIC offices by Mr Kalonzo.
“We congratulate Ngilu for having to blow the whistle. You don’t punish the whistleblower, Ngilu can’t clearly get one community to fight against the other community,” Kalonzo said.
“People must be held responsible. Right now the entire Kamba region is dry due to charcoal burning. If this is not controlled Kenya will be declared a desert.”
Kalonzo said Ngilu should not be prosecuted for fighting poverty in the county.
“This is the issue. Don’t blame the one fighting for the well-being of the residents,” said Kalonzo.
He said Kenya should conserve water resources and not prosecute people trying to defend them.
“What happens if there is no rain? Is the Jubilee government ready to feed the citizens of this country?... So these are the issues we must deal with. We think that the NCIC should not be misused.”