State yet to establish motive for deadly December Lamu attacks

For years, land conflicts in Lamu have been blamed on the culture of the so-called "Witemere" (cut a piece for yourself) practiced by outsiders who have invaded fertile land in Lamu West.

Most of the terror attacks have occurred between Witu and Mpeketoni areas, where the ownership of chunks of land and ranches are subjects of conflict between legal landowners and squatters.

Land conflicts

In other areas of the constituency, some Lamu and Tana River natives, mainly pastoralists, accuse squatters of invading and subdividing their grazing areas.

In Mpeketoni, the scene of the deadly 2014 and 2015 attacks, the conflicts are linked to the settlement of "outsiders' in the area.

Last month, two people were killed and a house razed down in Taa village near Pandanguo in Witu, Lamu West. A report filed by police who visited the scene blamed Al Shabaab for the attack.

Eyewitnesses said eight people dressed in military-like uniforms and armed with guns broke into a house and shot one person in the head. The victim was identified as 35-year-old Mwanza Ali.

The attackers moved to the next house and killed Rai Rumba, 30, as he tried to escape. They also razed down the house of Mr Kahindi Mangi, a police reservist.

Mr Macharia, the outgoing Lamu County Commissioner, linked the attack to land conflicts and dismissed a police report that blamed the Al Shabaab insurgents.

Taa is a cosmopolitan village bordering the expansive Boni forest, where a security team has since 2014 been battling Al Shabaab under the code-named Operation Linda Boni

Two days later, a report by General Service Unit (GSU) claimed that 10 suspected Al Shabaab elements mounted a roadblock at Witu, on the way to Lamu, disguised as Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).

The report said the militants had stopped four vehicles before the GSU Land Rover arrived and rescued the occupants in the four vehicles, including two Italian tourists.

"On reaching Witu forest, we encountered a roadblock laid by suspected Al Shabaab militia numbering about 10 who disguised themselves as KDF officers," said the police report.

The militia killed two people who were in the lorry, one of the vehicles they had stopped, the report said.

"In my view, the attacks are the work of mercenaries paid to violently force squatters out of the space they occupy," said Bishop Willybard Lagho, of Malindi Catholic Diocese.

Bishop Lagho said the natives and squatters do not have title deeds to prove ownership, yet some settlers have acquired ownership documents and want the natives and squatters removed.

"The lasting solution is settling the squatters while protecting legal and local landowners from further invasions of the land they call home," said the bishop.

Haki Yetu executive director Father Gabriel Dolan said the government was reluctant to address the issue of land in Lamu, the source of the conflict in the area.

He said the politicisation of land grievances and political intolerance had led to the emergence of organised militia, some of whom have morphed into mercenaries for hire.

"Note that politicians are as much part of the problem as the solution in Lamu because of vested interests in a number of ranches," said Dolan.

But questions also abound on the continued securitisation of Lamu West, the epicentre of frequent attacks, which has not deterred the killings and destruction of property that started in 2014.

Unlike in the past, Al Shabaab or its offshoot, Jaysh Ay-man, have not claimed responsibility for three attacks that took place in different areas between Christmas and the New Year.

Last October, several leaflets were circulated on social media warning residents of Hindi, Mokowe and Mpeketoni of imminent attacks.

It was, however, not clear who was behind the leaflets. But multiple sources indicated that no one had been arrested in connection with the threats.

Mr Khelef Khalifa, director of Muslim for Human Rights (Muhuri), said security agents will succeed in weeding out criminals only when they stop treating the locals as potential terrorists and harassing innocent civilians.

On Thursday, the State ordered the removal of roadblocks and police escort for vehicles along the Witu-Garsen-Mokowe road, saying they were hindering the economic growth of the area.

Internal Security CS Kithure Kindiki, who met Lamu leaders, said police have intensified patrols on the road to restore calm.