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Terror threats and heavy security: Inside Mandera political campaigns

Police officers guard Mandera Governor Ali Roba, right, and other political aspirants during an afternoon prayer session on the campaign trail. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

Wherever politicians go to campaign, armed troops follow them and when they take to the podium in different political rallies, police officers are on the lookout.

This is common in all the political rallies in Mandera County.

Unlike in other parts, almost half the vehicles in convoys on the campaign trails in Mandera are for security officers. Heavy security presence during campaigns is not unusual as aspirants seek for votes with the dark cloud of terrorism hovering over their heads.

Mandera faces unique security challenges with politicians, security personnel, civil servants being the targets of Al-Shabaab terror group.

Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) lead campaign convoys to scan the routes for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Special Forces seal the routes frequently used by the terrorists until the convoys pass.

The police are always ready to attack. At one point, one of the vehicles in a convoy got stuck and the security personnel who were in a car way behind rushed out to find out what the problem was.

During the rallies in the interior areas, the fear is not over the goons planted by political opponents, but the invisible enemy who could be in the crowd to identify targets.

“They could be part of this crowd but you can’t really identify them because some live within the local communities,” said a security officer during a rally at Alungu in Lafey Constituency.

“Campaigns are a security risk but we must be alert at all times.”

Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) lead campaign convoys. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

The size of Mandera County also makes running campaigns harder. For instance, Lafey Constituency is bigger than Kiambu county and at 26,000 square kilometres, Mandera is larger than Kiambu, Nairobi, Machakos, Murang’a and Nyeri counties combined. 

Politicians have to be tactical and make irregular moves for their security. Details about time of departure and the routes to be used are only known by a small clique and even some security officers are not told. Trust is crucial in such exercises.

“Such information is restricted. Sometimes, we just leave in the morning with only a few individuals knowing where we are going,” said Mandera Governor Ali Roba who is vying for the Senate.

If prayer time for Muslims reaches when they are on the way to a rally, the convoys stop by the roadside and two groups of people spread out; the security personnel and the Muslims.

As the Muslims pray, the security officers watch out for the enemy who could be hiding in the dry bushes.

“We have serious security concerns when moving around Mandera because of several instances of terror attacks,” said Governor Roba.

“Since we keep speaking against the attackers, we have become their targets because they do not like being discussed.” Because of insecurity due to the porous border, politicians have to spend a lot to hold rallies without any incidents.

Mandera shares a 300-kilometre border with Somalia and radicalised youth easily cross over to launch attacks. During this campaign season, eight police officers in a campaign convoy were killed in two IED attacks. “The two attacks were targeting my life,” said Roba.

A county official recalled how the IED attack blew up a police vehicle killing the officers on the spot.

“The car was right ahead of us. We heard a loud bang and in a second, things were flying in the air. The bodies of the five police officers were in pieces, and all were carried in one body bag,” a security officer said.

According to Onesmus Kyatha who is the county commissioner, the frequency of terror attacks has reduced in the last ten years thanks to heavy deployment of security units.

“On average, there used to be nine terror incidences per month between 2013 and 2015,” said Roba.

Governor Ali Roba escorted to the dais by police officers in Takaba area in Mandera East. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

The community has supported the fight against violent extremism by providing intelligence to security personnel. They report suspicious people or activities in their villages.

Previously, the residents were torn between the enemy that killed them and the security officers who blamed them for sympathising with Al Shabaab and punished them.

“We have managed to build relations with the community because the terrorists are hiding among them,” Roba said.

Interestingly, the residents’ ability to identify and trace suspicious ‘visitors’ by following their footsteps has been helpful in some areas.

“If a resident shows you a certain footstep, you will likely find the suspect by following the steps. They’ve become an integral part of fighting terrorism in Mandera,” he said.

Lafey, Arabia, Elwak are the hotspots infamous for some of the deadliest attacks in the region.

“It’s our wish to move up and down without any concerns of being attacked by the terror groups,” Governor Roba said, adding that they hope a time will come when they will campaign in all areas and not skip others because of insecurity.“We are hopeful that this will come to an end. When acts of terrorism reduce in Somalia, the effects will be felt in Mandera and Kenya in general.”