Highway robbers continue to terrorise motorists along Kenya’s Isiolo-Moyale highway, a section of the Great North Road that connects Cairo to Cape Town. Although national lockdowns due to COVID-19 have slowed the movement of people and traffic along the route and therefore the frequency of incidents, they haven’t stopped. Criminals target mainly trucks ferrying livestock to the markets in Nairobi, and other food items. The stolen livestock is rarely recovered.
Despite police reforms in Kenya and strengthened local governance put in place to tackle problems like this, the availability of guns and inadequate policing has turned this part of the Trans-African Highway into a nightmare for travellers. Decades of sporadic incidents of banditry have evolved into a more worrying security threat along this stretch of road.
Marsabit County Police Commander Steve Oloo tells ISS Today that the bandits often come from neighbouring Samburu County. They operate in groups of three to five and are hosted by locals who collaborate with them in the illegal trade of goods stolen in the robberies.
Specifics about the crimes and the numbers of people affected are scant – the mainstream media has paid very little attention to the problem. But Oloo says many people have been injured along this route over the past year. No deaths have been reported.
Criminals specialising in livestock theft through highway robbery have made this route a dangerous one for traders. The Malgis River, which is about 70 km from Marsabit County headquarters, is a notorious point from which the bandits mount attacks.
Kenya upgraded this road as part of its Vision 2030 aimed at facilitating free movement of goods and services between Kenya and Ethiopia. The upgraded highway was commissioned by President Uhuru Kenyatta in July 2017 and serves as an economic lifeline for the people of Marsabit County. It’s an important transport link in the region.
Before the upgrade, travel on this route was torturous, with days spent on unforgiving bumpy terrain prone to bandit attacks. Although the route has tremendous economic potential, the continued robberies have diminished its value. The robbery of trade items means traders favour other routes.
The Shifta War of 1963-67, a conflict during which ethnic Somalis attempted to secede from Kenya to join Somalia, contributed to the wave of insecurity in Northern Kenya. The end of the war left many illegal firearms in the hands of civilians, and this continues to promote insecurity in the region.
The availability of small arms and light weapons, which various studies have shown to originate from neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan, has continued to drive crime in the area. Oloo blames the increase in banditry along the highway not only on the influx of illegal firearms, but also the availability of cellphone networks enabling criminals to coordinate with one another and evade the police.
This highway is also a route for terrorists, for example those who attacked the DusitD2 hotel in January 2019. One of them reportedly travelled this highway from Marsabit to Nairobi using public transport, despite numerous police road blocks.
Even though the police’s General Service Unit and Rapid Deployment Unit are stationed in Marsabit, Oloo says there have been no arrests or convictions for these robberies in the past year. Their presence has done little to deter the activities of the highway robbers. Residents tell ISS Today that the banditry continues because of a lack of police patrolling the highway, and slow police responses to distress calls.
Robberies on the Isiolo-Moyale highway show a failure by Kenya’s government to ensure safety and security even after instituting police reforms and devolved governance. Both policies were introduced in the past decade to improve government and police efficiency, and responsiveness to the public’s needs. They should have helped address this problem.
The police reforms were aimed at transforming the national police to be service-oriented and more efficient. But this key reform has done little to solve the security issues along this section of the Trans-African Highway. Community members are tired of the decades-long insecurity along the route, and have lost trust in the police to keep them safe.
According to the police, some locals who profit from the robberies share information with the bandits about which vehicles to attack. These informers alert the robbers the moment a targeted vehicle passes Hulahula, a town about 6 km from Marsabit County headquarters. The informers are said to be based in different towns along the highway.
Local chiefs – who should work closely with police to protect the highway – often withhold information from security forces. In some cases chiefs prefer to protect the communities they administer, including alleged conspirators, than adhere to the rule of law. However as provincial administrators, chiefs in Kenya represent national government at the grassroots level. They are legally obliged to maintain order and prevent crime as stipulated in the Chiefs’ Act.
The failure by police to regularly patrol this highway has proved to be a major security lapse. They also need to improve their response time when called to the scene of robberies, as well as their intelligence gathering and community policing.
County government and local leaders should develop a framework to sustain partnerships with the police and collectively tackle crime in their jurisdictions. The inaction of community elders and members of the county peace committee is also helping the bandits and perpetuating the problem.
The county peace committee is mandated to promote peace and mediate conflict among the communities. Elders and peace committee members should use their networks to urge community members to work with the police rather than the criminals.
Guyo Chepe Turi, Consultant, ISS Nairobi
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