Fire sweeps through part of Keroka town as border dispute heats up

Small traders in the disputed border town of Keroka in Kisii and Nyamira counties are in shock after a fire gutted their stalls in the early hours of April 11, 2024.

Photo credit: Courtesy

Traders in the disputed border town of Keroka Town in Kisii and Nyamira counties woke up in shock after a mysterious fire burnt down some of their stalls in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Keroka, the second largest town in Gusii region after Kisii town, has been a bone of contention with both Kisii and Nyamira county governments claiming ownership.

The overnight fire came barely 24 hours after a stay order was issued by the Court of Appeal.  

Ichuni Ward MCA Wycliff Siocha, whose area is in Kisii County, took to social media to accuse his counterpart on the Nyamira side of failing to comply with the Court of Appeal order.

"You gave us High Court orders and we respected them. We gave you orders from the Court of Appeal and you don't want to respect them, instead you resort to terror and mayhem in the middle of the night," Mr Siocha said in a Facebook post.

The MCA wrote that negotiations were underway to resolve tensions in the city, but that the fire incident showed that some parties did not come to the table with "clean hands".

"If we are going to negotiate, we have to come to the table with clean hands and clean hearts. Targeting vulnerable vendors' stalls and burning down their stock in the middle of the night can't and won't be a solution," said Siocha.

The MCA went on to blame the police for allegedly failing to protect lives and property, adding that his people would henceforth resort to 'protecting themselves'.

Rigoma Ward MCA Nyambega Gisesa, whose side is in Nyamira County, also took to social media to allege that thugs who were not impressed with the progress in implementing environmental and land court orders were behind the fire. 

"I appreciate the efforts of traders in Keroka town today to pay revenue to Nyamira County as per the Environment and Lands Court ruling. However, thugs who are not happy with the progress in implementing the court orders burnt some of the traders' shops this evening," Mr Gisesa wrote on Facebook.

He also indicated that he would return to court to file contempt of court charges against Kisii County government officials and officers for wilfully disobeying court orders.

Last week, Kisii County Governor Simba Arati accused Mr Gisesa of inciting violence in Keroka town.

Governor Arati noted that Justice Mugo had given him and his Nyamira counterpart, Amos Nyaribo, "an opportunity to meet and talk" and that it was unfortunate that the MCA was still fomenting chaos in the town.

"We agreed to form a five-member committee from Kisii and Nyamira to look into Keroka's problems. But it is unfortunate that there is an MCA in Nyamira who is inciting Wananchi in Keroka to fight," he said.

The governor also claimed that there was a senior security officer in Nyamira who was protecting thugs who were causing violence in the town.

On March 3, 2024, violence erupted in the town after Governor Arati distributed orange umbrellas - with his image and the logo of the Orange Democratic Movement party.

The governor of Nyamira, Amos Nyaribo, is the leader of the relatively new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) party, which has a majority in the Nyamira County Assembly.

On 15 February 2024, Justice Mugo Kamau of the Environment and Lands Court in Nyamira ordered the two counties to "confine themselves to their respective territories in respect of the collection of rents, rates, licences and other statutory revenues".

This followed a petition by Mr Gisesa. 

The judge noted that the territories of the two counties in the town had already been demarcated and beacons erected by the National Lands Commission and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. 

"You don't need rocket science to know where the boundary between Nyamira County and Kisii County is," he said in his ruling.

Justice Mugo stressed that it was unlawful for the market traders to be subjected to double taxation. 

"It is hereby declared that forcing the residents of Keroka town to pay rates, rentals or any other levies to both Kisii and Nyamira counties is a gross violation of the property rights of the affected traders," said Justice Mugo.

But Justice Mugo's ruling was appealed by the Kisii County government and is now before a three-judge bench in Kisumu. 

In what appeared to be a first round victory for Kisii County, Judges Hannah Okwengu, Ali-Aroni and Joel Ngugi on 9 April granted a stay of execution and implementation of the ruling by Justice Mugo Kamau of the Nyamira Environment and Lands Court.

"After consultation with counsel for the parties, the application is hereby compromised as follows: that an order of status quo be made pending the hearing and determination of the appeal," read the order.

The three-judge bench noted that the Keroka border dispute was a matter of "great public interest and importance".

They directed the parties to exchange and file written submissions as the hearing of the substantive appeal takes precedence. 
In the civil appeal case number E026 of 2024, Rigoma MCA Nyambega Gisesa, the National Lands Commission (NLC), the Attorney General and the IEBC are listed as first, second, third and fourth respondents respectively.

Nyamira County Government, Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning, Christopher Barare Nyang'au, Francis Ndaburi and Charles Osoro Kiboi are the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth respondents respectively.