The picturesque landscape as you drive from Majembeni towards Widho off the Malindi-Lamu highway looks like a postcard on the paradisiacal offers of some of the most hidden parts of Kenya. Once you branch off the newly tarmacked highway, giant coconut trees tower over large swathes of virgin lands. And here, a dusty road that is rarely used, save for the occasional bodabodas, leads one to a tiny village that was until recently virtually unknown.
At daytime, Widho, which before 2015 was part of the dense Boni Forest, looks like any other rural outpost, with a few shops, one bar and no electricity or mobile phone network.
Over the last few weeks, however, the horrors that have turned this unknown village to one of the most dangerous places in the country have been coming alive every night.
Regina Wanjiru knows this too well.
No place to sleep
At the turn of the New Year, she was the proud owner of the largest shop in the village. Today, she does not even have a place to sleep after unknown people attacked them, killed six people and razed a number of buildings.
“Had my house not had another exit, I would have died,” she recalls.
“My husband and I hid under the bed for over half an hour as the attackers vandalised the shop, breaking everything they could lay their hands on. Then I felt some smoke and my instincts told me to run because we were going to die anyway.”
On her husband’s lead, Ms Wanjiru ran into the dark embrace of Widho, not knowing whether she would make it as her shop burnt to the ground behind her. She is lucky to be alive, but her ordeal and those of her fellow villagers have put the whole of Lamu County on high alert.
In the last two weeks, at least 13 people have been killed by attackers that many here believe are allied to the Al-Shabaab terror network. Due to the proximity to southern Somalia and the existence of large swathes of land covered by dense jungle, it is natural for any attacks here, and the larger Lamu County, to be linked to the terror group.
Additionally, the manner in which the current wave of attacks is being executed – where victims are pulled out of their houses, their hands tied at the back before being shot dead and their bodies set on fire – looks and sounds like the trademark of the terror organisation.
Spillover from Somalia
General Service Unit (GSU) Commandant Douglas Kanja said on Friday after a security meeting at the Lamu county commissioner’s office that “the problems we have from our neighbour, Somalia, are spilling over” lending credence to the Shabaab connection.
But when you look closer, it appears that the attacks in Widho are motivated by something else. The Sunday Nation spent the last few days traversing this rural coastal enclave, interviewing tens of scared villagers uprooted from their homes into crowded camps, and listening to the murmurs of security officers deployed here since the New Year.
There is a clash of opinions on who is behind the attacks, but almost all are agreed that there seem to have a politico-ethnic dimension. The problem has simmered quietly for 50 years, but a string of new infrastructural developments, coupled with the attendant migration in search of economic opportunities, is threatening to turn the simmers into a full-blown crisis.
Apart from a new port just a few kilometres away, there are infrastructure projects being rolled out everywhere you look in the county, a starting point of the game-changing Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (Lappset). The Sh10.8 billion Lamu-Garsen highway, whose aim was to open up the area to economic activities and end a security menace that has lingered on since pre-independence, has just been completed; while Manda Airport is being upgraded through a new two-kilometre runway to support tourism and business activities.
Demand for land
With all these new developments, demand for land that has since independence been lying idle has shot up. Speculators have landed in the county looking for every available piece of land to sell. And there is plenty of land here. Untouched, prime, and agriculturally rich. The years of insecurity have made this small enclave a not-so-attractive proposition, but the billions of shillings poured here in the last decade have turned the tides, and now Lamu is the new land speculator’s go-to place.
As the exodus by upcountry investors gathers pace, local communities that have squatted here for decades are suddenly realising that merely living on a property without a piece of paper to prove that you are the owner amounts to nothing, and so Lamu is suddenly witnessing a scramble for its land. The consequences, as we witnessed in Widho, are deadly.
“Let no body lie to you, this is a land issue and the government appears unwilling or unable to solve it,” said James Nderitu, whom we found yesterday at Holy Angel Primary School, where volunteers from Red Cross were giving out donations. “If everyone was given a title to the land they live on, you won’t see the trouble you are witnessing. Some ranchers want us out so that they can take over and sell the land.”
In 2014, the then Land Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu revoked the titles to 500,000 acres that she said had been illegally issued to 22 private companies and ranches. Most of the allocations had been made in the last months of President Mwai Kibaki’s reign after it became apparent that the Lappset project was becoming a reality.
Among the companies whose titles were revoked were Bricks Investment Limited (which has two parcels LR No.29110; 40.014 acres and LR No. 29113; 40.014 acres), Rusken International Limited LR No 2911 (40,014), Mat International LR No 29115 (40,014 acres) Witu Nayngoro Ranch (DA) Company LR No 29274 (79,534), Witu Conservation Self-Help Group LR No 281448 (54,201 acres), and Shanghai Investment LR No 29247 (19,760 acres).
Other companies were Fincop Investment (K) Limited LR No 29246 (41,990 acres), Sheila Ranch Limited LR No 291254 (5,399 acres), Kaab Investment LR No 29322 (6,268 acres), Dynamic Trading Company Limited LR No 29067 (22,230 acres) and Mokoye Kibokoni Ranch LR No 29256 (6,725 acres).
“Lamu County was fairly a quiet part of the country, mainly known as a place of retreat, (and) this (Lappset) drastically changed its face and huge tracts of land were allocated, to the detriment of the locals,” said Ms Ngilu at the time.
But after revoking the titles, which in reality belong to the government, the State took a back seat and did nothing to secure them from further encroachment. At about the same time, some of the residents of Mpeketoni who were displaced by a series of Al-Shabaab attacks went looking for other places to settle. The ranches looked quite attractive.
Some of the new settlements since then include Kibaoni, Widho and Milihoi, where five-acre pieces of land were sold for less than Sh200,000 by village elders. Like in Widho, the new settlers were encouraged to cut down trees and settle. Those that did settle on the new lands invited their relatives and friends from upcountry to come and set up farms and households. Over time, the tensions that existed in places like Mpeketoni were exported to these new settlements.
Now, in the absence of genuine owners of the contested pieces of land, faceless individuals backed by wealthy and connected people from the coastal towns are claiming ownership of the pieces of land. Politicians, too, have taken advantage of the current political temperatures to sow seeds of discord.
“We must work hard to make sure we have fronted a leader who is from here,” said politician Abubakar Amana in a viral video that has since placed him under investigations following an order by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Noordin Haji. On Friday night, the DPP also ordered investigations on 12 more people, mostly administrators of a Facebook group known as Lamu County Politics Unlimited Group, on suspicion of formenting hate speech.
The 12 are using the pseudo names Catherine Dylan, Cate Nyms Maina, Muthoni Martha, Lucy Peter, Anthony Mambo, Njeri Mwaniki, Frank Mwangi, Josh Mhumble, Alphaken Madiba, Paul Keta, David Brighton and Ken Ndirangu.
“The aforementioned persons have published content that may incite feelings of contempt, hatred, hostility, violence or discrimination towards certain ethnic groups,” said the DPP.
By Saturday, the Facebook group was still active, with one of the administrators, Catherine Dylan, even posting: “You think we are cowards,” to the cheers of some of the 6,700 members, who proclaimed “freedom is coming to Mpeketoni soon”.
In such groups, where the line between high-octane politics and incitement is usually very thin, it is not difficult to see how uncontrolled social media, bad politics, land injustices and the threat posed by Al-Shabaab can conspire to create a major insecurity headache.
Government 'knows' what’s happening
It is, however, difficult to know whether the fresh attacks are spontaneous as a result of existing tensions, or if there are faceless people paying the attackers. But when you listen to Lamu County Commissioner Irungu Macharia commenting on the issue, you get the feeling that the government knows what is happening.
“If the residents want the curfew to be lifted let them tell us where the enemies are,” he said.
Nevertheless, it is clear from whatever is happening here that the attackers are very strategic, and that whatever has happened in the last two weeks is just a warning. In Widho, they burnt down the biggest shop and bar in the village then killed the new village elder. Francis Mwangi, whose body was cut into pieces, was barely three months into his new role as village elder.
After killing him, they came back and asked the wife if she has a male child. When they were told there was none, they took his motorcycle and left,” said a woman who did not want us to disclose her name for fear of her life.