What you need to know:
- The three terror convicts who escaped from Kamiti said they were navigating their way to Boni Forest through the vast Kitui-Mwingi game reserves.
- In Tana River, criminals can hide along the Kora national reserve on the Isiolo border that runs to the southern side of the Tana Delta.
The Kitui game reserve is a lawless jungle teeming with everything from venomous snakes, dangerous outlaws to Al-Shabaab terrorists.
It reportedly sees a flow of illegal migrants from Somalia, whose desperation sends them on perilous journeys to Nairobi across the wilderness. In this godforsaken smuggler’s route, anything goes.
Sprawling across the eastern part of the country, the Mwingi game reserve is a dark hinterland with an unforgiving terrain that makes it a perfect hideout for highway criminals.
For decades, the absence of law enforcement has attracted dubious characters to this region. As the official pathways to the capital become more difficult with strict immigration checks at the entry points, the bad guys have taken control of the forests, where authorities believe some Al-Shabaab sleeper cells are located.
The three terror convicts who escaped from the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison said they were navigating their way to Boni Forest through the vast Kitui-Mwingi game reserves. It means routine police checks along the highways are no longer effective in stopping criminals from accessing the capital.
Musharraf Abdalla Akhulunga alias Zarkarawi, Mohammed Ali Abikar and Joseph Juma Odhiambo alias Yusuf were recaptured in a remote village in Kitui as they were fleeing towards Boni Forest, which borders Somalia.
They were cornered by security agents hours after residents reported seeing them in Malalani market in Endau location, some 100 kilometres East of Kitui town, where they bought milk, bottled water and biscuits.
Kitui police commander Leah Kithei said they were arrested in Mwingemi area as they tried to find their way to the Mwingi-Garissa highway.
The game reserves cumulatively occupy 2,578-square kilometres and are separated by a community grazing field measuring about 130 kilometres long and 70 kilometres wide.
Vast unpoliced forest
The vast land stretches from Ukasi area along the Mwingi – Garissa highway to the north, all the way to the Tsavo East national park, which is protected with a fence near Ikutha market on the southern side. It also moves eastwards to Hola town in Tana River County.
In Tana River, criminals can hide along the Kora national reserve on the Isiolo border that runs to the southern side of the Tana Delta.
Mr Dahir Daud, an administrator in Bura Sub-County, says the vast land in Tana River is more than 60 kilometres wide and 350 kilometres long. Between Kitui and Tana River, there are more than 150 kilometres of wilderness that lead to Hola town.
It is this vast unpoliced forest that makes Kitui a perfect hideout for Al-Shabaab militants who have caused havoc in Nairobi and other towns. Most of the terror attacks in the country have been linked to militants who gained entry through Kitui.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants from Somalia, some even linked to the Al-Shabaab, are often arrested trying to sneak into the country using the Garissa – Thika – Nairobi highway.
In 2013, FBI agents investigating the Westgate Mall terror attack in Nairobi raided a home in Kitui town and arrested a 24-year-old female university student, Amina Ramadhan, who was a girlfriend of one of the attackers. Ms Ramadhan lived with the militant, who died in the attack that claimed 67 lives.
The following year, a suspected alien was arrested in South Kitui game reserve with various identification and travel documents, among them 23 passports, and handed over to anti-terror police.
The man of Somali origin told detectives in Kitui that the passports belonged to people he was securing jobs for in the Middle East but police suspected they were being used to smuggle in Al-Shabaab militants.
In the 2019 terror attack on Dusit Hotel in Nairobi, two of the militants were found with documents – including cash bail receipts and bond papers – issued by police and courts in Kitui.
Obvious security gaps
The most shocking was, however, a confession by convicted terrorist Elgiva Bwire on how he transported more than two dozen grenades from Somalia to Nairobi using panya routes in Kitui, without detection.
He told detectives that after returning from Somalia, where he underwent militia training, he avoided major highways, trekking long distances inside the Kitui game reserves.
He boarded different trucks ferrying charcoal through the reserves and spent several days in Mutha, Mutomo and Kitui towns before proceeding to the city.
With his luggage hidden under sacks of charcoal, Bwire evaded police roadblocks and checkpoints from Mutomo to Nairobi.
Kitui leaders are blaming authorities for concentrating their surveillance only along the Garissa-Mwingi-Thika highway while turning a blind eye to the obvious security gaps in the vast reserves.
Governor Charity Ngilu and MPs Rachael Nyamai (Kitui south) Gideon Mulyungi (Mwingi central) and Charles Nguna (Mwingi west) warn that the unpatrolled forests could be fertile breeding grounds for terrorism.
Given the little attention the reserves get, leaders say the National Security Council does not appreciate the magnitude of the security situation and the direct link to the country’s terror threats.
“Who accounts for the activities of these people hiding in game reserves?” Dr Nyamai posed, adding that bombs could be assembled there quietly and transported to other parts of the country.
Serious terror threat
Dr Nyamai, who chairs the parliamentary committee on lands, wants the vast game reserves degazetted and converted into private conservancies, arguing they no longer serve their intended purpose.
Mr Nguna says urgent action needs to be taken to safeguard these areas for national security because “it’s no longer a small issue for one region but a serious terror threat to the nation”.
In 2019, a fact-finding mission by a parliamentary committee on the security situation inside the game reserves almost turned ugly when the lawmakers encountered a group of hostile people hiding in the forests.
The parliamentary committee on security and administration hurriedly left the Enyali area after more than 1000 herders became violent. The team was accompanied by Kitui MPs and members of the county security and intelligence committee.
The tour, which lasted about 25 minutes, was filled with tension from the beginning after camel herders rudely demanded to know what the MPs’ mission was.
At some point, as the tension became more palpable, Dr Nyamai whispered to the committee chairman not to introduce her as the MP for the neighbouring Kitui South constituency.
Having read the hostile mood, the MP was worried that her earlier public demands that the people be forcefully evicted from the reserve could ignite angry reactions at the meeting and jeopardise their safety.
Kitui leaders complained that the gazettement of a mobile polling station at Enyali by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission during Issack Hassan’s tenure, and the establishment of a primary school by Bura Constituency Development Fund, legitimised the invasion and defeated government efforts to restore peace.
The school has since been closed after teachers fled the area but the invaders converted it into a mosque and a Madrassa.
Read part 1 on how phones and a flash disk will unravel the Kamiti prison break puzzle