A spate of “terror” attacks, aid worker kidnappings and heightened ethnic conflict in northern Kenya have fuelled demand for small arms by civilians and criminals, say security officials.
On 2 July, four foreign aid workers – all employees of NGO Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) – were rescued inside Somalia and returned to Kenya after being kidnapped in eastern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee settlement; their driver was killed during the kidnap. In October 2012, two Spanish aid workers employed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were kidnapped from Dadaab – they are still being held hostage.
On 1 July, at least 17 people were killed in twin attacks on two churches in the eastern Kenyan town of Garissa; a major security operation has since been launched in Garissa and the northern towns of Mandera and Wajir.
Several other attacks have been carried out in the northeast, in Nairobi, and in the coastal city of Mombasa since Kenya crossed into southern Somalia in October 2011 to help stamp out radical Islamist group Al Shabab.
Dozens were also killed and hundreds displaced in ethnic clashes in the central Kenyan region of Isiolo in February.
“We are faced with the most complicated acts… of crime where bombs and grenades are used and executed by dangerous type of gangs, terrorists,” said Leo Nyongesa, police chief for Northeastern Province. “A lot of resources and personnel have been deployed by the government. This has prevented many planned attacks and deaths.”
Isaiah Nakoru, county commissioner for the northern-central town of Marsabit, said political infighting was also responsible for the increase in demand for weapons. “A section of politicians are reported to have purchased many guns, supplied them to their communities to fight their rivals whom they purport as their communities’ enemies – they use this as a political tool,” he said.
A recent report by research group Small Arms Survey showed that the number of weapons held illegally by civilians is between 530,000 and 600,000, a significant increase over the years. The report names Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan as some of the main sources of small arms in Kenya.
“In general terms, northern Kenya, confronted by the multiple challenges of underdevelopment, interethnic resource-based conflicts, and proximity to war-prone neighbouring countries, has had the highest prevalence of small arms,” the report found.
Living in fear
In Dadaab, local residents report living in fear as a result of criminal gangs. In June, Abdi Hamid, a well-known businessman in Dadaab’s Ifo camp, was forced to open his shop at night by unknown bandits and robbed of over 700,000 shillings (US$8,300).
On 15 June, refugee leader Isnino Ali Rage narrowly escaped death when a reported improvised explosive device hit a vehicle she was travelling in, injuring two of her fellow passengers. Her predecessor was relocated to Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya on protection grounds after his younger brother was shot in front of his house in March.
Attacks on camp leaders are thought to have been carried out by Al Shabab in retaliation for their perceived cooperation with Kenyan security services.
“I am very worried for my life,” said Liban Rasid Mohamed, youth chairman of Ifo camp, adding that his family was urging him to resign due to the threats posed by his position.
The attacks have also affected humanitarian activity in the camps. MSF Spain, which was carrying out health services in Ifo 2 extension camp, pulled out of Dadaab following the kidnapping of its staff in October 2011. The Kenya Red Cross took over health services, but only after a months-long gap during which malnourished and ill children and adults struggled to access health care.
The kidnapping of the NRC workers had knock-on effects for refugees: “I was really worried for them and the impact it had on us too; we missed the food and water for the first two days of this month,” said Asho Muse Magan, a mother of nine, on 2 July.
Mistrust of the police
Refugees in Dadaab say the Kenyan police are themselves often to blame for violence.
“There is no trust between us and the police. We cannot work with them to tackle the changing security situation in Dadaab. Instead of protecting us they rob our shops and torture our children in the name of searching for explosives in our houses and businesses,” said a refugee leader who preferred anonymity.
Rashid Omar, a local leader from Moyale in northern Kenya, said people are buying weapons because they do not trust the police to protect them. “Our young men used… weapons to fight in Moyale earlier this year to defend their communities – the government was nowhere.”
However, the Kenyan authorities say efforts are being made to stamp out the illicit trade in weapons.
“New strategies have been adopted; we are recruiting more police reservists along the [Kenya-South Sudan] border in Turkana; we are also tightening security on routes that are used to smuggle these guns,” said Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Osman Warfa. He added that a special unit set up to monitor suspected guns dealers had forced many to quit the illicit weapons trade, thus pushing up gun prices.