The Nation (Nairobi)

11 February 2012

Kenya: How Ethiopian Militia Turned Moyale Into Battleground

The battle started at a peace meeting convened to end the deadly feud between members of two communities divided by little else than the fact that they share the same district and their leaders have a poisonous hatred for one another.

Elders from the Gabra and Borana communities filed into the compound near the Moyale Boys Secondary School - the only school elevated to national status in Marsabit county - in the mid-afternoon of January 3 to begin negotiations that the provincial administration hoped would bring peace to the troubled region.

It was not to be. The meeting degenerated into a shootout as armed men from both communities engaged in battle. That served as the start of the latest chapter of conflict between the Borana and Gabra. By the time the guns fell silent on January 28, 30 people had died.

A week-long investigation by the Sunday Nation revealed that the vicious battle was fought on behalf of the communities by Ethiopian militias within and around Moyale town under the noses of Kenyan security officers, including the military, who have a barracks in the town.

Heavy weaponry

For the first time in recent memory, heavy weaponry, including mortars and assault rifles brought in from Ethiopia, was used.

Outnumbered both in terms of numbers and weaponry, Kenyan police officers were reduced to bystanders to the deadly conflict that has shone a light on the troublesome inter-communal relations in the district and which observers warn could spiral out of control.

"Nobody should lie to you. The recent clash was between militias from Ethiopia who were fighting on behalf of their kinsmen. Both the Gabra and Borana, who have kinsmen in Kenya and Ethiopia, brought in their people through the porous border to help them," a police officer, who cannot be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said.

The battles were so fierce that authorities all but abandoned the area. There was no one to collect the bodies of those killed; they were left to hyenas.

But Moyale DC Elias Kithaura was quick to defend the government's inaction, saying that it was not easy to prevent the militias from crossing the border because they do not use designated entry points.

Further, with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) having set up bases in the area for about 10 years until they were flushed out by the Kenya Government, people there have experience in the use of guns, the DC added.

The battle started as sporadic killings on November 28 between the two communities on the Ethiopian side. Soon, however, the fighting spilled into Kenya.

And following the abortive peace meeting, the battle intensified, with the worst clash taking place on January 26-27.

For the first time in Moyale, the sound of mortar and machine gun fire rent the air, forcing the army out of their barracks when it became evident that this was more than an ordinary clash between the two communities.

The government also sent a contingent of GSU officers, but by the time they arrived, the guns had fallen silent.

During the violence, schools and businesses within a 10km radius of the venue of the peace meeting remained closed, with the Kenya Red Cross estimating 57,000 people were displaced and 580 houses razed.

Residents of Butiye, Odda, Ilado, Mansile, Kinisa, Funan-Nyata, Heilu, Kuro and Arosa locations abandoned their homes for fear of attack. Despite the guns having fallen silent, these areas are still deserted.

Area residents are now living in lodges within town while others have crossed over to Ethiopia. Another group has moved to Bute district towards the border with Wajir district in North Eastern.

There are no camps for the displaced as residents not in lodges are being hosted by their kin. They only return during the day to carry what they can to the places where they now reside.

By evening, the streets are deserted as residents retreat to lodges or cross over to Ethiopia before the border closes at 6pm.

The control

A source ,who has been involved in peace building efforts, told the Sunday Nation that since January 17, Moyale has been under the control of Ethiopian militias as the Kenyan security apparatus watched.

"Each community brought in its own people from Ethiopia, and they were engaged in the fighting. It is common knowledge to children as well as the security organs that the militias were here fighting," said the source.

One of the problems has been a proliferation of weapons issued by the government for protection of locals. The warring communities accuse members of the Kenya Police Reservists (KPR) of attacking rival communities during the clashes, an allegation the DC says is not far-fetched and which the government is investigating.

A senior provincial officer in the district confirmed that since December last year the district security team had observed a trend where some reservists could not account for the ammunition issued to them, raising fears that they were misusing it by engaging in the hostilities.

Apart from the decades-old animosity between the Gabra and the Borana who share the same language and faith, opinion is divided on the cause of the clashes. The two communities blame one another for provoking the clashes.

Another theory has it that politics is to blame for the state of affairs where the two communities each want to control the running of Marsabit county by ensuring that one of their own wins the seat of governor in the upcoming elections.

The torching of houses is said to be a ploy to displace some people as well as destroy their documents so that they wont be able to vote and influence the voting pattern.

The DC acknowledges all parties, including the government, face a huge challenge convincing the people to return home.

A large contingent of GSU officers is patrolling the area, but according to Mr Kithaura, the people are not convinced that the government can offer them the necessary security required to enable them to move back to their homes.

He is, however, optimistic efforts by the provincial administration to chart a path to peace will bear fruit. Eventually.

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