Kenya and Uganda in February launched a one-stop border point in Busia revamped at a cost of Sh1.3 billion. The border point was meant to ease the movement of people and goods by eliminating double queues.
But there is an area called “no man’s land”, a buffer zone measuring about 70 metres, which ideally belongs to neither Uganda nor Kenya.
This is supposed to be an open land, allowing authorities from both sides to assess threats or manage movement, especially of big trucks.
It turns out rules don’t apply here. Traders have descended on the land, taking advantage of the ‘‘free, lawless land’’ by opening temporary eateries, drinking and nyama choma joints.
Others doing brisk business are cereals dealers, charcoal traders and fruit vendors, mainly those selling pineapples, oranges and watermelons.
The place has become one of the most sought-after open-air markets owing to its location near the country’s main entry point.
The buffer zone is surrounded by Sofia slum in Ugandan on the western side and Busia town central business district on the eastern side. Top County Hotel, Itoya overlooks the strip.
Ms Eliza Wesonga, a fruit vendor, freely interacts with her customers. She is among the more than 500 traders who have turned the strip into a busy marketplace.
The vendor, a Kenyan who lives in Burumba estate – like many locals in border towns – switches languages like a songbird.
She has mastered Luganda which is widely spoken in Uganda, and also speaks English, Swahili and Samia (a Luhya dialect spoken in Uganda and Kenya) with ease, thus enabling her to interact with various clients.
She told the Nation she has been operating at the market for the last three years, selling oranges, bananas, and mangoes. But who taxes these people or where do they pay their levies?
“We pay market fees to ‘municipal council’ officers. On market days – Mondays and Thursdays – we are charged Sh40 and the rest of the days Sh20. Those who have tried to protest have lost all their stocks to the officers,” said Ms Wesonga, a mother of three, add-ing that one pays in either Kenya or Uganda shillings.
Grace Auma, who sells maize which she imports from Uganda, says traders are charged Sh64 per bag.
Charcoal business is a lucrative venture here with truckloads brought in from the Uganda side. In Kenya, charcoal trading was banned, leading to a sharp price increase.
Peter Omondi, a charcoal trader, revealed that they are charged Sh1,000 as rent fee for space to stock the commodity.
“No man’s land is free but there are cartels who are claiming they are in charge and we must pay for space to be allowed to store charcoal awaiting transportation. Once you have placed your order, they pop up and demand money. We can’t fight back because most of our stock comes from Uganda.”
“We pay for space and the number of days a trader’s consignment will be ‘stored’ until it is loaded for transit to Kenya. We also pay additional fees for security services and Sh20 per bag for loaders. This place is always money, money and more money.”
Besides the high fees, traders have to contend with poor sanitation marked by lack of toilet facilities.
Months ago, a Ugandan police officer was shot in the leg and left for the dead by thugs. Busia County Commissioner Michael ole Tialal has warned those who have erected permanent structures at the strip.
He wants Ugandan nationals occupying Kenya’s no man’s land to move out immediately. He noted that Ugandans had defied the evacuation order after illegally occupying the 35 metre by 35 metre no man’s land in Uganda and Kenya.
“It is unfortunate that Ugandans have created markets in Kenya’s no man’s land where they have put structures. They use the same for human trafficking and illegal cross-border trade. Kenyans moved out of the security buffer zone and no man’s land after the affected families were compensated,” he said.
Human traffickers have also been forging entry stamps to secure passage of illegal immigrants along the porous border. He said his office is in talks with Busia Uganda Resident District Commissioner to address the issue.