Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu on Sunday denied allegations that she was targeting businesspeople from one community in the crackdown on charcoal trade.
A truck was burnt last Thursday as it transported charcoal from Mwingi to Nairobi.
Mrs Ngilu said the truck was torched while in police custody.
It had been impounded by the county enforcement officers, and police should explain what transpired, she said.
Mrs Ngilu said the truck was detained at Kanyonyoo police road block after the owners disabled its ignition system, frustrating efforts to tow it to Kitui Police Station.
She said she does not know why the officers failed to prevent the arson.
“Much as a suspect has been charged at an Embu court with arson, police too will need to explain how they lost the truck to arsonists. Was there a fight? Were the police sleeping on the job or were they simply overpowered?” she asked.
The governor said four trucks were seized that day but the one that was burnt stalled after the owner used its car tracking device to immobilise it, to avoid being taken to court.
Mrs Ngilu said a video clip circulating on social media against the charcoal trade was meant to advice Kitui peasant farmers against being enticed to cut trees by charcoal merchants.
It was not meant to incite locals against a particular community, she said.
“This is the kind of misinformation and propaganda that criminal cartels use in order to discredit leaders and institutions that dare to stand up to them,” the governor said.
She added that the charcoal business is done by traders from all communities in Kenya and not one ethnic group.
The governor maintained that she would continue enforcing the charcoal and sand harvesting ban as passed by the county assembly, following public outcry over the wanton environmental ruin the two practices have caused.
“I’ve a duty as a leader to take decisive measures to protect our environment in order to mitigate perennial droughts and erratic rainfall experienced in this region,” she said, adding that cartels involved in the charcoal business were bound to fight back.
Transporters in Kiambu County on Saturday held protests demanding Mrs Ngilu’s arrest for allegedly inciting youth to burn lorries transporting charcoal in Kitui.
They lit bonfires at Kwambira area along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and blocked the road with logs, alleging that Governor Ngilu was preaching negative ethnicity.
Mrs Ngilu reiterated her stand on the charcoal ban at the funeral of Michael Musambi, a county government staff in Mulango.
Kitui and Makueni leaders defended her and said the ban aimed at curbing the adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation.
The leaders, including MPs Makali Mulu (Kitui Central) Boni Mwalika (Kitui Rural) and Gideon Mulyungi (Mwingi Central), and county assembly speakers George Ndotto (Kitui) and Douglas Mbilu (Makueni) urged Mrs Ngilu to remain firm and implement the ban.
The MPs said Mrs Ngilu should not bow to pressure from cartels from other counties to lift the ban on charcoal and sand harvesting in Kitui, while the county speakers said the governor was only implementing resolutions passed by the assembly.
“We cannot sit and watch while rogue people continue ruining our environment. We must put an end to illegal charcoal burning and sand harvesting in Kitui County,” said Mr Mwalika.
The MPs dismissed the tribal connotations the ban has assumed, saying Kitui County was home to people from all ethnic communities doing legitimate business and coexisting peacefully.
Mr Mulyungi said illegal charcoal burning has hurt the environment and continued trade could turn Kitui into a desert.
"The fight against charcoal burning should not be turned into an ethnic duel. In fact, everybody should support Ngilu's move to protect the environment," Mr Mulyungi said.
"I hear some people were protesting against the attempt by Kitui leaders to protect our trees. No amount of demonstration should make our governor change her stance on the issue."
Speaker Ndotto said those who want to engage in charcoal business should do so in their counties and not in Kitui.
He said the protests in Kiambu were a clear indication that the profits of the charcoal trade were enjoyed in other counties.
“The single biggest PSV transporter in Kitui County is a Thika businessman called Benson Njoroge of Benjo Travellers. Nobody in Kitui has ever raised a finger against him because his business is legitimate,” said Nzungi Ngwele, Mrs Ngilu’s policy advisor.
Additional reporting by Boniface Mwaniki.