Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu returned from a weeklong trip to India on Saturday to deal with accusations of fanning ethnic animosity with her crack down on illegal charcoal trade.
The governor has been summoned for questioning by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission over allegations that her remarks against charcoal burning incited youth to burn lorries transporting the commodity.
Mrs Ngilu is expected to appear before the commission next week for interrogation after the crack down turned ugly when a charcoal truck was burnt by youth at Kanyonyoo, on the Mwingi-Thika-Nairobi highway, on February 8.
The governor, who left the country last Sunday to attend the International Pulses Conclave in New Delhi, has been in a campaign to end illegal charcoal business in Kitui since mid-January.
However, her efforts against illegal sand and charcoal business seem to take a new turn everyday as residents continue taking the law into their own hands.
BAN ON TRADE
The wave of citizen arrest and impounding of trucks by youth began on January 17, after the governor held a lengthy meeting with the county security committee chaired by county commissioner Boaz Cherutich where the ban was announced.
She gazetted the ban the following day, and embarked on a campaign, especially in areas where the business is rampant.
A few days later, the governor, accompanied by her Environment executive John Makau and Kenya Forest Service county director John Njoroge, made an inspection tour to assess the extent of destruction of trees in the affected areas.
That day, Mrs Ngilu, who was also accompanied by MCAs, addressed marathon public rallies at Kyusyani, Kamutei, Ikutha, Kanziko, Mutha, Endau and Nuu market centres to sensitise residents on the ban.
The message at the rallies was a passionate appeal to the residents.
She told them they had a duty to protect the environment and that they should stop being enticed to cut down trees by charcoal merchants because the county was fast becoming bare and dry.
She said the residents must first discontinue charcoal supply to put an end to the trade.
Overzealous youth picked up Mrs Ngilu’s tough message and started enforcing the ban, saying the police could not be entrusted to fully implement the radical policy shift.
The following day, residents of Kyusyani in Kitui Rural impounded a truck ferrying charcoal and commandeered it to the police station as the crack down on the illegal trade intensified.
They flagged down the lorry on Kanyangi-Kwavonza road, demanded to see its permit to transport charcoal and threatened to torch it unless the driver agreed to take it to Kyusyani police station.
The truck – registration number KAR 314B ferrying 142 bags of charcoal - is said to have lacked the necessary permits, which the county government had stopped issuing after Mrs Ngilu’s ban.
Upon reaching the police station, the youth demanded that the driver, identified as Joseph Mwai, be arrested and charged for engaging in illegal business.
Police locked up the driver, detained the lorry after which they presented him before Kitui principal magistrate Johnson Munguti.
He was charged with transporting charcoal without the relevant permits.
He denied the charges and was released on a Sh100,000 cash bail, pending the hearing of the case.
However, the incident that triggered protests in Kiambu happened two weeks ago when a truck impounded by police was reduced to ashes after being torched at night.
The truck had been impounded by county enforcement officers at Kanyonyoo road block on the Mwingi-Thika-Nairobi highway, alongside three others but it stalled while being towed to Kitui police station.
The incident triggered protests by transporters in Kiambu County who demanded the arrest of Mrs Ngilu for allegedly inciting youth to burn lorries ferrying charcoal in the region.
They lit bonfires at Kwambira on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and blocked the road with logs, alleging that the governor was preaching negative ethnicity.
Mr Makau, and the community liaison officer, Mr David Mbisi, were arrested and questioned by detectives over the incident.
The two were arraigned at the Embu Law Courts on Wednesday to face arson charges but were not formally charged as the Director of Public Prosecutions objected to the charges.
They were released on a free bond pending conclusion of investigations.
LAW AND ORDER
Directorate of Criminal Investigations boss in the county Prosper Bosire said detectives had established more people may have been involved in the incident and that police were going to make more arrests.
Mr Bosire said the crack down on people suspected of setting the truck ablaze was not aimed at frustrating the county government’s ban on charcoal trade but only maintaining law and order and protecting peoples’ property.
“The county government can continue enforcing their ban but we won’t allow trucks passing through Kitui from other counties, where charcoal trade is allowed and legalised, to be attacked by people taking the law into their own hands,” he said.
The governor has denied claims that the ban targeted a particular community.
She said it was aimed at protecting the county’s ecosystem and improving the environment by increasing tree cover.
Mrs Ngilu said the truck was torched while in police custody after being impounded by the county enforcement officers.
She said it was the police who should be held responsible.
She said the truck was detained at Kanyonyoo police road block after the owners disabled its ignition system, frustrating efforts to tow it to the station and that the officers should have prevented the arson.
“Much as suspects have been charged in court, the police will need to explain how they lost the truck to arsonists. Was there a fight? Were the officers sleeping on the job or were they simply overpowered?” she asked.
The governor said four trucks were impounded that day but the one that was later set ablaze stalled after the owner used its car tracking device to immobilise it so as to avoid being taken to court.
“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,” she said, adding that charcoal trade is done by traders from all communities in Kenya.
Mrs Ngilu maintained that she will continue enforcing the charcoal and sand harvesting ban as passed by the county assembly, following a public outcry over the environmental ruin caused.
“I have 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.
Kitui 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 leaders argued that charcoal burning is a concern to all people even those who did not vote for Mrs Ngilu, because the bad consequences of environmental degradation, including erratic rainfall, affected all residents.
“We cannot sit and watch while rogue people continue ruining our environment. We must put an end to illegal charcoal burning and sand harvesting,” Mr Mwalika said.
The MPs said Mrs Ngilu should not bow to pressure from business cartels from other counties to lift the ban.
They dismissed claims the ban targeted certain communities, saying Kitui is home to people from all tribes doing legitimate business and living peacefully.