Anxiety as Kitui residents suspect enemy within

Saturday October 29 2011

By KITAVI MUTUA [email protected]

The Somali community in Kitui County was on the spot this week over suspicions that some members had links to the terror group Al-Shabaab.

A string of businesses owned by traders of Somali origin that have recently been established in Kitui and Mwingi towns helped fuel speculation about the source of their investment capital, causing jitters among the local population.

The traders are now attempting to dispel the unfavourable image after establishing a strong business presence involving property acquisitions running into millions of shillings in a few months.

Mr Ahmed Kiremba, the man behind some of the property acquisitions in the county, said local traders were only driven by malice and revenge and were just frightened by business competition.

“We are Kenyans by birth and have a right to do business anywhere in the republic. Rumours that we have links with terrorists are only aimed at frustrating our operations,” he said.

In an apparent reference to pictures published in a local daily, which prompted police raids on their premises after locals complained the traders could have links to the terror group, Mr Kiremba challenged the government to clear the air to protect their businesses.

He said they had been branded with the Al-Shabaab label at a time when the country is at war with the same terror group and that the negative publicity was affecting their businesses.

The traders had to seek audience with local police chiefs after residents demanded that they be investigated to ascertain their true identities.

Residents claimed the traders’ secretive ways and unfair trade practices betrayed and undermined cohesion among the business community and that they could not sit by and watch the town become a terrorist hideout.

“Hapless citizens in Lamu hosted Fazul Abdalla, the dreaded Al- Shabaab ring leader for years.

“He even married in the community before his true identity and devious ways were exposed by authorities,” said a local trader who sought anonymity.

The traders launched their business offensive early last year when they set up an array of clothing shops before diversifying into hotel, transport and hardware businesses.

Prime business areas

They became notorious for dangling huge amounts of money in front of property owners in their determination to buy their way into prime business areas, which caused sharp increases in rental prices.

One case involved a business premise owned by former Cabinet minister Ngala Mwendwa whose tenant was paying Sh50,000 per month.

The trader had to move out after the Somali competitors offered to triple the monthly rent. Many others were dislodged in a similar fashion.

According to the former minister’s son, Billy Ngala, the family found a five-year lease offer with a monthly rent of Sh150,000 against Sh50,000 irresistible.
“This is a free market economy where the highest bidder gets the deal. We negotiated the offers from both parties, and we went for what was more attractive,” Mr Ngala told the Sunday Nation.

But Mrs Lena Mutunga, another trader, claimed that many rent disputes arose as the new entrants violated the law, and the rent dispute tribunal failed to intervene despite numerous pleas.

“Our free market is also regulated by some laws. The way many of us were dislodged was unfair because the law is there to protect the weak,” she said.

Matters were not helped when hundreds of Somalia nationals were arrested by police along the Garissa-Mwingi-Nairobi highway and other parts of the county.

On the other hand, authorities were not taking chances on the crackdown on illegal aliens often arresting some with weapons at various road blocks.

Citing reports that illegal Somalia immigrants suspected of being terror agents were using county village routes to access Nairobi, authorities warned residents to be alert.