By Sunday Vision team
Aha,sasa (chatty for what’s up),” a middle-aged man probes us in Kiswahili as we approach a rickety grass-thatched shelter where he is seated with a friend. This is in Eastern Division, Busia-Uganda.
The initial niceties, however, turn into mild fear on learning who we are. It takes a bit of persuasion for him to open up to us. Gathii, the only name he gives us, resides in Busia-Kenya municipality.
“I am Kikuyu and my family stays in Busia-Kenya. Here (Busia-Uganda), I have rented a single room at sh30,000 for the month of March as a precautionary measure. Considering the nasty experience of the 2007 post-election violence, I am not taking anything for granted,” Gathii explains.
I will cast my vote on March 4 and keep an eye on post-election events. If there is calm, I will stay, but if there is chaos, I will rush my family to Uganda. I do not want my family to suffer in the camps again,” Gathii adds.
There are many other Kenyans taking this precaution. As a result, they have started looking for temporary accommodation on the Ugandan side of the border towns of Busia, Malaba and Tororo district, ahead of tomorrow’s (March 4) elections.
“It is temporary. We are not here to stay. I am looking for a house for rent here, too. I believe I will find it at the end of the day,” Kagai, Gathii’s counterpart, chips in.
At the peak of the previous post-election violence that claimed over 1,300 Kenyans, St. Jude Primary School in Malaba-Uganda and Busia Integrated Primary School, were turned into reception centres for Kenyan refugees. Over 650,000 Kenyans were displaced in the violence.
Lately, it has become increasingly difficult to find houses for rent in Tororo and Busia towns. Bashir Wanyama, the LC3 chairperson for Sofia B village, Eastern Division. “Within this village alone, I know of four houses that have been booked by Kenyans,” says Wanyama.
The opinion polls which indicate a neck-and-neck presidential contest between prime minister Raila Odinga (CORD) and deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta (Jubilee coalition) has heightened fears of post-election violence. The opinion polls also predict a likely re-run between the two contenders.
Kenyatta, backed president Mwai Kibaki in the 2007 elections. Odinga, a runner-up in the 2007 race, complained of being robbed of victory, sparking clashes.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its February 7 report indicated that there is a likely recurrence of the 2007 post-election violence.
Based on research conducted in six of Kenya’s eight main regions, the HRW, a global watch dog, stressed that given the current ethnic clashes that have already claimed over 477 lives and displaced 118,000 persons in parts of Kenya, the writing is already on the wall.
“The underlying causes of the past election-related violence remain in place, and in some parts of the country, tensions have already escalated. A combination of inaction by authorities in some regions and abusive or discriminatory conduct in others, plus a failure to implement promised reforms, has led Kenya into another election, where the risk of violence and human rights violations remains perilously high,” the report stated.
Despite the seemingly cordial public appearance between the top two contenders, Odinga and Kenyatta, where they held a joint peace rally in Nairobi on February 24 to urge Kenyans to participate in peaceful polls, security authorities in Uganda are not taking any chances.
The Tororo district security and disaster management committees recently held a joint meeting to discuss ways of handling the post-election events of the Kenya polls. As an outcome of the meeting, Abdallah Sabila, the Malaba-Uganda OC CID chief, said they directed all LC1 chairpersons in Malaba and across the district to register any new Kenyans settling in the country.
“This Kenyan election has been clouded in uncertainty and fear. We, however, welcome all the Kenyans coming to temporarily settle in Uganda. At the moment, we are trying to coordinate the LCs and landlords to ensure that no Kenyan settles in Uganda without registration. This data is relevant for security and planning purposes,” Sabila explains.
The Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, has twice visited Malaba and Busia to meet the Police and immigration officials on matters concerning the Monday elections. His latest visit was on February 26.
Given the porous Uganda-Kenya border demarcated by River Malaba, there is widespread belief that most Kenyans are fleeing and settling into Uganda illegally.
John Emoit, the LC1 chairperson of Amoni B village, Malaba-Uganda town council, explains that additional make-shift bridges have been erected along River Malaba by unknown persons.
“It could even be persons from Kenya who erected these bridges. Nobody monitors these bridges both during day and at night. So you cannot tell who crosses over in the night,” Emoit explains.
The fact that Uganda LC1 chairpersons neither earn a salary nor allowances, could escalate the problem of illegal entry.
A deputy LC1 chairperson who prefers anonymity, says: “Recently, there is a Kenyan hawker who kept pestering me to forge documents endorsing him as a Ugandan. I declined and told him that if security were to intercept the documents, they would trace the LC1 stamp to my office.
“The next time I met the hawker, he told me he had settled the matter,” he adds. This implies that he bribed another LC1 chairperson to get the papers.
Ugandan traders complain that the tension has dampened trade along the border. Whereas traders in the Kenya border towns are reportedly slicing prices of commodities to increase sales so as to empty the shelves, their Uganda counterparts are facing low sales.
Daniel Ariong, a wholesale trader in beer, spirits and bottled water in Malaba-Uganda town council, says: “Business has plummeted. Initially, I used to make daily sales of sh2.5m. This, however, has dropped to about sh400,000. My clients, mainly the Kenyans, have told me they will not stock until the end of the polls.
“I have become reluctant to restock. I am banking all money from sales to avoid incurring losses in case of any spillover effects,” he says.
To avoid the scenario that characterised the 2007 post-election violence where violent gangs burnt trucks along the route, truck-drivers ferrying cargo to the country have been reluctant to return.
Geoffrey Balamaga, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) eastern regional manager, explains that there is a rush by the traders to clear cargo along the border in the wake of tomorrow’s polls. According to Balamaga, a total of 21,150 cargo trucks entered Uganda in December 2012, while only 15,256 went out within the same month.
In January this year, however, the number rose to 24,170 cargo trucks against 19,011 return trucks, while 17,834 cargo trucks had checked into the country by February 22. The outflow (empty trucks checking out) stood at 13,419 on the same date. Malaba handles 80% of cargo entering Uganda.
“These statistics indicate that most traders made a rush to clear their goods within January. Other traders are opting to ferry their cargo through the Dar-es-Salaam-Mutukula route. We are likely to experience reduced cargo entering the country on polling day and thereafter,” Balamaga explains.
At Busia-Uganda, Alex Rubanda, the customs supervisor, placed the December entry of cargo trucks at 3,629, while outflow was at 402. In January, inflow of cargo trucks rose to 4,547 against 200 trucks going back. Rubanda observed that there has been a marked decline in the entry of fuel trucks into the country.
“On average, 80 fuel trucks enter Uganda daily. Lately, the number has dropped to about 29. The bulk of fuel ferried through Kenya enters Uganda along the Busia border point.
Generally, there is apprehension among traders and the wider public on the forthcoming polls, because people are uncertain of what is going to happen thereafter.
As a tax body, we are banking on the recent East African Community meeting, where Kenya assured member states that there will be free movement of goods during the polling process,” Rubanda says.