Coronavirus fears halt illegal border crossing

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020 00:00 |
The One Stop Border Post at Kenya-Tanzania border in Taveta. Residents of border villages say using the official crossing route is too taxing. Photo/Photo/KNA

For decades, authorities manning the Kenya-Tanzania border at Taveta sub-county have watched with mounting helplessness as crafty residents from border villages devise ingenious ways to illegally cross to Tanzania and back.

However, in a strange twist of fate, rising but muted hostilities and mutual suspicion between Kenyans and Tanzanians on the porous border—borne from fears of Covid-19 infections—are achieving what governments of both countries have been unable to enforce for years; halt uncontrolled civilian movements across the border.

For James Kadi (not his real name), a young Kenyan farmer and a regular border-crosser, it all started with a beating a fortnight ago.

Kadi says he was caned by a vigilante group at Himo area in Tanzania. He had crossed the border to buy herbicides for his tomato crop but the vigilante group that seized him was not impressed even after giving his reason for crossing over.

“To make it worse, they poured water on me saying they intended to wash away the virus I might be carrying,” says Kadi.

Block routes

The farmer says since the outbreak of coronavirus, Tanzania deployed police along the porous border to block many illegal routes used by residents of both countries.

To further curb this crossing, village community security committees in Tanzania reportedly activated highly mobile vigilante groups to identify Kenyans who have crossed illegally to Tanzania.

It is these vigilante groups that have become a nightmare for Kenyans such as Kadi. Once caught, illegal crossers are allegedly subjected to hours-long grilling and humiliation.

Some are caned but a majority are doused with water and hurriedly sent back to Kenya; extremely wet and furious.

“It is not the police but youth groups who are humiliating us. They say we are risking their lives.

We have now lost all interest in crossing the border until further notice,” says the farmer.

Kadi’s woes are similar to those of many border residents, who are bewildered by the sudden hostility from cross-border neighbours they always regarded as brothers.

Before Covid-19 pandemic, the interaction between Kenyans and Tanzanians across the Taveta border was marked by frequent trade and engagement in other social activities including common churches services, weddings and parties.

From Madarasani village in Kitobo location, Tanzania is less than a 100 metres away.

For residents of Kitoghoto and Jipe, two remote villages separated from Tanzania by a swamp and Lake Jipe, respectively, a canoe ride would easily take you across.

Other villages where illegal crossing is common include Lesesia, Njukini and Challa.

“There has always been very tight ties between communities on both sides of the border.

Apart from being related by marriage, there is also a lot of trading between the two communities,” says Hussein Juraji, a farmer in Kitobo.

Family ties or not, the government has always viewed such unregulated movement across the border as a threat since  it can allow movement of criminals, contraband goods and other dangerous cargo.

Officially, any cross-border movement is processed at the One Stop Border Post  customs offices along the Voi-Taveta-Holili Highway.

While most large-scale traders, passengers, tourists and government officials follow this path, residents of border  villages find such a requirement too taxing.

Trigger panic

Their reasons are diverse. First, they find the distance too prohibitive; the customs office is located over 60km away from Kitoghoto village.

Tanzania, on the other hand, is just a shouting-distance away from their homes.

There is also open aversion for the protracted customs’ processes that many find too tiresome.

“There is no compelling reason to make me go all that way and endure long hours at the customs office yet I only need to buy 10kg of onions at Himo,” says a boda boda rider who sought anonymity.

Confronted with such a situation, the security agencies manning the border were mere spectators despite their best efforts- including random patrols and putting up roadblocks on routes used by criminals to sneak stolen vehicles into Tanzania.

Further, reporting of illegal crossing is a rare occurrence in the border villages.

“They (residents) know all these paths better than us. When you mark one out, they easily avoid it and use others.

What makes it even harder to stop them is they have excellent bush telegraph and alert each other whenever we are seen around,” says a former border patrol officer who has since been transferred to Nairobi.

That was then.

Currently, Covid-19 pandemic has triggered panic of cross-border virus spread between the communities living along the border. All feelings of love and brotherly camaraderie are at their lowest. 

Mistrust has led border communities from both countries to police each other over illegal crossing. 

“Since they started chasing us away, Kenyans are not allowing any of them to come. It is a tit-for-tat game at the border now,” says Barnabus Maimbo, a local opinion leader in Taveta.

County Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha says with the Corona outbreak, any cross- border movement remains a threat.

She says government officials at the grassroots are working closely with Nyumba Kumi elders to monitor illegal movements.

Taveta Sub-County Police Commander Lawrence Marwa says security agencies have established close links with local youths and riders to share intelligence and information about any illegal crossings.

The mutual hostilities are expected to last until Covid-19 is declared defeated. After that, the border communities might call for a cease-fire and repair the tattered relations.

Such a détente will ultimately lead to resumption of unreported cases of illegal border crossings; much to governments’ chagrin.   -KNA

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