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How Mungiki has taken over mines

Green Garnet Two mining site that belong to Bridges mining explorations in Taita Taveta county.The mining has been stop for a while due to the new mining license act and regulations that will include the renewal of existing licences for 2017.This was 14/4/2017.Photo by Edward Kiplimo

Shiny green stones stand out from a white piece of paper on Gabriel Mcharo’s broad desk. His office measures just about two metres by two metres and the huge wooden desk behind which he sits takes up most of the space. Three visitors’ chairs sit against the wall. Next to the chairs to Mcharo’s left and up against the wall stands a larger than average fan that violently pushes out the hot, humid air of Voi town.

“This is green garnet, one of the most valuable precious stones on earth. People have died because of this,” Mcharo, the chairman of Chawia CBO, which operates the mines at Mkuki on behalf of the county government, says.

Green Garnet, also known as Tsavorite, has for decades driven many towards the mines of Taita Taveta. Some have got to their paradise, while others have met their permanent hell in its pursuit. And now, gangs, previously associated with the rowdiness and lawlessness of Nairobi, have steadily pitched camp in the county. They too want a piece of the green pie in the hills through intimidation, blatant disregard to existing privacy laws with the full backing of the powers that be.

The gradual forceful takeover of some of the mines can be traced to as far back as 2010, when, after years of being put on the back foot by the authorities in their major operation zones of Nairobi and parts of central Kenya, a delegation of about a dozen people was dispatched to explore business opportunities within the mining sector.

The man sent to Voi was called Steven Maina who residents say came into the town with a workforce that would rival any of the artisanal mines in the area. Mine owners in the area knew little of the kind of hostility that would be meted on them. In some instance, Maina, and his workers orchestrated hostile takeovers of existing concessions.

Taita Taveta’s climate cuts both ways. It can get extremely hot and extremely cold in the space of 24 hours. The county is composed of vast lands rich in flora and fauna, including such unique ecosystems like the Tsavos.
Because of this, residents are almost on first name basis with the big five. It is not uncommon for one to hear gunshots in the still of the night.

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“Don’t worry. These are just blanks to scare off our friends,” says Philip Syengo, head of security at Bridges Mining and Exploration’s Kabanga mine. “We have to turn them away or else they will come into the camp…they can cause a lot of damage,” he says before narrating an ordeal that befell one of his workers.

On one of those starlit nights, during which one’s eyes can make out the silhouettes of different animals in the horizon, Francis Mwangi was fast asleep in his mud and stone house. The walls of the structures at the camp are not built to the roof. A little room is left for circulation and for an easy exit in case of an attack. The peace and serenity of the plains can be shattered at any time.

As Mwangi slept, a bull elephant, known to have a weakness for whatever meals are left over from supper, lumbered into the camp. Slowly and gently, it put its trunk through the gap between the wall and the roof. It felt around the house and its trunk rested on a shelve, placed directly above Mwangi’s bed. It grabbed a packet of unga and ate it all. Then it grabbed a packet of rice, ate that too. Then a head of cabbage. All the food on the shelf, equivalent to a week’s ration, was finished. But the jumbo wasn’t full yet. It started feeling around the room for more food. The trunk landed on something cylindrical and tried to pry it out of an apparent rut it was stuck in.

Cabbage treat

At that precise moment, Mwangi felt a strange tug on his head. He laboured to open his eyes. He saw the trunk, reaching for his head for the second time. He moved back. Outside, the jumbo thought the cabbage treat had dropped down and moved forward, completely ignoring the fact that a mud and stone wall stood in its way. A section of the wall came crumbling down. Mwangi, powered by adrenalin, dashed off into the dark wilderness through a space, he says, that was no wider than a foot.
“But now we have more to worry about. We can handle the animals. But this new threat, I don’t know…” Syengo says, sounding like a man with a premonition of a dark, inescapable fate.

March 2014. Kabanga Ranch’s western boundary is encroached by Wainaina’s workers. The Mines and Geology Department requests that Bridges Mining and Exploration (BME), which holds the mining concessions on the ranch, to cut survey lines through the bush to indicate their mining claims boundaries. The Mines and Geology Department instructs the intruders to vacate. They vacate.
A month later, they were back. They set up another camp in a different mining claim still belonging to BME and refuse to leave.
“We made a report to the area OCPD and several people were arrested, but the following morning all of them had been released,” Syengo says. “They went back to the same claim they had been arrested from and continued mining.”
After this, Wainaina and his group argued that the claim they had occupied was legally theirs and produced paper work to that extent.

May 5, 2014. The commissioner of mines and geology meets with representatives of Bridges Exploration Ltd. Jim Walker and Phillip Syengo and an entity named Simvest International Limited to ascertain the true ownership of the claims. At the meeting, Simvest is represented by Wainaina, who, outside Simvest is also known as Ndura Waruinge.

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At the meeting, the commissioner orders that none of the two parties should continue to mine in the disputed area. Forty-five minutes after the stay orders, explosions are heard from the location.

“Although I am the head of security for Bridges Exploration, I couldn’t go to that side,” Syengo says. “Just before Wairuinge leaves the meeting, he tells me that I should not go to the disputed area and that my safety is not guaranteed.”

The last time such a threat was made to someone affiliated to the company, a murder occurred.

For many years, a large amount of Taita Taveta’s gemstones were and continue to be illegally mined by hand. The mines have become a preferred destination for individuals enchanted and drunk with the allure of instant, life changing riches.

Lethal threat

In Mkuki Ranch, you meet a hopeful man every few steps. They mostly walk in pairs, mattock slung over the shoulder and a shovel in another. A flashlight is tied to the sides of their heads with a piece of cloth.

Their operations look rugged. Here, every man is for himself. One gets permission from Chawia Community Based Organisation which runs the mine on behalf of the county government. Both the organisation and the county government earn a commission from whatever precious stones are obtained. There are informers all around. The chances of one discovering a gemstone and running away with it are pretty slim.

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The men have no protective gear. They take in the dust. Tunnel ceilings have collapsed on individuals on several occasions. When tunnels become too deep, the miners come up for air every so often, fill their lungs and disappear into the bowels of the earth once more. The energy from each go at the hard rock comes from the belief that the next strike might be the one that opens up a pocket of Tsavorite.

The women sit by the roadside cooking beans, chapati and ugali for the toiling men. It is from Mkuki that the last and most lethal threat to workers of Bridges Mining came from. With fatal results.

On August 5, 2009, Campbell Bridges was speared to death one kilometre from his mining camp by individuals known to him and his family over a territorial dispute. Four of them were found guilty of the murder and sentenced to 40 years.

The ring leader, Daniel Mdachi Mnene, escaped scot-free. The prosecution’s case against him was scuttled after the defence presented evidence that suggested he was not at the scene of crime. The defence produced a bus ticket to Nairobi allegedly obtained on the date of the attack and a visitor’s book from the Special Programmes ministry on which Mnene’s name and purpose of visit were penciled in the middle of other entries. At the time, politician Naomi Shaban, Mnene’s niece, was assistant minister at that ministry.

Now, Syengo says, this might happen again. His mine manager recently received a threatening text message from a strange number saying his balls would be chopped off.

Once, at a shop in Voi, a man walked up to Syengo with a tablet. On it were images of decapitated bodies.

“He said if I do not leave the mines, I would suffer a similar fate.”

He says they have reported all incidences to local police. The threats continue unabated.

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Taveta Governor John Mruttu says he is not aware of the existence of gangs in his county.

“But just like any other part of the country, we too suffer our share of insecurity…but Taveta is relatively a safe county,” the governor said.

Back in his office, Mcharo peers into a piece of rock with a microscope.

“I don’t know about Mungiki. All I know is that a person whose name has been mentioned in the past with the group came to Voi as an investor. And like any other Kenyan he is free to do business wherever he wants,” he says. Mcharo is also the chairman of Chawia CBO, which operates the mines at Mkuki on behalf of the county government.

“It is just a coincidence that the workers he came with look a certain way and speak a certain language,” he says, before shifting attention back to the precious stones on his desk.

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