By Fredrick Nzwili | Catholic News Service
NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — Bishop Wilybard Lagho of Malindi continued to call for calm in the Kenyan coastal region of Lamu, but said land disputes were behind the latest attacks, which have left at least seven people dead.
The bishop told Catholic News Service there is credible evidence that the attacks are being perpetrated by local gangs with an aim of flushing squatters out of ranches. Leases of some of the ranches were recently revoked by the government.
The bishop, who diocese extends extends to Lamu Island, an Indian Ocean archipelago that lies about 60 miles from Kenya’s border with Somalia, appealed to the government to “move with speed to issue title deeds to genuine squatters.”
Earlier reports had indicated that the attacks were being carried out by suspected al-Shabab militants. The Somalia-based al-Qaida affiliate has been blamed for past attacks in the region.
On Jan. 3, the number of the dead reached seven after a 62-year-old man was killed in an attack, in which several houses were burned. The attacks started Jan. 2, with the kidnapping of one person, who was later shot dead in the village as another four were burned in their house.
Two other people were kidnapped, and a village elder was found butchered. Those kidnapped are usually used to identify future villages for attacks, according to church sources.
“I appeal for calm. I also convey my condolences to the families that have lost relatives,” said Bishop Lagho.
The bishop told Catholic News Service that the attacks have occurred in areas occupied by migrants, the majority of them Christians from central Kenya who settled there in the 1970s. The people are often the soft targets of the insurgents in the conflict, often caused by identity and questions around land ownership, Bishop Lagho said.
Reports indicate local people fearing more attacks had started fleeing the region.
Churches of various denominations are affected by the frequent violence, the bishop explained. Past attacks have forced displacement, diminished church attendance, affected investments and disrupted farming activities. Local church resources and activities have been rendered unsustainable, with a large part of the population traumatized.
The government said it has increased security in the region and ordered a 30-day night curfew in parts of Lamu.
In 2014, at least 100 men were killed, 50 houses and 30 vehicles burned after heavily armed militants raided areas in Lamu.
“The government should identify and disclose the financiers of the insurgents and their agenda,” Bishop Lagho said, noting that more security without changing people’s mindsets was inadequate.
The bishop said the violence had increased Islamophobia among Christians in Lamu County. He said pastors and imams have urged the government to solve the multiple issues that the insurgents use to polarize the local communities.
Under the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, which includes Catholic priests, some clerics are already working in the area.
“The situation is not good, and the people are leaving because of fear. We are planning a major visit to the region,” Sheikh Mohamed Abdulkadir, council chairman, told CNS.
Sheikh Abdulkadir said the attacks were aimed at killing people, creating chaos and dealing a blow to the right to life of every human being.