Laikipia County is a paradox. Today, it is Kenya’s most important tourist destination, heartland of commercial agriculture and a melting-pot of the country’s cultural riches and splendour. But the county, which has faced 20 years of fierce clashes with no end in sight, is also a forlorn frontier of endless cycles of often politically instigated ethnic violence.
The county is Kenya’s “Wild West” – the American frontier, the abode of all genres of threats to the right to life, symbolised by the gun-slinging cowboy on horseback, where only the fittest and the fastest on the draw – the art of taking one’s gun from its holster – survives.
The wanton killing of farmers and conservationists in Laikipia ahead of the 2022 elections brings to mind Roger Ebert’s 1986 movie, Children of a Lesser God. It also rekindles the age-old debate on the right to life – and how to defend it. This is the philosophy that all humans have the right to live and, therefore, should not be killed by another individual, entity or government.
The right to life is dependent on who bears arms or other technologies of violence. For the renowned philosopher, Max Weber, the state has the monopoly of violence. As such, the right to use or authorise the use of physical force is the hallmark of the modern state.
The state’s ability to protect the right to life is the raison d'être of its existence. The defence of the right to life and property inspired the UN doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”, an international norm that seeks to ensure the international community should never again stand by and watch as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity unfold in failed or failing states.
Qualms about the state’s ability to protect was the lynchpin of the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, which safeguarded the right of the people to keep and bear arms to defend themselves.
“A well-regulated militia”, reads the amendment, “being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
This begs the question: should the defenceless displaced people of Laikipia be granted the right to bear arms for self-defence? By all measures, this is a legitimate and even moral concern in situations where the state has either dithered or allowed bandits to wield arms with abandon, some more sophisticated than those of security officers.
Conceptually, the diffusion of violence in Laikipia reflects the crisis of citizenship in the country. It is the Nigerian scholar, Peter Eke (1975), who famously theorised the existence of “two publics” living side by side as the most enduring and dangerous legacy of colonialism in Africa. One is the primordial or tribal realm governed by customs, the other is the civic realm governed by modern laws.
In Laikipia, the farmers are in the civic realm and, therefore, cannot wield arms. Inversely, the herders are in the primordial realm and have an unimpeded right to procure and bear arms – like walking sticks – even in public spaces.
Kenya’s West Bank and Gaza Strip
In many ways, Laikipia, which borders the semi-arid Isiolo, Baringo and Samburu counties, is Kenya’s West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The cosmopolitan county is at the vortex of Africa’s main linguistic groups: Cushites (Rendille, Gabra and Borana), Nilo-Hamites (Maasai, Samburu and Turkana), Highlands Nilotes (Kalenjin/Tugen and Pokot) and Bantus (Kikuyu and Meru).
Laikipia is the epicentre of a three-way ethnic-based violence: raids between the Samburu and the Maasai; between the Samburu and the Pokot (with the Turkana being often used by either side of the warring communities) and; between herders and farmers (and conservationists).
Here, an imbalance of power reigns between armed herders and defenseless farmers.
A Human Rights Watch study estimated that “there are 40,000 firearms illegally held by communities in northern Kenya…, leading to serious concerns that such huge uncontrolled amounts of firearms could pose a significant threat to stability and undermine national security”.
After a raid on September 3, more than 41 spent bullet cartridges were found in one house!
Conflict over grazing land especially in the wake of droughts and search for well-watered pastures by herders who move thousands of cattle into the Laikipia farmlands and conservation areas are cited as the reason they raid the homes of farmers.
But the lightning rod of violence are the local politicians, who exploit these traditional grievances to incite communities and tend to reinforce “us-versus-them” divide as a vote-winning strategy ahead of every election since 1992.
It is déjà vu all over again in Laikipia. Conflict has resumed as in earlier electioneering periods of 1992,1997, 2007,2013 and 2017.
Former Laikipia legislator Mathew Lempurkel and his Tiaty counter-part William Kamket have so far been arrested and arraigned for incitement.
Commercialisation of livestock thefts has radically distorted the traditional culture of raiding, where those who lose their cows plan a counter raid to recover them or to restock their herds.
A new market logic where stolen animals disappear into commercial slaughterhouses such as Dagoretti or Garissa has turned cattle rustling into a deadly enterprise.
Politicians have also used raids as a money-minting stratagem to finance elections and to reward constituents with stolen animals.
The recent violence has left 12 people dead, dozens injured, families displaced, education and businesses disrupted.
More than 600 livestock, worth approximately Sh60 million, have been stolen since the invasions began in late July 2021. More than 40 cows, estimated at Sh4 million, were stolen on September 3 alone.
The government has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, among other measures, to restore security .
But if these measures are ineffective, the farmers should be allowed to keep and bear arms to protect their lives and property and to maintain a balance of power in this volatile region.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is the co-author of Kenya's Uncertain Democracy: The Electoral Crisis of 2008 (London: Routledge, 2010).