The restive North Rift is staring down the barrel of a gun following a wave of bandit attacks in Kerio Valley that have claimed 11 lives and displaced dozens of hapless villagers.
Battered, bruised and down on bended knees, elders and local leaders have now petitioned Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i to reinstate National Police Reservists to restore peace in the volatile region.
More than 3,000 reservists in West Pokot, Turkana, Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo counties were disarmed in May 2019 following accusations they were colluding with criminals to frustrate peace campaigns.
Local leaders, however, said their withdrawal was hasty and ill-thought-out as it had exposed residents to frequent bandit attacks.
“The Inspector-General of Police has failed. His predecessors worked well with reformed warriors and police reservists along the West Pokot and Turkana borders. There were no cattle raids,” said Kapenguria MP Samuel Moroto, adding that reservists played a critical role in maintaining security in marginalised counties.
He said insecurity had increased since they were disarmed, because dangerous criminals roam the region freely.
“Reservists were the only force capable of combing through the rough terrain of the area. They helped in combating crime and providing security along the pastoral borders. The government should reinstate them,” said Sigor MP Peter Lochakapong.
Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok observed: “The government seized the guns from reservists yet it knows we are surrounded by criminals. Our people are now vulnerable.”
His West Pokot counterpart, Prof John Lonyangapuo, called for fresh listing and training to weed out those who collaborated with criminals.
“Reservists are not civilians. They are part and parcel of the police service. Dr Matiang’i should read the police act well,” observed Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen.
West Pokot County Woman Representative Lillian Tomitom and Baringo South MP Charles Kamren also supported calls for the return of reservists.
“The government has left us to our own devices. Police camps are of little help. Reservists are familiar with the terrain and usually repulse criminals and recover stolen livestock,” said Mr Kamuren.
A local elder, Mr Mathew Karwatum, said children in Cheptulel, Annet, and Sokotio areas cannot walk freely to school for fear of attacks.
“The government has abandoned us. We still don’t know why reservists were disarmed. They patrolled areas that police avoided. The officers only patrol roads, yet criminals hide in the bush,” said Mr Karwatum.
West Pokot deputy county commissioner Simiyu Were said some reservists were misusing their firearms to aid cattle rustling and would have to be vetted before reinstatement.
“There was a need to train and vet them to weed out the bad ones before we hand them back the firearms,” said Mr Were.
Tiaty West deputy county commissioner Jakton Orieng said plans were under way for fresh vetting and training. “Most reservists were aligned to politicians and were not carrying out their duties as required. The firearms will be returned once the biometric registration is completed.”
In Tiaty, the community appealed for the removal of roadblocks mounted on the Marigat-Chemolingot road, saying it had made it difficult for humanitarian aid to reach them.
The Kenya Red Cross had been barred from ferrying supplies to the region, including food aid to hunger-ravaged villages, as well as medicine, after facilities were shut down following the disarmament operation in January.
The massive security exercise in the unstable Tiaty East, Tiaty West and Turkana East, was launched after a series of bandit attacks that claimed at least 10 lives in one month, including senior police officers.
Hundreds of officers were deployed in the three regions to seize illegal guns, recover stolen livestock and arrest armed criminals.
Fled to safety
Mr Lomonokol Todo, a local resident, said it was wrong for the government to condemn the entire community because of the sins of a few criminals. He lamented that police were harassing innocent people, including women and children, yet they already had names of the suspects.
The alleged harassment led hundreds of locals to flee to other remote villages for safety.
“The roadblocks have caused more damage than that inflicted by the criminals. We have lost patients who sought specialised treatment in Kabarnet and other facilities,” said Mr Todo.
The food crisis, compounded by the long dry spell, had seen many families going for days, even weeks, without a meal, and appealed to the state to ease the restrictions and allow well-wishers and humanitarian agencies to supply food to the villages.
“All markets were closed and we cannot sell our livestock to get money for food. Humanitarian agencies that wanted to assist us were barred from accessing the area in the name of security operation. Many people, mostly the old, women and children in the hunger-ravaged villages, lost their lives. What did innocent children do to deserve such an unfair treatment?” he posed.
Woman rep Gladwell Cheruiyot said women and children had borne the brunt of the disarmament operation and pleaded with authorities to allow humanitarian aid to the worst-hit villages as a matter of urgency.
“There are complaints that even expectant women in this area, who are referred to other facilities due to complications, are forced to part with cash to be allowed to pass through the roadblocks. What country are we living in if at all we subject even unborn children to torture? They have to remove the roadblocks immediately,” said Ms Cheruiyot.
Tiaty MP William Kamket said if the restricted access was to bar criminals from moving around, then the idea was ill-advised because bandits don’t use the roads. He urged the police to smoke them out of their hideouts rather than frustrating the community.
“The officers deployed to seize illegal guns should be serious, because, how can you bar people from using a major road in the name of disarmament? The road is not used by a community, but by all Kenyans traversing this region. What’s the need of the roadblocks, when the same criminals being sought are hiding in the remote villages? This is an exercise in futility,” said Mr Kamket.