The recent spate of bandit attacks and stock theft in the volatile Kerio Valley have dealt a big blow to peace efforts in the North Rift.
The inter-communal clashes have led to the killing of more than 17 people in a span of three weeks and hundreds of livestock stolen in the region that has earned the epithet, ‘Valley of death’.
About three weeks ago, suspected attackers from Marakwet East raided the neighbouring Tiaty sub-county and killed two people.
In a revenge mission, more than 100 armed criminals suspected to be from Tiaty invaded Kaben village in Marakwet East, killed five people and drove away more than 200 head of cattle and 60 goats. Among those killed were two peace committee members from Endo.
And on July 20, five herders were killed after exchanging fire with bandits in Chepkorowo grazing field in Marakwet East.
Elgeyo-Marakwet county commissioner Ahmed Omar said the suspected criminals from Tiaty entered the region through West Pokot, ambushed the herders and a shootout ensued. No animals were stolen as the locals eventually repulsed the attackers.
The administrator said Marakwet youth reportedly burnt the bodies to block the police from collecting them. The killings happened just a week after Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i had issued a seven-day ultimatum for criminals to surrender.
On a tour to the bandit-prone area, Dr Matiang’i claimed the criminals were well-known to the community. “They are from these villages and you know them. It is either you name them in seven days or you face the consequences,” said Dr Matiang’i.
The CS held talks with political leaders and security teams from Elgeyo-Marakwet, Baringo and West Pokot counties in a bid to find a lasting solution to the problem.
He said some of the security agents deployed in the region were partisan and would be shuffled. “We are going to redeploy them to other areas to allow a neutral team to deal with the attackers,” the CS said.
Dr Matiang’i also said a special security unit would be set up at Dira, which is shared by West Pokot, Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo counties, and is believed to be the escape route for bandits after raids.
He said a deputy county commissioner (DCC) would be stationed at Tot, Elgeyo-Marakwet, to coordinate the crackdown on bandits in the three porous counties.
The CS cautioned leaders seeking elective positions against inciting their communities into violence. “We will not compromise the stability of our country with retrogressive politics. The law will act tough against individuals promoting violence,” Dr Matiang’i warned.
“There will be no compromise when it comes to security and we will be ruthless to those who incite their communities to violence.”
His predecessors, Joseph Ole Lenku and Joseph Nkaissery, also issued similar warnings but nothing came out of them.
Mr Ole Lenku toured Baringo County on April 10, 2014 and announced a massive operation following the killing of five people in Mukutani, Baringo South.
“The government will not relent until all firearms in the hands of civilians are seized,” warned Mr Lenku. The operation did not achieve much as no illegal firearms were seized.
On March 18, 2017, Mr Nkaissery also toured the area and said the government had gazetted 19 locations in Baringo as unsafe following the killing of 10 people, including women and children, at Mukutani.
He ordered civilians to surrender all arms to the nearest police station or have them taken forcefully. He identified Arabal, Kiserian, Mochongoi, Rugus, Mukutani, Chebinyiny, Komolion, Chepkalacha and Makutano in Baringo South as the unsafe locations.
Others were Paka, Orus, Loiywat, Silale, Nando, Tungulbei, Chepkererat, Kipnai, Ng’oron and Amaya in Tiaty Constituency. In Laikipia County, he mentioned Rumuruti, Ol Moran and Kirimon divisions.
Nothing came out of the operation as killings continued. Mr Nkaissery’s tour had been preceded by Deputy President William Ruto’s visit on February 24, 2017, where he held a top security meeting.
The DP launched a massive operation to flush out bandits in Baringo South and North sub-counties. “We have deployed more than 381 police officers and reservists to flush out bandits in the affected areas. We want all those displaced persons to be resettled in two weeks,” said Dr Ruto.
So daring were the bandits that they shot dead a chief about five kilometres from where the DP was addressing a public meeting.
Ng’orora location senior chief Thomas Chebor Ruttok was killed by suspected Pokot bandits as he tried to lead an operation to recover stolen livestock. He had just a year left to retirement.
In the peace meeting, the DP issued a shoot-to-kill order against the bandits and promised to deploy more officers and KPR.
On November 2, 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta led a strong team of security personnel, among them the then Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo and Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces Julius Karangi to the volatile Kapedo area at the border of Baringo and Turkana counties following the killing of 20 Administration Police officers.
The President ordered a massive military-led operation to recover firearms stolen from the officers.
“I’m here today because you took the lives of officers who were in the line of duty. I hereby order that you give us the name of the bandits and surrender the names of those behind the killings by the end of today. The government is there and will deal firmly with such lawlessness,” President Kenyatta said.
“The criminals who killed the officers are well-known and we will not rest until they are brought to book. We will not tolerate a civilian taking guns and killing officers. Even if your leaders are claiming that it was a mistaken identity that does not give you the license to kill,” he added.
The operation saw herders voluntarily surrender 24 illegal firearms, some of which had been stolen from the officers. The military had pitched camp at Chesitet and Kapedo areas. The operation received widespread condemnation from human rights groups over alleged harassment of innocent civilians and destruction of property.
Disruption of lives
During his tour to Tot a week ago, Dr Matiang’i said inter-communal conflicts are often ignited by politicians.
“We must look for a lasting solution to this problem. We will not compromise those messing up our peace efforts. It’s shameful for leaders to incite their people or finance them to kill other communities. No one is above the law. We will show you where you belong. If those characters will not change any time soon, then they would serve as an example,” he warned.
The CS was accompanied by Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen and governors John Lonyangapuo (West Pokot), Alex Tolgos (Elgeyo-Marakwet) and Stanley Kiptis (Baringo).
The incessant flare-ups have led to disruption of lives, businesses and closure of social amenities in the valley which had been relatively calm for long. Women and children, who are the most vulnerable, have been relocated to the escarpments as men voluntarily turn to become community scouts guarding their borders in shifts.
Rift Valley regional coordinator George Natembeya, however, told the Nation that most of the suspected criminals behind the attacks and stock theft in Kerio Valley, had been killed.
“The recent attacks in Kerio Valley are driven by revenge. When one community is attacked, they regroup and wage war against the other. Though the CS gave some suspected criminals an ultimatum to surrender, they did not. However, some have been killed,” said Mr Natembeya.
He raised concern that most of the bandits had fled areas under operation and might be the ones behind the killings in the valley.
The government launched a massive disarmament exercise in the bandit-prone counties in the North Rift six months ago but local elders and professionals termed it an exercise in futility.
Security experts and residents said similar operations had been conducted in the past with little success as more attacks were reported because communities continued to smuggle in illegal guns.
The operation was launched after the killing of more than 10 people, including senior security officers, in just a week in Kapedo.
Superintendent Emadau Tebakol, Chief Inspector Moses Lekariab and Constable Benson Kaburu were fatally shot by armed criminals from Tiaty sub-county. Tebakol, a GSU commander, was killed on January 17 when he responded to a distress call from officers who had been attacked.
Lekariab and Kaburu, who were attached to the Rapid Deployment Unit, were shot four days later at Kapedo Bridge. Hundreds of security officers were then dispatched to Tiaty East, Tiaty West and Turkana East sub-counties to mop up illegal guns and restore order.
The exercise was carried in Ameyan, Paka, Silale, Nadome, Komolion, Kapau, Toplen, Chesitet, Nakoko, Riong’o, Akwichatis, Nasorot, Lomelo, Lokori and Kapedo. Despite this, attacks continued.
Local leaders, the clergy and professionals are against forceful disarmament as they prefer dialogue.
Colonel (Rtd) Moses Kwonyike, a former military adviser at the United Nations African Mission in Darfur, said the government won’t be able to seize all illegal guns because it doesn’t know how many are in civilian hands.
“The government should use the bottom-up approach in reaching out to the elders, instead of carrying out a forceful disarmament. You cannot purport to carry out such an exercise without knowing their armoury. The elders are the main perpetrators because they bless and give morale and protection to the bandits,” said Col Kwonyike.
He recommended a ‘massive marshal plan’ in bandit-prone areas. “They should reach out to the elders and fix the chiefs by making them accountable to events in their jurisdictions. Forceful seizure of guns is a waste of time and resources,” he said.
In a peace forum at the Lake Bogoria Spa Resort in March, Prof Lonyangapuo said only homegrown solutions would yield peace in the bandit-prone counties.
Kacheliba MP Mark Lomunokol and West Pokot Speaker Catherine Mukenyang regretted that instead of achieving the intended purpose, the forceful seizure of guns was generating more criminals.
“Change the strategy and bring the community on board. The government has the machinery to seize the guns but they will not get them by using force. How many have been recovered since the operation started? That’s a wake-up call that we should employ other strategies,” said Mr Lomunokol.
Ms Mukenyang offered: “I have witnessed several security operations in the Pokot community. We should be questioning why banditry and livestock theft is still there despite the operations.”
Former Baringo East MP Joseph Lotodo added: “Local problems need local solutions. During the Moi administration, a massive operation was launched in this region. Few guns were surrendered and we finally opted for dialogue with elders to reach out to the criminals. It worked. The criminals are nowhere to be seen as some have gone as far as Uganda.”
Tiaty MP William Kamket alleged that officers involved in the operation were harassing innocent civilians.
“Since the government rolled out the operation in my constituency, how many guns have they recovered? How many criminals have been arrested apart from torturing innocent civilians? Our people, including my own mother, are spending their nights in the bush for fear of the police,” he said.
He claimed that the officers have pushed aside local leaders, administrators and elders.
“The government, which is expected to protect civilians, has turned out to be a terrorist. What’s the difference between them and the same criminals they are pursuing? Why did they not involve us or the chiefs? Unless they tell us they have a different agenda,” said Mr Kamket.
“These operations usually live make the situation worse. It’s always double trouble for the innocent people, who end up suffering from criminals and state agents. This scenario has pushed people to arm themselves against their own government.”
Close to 80 guns have been recovered in the ongoing operation in Baringo, Turkana, Laikipia and Samburu counties, despite the millions spent by the government to supply food, fuel and ammunition to security officers deployed to restore normalcy in the region.
Though the guns were seized, there are no records of arrested criminals.
Mr Natembeya said the rugged terrain poses a major challenge to security officers. “We are trying to stop the smuggling of illegal guns in this region but the criminals have moved into areas that are volatile, impassable for vehicles, making it a major challenge for our agents,” he said.
“We are dealing with an area that was not developed for many years. Though we have the names of the suspected criminals, they fled to remote areas and neighbouring countries.”
The administrator also raised concern that lack of network coverage in most remote villages had made communication poor. He said the government may redeploy police reservists (NPRs) who are well conversant with the terrain, especially the criminals’ hideouts.
“We hope to seize all firearms in civilian hands to end insecurity, no matter how long it will take. We won’t leave until we achieve our goal,” said Mr Natembeya.