Residents of banditry-prone counties in the North Rift have accused security officers and administrators of failing to arrest and prosecute identified armed criminals.
The few who are arrested and charged, they said, are released by courts under unclear circumstances.
In a January disarmament campaign in the troubled Tiaty East, Tiaty West and Turkana East sub-counties, locals claimed that security officers harassed innocent civilians instead of targeting the criminals.
The mopping up of guns followed the killings of police Superintendent Emadau Tebakol, Chief Inspector Moses Lekariab, Police Constable Benson Kaburu and a driver, who were shot dead in Kapedo, on the border of Baringo and Turkana counties, by gunmen suspected to be from Tiaty.
Dozens of civilians also died in what was suspected to be communal fighting.
Residents said at the time that security officers were using unorthodox means to disarm the population instead of seizing illegal weapons from named criminals.
Elder Judah Losutan wondered why the named suspected criminals were not being arrested.
“We willingly gave out the names of suspects to the provincial administration to track them down and seize their illegal guns, but why are they now turning their guns on innocent people, including young children? This is barbaric and we are not going to take this lightly,” he said.
Richard Chepchomei from Chemoe in Baringo North also accused the government of being lenient on bandits, noting that some are arrested but soon return to villages to commit the same crimes.
“Some of them are known and their names have been submitted to administrators yet none has been arrested,” he said.
Ali Etukan, a resident of Kapedo, claimed that criminals suspected to be from a neighbouring community had staged several attacks amid the ongoing security operation.
“We thought the operation was aimed at smoking out, disarming and arresting armed criminals. If the operation was serious, why are criminals still roaming the areas and challenging officers?’’ he asked.
Several disarmament campaigns had been carried out in this area over the years, with little success, he said.
“The gun-toting criminals are still attacking people yet they are supposed to be behind bars. We wonder what is happening, because reports indicate there are notorious suspects behind the incessant attacks and they are known, unless we are told someone is protecting them,” he added.
Living in fear
Locals said they live in fear because they still see the criminals roaming villages. They said the criminals go into hiding for a few days when they know police are looking for them, only to resurface and start unleashing terror.
“We stopped going to our farms because you may be shot dead,” said George Lechuta, from Mukutani in Baringo South.
State counsel Joseck Abwajo, however, said that when a suspect is arrested and taken to court, witnesses don’t show up to testify, scuttling the prosecution.
“For the court to be able to process a file and charge someone with a crime, there must be enough evidence, because we are guided by the law,” Mr Abwajo said.
Police may seize firearms, arrest suspects and get more time to complete their investigations, he explained, but that may not necessarily still lead to a successful prosecution.
“After the deadline elapses, police may come back with little or no substantial evidence to warrant someone to face a charge and sustain a conviction, because locals in the affected areas are not willing to testify in court,” he said.
The decision to charge someone, he said, depends on a certain threshold of evidence.
“The matter may be of public interest but you will not introduce it in court, because it has to be accompanied by tangible evidence that could prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone committed the crime,” he said.
The geography of the area where the crimes are committed is also a significant factor, because much of it is inaccessible, he said.
“Even if you get the witnesses, bringing them to court is another challenge, especially if you have a hearing, because there is no clear means of transport, there is a poor mobile network and you may need to rely on chiefs, who are also miles away from the people you want in court, Mr Abwajo said.
Most banditry cases are brought to the Kabarnet courthouse but many fail to kick off due to lack of evidence, he said.
Baringo County Police Commander Robinson Ndiwa said that investigations take a long time because witnesses fear reprisals or are reluctant to go against the cultural norms of their community.
He acknowledged that police have been given the names of suspects but they cannot identify them because what they have is just a list.
“I have a list of more than 1,000 suspects of banditry given to me by locals but they fail to tell you who these people are. I wish they would go the extra mile to identify these individuals, because we cannot single them out. You may be surprised to find that they have even given us the wrong names or names of people who died a long time ago,” Mr Ndiwa said.
He also said locals shy from identifying the named individuals or testifying against them in court because of threats issued by the suspects.
“Locals have also made our work very difficult because even if some of the suspects end up being arrested, they will not come and testify in court because they fear being pursued by the named individuals or their relatives. The cases end up stagnating in court for years for lack of evidence,” he added.
There is another element that complicates the prosecution of suspects.
“When locals in the volatile areas disagree, they give out the names of their perceived enemies to police as suspected bandits in revenge,” he said.
“When you follow up such cases, there is nothing implicating them for banditry. If the police don’t scrutinise such cases, an innocent civilian may end up behind bars.”
Chiefs in the affected areas also claim that arresting criminals is not an easy task, as they are hunting down criminals with sophisticated weapons.
“You can imagine looking for armed criminals who have sophisticated firearms yet we are not armed ourselves. Though we are putting more effort into seizing illegal guns, the work is not easy,” said Lokis Location Chief Johnston Long'iro.
The criminals, he said, flee the area when they get wind of a looming disarmament drive, paralysing efforts to track them down. Some escape to neighbouring countries such as Uganda.
He told the Nation that sometimes chiefs in the affected areas get the names of suspected criminals but the latter warn administrators of dire consequences if they report them to the police.
A chief from the Kerio Valley, who sought anonymity, claimed that though they sometimes get the names of bandits and livestock thieves, the suspects flee to other areas and change their names.
“Most of the armed criminals have no identification cards and they do so on purpose to hide from the authorities, just in case their crimes are uncovered,” the chief said.
“The few who have IDs flee to remote areas where they cannot be tracked and they change their names, paralysing efforts to arrest them. Many disappear for several years, change their villages and you will not see them again.”
Chiefs are marked people, especially in banditry-prone areas where residents view administrators as government informers.
Those who work in Baringo North, Baringo South and Tiaty sub-counties receive threats, especially when pursuing stolen livestock and tracking down suspected criminals.
Some of the administrators have been attacked by armed raiders and others lost their property while on duty.
In 2014, Moses Chongwo, an assistant chief in Akwichatis Sub-Location in Silale ward in Tiaty, was shot in both legs by bandits while pursuing stolen livestock and suffered multiple fractures.
He was with three of his colleagues from the neighbouring Tugen community and they were pursuing thieves who had stolen more than 50 goats from Chelelyo village in Baringo North.
Augustine Lokwang, a security expert from the region, said that because of influence by politicians and shoddy investigations by the police, most armed criminals are not arrested and prosecuted.
“For a suspect to be charged in court, there must be a water-tight case but due to poor investigations, such individuals end up being released,” he said.
“Politics have also taken centre stage, because when some of the suspects are arrested, their godfathers, most of whom are politicians, bail them out and the case is swept under the carpet.”
Julius Akeno, an author and a resident of Tiaty Sub-County, noted that young bandits are so hardened that they can walk long distances in the harsh weather with no food, only depending on animal products and wild fruits.
“At a tender age, boys were separated from their mothers and were not allowed to sleep in their mother’s hut. Their place is aperit, an open fireplace in the compound,” Mr Akeno says in his book Patrons of Wild Suguta Valley.
“They were trained to be alert always, even when asleep. They were told to sleep with their eyes closed, but ears opened. No one should walk in unheard and find them asleep. It would be a mistake punishable by several lashes of the cane. The rough handling of young boys will make them hardy to prepare them for a tough life ahead.”
Cattle rustlers are always alert, hardy and suspicious of their educated peers, whom they view as spies of the government, he said.
“It is very difficult to single out bandits and most of them mingle freely with the people,” Mr Akeno said, and so they act as spies for their counterparts in the bush.
Those who mingle with other locals are friendly and do so with the intent of gathering information on what is happening, including impending government operations, patrols and what local administrators are saying about security and impending arrests.
According to retired Colonel Moses Kwonyike, cattle rustlers normally sleep outside, mostly on dry riverbeds or in cow sheds, from a tender age, so that they can detect their perceived enemies before they are ambushed.
They also wake up early in the morning before anyone else to monitor all the routes in a bid to find out who passed through, check the footprints to see which type of shoe the ‘intruder’ was wearing and other details.
“The checks made by the rustlers at dawn are part of the morning briefs they are expected to give to elders during a public gathering, kokwo,” Colonel Kwonyike said.
Not easy finding criminals
Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya recently confirmed to the Nation that though police have the names of suspected criminals, finding them is not easy.
“We are trying to stop the smuggling of illegal guns in this region but those in possession of the arms have gone into hideouts, areas that are volatile and impassable for vehicles, making it a major impediment owing to the rough terrain and thick bush,” he said.
“We are dealing with an area that was left behind for several years, providing loopholes for locals to arm themselves. Though we have the names of the suspected criminals wreaking havoc, it is difficult to trace them because some flee to remote areas and to neighbouring countries.”
The poor mobile communications network in remote villages is also a major obstacle in pursuing bandits.
But he said the government was mulling redeploying police reservists who know the region’s terrain and can pursue the criminals into their hideouts.
“We are aiming to seize all firearms in the hands of civilians in the North Rift region, and no community will be left out in a bid to seal the loopholes and end perennial insecurity, no matter how long it would take. We are not going to withdraw until we achieve our targets,” he said.