A member of the Kenya Defence Forces, special forces patrolling a water pan built by the military as part of the ongoing Operation Maliza Uhalifu in Chesitet, Baringo County on December 8, 2023.

| Mary Wambui | Nation Media Group

Inside Operation Maliza Uhalifu against North Rift bandits

When President William Ruto announced a security operation in the North Rift region, people living along the conflict belt panicked and started fleeing their homes.

Haunted by the memory of past security operations that side of the country that were synonymous with raw brutality and torching of houses of suspected bandits, a foreboding befell the innocent, and locals fled for their lives.

KDF drone captures bandits lurking in Kainuk

Joseph Lotodo, an elder and former MP for Tiaty Constituency in the early 1990s who now serves as a peace ambassador explains that the community thought Operation Maliza Uhalifu would be an indiscriminate war disguised as an operation to rout banditry.

Boots on the ground as KDF soldiers sent to bandit zone

“Trauma from past operations that targeted a particular community and indiscriminately torched houses of residents living close to bandits' hideouts had left behind more emboldened bandits and a deep lingering pain amongst families of innocent persons killed by security agencies so much that when the current operation was announced we thought the government wants to commit genocide but it since has turned out not to be the case,” he explains.

Months later, he says the operation has shaken off that assumption and given communities hope of an end to the incessant cattle rustling and banditry in the North.

Kenya Defence Forces soldiers patrol Kapedo bridge one of the most volatile areas in Kapedo that has claimed lives during banditry attacks on December 9, 2023.

Photo credit: Mary Wambui | Nation Media Group

Stock theft has persisted in the six counties of West Pokot, Samburu, Laikipia, Baringo, Turkana, and Elgeyo Marakwet since independence forcing successive governments to mount multiple operations that failed due to lack of either capacity or political goodwill.

In Tiaty and Chemolingot, locals believe that the majority of past operations were reactionary and revenge attacks after bandits had killed government officials such as chiefs, police officers, or even local residents.

Recent operations like Operation Rejesha Utulivu (ORU) in Laikipia County (2019-2022), followed by Operation Komesha Uhalifu (OKU) in Baringo County September 2022-February 2023 also failed to cure the root cause of banditry as they targeted specific regions leaving out other volatile areas.

A change in strategy in Operation Maliza Uhalifu has seen security officers aim their guns on criminals only, thereby earning the trust of local communities. Indeed, locals have been asking that the KDF soldiers and the police personnel deployed in the region to stay longer to ensure the reigning state of calm lingers.

Security forces bomb bandits hideout in Baringo

“Previously the government performed several initiatives that somehow failed to bear the anticipated. Fruits. This time, we are adopting a multi-agency approach incorporating all security agencies including the national government administrative authority, pooling synergy to solve this problem,” says Brig Saman.

President Ruto’s decision to order Operation Maliza Uhalifu was informed by the findings of a confidential report dubbed “Technical Report on Shared Security Strategy for Enduring Peace and Security in the North Rift Region” that was handed to him in February and adopted by the National Security Council.

The report sought a permanent solution to the banditry menace by conducting security operations alongside a developmental strategy to solve the social and economic problems that persist within the six counties.

The security operation began by mapping out the conflict belt that would serve as the area of focus, which in turn informed placing Chemolingot as headquarters for the operation currently in its 11th month.

Brigadier Ahmed Saman, the commander of the Kenya Defence Forces deployed to Operation Maliza Uhalifu in the North Rift at the operation's headquarters in Chemolingot on December 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Mary Wambui | Nation Media Group

 “The notion out there is that the whole of North Rift is in conflict, but from our assessment, the ‘conflict belt’ runs from the Malaso Escarpment towards Emaya, Suguta Valley, Keiyo Valley, and the Turkwel river belt. These areas have rich pasture and water and that is where most of the grazing communities end up during the dry season. That breeds conflict in the sense that they are trying to compete for these critical resources,” he says.

Ruto deploys KDF soldiers to bandit-prone regions

Unresolved county boundaries, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, commercialisation of cattle rustling, and the presence of vast ungoverned areas have worsened the conflict over time, ranking it among the leading threats to national security after terrorism.

So far, Brigadier Ahmed Saman says OMU’s mandate has been to flash out bandits, return the volatile areas to normalcy, and kick off development projects in collaboration with other government agencies.

Brigadier Ahmed Saman, the commander of the Kenya Defence Forces deployed to Operation Maliza Uhalifu in the North Rift engaged senior officers at Kapedo bridge on December 9, 2023.

Photo credit: Mary Wambui | Nation Media Group

Operation Maliza Uhalifu has achieved over 70 percent of its operational objectives having returned normalcy to six counties by reducing attacks from a high of 18 in a month in March this year when attacks peaked. A voluntary disarmament exercise has also led to the recovery of 175 firearms and 782 bullets including one Federal Riot Gun, 8,647 livestock, 241 bandits arrested, and scores of others others killed.

Scenes of bandits roaming with arms on their shoulders are now rare as most have since run off to their hideouts fearing an encounter with the security forces.

How bandits are outsmarting KDF, police in hotspots

Brigadier Saman who also commands KDF’s Armed Forces Special Operations Brigade, notes that the assignment in North Rift though complex in terms of the many ethnic interests that fuel propaganda as each tribe pushes for their interests, has not reached the extent of him having to deploy his most sophisticated weapons or maneuvers to eliminate the bandits yet.

His team has, however, had to use mortars to flush out bandits from caves and other hideouts in the unforgiving terrain in addition to deploying drones and other gadgets to track bandits’ movements.

“Putting a timeline to this operation would be like trying to cure cancer within a year. It cannot happen. We are not going anywhere. We will be embedded with the community until the national security shared strategy is achieved and we can declare banditry gone, once and for all,” says Brig Saman.