A herder grazes at Lafe area near Urura village in Merti, Isiolo where four people were killed by suspected bandits from neighbouring Wajir County on January 8, 2021.

| Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

The killing fields of Isiolo: How politics, police laxity are fuelling insecurity

What you need to know:

  • Over the past couple of weeks, at least 15 people have died in coordinated bandit attacks in Isiolo County.
  • The insecurity has also been blamed on competition for water and pasture in the dry and hot area.

Who is to blame for the violence that has rocked parts of Isiolo County since May? 

This is a question leaders in the county are grappling with amid blame games and accusations and counter accusations among politicians, elders, residents and the government, which has been accused of failing to stop the slaughter of innocents.

Over the past couple of weeks, at least 15 people have died in coordinated bandit attacks, threatening to turn the area into a killing field.

Political intrigues and land disputes and acquisitions are major contributors to the conflicts between pastoralists in Isiolo. The insecurity has also been blamed on competition for water and pasture in the dry and hot area.

But there is consensus that national government functionaries seem incapable of dealing decisively with the lawlessness.

And despite assurances from the government that the county is safe, the attackers seem to perpetuate violence with impunity. 

Last Sunday, Hadija Dida, Sharu Jarso, Shararo Kuno, Abdiaziz Roba and Molle Hussein were at their Madowale home in Merti near Isiolo-Wajir border when bandits suspected to have come from Wajir County shot them dead.

The Sunday dawn attack, in which a community borehole was vandalised, came a week after six people were killed in a fierce fire exchange between two groups of herders within Buffalo Springs National Reserve at Attan in Ngaremara and about 20 kilometres from Isiolo town.

Security team's laxity

A cleric and a 14-year-old would later be attacked by bandits at Mwangaza in Isiolo town, provoking complaints from the public over laxity by the security team.

The Kerith Christian Centre cleric was shot on his left leg when he got out of his house after hearing a commotion at his landlord’s goat shed. The attackers shot the boy, who was rushing home past the 10pm curfew time, in the stomach, as they fled with more than 87 goats, which were later recovered by police.

Lack of clear administrative boundaries allows easy encroachment in one another’s land, causing tension and provoking attacks over control of the resources, resulting in loss of lives and destruction of property.

When drought strikes, herders travel for many kilometres with livestock and build temporal structures near grazing fields, displacing families from their ancestral lands in a planned expansionist strategy.

Sources say loss of animals due to diseases and drought gives communities justification to raid their neighbours’ territories to restock their herds and cushion themselves against the losses.

With most of the counties in Northern Kenya having not registered their land, communities easily invade each other’s land as the boundaries are ill defined and in some cases, overlap. 

Proliferation of illegal firearms, police sources say, continues to make it difficult for them to avert raids at the border points.

Isiolo borders Samburu, Wajir, Laikipia, Meru, Marsabit and Garissa counties.

Threatening peace efforts

But besides control of resources, the attacks are sometimes instigated by politicians for their own selfish gains of safeguarding their electoral base.

Politicians will often defend their people even when they unleash terror on their neighbours. They also arm them so that they can “secure themselves”, threatening peace efforts.

Intelligence reports indicated that local politicians could have fuelled April’s Kambi Samaki attack near the Isiolo-Garissa border, where five people were killed and hundreds of animals stolen.

Isiolo County Commissioner Herman Shambi said investigations into the matter had been launched and that local police and administrators were also being investigated for taking too long to respond to distress calls and doing little to prevent the crime.

Police said the attack, believed to have been retaliatory, could have been prevented if the previous killing of one person and injuring of eight others at Qarsa had been reported.

Mr Shambi said no report was made at the nearest police station following the first killing. Details of the progress of investigations into the politicians’ hand in the killing have never been shared.

“We are probing alleged involvement of politicians in the Kambi Samaki attack and we will take stern action against anyone found culpable,” Mr Shambi recently said.

Politics has infiltrated the protracted disputes such that police officers and chiefs working in the border areas are perceived to serve their respective communities. People from one community will not report crime at the nearest police post if it happens to be in a neighbouring county.

Feuding communities

This way, many incidents go unreported and in some cases, facts are misrepresented.

Lack of political goodwill and political acrimony continue to threaten efforts to ensure peaceful coexistence between feuding communities as each politician pushes their own agenda.

Elected leaders from Isiolo, Wajir and Garissa in January met Interior CS Fred Matiang’i following the killing of six people at Urura village in Merti.

The governors, senators and MPs vowed to lead peace efforts and ensure residents from the three counties coexist but little has been achieved so far.

Burat MCA Hassan Yarrow said the incessant attacks were threatening pastoralism, the main source of income for a majority of the residents, and impoverishing the community.

Political interference in elders’ peace efforts also makes the groups partisan. 

The security team has also been lax in dealing with banditry as it mostly recovers stolen livestock but rarely apprehends suspects and it does, they are released under unclear circumstances.

In April this year, Nantudu village elders handed to police two firearms believed to have been used in a past attack in Oldonyiro, where bandits raided one of the homes and stole dozens of goats that were later recovered by police.

Guns in wrong hands

Police did not follow up or put the elders to task to reveal to them the owners of the guns, who might have had a hand in the attack.

Similarly, after recovering all the 87 goats stolen when bandits attacked the Mwangaza cleric at Aremiet in Burat ward, the officers did not arrest anyone in connection with the theft and shooting.

Police reports indicated that the goats were found near some homes within Aremiet and that on seeing the officers, some men who were keeping watch over the animals, fled.

Eastern Regional Coordinator Isaiah Nakoru recently met with security teams from Isiolo, Meru, Samburu and Marsabit and more than 100 elders from the four counties after two people were killed in a clash between herders from Isiolo and Samburu at Kom.

Mr Nakoru blamed guns in the wrong hands among the pastoralists for the insecurity and ordered herders at Kom to surrender the illegal guns in a week’s time or risk forcible disarmament. 

“We have enough officers to protect our people and their property and therefore, no one should hold any firearm, but surrender it to authorities,” he said while noting that Isiolo and Marsabit counties had surrendered 318 illegal firearms by December 2020 following the state’s three-month amnesty.

The government had early this year announced plans to establish police posts at the borders in Isiolo, Wajir and Garissa for timely response to insecurity cases, but nothing has been done.

Politicians fanning violence

The Isiolo County Government then promised to set aside funds for the construction of the police posts in partnership with the Ministry of Interior.

There have been concerns by residents from the three counties that politicians were fanning violence in the region, with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission accused of failure to tame inflammatory remarks ahead of the campaign period.

“We want to see action being taken against leaders fanning violence so that we remain united as Isiolo people and live in peace with our neighbours,” Mr Hassan Wako, a resident, said.

Governor Mohamed Kuti recently lamented that most of the attacks were happening on the Isiolo side and that the attackers intend to eject the county’s residents from their ancestral land.

The county government, Dr Kuti said, was committed to speeding up community land registration to help secure the border and end recurring conflicts.

Two officers working with the Catholic Relief Services were last Friday ambushed by bandits at Kom, forcing them to flee, leaving behind the organisation’s vehicle.

The officers were changing a tyre when armed men started firing towards, them forcing them to go into hiding. They were rescued the following day after walking for nearly 10 kilometres.

The attack has been linked to the ongoing 10-day multi-agency operation in the Buffalo Springs National Reserve that seeks to eject armed herders from the park, to avert attacks such as the one witnessed a week ago.