Il Ngwesi Community Conservancy staff Fred Karmushu checks the terrain at the facility located in Laikipia North.

| James Murimi | Nation Media Group

In Laikipia ranches, the war is never far away

On a sunny morning in May 2016, Tirimas Parkusaa came face to face with the real horror of banditry in Laikipia North.

He was commanding a unit of 18 rangers guarding the Il Ngwesi Community Conservancy when 60 heavily armed bandits charged from Mukogodo Forest with the single aim of forcefully grazing more than 2,000 cattle in the conservancy.

In the days leading up to the attack, there had been chatter about brewing tensions with the onset of the dry season, which is synonymous with conflict over grazing land.

Located in an area traditionally inhabited by pastoralist communities, Il Ngwesi was bound to be targeted for its abundant pastures.

Mr Parkusaa had briefed his rangers for the day, and armed with semi-automatic rifles, he felt confident and ready to protect not just the pasture fields but also 14 tourists staying at the Il Ngwesi Eco-Lodge at the time.

Zebras grazing at Il Ngwesi Community Conservancy in Laikipia North. 

Photo credit: James Murimi | Nation Media Group

The rangers had put up their guard and were prepared to defend the conservancy, but what they did not realise was that on this particular day they would be going to war.

The thing is, in these lands, nothing will stop pastoralist herders and their animals from grazing for as long as there is grass in sight. Armed to the teeth and with militia-like tactics, not even the best artillery ranching money can buy will stop these herders from at least trying to get into fields of grass. They will kill to get their animals to pasture, or die trying.

Around 9am, the herders charged as they opened fire on the rangers, who held their ground. For hours, a quiet serene conservancy turned into a battlefield as herders fought to breach the perimeter.

In the melee, two rangers were injured. To this day, the actual number of casualties on the herders’ side is unknown but Tirimas and the Il Ngwesi rangers are confident multiple bandits were felled. As is their norm, they dragged away their casualties when they retreated.

Mr Parkusaa, as head of security in the conservancy, had to seek assistance from the neighbouring Lewa Conservancy to evacuate tourists as the fighting ensued.

Photo credit: James Murimi | Nation Media Group

“Before the attackers could get into the eco-lodge, our neighbours from Lewa had evacuated all our guests using aircraft to their facility so none of them was injured,” he told the Nation

The fighting went on for more than five hours, up to around 2pm when the bandits retreated.

But rather than completely abort the mission, the herders raided neighbouring villages, stealing hundreds of animals and killing two locals, perhaps to salvage some pride from a failed incursion.

The events of that day were like scenes from an action film scripted to depict a forgotten failed state reeling in civil war and lawlessness.

Except this is the way of life in Laikipia, a county geographically in the centre of Kenya, about 250km north of the capital Nairobi.

In these arid lands, banditry, livestock theft, destruction of property, murder and utter lawlessness reign.

Ironically, it is home to the biggest ranching businesses in the country, predominantly owned by foreign investors with export revenues of billions of shillings.

On one side, local communities thrive in the chaos veiled as cultural practice. On the flip side, foreign and local investors inject billions of shillings into the previously arid wastelands in a bid to milk the best out of it.

Some of 2,600 herds of cattle at Ole Naishu Conservancy in Laikipia North.

Photo credit: James Murimi | Nation Media Group

Every year, for decades, the two contrasting economies find themselves in conflict, and it gets messy and ugly each season.

For ranchers and conservancies, they have adopted new ways of life that include cultivating pasture and controlled grazing. Given that Laikipia is an arid region, pasture is limited.

But local communities have held onto ancient pastoralist techniques that are bound to conflict with the modern ways of life of groups that have settled permanently in one spot.

Following a similar attack in February, the Il Ngwesi Conservancy now finds itself staring at a loss of animals and revenue.

Senior guide James ole Kinyaga says the conservancy is devoid of grass for grazing due to the recent attack.

Photo credit: James Murimi | Nation Media Group

“They came with heavy guns and sprayed bullets to scare wildlife and our security team. As you can see, we don’t have any grass left because they have never embraced proper management of grazing fields,” Mr Kinyaga says.

Laikipia Conservancy Association chairman Kip ole Polos says lots of resources have been injected over the years into offering civic education to Samburu community elders on the need to have a managed and modern way of grazing.

“We have educated elders from Samburu, who we think are neutral, on the need to follow the procedure of accessing pastures in conservancies. I don’t believe in using guns to mitigate these problems. I believe in talking to people amicably,” Mr Polos says.

Mr Polos, who is also the chairman of Il Ngwesi Conservancy, says not much has been gained from engaging community elders as there have been persistent bandit attacks and illegal invasions of conservancies.

“I think there is a disconnect between herders and the youths herding the cattle. I have come to learn that their youngsters do not listen to them. As a nomadic community, we will try another way of bringing the Samburu warriors to a roundtable,” Mr Polos says.

The rules and regulations that allow grazers into conservancies, he said, must be adhered to.

“They need to understand the rules we have put in place and how we are doing it in Laikipia. They have to get permits from the veterinary department in order to control the spread of diseases,” he says.

The Ilmamusi Community Forest Association, which comprises the Il Ngwesi, Ole Naishu, Lekuruki, Makurian and Kurikuri conservancies, has entered into grazing agreements with local residents.

Each of the conservancy is barred from allowing more than 2,288 animals. Each resident is charged Sh150 per month per cow. No cost is incurred for calves.

“There are grazing agreements signed by both parties and they are forwarded to all security agents in the county. We are trying to run away from the historical issue of crisis grazing in Laikipia by coming up with these grazing blocs. We allow grazing in the five conservancies according to rain patterns,” Mr Polos says.

On a tour of the Ole Naishu Conservancy, the Nation encounters Lerionga Kailunguish, who is leading a team of grazers who have pitched tents there in the past three months.

Mr Kailunguish and his team from Chumvi village have a binding grazing agreement with the facility to allow them to graze their 2,600 cattle and 700 calves.

“We have been partnering in having controlled grazing of livestock in this facility safely. But we are afraid of attacks from illegal herders from Samburu,” Mr Kailunguish says.

“If such an attack takes place, then we will be evicted from this land. We have water that can only cater for this number of animals,” he adds.

But this is not just about pasture and grazing fields - there is politics at play. Political balkanisation to be specific.

Politicians benefit from the violence in two ways. One is that they too own a vast population of livestock and gain directly from forceful grazing on private land.

On the other hand, every time elections roll around, politicians forcefully displace communities and people they feel would not vote for them.

The government has in fact acknowledged that politicians are the biggest instigators of clashes, with the aim of displacing rival communities for political gain.

They ride on historical problems between communities to advance their political agenda, actively fuelling animosity.

Once rival communities are displaced, politicians then settle their own people on the land with plans to register them as voters ahead of the elections.

But the leaders being fingered for fanning the violence remain free, getting only endless warnings from the government.

During a security meeting in Laikipia North two weeks ago, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matinag’i said politicians were seeking to forcefully displace people for the purpose of amassing votes.

“We understand the nonsense of political balkanisation where politicians displace other people and settle their own just so they get votes,” he said.

“So I have asked the county security team to look for these people and arrest them so we take them to court.”

Despite these monotonous threats by high-ranking government officials to arrest leaders for incitement, the last notable action was the 2018 arrest of former Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurkel.