A potent mix of bad politics, land grievances, recurring droughts and unresolved historical land injustices are to blame for incessant invasions of ranches and private properties in Laikipia.
The cocktail of the triggers of conflicts in the region has over time made the invasions a hard nut to crack, with the government always at a crossroads over the best way to contain the situation.
For the past one week traditional herdsmen from neighbouring Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties have invaded conservancies and private properties in Laikipia and brought in thousands of cattle.
Over the past couple of days, the herders, most of them heavily armed, have been migrating into the county with their livestock in search of pasture and water.
The renewed invasions, a year after similar incursions led to deadly conflicts, have been attributed to drought, politics and land grievances.
Although there does not seem to be a simple, neat explanation for what ails Laikipia, locals that we interviewed link the perennial conflicts to land and politics.
“The invasions of ranches and farms and the resultant conflict have a historical and cultural context. The herders are most of the time used to invade Laikipia with the aim of driving out land owners and ranchers and claim land for themselves,” said Rumuruti resident Charles Kimani.
“Politicians sometimes provide arms to the morans and pay them to raid and occupy land. This is not about pastoralists escaping drought, because sometimes even after it rains, they still remain here. This is forcible occupation of land that belongs to other people.”
Another resident, Beatrice Maina, conceded that while drought may have been the initial driver of the invasions, there is an underlying factor of land.
“Herders mainly invade ranches with instructions from politicians. The pastoralists have been told that white land leases have expired and they have been promised those ranches, leading to a sense of entitlement among them. They claim they have ancestral rights to the land,” she said.
But herders maintain that they invade Laikipia mainly in search of water and pasture.
“We mainly trespass to ranches and private property in search of water and pasture. We have no hidden intentions,” said herder Siran Lentoimaga.
Now police reinforcements have arrived and from the escarpment above are trying to decide how best to restore law and order.
Among the most affected ranches are Jennings farm, the Laikipia Nature Conservancy, Mugie, Ol Maisor, Loisaba and Suiyan.
Lucy Jennings, of Jennings farm in Rumuruti, is overwhelmed by cattle picking through the remains of her expansive wheat farm.
She said herders from neighbouring counties, armed to the teeth, have been driving their livestock onto her farm.
“We don’t allow people to just walk onto the land. The herders are all over my farm with animals and have destroyed hundreds of acres of my wheat farm. The situation is getting worse as both the number of herders and livestock keeps swelling,” she lamented.
Most ranch owners are Kenyan citizens of British origin and they want the government to move quickly and contain the situation.
“I’m afraid that the situation will worsen in the coming days. If the government does not act as soon as possible, this might peak in the run-up to next year’s General Election,” she said.
At Ol Maisor ranch, the situation is the same. Illegal herders are said to have arrived with hundreds of their livestock last week.
“They forced the animals into the ranch by destroying the fence and have since destroyed hundreds of acres of vegetation,” said a private security guard at the ranch.
He told the Nation that they were worried that poaching cartels pretending to be herders might take advantage of the herders’ invasions to kill wild animals.
“We are fearing that wild animals in the conservancies might be killed, as it happened in previous years. Some of them would kill the animals, most of them elephants, after coming into conflict with them at water points,” said the guard, who has worked at the ranch for a decade.
“They also shoot at them to scare them away while others would kill them as a rite of passage in their culture.”
Laikipia ranchers have protested against the invasions and want security agencies to intervene.
Herders have left a trail of destruction in the region.
On Sunday, security agencies confirmed the presence of livestock in ranches in Rumuruti, Mugie, Laikipia Nature Conservancy and Suiyan, as herders searched for water and pasture.
Security agencies in the county said they will not allow a repeat of what happened in 2017 and 2018.
“We are on high alert and let them be warned that we are going to deal with them. We won’t allow anyone to invade and destroy people’s property,” warned Laikipia County Commissioner Daniel Nyameti.
“Private property must be respected and anyone who defies this will face the full force of the law.”
Meanwhile, leaders in Samburu have accused the government of heavy-handedness in dealing with pastoralists, citing the alleged killing of 300 cows as extremely punitive and disproportionate to the crime of illegal grazing.
“Security forces were deployed to the region to evict herders and their livestock from private lands, which we are actually supporting,” said Samburu elder Samuel Lenkulate.
“But what is surprising us is that cattle are being killed with bullets and explosives, while herders who have been driven to Laikipia from their native counties are willing to sign grazing agreements with the ranchers.”
Security agencies in Laikipia have warned local politicians to refrain from inciting herders against private ranchers and smallholder farmers in the region.
Mr Nyameti accused politicians, especially from the pastoral communities, of inciting illegal herders to resist the government’s move to flush them out of private property.
He warned that the government would take action against any politician inciting residents to resist peace efforts.
Local politicians, he said, had been frustrating the government’s efforts to restore peace and sanity especially in volatile areas of the county where cattle rustling and general insecurity are a big headache.
He accused politicians of whipping up emotions by circulating photos of injured animals on social media platforms.
“The photos are being circulated by politicians in pretense of defending the herders but the aim is to seek sympathy votes from members of the pastoral communities. This is all about 2022 and nothing else,” he said.
He has maintained that the operation to flush out illegal herders and other invaders from neighbouring counties would continue relentlessly.
He assured residents that security personnel were closely monitoring all hotspot areas where cattle rustling and cases of invasions were rife.
Last weekend, unnamed politicians took to social media platforms alleging that about 300 cattle illegally grazing in the 57,000-acre Loisaba wildlife conservancy in Laikipia North were shot at and bombed by security forces.
Photos of alleged injured animals stirred a public outcry, with herders accusing security forces of destroying their livelihoods by employing unlawful means to evict them from the area.
But the Nation has independently established that the photos circulated on social media for the better part of last weekend were from a 2018 incident where more than 300 cattle were shot dead by police while grazing in Ratia, Ol Moran ward, Laikipia County.
During previous invasions, wild animals including elephants, giraffes, buffalos and zebras were mostly targeted.
The region is touted as one of Africa’s most exhilarating wilderness safari and wildlife tourism destinations, with a combination of abundant wildlife, stunning scenery and extraordinary cultural biodiversity.
It is this rich multibillion-shilling economy that the incessant invasions and armed attacks now threaten.