Laikipia clashes

Police in riot gear patrol Rumuruti town in Laikipia County on September 16, 2021 following clashes among pastoralists.

| Cheboite Kigen | AFP

Uneasy calm returns to Laikipia after weeks of armed violence

What you need to know:

  • Young, unmarried and often uneducated, the herders boast that they do not back down from a fight.

It took us almost two hours to drive from Rumuruti to Airewa in Sosian ward, Laikipia North.

The road is rough and bumpy. On arrival at the Sosian trading centre, we were directed to a set of plains about half a kilometre away.

The area could not be accessed by a vehicle, so we left it behind and walked the rest of the way.

We met a group of about 10 Samburu herders dressed in traditional clothes, complete with hanging pouches with swords.

But the sight of guns, including AK-47 rifles, sent chills down our spines.

We were on a mission, though, and we didn't have the luxury to surrender.

One of the herders, identified as Joseph Lekupe, welcomed us but immediately cautioned against recording the voices of the herders or taking photos.

He said in Kiswahili that these would be used to victimise them, but we assured them that we would only listen and write down their grievances.

In our exclusive interview, they explained why they routinely break the law, invading private land in Laikipia County to graze their cattle.

“We have been killed and flushed out of Laikipia. The government does not want to listen to us. The reason we go to Laikipia is not to grab the land but to find pasture for our animals," said Mr Lekupe, 26.

"We came to Laikipia to find water and pasture because of the drought back home. You can't sit and watch your livestock die when your neighbour has grass and water."

Samburu herders

Samburu herders at Rumuruti Market in Laikipia County on September 16, 2021.

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

Desperate times

The herders say poor rains in their home counties have pushed them to cut fences in search of grazing land, accusing ranchers, farmers and conservationists of protecting their own livelihoods and wild animals at the expense of pastoralists.

They also accuse security forces of unfairly targeting them.

"We have no intention of causing chaos. Our mission is to obtain water and grass for our animals. But security officers are normally called in to shoot our animals. That is what makes us angry," said Loloki Leekete.

"Police shoot dead our animals but no media house reports about it. How do you expect us to behave, after you kill our source of income?"

Another herder, 30-year-old Lekirmpoto Lekaal says:

"Nothing can stop me from looking for water and pasture for my cows, even a bullet."

The herders deny suggestions that their actions are politically motivated or have anything to do with land as Kenya approaches the 2022 General Election.

Another herder, Julius Silale, from Baringo, says the government should provide them with pasture and water instead of victimising them.

"Our problem is water and pasture and nothing else. The government should provide us with that and stop victimising us," he said.

But he says they are compelled to respond in kind when ranchers and owners of private land become rough and call security officers.

"We become violent when owners of expansive lands deny us access to grass and water,” he said.

He maintains that they are the victims - of the weather, greed and selfishness, and State violence.

The moran culture plays a part, too, in the violence.

"We morans do not retreat when fighting for the good of the community," said herder John Kekandero, amid cheers from his colleagues.

Young, unmarried and often uneducated, the herders boast that they do not back down from a fight.

Finding security agents

Emboldened by heavy guns, youthful bravado and a superior understanding of the terrain, they actively seek confrontation with security officers.

However, Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya believes the violence is about political incitement and land ownership, contrary to the common belief that the communities fight over water and pasture.

He describes the situation as a well-coordinated conflict instigated by unnamed leaders who are interested in taking over land once the owners leave and establishing ranches.

“There are some people who are obsessed with ranching and they are targeting the Laikipia Nature Conservancy to displace the owners and take up the ranch,” Mr Natembeya said.

It was an open secret, he said, that the cattle driven into the conservancy belong to rich people who hold big positions in society and even government.

“The livestock that is being grazed in the conservancy and surrounding ranches do not belong to the armed herders. The belong to very rich people who are keeping them well fed and sufficiently supplied with guns and ammunition,” he said.

He said security would be beefed up to protect vulnerable communities and their property.

He also suggested banning moranism, saying the custom was being used to cause conflicts.

“What purpose does moranism culture serve currently? It was used for inter-community fights in ancient times and the youths were taught that their neighbours were their enemies. The culture cannot continue,” he said.

Leaders, he said, were exploiting the morans, inciting them against neighbouring communities and making them fight for the former’s selfish gains.

For the past three weeks, parts of Laikipia were turned into a warzone.

Sporadic gunshots, gory scenes of smoldering houses and wailing owners, empty schools, gun-wielding uniformed security officers, goat herders running helter-skelter, hungry children looking for their mothers were the order of the day.

Heavily armed raiders killed 10 people, including three police officers and a teenager.

They also torched dozens of houses and at nearby ranches, owners, mostly Kenyans of British origin, were turned into prisoners in their own homes.

Landowners did not dare to venture out on their vast farms, as the attackers, armed with sophisticated weapons including AK-47 and M16 rifles, spears and poisoned arrows nearly rule the land.

Laikipia Nature Conservancy

The main entrance to Laikipia Nature Conservancy in Laikipia West.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The epicentre

In Ol Moran, the epicentre of recent bloodbath, bandits chased land owners out of their homes.

Villagers in the area bore the brunt of a series of attacks that led to the loss of lives and property.

The attackers had a field day killing, opening fire indiscriminately, stealing livestock and intimidating ranch owners under the nose of security officers.

Not even the massive land and aerial operation launched by the Kenya Defence Forces, Anti-Stock Theft Unit, the Rapid Deployment Unit and GSU scared them.

But after the government deployed more officers, an uneasy calm has returned.

A potent mix of bad politics, land grievances, recurring droughts and unresolved historical land injustices has been blamed for chaos, but herders maintain it is all about water and pasture for their animals.

The triggers of conflict have been hard to tackle, with leaders and the government at a crossroads over the best way to end the incessant attacks.

Last week, Central Kenya governors asked the government to allocate more funds for development in Laikipia as one way of ending insecurity in the region.

In a press statement, the governors - Francis Kimemia (Nyandarua), Muthomi Njuki (Tharaka Nithi), Anne Waiguru (Kirinyaga), Mwangi Wa Iria (Murang'a), James Nyoro (Kiambu), Kiraitu Murungi (Meru), Mutahi Kahiga (Nyeri), Martin Wambora (Embu) and Lee Kinyanjui (Nakuru) - said the best way the government can eliminate banditry in Laikipia is through greater development.

“While we applaud the national government for the quick response in stopping the Laikipia violence, we call on ministries, agencies, and departments to accelerate their support capacity and allocate more development funds to end banditry in the region,” said the statement signed by Mr Kimemia, the Central Region Economic Bloc chairman.

They said the government should improve road networks, and build water dams, schools and health facilities.

“The region needs more roads, targeted support especially in water dams, pans, boreholes and schools. These are critical investments to end the cycle of recurrence of the menace. The only sure way to end banditry and bring about lasting peace in Laikipia is by the government allocating sufficient resources,” the statement said.

The leaders welcomed the government’s move to create a new administrative unit - Kirima sub-county - and establish more police stations in Ol Moran, saying this will ensure the presence of the government in the long term and take services closer to the people.

The leaders also reiterated that banditry and associated acts of lawlessness were aimed at displacing citizens, suppressing voting and manipulating electoral processes through property destruction and fomenting fear and anxiety.

“It is critical that the leaders across the various communities at all levels who are found to have a role in the incitement and perpetuation of violence must face the full force of the law, notwithstanding their political standing or affiliation. We call on the government to redouble its efforts to ensure normalcy resumes,” the statement said.

The county bosses have also recommended the strengthening of community policing, deployment of more police reservists, curbing of illegal firearms through disarmament programmes and the introduction of a proper pasture management programme.