Why Marsabit remains unstable despite efforts to restore tranquillity

Interior CS Dr Fred Matiang'i in Marsabit

Interior CS Dr Fred Matiang'i is shown the firearms recovered during the ongoing Rejesha Amani Operation in Marsabit on June 6, 2022.

Photo credit: Pool

From banditry, cattle rustling, clan clashes and constant fight over scarce natural resources, the second largest county of the land, Marsabit, perennially remains unstable, defying government and local interventions to stablise it.

Home to some 459,785 people according to the 2019 census, the northern county always hits the headlines for the wrong reasons with its arid climatic conditions making things even harder for its predominantly pastoralist natives, majorly from the Borana and Gabra ethnic groups. 

Constant war over pasture remains the order of the day for the people whose source of prestige is having hundreds, if not thousands, of cattle, goats and camels that voraciously feast on the scarce pasture dotting the county.

With most parts experiencing minimal rainfall every year, the nomadic pastoralists are constantly on the move seeking literal greener pastures for their treasured animals. In the process, guns are raised, aims are made, targets identified and triggers pulled. End result, deaths!

The situation is bad. Filthy lucre among those with less animals exacerbates the situation, everyone, driven by greed to enlarge their herds will go to any length to do just that at whatever cost.

Thriving meat business in major urban cities and towns in the country also continues to fuel cattle rustling that supplies cheap beef from stolen cows in the arid parts of the country, a senior police officer in the county told the Nation.

Unknown to many, Marsabit town, the capital of the county, is greener than most parts of Kenya, temperatures so low that this reporter, while visiting the troubled county alongside the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i and his security team, had to keep his warm jacket throughout the day. Its coolness and lush greenery greatly contrasts its hot surrounding neighbourhoods that remain largely bare and deserted.

A stroll down the town’s busiest street portrays a misleading picture of tranquillity. One would never know of the horrors witnessed in the very same streets barely months ago when hired gunmen, riding on motorcycles in threes, would identify their target, ride close and deliver a killer shot before swiftly leaving the scene.

Tens of people have been killed in the region, with the attacks attributed partly to herders who were searching for pastures for their livestock during the dry period and ethnic rivalry.

“The fights here were very bad. This town was a slaughterhouse, armed men would fight in broad daylight here in town, even moving next to the police station (Marsabit police station). They were so daring,” a resident told the Nation.

However, some sense of civility was restored after the government sent special police forces to the area to first restore, and then maintain law and order after imposing a month-long dusk to dawn curfew in Marsabit.

These measures came after President Uhuru Kenyatta asked the region’s leaders in February to provide a community-initiated strategy to stop the conflicts, failure to which the government would deploy security agencies with strict instructions to end insecurity in the county.

While announcing the curfew in May, CS Matiang'i, said the security agencies had been deployed to rid the region of illegal firearms.

"Effective from 6:00 p.m. on May 2, we have placed the whole of Marsabit County under curfew to be followed by an operation to rid of illegal guns causing havoc there. Leaders in the area are urged to cooperate. We must get all illegal firearms from that place. We will stay there until the job is done, " he said.

The first month of the operation by a multi-agency security team currently based at Saku High School, located some eleven kilometers from Marsabit town, has yielded fruit.

During his visit to Marsabit barely a few days after extending the dusk to dawn curfew imposed in May for another 30 days, CS Matiang’i revealed that a big cache of guns and ammunition had been retrieved at the close of the first month of the “Operesheni Rejesha Amani” initiative in the area. This was after spending a few hours with the special units at Saku High School where the operation’s commander briefed him on the progress.

At least 250 guns and more than 3,000 bullets plus two grenades were retrieved from wrongful hands and are currently in police custody. The guns retrieved include AK47 (over 100), G3 (36), Carabine (60), MK4 (45), seven pistols, four sub machine guns, five HK21 general purpose machine guns and 22 old guns

The Interior Ministry boss said the State was not going to relent on its push until it retrieved at least 3,000 guns illegally owned by locals in the troubled county.

"We believe from intelligence and the information we have, that there are more guns than the ones that we have collected. We need to recover more guns, we will review this operation when we have around 3000 or so guns because we believe there are still many more guns in wrong hands," he said.

An engagement with religious leaders and locals in Marsabit revealed that major problems in the country arose from weak administrative structures in the country with some chiefs and sub chiefs, whose identity the Ministry withheld, being mentioned adversely.  To fix this challenge, the government announced a plan for redeployment of the officials plus a full re-training for all chiefs and sub chiefs in the county.

Morbidly, a day after CS Matiangi’s toured the vast county to inspect the progress made in enhancement of security and already heading to the bandit-prone Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Baringo counties, bandits attacked a village in Laisamis, a town in Marsabit.

They managed to escape with 45 goats. Several kilometres away in the same county, Turbi residents demonstrated the kidnapping of two teenage boys.

It still boggles the mind how strategic these hair-rising incidents took place moments after the government’s mighty show of power with tens of heavy artillery vehicles cruising through the largely arid and semi-arid county escorting CS Matiang’i in his entire visit.

However, the cattle rustling and banditry headache is not only a Marsabit problem because on the same day, dozens of police in neighbouring Turkana reported the recovery of 180 heads of cattle that had been stolen from Liwan village in Kokuro by Dassanech raiders from neighbouring Ethiopia.

Still on the same day, a police officer in Laikipia sustained serious injuries after the team of officers he was part of came under heavy fire from bandits as they were driving away cows that were being grazed at a private ranch at Kimandura.

Highly placed sources at the Interior Ministry revealed that at least 25 percent of Kenya’s specialised police officers from the Rapid Dispatch Unit, Border Patrol Unit as well as General Service Unit have been deployed to the troubled counties yet the perennial issues of cattle rustling, killings and clashes persist.

CS Matiang’i largely blamed the local leaders who “instead of coming up with development projects, have found ways of fuelling ethnic wars while stashing large amounts of the revenue allocated to them in foreign investments”.

Laxity on the part of administrative officials, including chiefs and sub chiefs to give timely and accurate information to the government, remains a thorn in the government’s flesh. So bad is their commitment to solving the problem that plenty of them showed up over two hours late for a crucial security meeting with Interior CS during his tour in the county earlier this week.

Their boss was not amused that he ordered they be locked out of the meeting and handed them sheets of paper to draft their “show cause letters” explaining their tardiness.

The chiefs and their assistants grumbled, and complained of being “neglected by the government and thrown out of the meeting” yet they had come from very far parts of the county. They were mostly from the northern parts of the county including Turbi, Sololo and Moyale.

Late response to emergencies by security forces earlier on before the operation was also flagged out as another factor impeding the restoration of peace in Marsabit but the government has vowed to maintain operesheni rejesha amani and will not relent until things calm down there.

With the vast sparsely populated county that has at least six people per square kilometre covering 66,923 square kilometres, the ease of security forces moving from one place to another to settle clashes in unforgiving heat and scattered population, is also greatly hampered.

The council of governors also recently listed Marsabit as one of the eight counties in the Alarm drought phase. The other counties include Mandera, Wajir, Samburu, Isiolo, Baringo, Turkana and Laikipia. Should the rains fail to come between now and November, governors warned that the situation will be dire as more Kenyans will face starvation, hunger and possible death.

All this, pointing to changing climatic conditions, has seen 17 of the 23 arid and semi-raid counties in Kenya record poor short rains.

This will only result in more fights for pasture and water, CS Matiang'i said while noting that climate change was a key driver in county-border conflicts in several counties in Eastern and North Eastern regions in the country.

A recent discovery by the police has also pointed out to a troubling emerging trend. This is the sudden availability of pistols.

GSU Commander Bernard Kituku Mbatha, who led the Laikipia disarmament operation last year and the current commander of Operation Rejesha Amani in Marsabit told the Nation that the pistols showed that targeted execution by hired gunmen would soon be a threat in the county with such incidences already recorded in the county.

“People here need long range guns while fighting in the plains and hills, that is why you see most of the guns retrieved are long range. Pistols are very rare in Marsabit and we suspect these are the ones being used for the close-range shootings seen here,” he said.

Even as the Interior Cabinet’s armed convoy snaked out of the county onto the long Isiolo-Marsabit highway a few days ago, the deceiving tranquillity of the largely shrub-infested county neatly hides the plans of raids, banditry and cattle rustling by criminals hiding beneath the rock boulders spread for kilometres on both sides of the road.