Meru banditry

Caskets bearing the bodies of herders killed by bandits in Tigania East, Meru County, during a requiem mass on January 12, 2022. Seven people were killed in the attack. 

| File I Nation Media Group

The killing fields of Igembe, courtesy of banditry

Zakaria Mung'athia twists and moans in pain as he puts his injured foot on the wheelchair pedal. When he tries to point to the back where a bullet has lodged, the grimace on his face speaks volumes about the pain.

His wife, Catherine Nchici, helps him to sit properly in the chair as we sit down for an interview at his home in Mutuati, Igembe North.

Mr Mung'athia has been confined to a wheelchair since 13 June, when he and five of his colleagues were attacked by bandits. He recounts his encounter with the cattle thieves, which left two dead and three others with bullet wounds.

They were herding cattle in Amwathi District, one of the worst-affected areas, and the bandits ambushed them as they took their cattle to drink water at a well.

"The first bullet hit my left leg and I fell. As I lay on the ground, writhing in pain, I stood up slightly and shouted to my colleagues to lie down. The second bullet hit my right upper shoulder and I felt it go through my back. I blacked out and heard them shouting that I was dead as they drove our cattle away," he said.

He was taken to Meru Level Five Hospital and after a week was transferred to Kenyatta National Hospital. So far he has spent Sh500,000 and with the bullet lodged in his back, he says he experiences cold and hot shivers at different times of the day, resulting in paralysis from the waist down.

"I survived by the grace of God, but right now I have no money to go to the hospital for an operation to remove the bullet. I can no longer take care of my family and my children are out of school," says the 40-year-old father of seven.

Residents of Matabithi village, Tigania East, Meru County outside the local police post on April 4, 2022, after one police officer was shot dead and another wounded following an attack. 

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

Think of bandits and Baringo, Turkana and Samburu counties spring to mind. But unknown to many Kenyans, Meru County has been battling the problem for years. Mung'athia is one of many men suffering in Igembe North and Tigania sub-counties where bandits have wreaked havoc.  

According to Meru County Commissioner Fred Ndunga, at least 15 people were killed and dozens injured between April and August this year. Thousands of cattle have been stolen in three years, with only a few hundred recovered, he said, noting that Meru's banditry problem is caused by the pastoralists' tradition of restocking. 

"During the drought, they come to Meru in search of pasture and water for their animals, but when it rains and they retreat to their areas, they come back to steal," Mr Ndunga said.

He explained that it has been difficult to contain the bandits due to lack of adequate security personnel and equipment to patrol the vast areas, but noted that the government is taking steps to address the situation.

"The Ministry of Home Affairs has promised to recruit 200 National Police Reserve (NPR) officers and they have already been recruited while we wait for funds to train them. We will also have more patrol vehicles, including armoured ones, and this will solve the problem once and for all," said Ndunga.

Over the past five years, residents of Igembe North and Tigania have borne the brunt of the bandit menace, with several losing loved ones. Daniel Rukunga, a resident of Muthara ward in Tigania East, said they had recently buried several people, most of them men.

MCA banditry

Former Antubetwe Kiongo MCA in Meru George Kaliunga who was fally shot by bandits as he accompanied police in pursuing 71 stolen goats.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

"Recently, bandits invaded our village and stole 60 goats, and when the police came to chase them, some of our young men accompanied them, but at 7pm the police withdrew. The villagers recovered 21 goats, arrested one of the unarmed bandits and took him to the police station. We don't know how he was later released," he said.

Silas Ntoajogi, 53, who was among those shot in May this year when two NPR officers were killed and their rifles stolen, said they were attacked while herding cattle in the area. The following day, four more people were killed as they tried to chase the attackers.

The bullet hit his right hand on the triceps, pierced his chest and exited through his collarbone. He is lucky to be alive. "If it had been on the left side, the bullet would have blown my heart out. I have been herding cattle for 30 years, and I was terrified that day because I narrowly escaped death," he says, vowing never to go back to herding when he recovers.

Nkunja Muriuki, who we found tended to by a doctor at home, said he was with four other herders when they were attacked.

"When I was shot in the thigh, I fell down and stayed there for about two hours waiting for help. Due to excessive bleeding, I fainted and later found myself in has been hard for me as I have spent Sh120,000 but I have not recovered. We are afraid that we will all be killed," he says.

His brother Henry Thuranira, who was an NPR officer, was killed in the line of duty while chasing bandits. Jelinda Kawira, Thuranira's wife, says she has been left with her children, whom she cannot feed as she has no income.

"He was chasing the stolen cattle and I got the news that he was shot and his gun was stolen," said the mother of four.

And Geoffrey Mwongera, the son of Stanley Kalinga, who was killed two months ago, said the family had been left without a breadwinner.

He said his father had expressed fears that they would be attacked a few days before he was killed. "My father told me that he used to report to the police, but nothing was done and no patrols were carried out," he said.

"The situation is worse because the bandits come to our houses and search to see if we have more cattle. If they find them, they just drive away without any resistance," he said.

According to Kirambei Kabicha, chairman of pastoralists in the area, attacks have increased over the past six months.

He said that when operations are carried out in Baringo and other North Rift counties to flush out the bandits, the raiders move to Igembe North and stage raids from Isiolo County.

"First it was the Borana who raided, then the Samburu. Now the Turkana come as far as Meru to steal our cattle. During the drought, they come as friends and graze their cattle in the area and when they return, they stage raids because they have already learnt the terrain," said Mr Kabicha.

After former Antubetwe MCA George Kaliunga was killed by bandits on 30 April, Home Affairs Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki declared Igembe North an operational zone, but nothing has been done.

Residents also question why the cattle have been returned but those responsible have not been apprehended. Igembe North MP Julius Taitumu said there was a loophole in the system where after the cattle are stolen, negotiations are held to get them back, but no arrests are made.

"This encourages theft because if they are not arrested, they will come back and steal again," Mr Taitumu said in an interview.

However, he expressed hope that the government would address the issue once and for all now that it has employed the NPR officers.

Mr Ndunga explained that when officers trace the stolen cattle to neighbouring districts, the rustlers flee and abandon them.

Meru County Commissioner Fred Ndunga (centre) addresses the press after touring Matabithi police post on April 4, 2022, after one police officer was shot dead and another wounded following an attack on their police post Sunday night.

"People have been asking why we only recover the cattle and fail to arrest the thieves. When they are cornered by officers, they run away, and in order to arrest them, we need information from members of the community, who are reluctant to provide it. But we have put in place structures that will assist in enforcement, including working with grazing committees so that we can stamp out banditry," he said.

Last Sunday (10 September), President William Ruto said during an interdenominational prayer service in Laare, Igembe North, that the government would deploy enough security officers in the area to deal with the bandits.

President William Ruto last week ordered the Kenya Defence Forces to carry out a joint security operation with the police in all banditry prone areas.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

"We have allocated Sh25 billion that will be used to buy modern equipment for the police and we will not give criminals a chance to destroy the lives of Kenyans. In the next two months, this problem will be a thing of the past," he said.

But residents are wary of such promises, saying it is not the first time government officials have talked tough about the menace.

"Promises have been made, but they are never kept. There are no security patrols and bandits walk around our village checking if there are any cattle left in the sheds. They also graze their cattle on our farms, which is very worrying," said Ms Kawira.

"School activities have been affected because when our children go to school they find them there and come back afraid that they will be killed. The raiders are roaming the areas and we are calling on the police to intensify patrols," she added.