A view of the Malaso escarpment in Samburu West. Armed bandits have established a formidable territory in the valley where they keep stolen cattle 'out of reach of the government'.

| Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

Inside Samburu's alluring valleys, where armed bandits roam

The picturesque Pura Gorges in Samburu West, with their lush green thickets, present a mesmerising landscape to any visitor.

But beneath this scenic beauty lies a grim reality.

Armed bandits reign supreme, staging deadly attacks that have claimed scores of lives over the years, including that of security officers. 

David Lesoipa, a resident of the neighbouring village of Nolkerra, told how bandits had driven his cattle into the gorges of Pura, creating a stronghold where stolen animals are kept beyond the reach of the government.

Lesoipa is a frustrated man.  He has lost about 300 cows, goats and sheep in recent waves of banditry.

"If the military is for us, why can't they go and confront the bandits?" he asked. 

Police officers in Ltungai Valley, Samburu West.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

In reality, the defiant bandits have turned the Pura, Kur Kur and Malaso valleys into their "operational area", making it difficult for security forces to track them down.

The rugged edges of the Rift Valley that connect these gorges pose access problems, with sharp, rocky, mountainous terrain and thorny bushes hampering efforts to effectively combat banditry.

Mr Lesoipa believes that a comprehensive sweep of the gorges in Pura, Amaiya, Kur Kur and Malaso could suppress the bandits. 

Police officers in Ltungai Valley, Samburu West.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

"All the criminals live here. They have a fixed base because they know they cannot be dislodged," he said in an interview.

Security operations since March have claimed the lives of at least two law enforcement officers, while several others, including military personnel, have been injured in bandit attacks.

Policemen operating in the volatile region face the challenge of confronting gunmen holed up in gorges and ravines. The difficult terrain, characterised by steep rocky hills, broken volcanic rocks, thorny bushes and cacti, forces officers to crawl across dangerous reptile-infested surfaces.

One police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed the daunting task they face when trying to recover stolen animals or chase criminals.

"It is not easy to confront them in their territory. They know their terrain well and often set up deadly ambushes," the officer said.

The bandits exploit the steep valleys and use camouflage to blend in with the rocky caves, making them hard to spot.

Home Affairs Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki earlier this year ordered residents in bandit-infested areas to leave immediately as the government launched operations to flush out bandits using the areas as hideouts.

CS Kindiki identified gorges, ravines, escarpments and hills in Samburu as major hideouts for armed bandits.

"Some of the areas where the bandits have invested include Ltungai, Longewan, Lolmolok, Pura Valley, Suguta Valley and Malaso," said Prof Kindiki. 

Locals found in these areas have been warned that they will be treated as suspects.

The government also imposed restrictions on air traffic in the areas, allowing only authorised aircraft.

This decision, locals say, underlined the seriousness of the situation in Samburu.

But nine months after the deployment of security forces to neutralise banditry, Samburu West remains volatile.

The government has promised to end the constant cattle rustling in Samburu and other parts of the Rift Valley, but armed bandits remain in their 'area of operation', resulting in thousands of displaced residents.

Recently, the Parliamentary Committee on Internal Security expressed concern over the escalating banditry, noting its impact on families, education, economic activities and routine services.

"We have learnt that thousands have become IDPs in their own country. There are many heartbreaking stories here," said Committee Chairperson and Narok West MP Gabriel OleTongoyo during a visit to Loosuk area.

Interestingly, the county's tourism industry is booming in the midst of insecurity.

A new report by the Controller of Budget shows that Samburu County generated Sh226.23million as own source revenue in the 2022/23 financial year as tourism, a key economic sector, recovered from the Covid-19-induced slump.

"The highest revenue of Sh137.13 million came from fees from game parks and nature reserves, which contributed 61 per cent of the total own source revenue during the period under review," Dr Margaret Nyakang'o, the budget controller, said in her report.

Samburu boasts of tourist sites such as Samburu National Reserve, Sera Rhino Sanctuary, Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Malaso View Point, Lions Cave among others.