Laikipia attackers not mere herders but bandits, police insist

Police guard cows seized at Ole Naishu Ranch in Laikipia County on June 17, 2017. Illegal herders have been blamed for killing police officers during operations. PHOTO | MWANGI NDIRANGU

What you need to know:

  • The herders, emboldened by heavy guns, have been actively seeking confrontation.
  • Chief Inspector Samuel Gitau narrowly escaped with his life following a shootout with illegal herders.

On 12 July, a small contingent of police officers on a reconnaissance mission ran into an ambush near Matwiku village in Laikipia West, leaving six, among them a deputy police commandant, dead.

In a fierce shootout that lasted more than 40 minutes, the bandits overpowered the Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU) officers.

They took the slain officers’ guns.


A survivor told the Nation that there had been more than 100 attackers.

It was hardly a fair fight: The bandits had the advantage of surprise, sheer force of numbers and sophisticated weaponry such as AK-47s and MI6s.

“I lost good men that day, including my deputy,” ASTU Commandant Joseph ole Tito said.

“They were killed by the impunity that has seen Laikipia turn lawless, its residents at the mercy of gun-toting pastoralists who answer to no one.”

He was leading a group of officers, some from headquarters in Gilgil, on an exploratory mission into the welfare of officers deployed in Laikipia.
Those killed were ASTU Deputy Commandant Thomas Thurkan, Assistant Superintendent Bernard Wambugu, Inspector Daniel Nzamba and Constables Meshack Langat, Kennedy Chepkurui and Emmanuel Kaigu.

Just two months earlier, young Michael Okendi, fresh from Kenya Police Training College, Kiganjo, was gunned down on an operation led by the military after only a month on the job.

He was not supposed to be involved in such a high-risk security operation but he wanted to see action, Laikipia County Police Commander Simon Kipkeu told the Nation.

“Michael was curious, and insisted on being among the police officers accompanying the Kenya Defence Forces soldiers on that mission,” Mr Kipkeu said.

“He said he wanted to see how the operations were carried out. That was, sadly, his first and last mission. He was shot and died at Moi Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi, where he was airlifted.”

This particular attack stands out because of the number of casualties.

But it is only one in a series of brutal shootings that have rocked Laikipia since last November, when the government began a multiforce operation to flush out illegal herders.

The herders, emboldened by heavy guns, youthful bravado and a superior understanding of the terrain, have been actively seeking confrontation.

Not satisfied with terrorising defenceless villagers, they are targeting police, often waylaying them.

Chief Inspector Samuel Gitau narrowly escaped with his life following a shootout with illegal herders in an operation to expel them from the privately owned Kifuku Ranch in January.

“They deployed about 120 of us to drive herders out of the ranch and we moved slowly towards them,” Mr Gitau recalled.

“What struck me was the sheer size of the herd: There were thousands of cattle, stretching out as far as the eye could see.

“The morans were hiding among the cattle. We drove slowly towards them, shooing them. That’s when the morans started shooting at us.”

The police returned fire, mostly firing blindly, unable to see the morans through the massive herd.

“We mostly fired in the air and, because the morans were afraid of shooting at us directly lest they harmed the cattle, their bullets flew over us,” he said.

“We were more forceful and we drove the cattle into the outskirts of the ranch then turned to leave.”

It was then that they were waylaid by a separate group that sprayed their cars with bullets.


With no more cattle to protect, the herders took aim.

The bullets came hard and fast, piercing into the Land Cruisers and sending the officers ducking for cover.

“I was shot as I crawled out of the car to take an appropriate position to shoot back,” Mr Gitau narrated.

“I felt something tear into my leg, which went numb. Somebody helped me back into the car and we sped off.

“We could not win. The attackers far outnumbered us.”

Mr Gitau, who spent more than a month in hospital, walks with a slight limp and says the cold weather is particularly harsh on him as it aggravates the injury.

“I have been an officer for 26 years and this is the first time I have been shot,” Mr Gitau said.

His is a story that exemplifies the bravery of officers who put their lives on the line in missions that are actually death traps.

Mr Kipkeu says the bandits are far from a disorganised ragtag group; they exhibit some evidence of tactical training, which makes them formidable opponents.

“They know the terrain and often lie in wait in areas where police Land Cruisers have often got stuck due to bad roads worsened by the rains,” Mr Kipkeu added.


“They communicate and organise through mobile phones. Most importantly, somebody is supplying them with firearms and food.

“These are well-thought out, coordinated attacks.”

For now, Laikipia enjoys an uneasy peace but rumour has it that an attack to avenge the 300 cattle reportedly killed by the police in a recent shootout is on the cards.

“We have no official intelligence about retaliation but, should it happen, we are ready and will do our best to keep Laikipia residents safe,” he said.