Armed herdsmen

In this file picture, armed herdsmen from Turkana community escort their animals on the Lomelo-Lokori road in Turkana County.

| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Wars over cattle turning young boys into killers

What you need to know:

  • Kenya’s volatile Rift Valley region has seen an increase in the number of children engaged in war.
  • There is no clear strategy on how the government is tackling the issue of child warriors.

Kennedy, 16, boasts he has killed four people during cattle raids in banditry-scarred regions of Rift Valley. 

Unlike his age mates, who are barely getting done with primary school, Kennedy confesses his prowess in handling an assault rifle, and how he has been turned into a killing machine.

And he is lionised as a defender of his community and an outstanding herder watching over a flock of sheep to ward off attacks by raiders.

His innocence is tinged with the sense of suspicion. At the slightest provocation, the AK-47 rifle hanging from his right shoulders and pointing to his bare feet will come in handy.

Killed four, wounded many

Until he discloses, you would never suspect that at 16, Kennedy has already killed four people and wounded many.

And his community in Riongo, Baringo County takes pride in him. To them, he is a brave warrior who has saved the community’s animals from bandits and recovered many.

“I have been carrying a firearm since I was eight. It is a way of life. If you go grazing without a rifle, you lose all the animals. Because other boys and men will raid and since they may be armed, they will take all the animals from you,” Kennedy says.

He is not the only one with a gun.

In parts of Baringo, Laikipia, West Pokot, Samburu and Turkana Counties, it is normal to encounter armed boys. They are encouraged to conduct raids and capture as many animals as they can.

To these communities, arming the boys and equipping as many of them as possible with sharp shooting skills is a prerequisite for peace. Because of this belief, anyone who tries to come in their way, including police officers and Kenya Police Reservists, becomes a target.

“Without guns, you are left at the mercy of the raiders. We are armed because the other communities are armed,” says Gideon Lokipunna, a resident of Lomelo.

Despite the existence of the 1977 Geneva Protocols, which set the strongest prohibitions against the use of children in armed conflicts, Kenya’s volatile Rift Valley region has seen an increase in the number of children engaged in war. There is no clear strategy on how the government is tackling the issue of such children.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict requires state parties take all feasible measures to prevent recruitment of children to be participants in armed conflict. It demands that the states should adopt legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalise such practices.

Children being used to kill

Over time though, security officers have been the target of the warring communities, with the government worrying that more children are being used to kill.

“The children are used then later they are cleansed and taken through circumcision. It is a culture that is so deeply rooted that they are comfortable with. But these are crimes. It is criminal to own guns, to steal cattle, to raid villages and cause mayhem and to kill,” Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya told the Nation.

The administrator blamed the elders for the cultural practice that fuels armed conflicts and glorifies criminals.

Initiation ceremonies

These children, according to locals, get the motivation to attack other communities through initiation ceremonies commonly known as Sabana among the Pokot community. Here, boys as young as 14 drop out of school and marry young girls. Other cleansing rituals like Labai and Muma are usually conducted to cleanse the boys after they kill.

An elderly Baringo resident, Julius Akeno, said there is also a set of elders, from a particular clan whose role is to bless the bandits so that they become successful in their mission and also return ‘unscathed.’

Each of the elders; magicians and seers, commonly referred to as Kapolok in Baringo and Werkoi among the Pokot community, pray for the young boys and oil them before the mission.

Community sanctioned raids

“This is normally done when the raid is sanctioned communally and the community knows that they would invade a certain community at a particular time. And this is normally carried out after the raid has been planned well for days and it involves hundreds of raiders. The elders bless them so that they are protected from death. They believe the charms work if at all the right elders are involved and those who participate come back with a lot of livestock,” said Mr Akeno.

He said that the boys gain familiarity with banditry from a young age when they are separated from their mothers and given the responsibility of looking after livestock in volatile territories like Kapedo, Napeitom, Paka, Silale, Naudo Kapedo and Kasarani.

“During such periods, it is a mandatory for herders who take the livestock to be armed to protect the cows from being stolen by other neighbouring communities,” he said.

Hardened boys

He added that the young boys are hardened and trained to walk for long distances amid the harsh weather with no food. They only depend on animal products and wild fruits.

In his book, Patrons of Wild Suguta Valley, Mr Akeno writes that the boys are trained to be alert always, even when asleep. The boys who sleep outside their mothers’ huts at Aperit are instructed to sleep with their eyes closed, but ears open.

A local from the banditry prone Chemoe in Baringo North, Richard Chepchomei, raised concern over the school going children in the neighbouring Tiaty Sub-County opting for the gun rather than learning.

“Banditry has gone a notch higher in this area because it seems these children are being used by masterminds as a way of scaring away residents so that they get a chance of expanding territories. It is unfortunate because innocent lives are lost,” lamented Chepchomei.

“These are young school going children who to me are being funded by some people to carry out such crimes. Where do you think a 12-year-old boy gets money to buy guns and ammunition?” Chepchomei posed.

A security officer who has served in the banditry-prone area told the Nation that on several occasions, they have been attacked by young boys who seem to be well trained on how to use sophisticated firearms.

Sharp shooters

“These boys have grown with firearms. They are sharp shooters and they are very swift, especially when they are provoked. The police have been trained on firearms use for less than the nine months they undergo training in Kiganjo. Some of us had never even held a gun before Kiganjo.

“The government also goes wrong sometimes by sending novices, fresh from training. Like the 21 APs killed in 2014, they were all novices,” the officer attached to the Rapid Deployment Unit said.

Another officer said that the young boys are conversant with the terrain and are well trained to escape the scenes in a tactical and secretive manner that they are all familiar with.

“Though they are young, they can fight with security officers the whole day without getting tired or running out of ammunition. Some of them even fight when they are naked to camouflage with the rocky terrain and not to be trapped by the thorny shrubs,” he said.

Tech savvy youngsters

He added another challenge is that the youngsters are now tech savvy and get intelligence reports warning them of pending operations to flee their hideouts.

Those who do not have phones communicate by other means like blowing whistles and using mirrors to send reflections that signal danger or approval, he explained.

Mr Natembeya said the young bandits are being funded by politicians from the region.

“They are being used majorly because families believe that they attract a lot of sympathy from security officers conducting operations,” Mr Natembeya said.

According to Colonel (Rtd) Moses Kwonyike, who also served as a military advisor to the head of United Nations (UN) African Mission in Darfur, serving and retired security personnel should be investigated.

“Ordinarily these are civil servants who should be assisting the government identify where livestock which pass through their locations after raids are. They very well know where those behind the raids are but why haven't they volunteered the information to the government?” Col Kwonyike posed.