Kithure Kindiki’s headache with 100-year-old gun culture in arid northern Kenya

Kithure Kindiki

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki. Besides the culture, the need to protect wealth, and the symbolism of the gun, Prof Kindiki will have to streamline the meat industry, which relies on stolen cattle. But this is not a walk-in walk-out problem. It has been there for 100 years.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Now that the cattle rustlers seem not to give Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki some breathing space, let me share some housekeeping historical facts that he might not get from the ministry.

Given that he is a scholar, he may understand the mongrel he is dealing with. Turkana have been having guns for more 100 years, which they traded for ivory.

So, to start with, this is not a battle to be won with military might. That won’t work. Prof Kindiki should borrow some facts from the Kuria community – who used to have their theatre of war in the southwestern corner of Kenya.

Scholars of communal disarmament have always studied the Kuria, who used to raid Migori District and drive the livestock across the Tanzania border. 

Today, they live peacefully with their neighbours after the government allowed community initiatives to take root that led to the voluntary surrender of arms. 

Prof Kindiki must have realised by now that the Rift Valley cattle rustlers will keep him busy as theirs is a toxic mix of culture, politics and business. 

Some raids are fuelled by politicians and businessmen who buy the stolen cattle cheaply from herders and sell the animals in Nairobi. If the good professor can call Dr Fred Matiang’i, he will be told that the entire terrain is awash with AK47s — and other arms — both for hire or owned by the families. 

To start with, the AK47 is the new symbol of power in the region – and if you go deeper into the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, you will find communities who have been armed by the government since independence to police the border still holding these weapons. Through a policy mistake, a gun culture was created in the 1960s, and a whole generation has grown up with guns.

From Tot to Kitale, you will find several police roadblocks — yet, stolen animals pass through all these and end up in Dagoretti in Nairobi or other abattoirs. 

Researchers who have done studies on the raid cycles acknowledge that they usually increase during and after elections and also the coming-of-age of warriors, who were traditionally circumcised in each even year. 

There is also high demand for dowry, which is paid with cows. In Pokot, for example, one girl can fetch up to 200 head of cattle in dowry. If 2,000 girls are getting married, the whole of Pokot county cannot provide the cattle required, and they have to supplement whatever they have with the proceeds of raids. While that might explain the tensions between the Pokot and their Baringo neighbours, it is only part of the complex cultural setup.

With climate change and the decrease in pastures, the number of animals per household has decreased while the demand — due to population increase — is high. As a result, a single raid will trigger many other raids as communities use their gun power to restock. 

That is the cattle-rustling cycle we are dealing with. As you will notice, the local supply of animals is, naturally, not adequate, and that is why there are raids across the border in Uganda. Sometimes the raiders would push towards Kolongolo in Trans Nzoia, Tot in Marakwet, and Kapsowar. They would also go as far as Samburu and Marsabit.

The militarisation of these communities is a long story. Archival records indicate the Turkana have always had arms as far as 1910, which they smuggled into the country from Ethiopia and bartered for camels. These were old but serviceable weapons.

The British tried after World War I to disarm the Turkana and pacify them by confiscating thousands of their livestock. This confiscation led to widespread poverty and bitterness, and World War II found the Turkana helpless. They saw an opportunity when Italian troops introduced new rifles in the region in the 1930s during the occupation of Ethiopia by Benito Mussolini of the National Fascist Party. 

That is how the Austrian Steyr became the choice weapon of the pastoralist, in combination with the World War I guns.

The British — who used Turkana district as the launching pad against the Italian invasion — trained the locals as fighters. 

To contain the Italians, during World War II, the British armed the Turkana and Karimojong, and many other pastoralist groups to help them fight against the invading forces. A gun culture emerged.

But after World War II, the British attempted to disarm the Turkana after they started attacking the unarmed Pokot and Marakwet.

No police posts

With independence, the Kenyatta government found that the entire region had no police posts. 

So, in the 1970s, the state recruited and armed the Kenya Police Reserve for all border districts to protect communities against raids. The Pokot now had their guns. 

In the 1970s, these were also meant to keep Uganda’s President Idi Amin at bay after he laid claim to parts of Kenya. 

Again, Idi Amin had started a military base in Soroti, and President Jomo Kenyatta was worried that this might be used for an attack. 

The problem is that when Amin was removed from power in 1979, the Pokot were the first to arrive at the Soroti Barracks, and they took off with all the arms they could carry. It is now estimated that the barracks stored 15,000 guns and two million rounds of ammunition before Tanzanian soldiers overthrew Amin.

That is how the guns — AK47 assault rifles, the World War II Heckler & Koch-made G-3 army rifles, and millions of ammunition- ended up in the hands of the Matheniko-based pastoralists.

The gun became an instrument to protect the Pokot's wealth and a symbol of might. The Karimojong — usually the victims of armed Turkana raids — sold some of their Soviet weapons to the Pokots to keep the Turkana at bay. With that, a triangle of terror was created, and the leading players were Pokot, Karimojong, and Turkana.

Using those arms, the Pokot community expanded their cattle wealth by attacking their equally armed Turkana neighbours. President Moi tried to organise a mop-up of the arms. There were many attempts — and in 1984, Major Joseph Nkaissery, later Interior minister, led Operation Nyundo military campaign against Pokots in which “many people lost their lives and over 20,000 animals starved to death”, according to the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation report. Also, the disarmament exercise resulted in the deaths of civilians in what has come to be known as the Lotiriri Massacre. That violence did not help.

What am I saying? That use of force and might has been used before, and we must look for a new formula. The problem is that communities here keep building arms by exchanging guns for cattle with South Sudan neighbours since the 1980s. For one bull, you can acquire two AK47s. 

If you go to the far north in Loima Hills, you will see many buying centres. Some of these shops sell bullets in the open. And that also happens within the Ilemi Triangle, where the Nyangatom and Toposa from South Sudan have become gun merchants.

The 1980s were volatile. That was when Moi armed the Turkana to ostensibly provide a buffer zone following Sudan's Islamic revolution of 1983 that led to the fall of Jafar Numeiri. 

They were also to contain the Karimojong, who Moi feared might be used to raid Kenya – or form a militia against him. 

Moi was then convinced that Uganda was planning to train guerrillas against Kenya with the help of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – which saw the Libyan embassy closed in 1985. 

Those who were around in the 80s recall Moi's paranoia and the claims of Kenyans being trained by Libya.

Kenya is in a catch-22 situation. We are between a rock and a hard place. If you disarm the Pokot, they will be annihilated by the Toposa and Jie. It is not clear whether Karamojong of Uganda are still a power in this theatre following President Museveni's attempt to disarm them.

So, what should Prof Kindiki do?

There was a time when President Moi had put up General Service Unit and anti-stock theft camps to curb raids within Kenya. 

However, soon these joined the cattle cartels and started protecting the raiders in what became a multimillion-shilling business.

Once upon a time, a western NGO had given a certain community some unique goat breed. They were the only ones in Kenya and had a tag. One day, they were all stolen, never to be found again.

A few years later, they were found on a farm owned by a senior military officer in northern Kenya. The NGO officials could do nothing.

While efforts have been made to disarm the Pokots and the Turkana, they have continued to replenish their stocks by exchanging cattle for guns with Sudan-based communities from the 1980s to date.

Besides the culture, the need to protect wealth, and the symbolism of the gun, Prof Kindiki will have to streamline the meat industry, which relies on stolen cattle. But this is not a walk-in walk-out problem. It has been there for 100 years.

[email protected] @johnkamau1