By JACQUELINE KUBANIA
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Smallholder farmers, group ranch owners and white settlers in Laikipia County have chilling tales to tell.
For the past one year, heavily armed pastoralists from Samburu, Baringo and Isiolo counties have invaded their lands with thousands of livestock, chased them out of their homes, and made it impossible for them to return.
The invaders’ animals have been let loose on conservation ranches and small farms where maize and beans once grew.
But even more terrifying is the violence that the trespassers have meted out on the land owners, with murder, maiming and rape being reported.
SOAKED IN BLOOD
Laikipia is a land of striking beauty, but recently, the breathtaking majesty of its vistas has been soaked in blood. There does not seem to be a simple, neat explanation for what ails it.
The attackers do not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or social standing, but are engaged in a systematic invasion of land, from the small plots belonging mostly to Kikuyu freeholders in the west, to the tens of thousands of acres belonging to white settlers spread out all over the county. And, finally, to the group ranches owned by the Maasai in the north.
Laikipia county police commander Simon Kipkeu says this year alone, 22 people — including eight police officers — have been killed and 38 others injured in skirmishes over land.
Six tourist lodges have been burnt to the ground and many others invaded and looted. In addition, 15 police vehicles have been damaged in ambushes by the invaders.
It is unclear how many pastoralists have died in the clashes, but anecdotal evidence from interviews with locals and officials suggests a few deaths.
What has been more widely documented is the killing of 300 cows during a police operation to herd them out of private property a week ago. Police also say that 1,500 illegal herders have been arrested, their 250,000 livestock driven out, and 20 firearms seized.
In November 2016, the government started an army-led operation to flush out trespassing herders and recover illegal arms. But this only led to an escalation in the violence, which forced then-Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery in March this year to gazette seven zones — Rumuruti, Ol Moran, Kirimon, Marmanet, Mukogodo East, Segera, Mithiga and Matuiku — as dangerous and in need of continued security operations.
But residents say trouble started way back in 2013, and that what we are seeing now are the fruits of dirty, divisive politics as politicians incited pastoralists to occupy land that does not belong to them.
“Before the 2013 election, we started hearing whispers that a local member of Parliament had promised land to Samburus if they elected him. We did not think there was anything to it.
But soon after, herders started coming into our ranches, and not leaving,” said Mr Francis Kilua, the chairman of Marupusi Group Ranch.
The invasions have changed life here; not only have the marauders refused to leave, they are also stealing and wilfully vandalising property, leaving a wave of destruction in their wake.
“Since 2013 we have lost over 600 cows and 1,300 goats to the invaders, but the worst thing is that tourists are now too afraid to stay with us. Business has been so bad that once independent communities are having to rely on government and NGOs for food aid,” Mr Kilua told the Nation.
The worst affected lodges and conservancies include Tassia, Il Ngwesi, Ole Ntile, Koija and Marupusi, which have all suffered various degrees of destruction.
Yet the relationship between the Samburu herders and the community lodge owners has not always been this antagonistic.
“We had a working system where we would give them pasture during the dry season after which they would leave once it rained in their territories. And if our pasture was not enough, we would ask for help from white settlers, who would allow us all grazing privileges in their lands for a specific amount of time,” he said.
The invasions have fostered enmity between the Maasai and Samburu, two culturally similar groups that share a lifestyle and a language. In both cultures, livestock is revered as a lifeline, and Mr Kilua says there is an unspoken rule about not stealing from a fellow pastoralist.
“Culturally, they are not supposed to steal from us. It is seen as a curse if you grab food from your brother’s mouth to feed yourself. But when we complain to the elders, they say that the morans carrying out the raids do not listen to them. Some of them are quite young and have not even been circumcised yet,” he explained.
His sentiments are supported by a recent report that has attempted to explain the clashes, giving historical and cultural context to the conflict between the residents of Laikipia and the pastoralists from Samburu, Isiolo and Baringo.
The report, Cattle Barons: Political Violence, Land Invasions and Forced Displacement in Kenya’s Laikipia County, states that the clash of modernity with traditional structures has led to the rise of an arrogant class of morans who, because of a few years of schooling and access to mobile phones, no longer listen to the elders.
An elder quoted in the report says that after the morans leave school, the frustration of unemployment in the modern world and disenchantment with the old ways creates inner turmoil that expresses itself in aggression.
This frustration, Laikipia leaders say, is what has made the morans so vulnerable to political manipulation. According to Laikipia County Commissioner Onesmus Musyoki, the cows being used to invade Laikipia belong to senior government officials and local politicians from Samburu, Isiolo and Baringo counties, whose aim is to drive out land owners and claim Laikipia land for themselves.
“Politicians are providing arms and food to the morans, and paying them to raid and occupy land. This is not about pastoralists escaping drought, because even after it rained, they are still here. This is forcible occupation of land that already belongs to other people,” he says.
He, however, concedes that drought may have been the initial driving factor in the invasions.
“Laikipia land is attractive because most people who live here have used it sustainably, thus ensuring there is adequate pasture all year.
“In contrast, the rangelands outside Laikipia have turned into barren sand due to overuse. The problem today is that while before they would ask permission to graze here, they are now forcibly invading ranches and farms, and refusing to leave,” he said.
Mr Benedict Munywoki, the deputy commissioner in charge of Rumuruti, one of the areas hardest hit by the violence, adds that land leases held by ranch owners have been used as dangling carrots by politicians, who have promised their constituents that they will be given the leases.
“The pastoralists have been told that white land leases have expired and have been promised those ranches, leading to a sense of entitlement among them. They claim that they have ancestral rights to the land,” he says.
On the other hand, leaders in Samburu have accused the government of being heavy-handed in dealing with pastoralists, citing the alleged shooting of 300 cows as extremely punitive and disproportionate to the crime of illegal grazing.
“We know that herders have trespassed, but what we do not condone is the killing of cows, which has left some Samburu families destitute. We had started talks with the Laikipia government to get to the bottom of the clashes, but once the cows were killed, the talks stalled as we saw no goodwill from the government,” said Samburu West MP Naisula Lesuuda.
But Laikipia North MP Sarah Korere says the reason no agreement has come out of the peace talks is that politicians in Baringo, Isiolo and Samburu balked at signing a raft of measures designed to prevent future crises, creating a stalemate.
“We asked that all counties should brand their cattle, and that in times of drought an advance team would be sent out to broker grazing agreements with leaders in areas with pasture.
“We also wanted to impose heavy penalties on cattle rustling and the killing of human beings. For every stolen animal, the perpetrator would pay an equivalent of three, and for every human death, 100 cows,” she said.
“However, the leaders from Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo refused to sign the agreement, saying that we have to first call off the security operation. That is not something we are ready to do because we have to protect our people.”
As things stand, there seems to be no forthcoming political solution to the Laikipia crisis.
Newly-elected Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi thinks that reforming pastoralism by embracing new farming technologies to ensure that livestock have enough to eat during the drought would ensure that herders have no excuse for the incessant migration into other people’s land.
He also says that education and a diversification of socio-economic activities would reduce pastoralists’ over-reliance on livestock as a source of income.
He is probably right, but even he acknowledges that getting everyone onto the same page has been an uphill task.
“Whenever we arrest trespassing herders, their leaders agitate for their release. In the boardroom, we agree on one thing, but there is little commitment to implement,”