Welcome to Kenya’s ‘Wild West’

By Kang-Chun Cheng
Posted on Tuesday, 28 June 2022 18:13

Turkana warriors look at a skull of a Dassenach warrior who was, according to a Turkana warrior, killed when he tried to ambush Turkana cattle herders in Ilemi Triangle
Turkana warriors look at a skull of a Dassenach warrior who was, according to a Turkana warrior, killed when he tried to ambush Turkana cattle herders in Ilemi Triangle, Kenya March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Failure by the Kenyan government to enforce control weapons in Kenya’s ‘Wild West’ pastoral areas have made violent cattle raids the norm, despite decades’ worth of disarmament campaigns.

Senseless death has become the tragic norm across Kenya’s central Baringo County, where behind vast swathes of seemingly endless bush, one never knows who may be hiding with an AK-47, ready to pounce. Baringo has been dubbed the ‘Wild West’ of Kenya as incidences of communal violence – mostly from livestock theft – amongst its pastoral-dominant communities surge.

The violence in this region has reached a crucial point where entire villages are disappearing. Eight years ago, Riron village in Baringo County had a population of nearly 4,000 people, but today there are only an estimated 400 inhabitants left.

Around 11am on 27 April, Pokot herders raided cattle from the neighbouring Tugen community in Loruk. Unbeknownst to Paul Chepsoi, the director of Ngazi Initiative for Minorities Trust, he drove into Loruk that afternoon. He says two men wielding Kalashnikovs on a boda boda (motorbike) passed by, and moments later, sounds of twin gunshots rent the air.

The theft of 54 cows and many other goats and sheep culminated in the death of four people, leaving several more injured and lingering tensions across Loruk.

As of April 2022, there were 39 fatalities (an increase from 16 deaths in 2021) from 24 violent communal incidents, half of which were livestock raids, according to the UK-funded REINVENT project.

Despite an overall perception of national firearm reduction, there has been an increase in gun possession since 2003, particularly in areas such as the Rift Valley, where important disarmament projects took place, says the Small Arms Survey report.

“Approximately 20% of household respondents were victims of a crime or an act of violence over the year preceding the interviews,” the report says, with more than a third of victims confronted with a firearm.

Those who are supposed to protect us do nothing and dilute the situation even if they do address it

49-year-old Joshua Changwony, who was born and raised in Riron, says he was forced to relocate as his community became a target of brutal raids. His brother, Francis, was shot in the shoulder by a Kalashnikov as they were out grazing their animals. “I’ll never chase after bandits again,” he tells The Africa Report.

Changwony and his community condemn the government for repeatedly failing to secure Baringo. “Those who are supposed to protect us do nothing and dilute the situation even if they do address it. Some of us have taken to living in the bush for fear of attacks in our own homes,” he says.

Francis Changwony, who survived a violent attack by bandits in late April, with his brother Joshua, holding a local newspaper clipping about the incident. (photo/ Kang-Chun Cheng)

The history of small arms throughout East Africa

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, militarised approaches to disarmament left residual resentment toward security providers – evident in the complete lack of trust in the government. At present, the police respond to emergencies very much on a case-by-case basis, leaving without having established true peace. In the case of late April’s incursion, the police were the first to leave the scene, knowing that staying was a high-risk decision and that they lacked the capacity to offer much help.

“This stems from a lack of long-term strategy on behalf of the Kenya Police Force,” says Carlson. However, he adds that it’s not necessarily all within the police’s control, as capacity constraints are a serious issue. “They [the police] don’t have the funds to fully carry out necessary disarmament processes, such as mobilising officers in non-established posts, and there’s no vital infrastructure for long-term impact.”

Weapons have thus become ingrained in pastoral communities, as boys grow up wielding AK-47s from a young age, in a culture that can be traced back to the proliferation of guns across East Africa in the 1980s.

Kenya, in particular, has become a key destination for weapons, such as G3 and M16 rifles and Kalashnikovs, mainly trafficked from the Horn of Africa. The actual number of weapons is difficult to surmise, says Khristopher Carlson, a senior analyst for Small Arms Survey, but from a 2012 study, the Swiss think tank estimates that there are 530,000-680,000 in Kenya – most of which are unlicensed.

The difficulty in obtaining accurate numbers lies in lack of standardised methodology when sub-county committees assess arms in their community. “Qualitative information can otherwise be lost in the fixation on numbers. It’s more important to understand the current trends and patterns that develop over time – if there’s an overall increase or decrease – and figure out what is working,” says Carlson.

“The exact source [of firearms] is also not a question you necessarily want answered, because you don’t know what kind of trouble it can get you into,” says Chepsoi. “People might tell you it’s not a tribal issue, but of course it is. You wouldn’t see the Pokot attacking their own people.”

Governmental responsibility in instilling stability

Only National Police Reservists (NPRs), the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF), and licensed individuals can legally carry firearms. However, in remote Baringo, most armed pastoralists are unlicensed.

Amos Katana of the Kenya National Focal Point (KNFP), a government body that coordinates management of small arms, says insecurity in Baringo is cyclical. “It’s usually exacerbated by situations surrounding its neighbouring counties,” he says. “Most conflicts in Baringo are triggered by other series of violent conflicts by the Samburu on one side and the Turkana on the other. The major cause is competition over lack of resources, which is worsened by both drought and politics.”

They [the police] don’t have the funds to fully carry out necessary disarmament processes

Katana says: “Most of the pastoral lands are community lands and communities lay claim over the areas thus becoming battle zones for herders. These conflicts drive communities [to] armament, thus increasing arms proliferation in the county.”

Active conflict zones are also grounds for vestiges of ritualistic raiding customs that the Endorois, Ilchamus, Pokot, Marakwet and other indigenous herding communities still practice. Guns have replaced traditional weapons like clubs and spears.

Exploited in elections

With the upcoming national election in August, tensions have been running high all over Kenya. “Everyone knows exactly which individuals are involved and benefitting from the underground sale of weapons.”

Politicians are fixated on securing votes by pitting different communities against one another and inciting internecine disputes in the process. Such interethnic conflict between the Pokot, Tugen, and Ilchamus tribes is a deeply rooted problem going back hundreds of years.

Politicians and other external players have even been known to capitalise on cattle rustling by facilitating the black-market arms trade – it’s just as easy to buy a Kalashnikov here as it is to buy a sack of rice, says Chepsoi, and subsequently, the sourcing of inexpensive meat to Nairobi. The economic incentive is simply too good to pass up.

This stems from the extreme marginalisation in Baringo and its poor integration with the rest of Kenyan society. The county lacks in infrastructure, education, and alternative livelihood options beyond livestock herding.

He blames the local government for doing little to address mounting insecurity concerns and repeatedly failing to address the root problem: Baringo’s lack of development. “Students out here studying in makeshift schools underneath trees are expected to compete with kids in Nairobi, and of course they have no chance,” he says.

Nazanine Moshiri, a senior analyst in climate and security for the International Crisis Group, also links insecurity to land ownership disputes stretching back generations. “As in past electoral cycles, politicians appear to be exploiting historical grievances to achieve electoral advantage, fuelling instability.”

Armed local Tugen herders on their way home after a day watching over their animals. (photo/ Kang-Chun Cheng)

Perennially under-resourced

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, militarised approaches to disarmament left residual resentment toward security providers – evident in the complete lack of trust in the government. At present, the police respond to emergencies very much on a case-by-case basis, leaving without having established true peace.  In the case of late April’s incursion, the police were the first to leave the scene, knowing that staying is a high-risk decision and that they lack the capacity to offer much help.

You end up increasing one community’s insecurity by targeting their disarmament without addressing their adversaries

“This stems from a lack of long-term strategy on behalf of the Kenya Police Force,” says Carlson, but he adds that it’s not necessarily all within the police’s control, as capacity constraints are a serious issue. “They [the police] don’t have the funds to fully carry out necessary disarmament processes, such as mobilising officers in non-established posts, and there’s no vital infrastructure for long-term impact.”

Contributing climate challenges

Studies have found links between rainfall, poverty, and food security.

The region is also bogged down by low economic development: less than 10% of the population is on the national electricity grid, while in 2019 the annual estimated county income was KSh202,859 ($1752).

A lack of attention to climate-driven strategies for peace means that worsening droughts and floods incite further conflict. The region is currently facing the worst drought in decades, a 4th consecutive season of poor long rains, leading to below-normal levels in most watering points, says Moshiri.

Pastoralist communities may not make the connection between climate change and conflict, but it’s there, says Chepsoi. “There’s increasing pressure for communities to migrate [to] other areas […] as grazing resources decline.”

Lack of coordination between cross-border, inter-state and regional strategies, as well as the intrinsic porous nature of borders, worsens the situation, says Carlson. “You end up increasing one community’s insecurity by targeting their disarmament without addressing their adversaries. The unrelenting demand for firearms and their accessibility means that the cycle repeats itself.”

Chepsoi says that the need for fundamental change in Baringo is dire, yet the journey toward peace will be slow and rocky. The situation continues to stall as no one feels secure enough to walk away from their arms. Changwony says: “If we don’t have arms to match those of incoming raiders, how can we defend ourselves?”

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