Kenya: Ruto in major security sector reform; ejects opponents, targets bandits

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Monday, 28 November 2022 12:57

Kenyan President William Ruto at the Palace of the Nation in Kinshasa on November 21, 2022. - (Photo by Arsene Mpiana / AFP)

Kenyan President William Ruto may have beaten the odds to win the presidential election, but he now faces an even bigger challenge. He is going after the bandits and cattle rustlers. And he is removing officials who targeted him when he was Vice President.

Having silenced the political noise, the new president now has the daunting task of silencing the guns.

In his first 60 days in office, Ruto has reorganised the country’s top security team while repeatedly going public with warnings to the criminals terrorising three northern counties.

Does he bring a permanent solution to a problem his predecessors failed to solve?

Bad start

Barely a fortnight into Ruto’s presidency, bandits attacked a village in Turkana county, killing eight police officers, a local administrator and two residents.

The 24 September attack was the culmination of sustained tensions within the region, allegedly instigated by cattle rustlers from the Pokot ethnic group.

“After receiving a comprehensive report on the Turkana-Pokot incident that led to 10 security officers losing their lives, I have instructed security agencies to deal firmly with those involved,” Ruto tweeted.

The attack marked the first time in Ruto’s presidency that security forces were being killed, and the president was furious.

Cattle rustling, Ruto promised, will stop ‘na sio tafadhali’ — Swahili for “and we are not begging.”

Restructuring the security sector

On 27 September, Ruto named his Cabinet, picking a politician-cum-academic and lawyer, Kithure Kindiki, to replace the “no-nonsense” Fred Matiang’i, who had served as Interior secretary for five years under President Uhuru Kenyatta.

That same day, Ruto announced that police Inspector General (IG) Hillary Mutyambai was resigning on “medical grounds”. Mutyambai’s four-year term would normally have ended in April 2023, and it would later emerge that he was forced to resign alongside top sleuth George Kinoti, who had served as Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI) since January 2018.

“The former IG had the security of tenure, he resigned; the DCI had the security of tenure, [and] he resigned. You are forced to resign,” says Nelson Koech, a Ruto ally and member of parliament from Kericho county who chairs the defence and foreign relations committee. 

Payback time

In the years preceding the election, Kinoti had repeatedly clashed with Ruto over investigations launched by the DCI. Ruto accused Kenyatta of using Kinoti for political mileage against the Ruto camp.

The claim became a key campaign issue as Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua claimed that a corruption probe against him had been political.

The prosecution has since withdrawn the case against Gachagua on grounds that the evidence from the DCI was insufficient to sustain trial.

During a post-election petition hearing at the Supreme Court, electoral commission chair Wafula Chebukati filed an affidavit claiming that Mutyambai was part of a top security team that had visited commissioners at the election nerve centre, the Bomas of Kenya, with a view to influencing the presidential election outcome in favour of Raila Odinga, Ruto’s main opponent.

It was therefore no surprise that Ruto kicked out Mutyambia and Kinoti.

“He is the head of state, he will tell you to resign,” says Koech.

Urgent assignment

On 11 November, Japhet Koome was sworn in as the new Inspector General. In the days leading up to his appointment, gangs had been terrorising residents of Nairobi, leading to heightened tensions in the capital.

“We are giving them one month,” Koome said. “Any person spreading fear among the citizens, those walking around with daggers, we will attend to you. If you are walking around with a gun or (a) dagger … we will deal with you.”

Koome spoke after a meeting with Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja on 14 November about the state of security in the city.

Koome announced a reorganisation of the Nairobi police command and structure. Adamson Bungei, the police commander for Baringo county, one of the worst affected areas by cattle rustling and related crimes, was chosen to head the Nairobi police.

“The national police service has […] put in place a multi-agency, multi-disciplined response to this problem and to get these [culprits] to get out of the streets and put them where criminals belong,” Interior Minister Kindiki said.

Livestock thieves

But as Bungei left Baringo, a deeper problem was brewing. Baringo county in the Rift Valley is one of the most expansive areas in Kenya’s devolved system, home to many different ethnic groups and sub-tribes.

Over the years, Pokot youth have been accustomed to a culture of livestock rearing, with the belief that the more cattle you have the more important you are.

A culture of cattle theft has grown through the decades, despite continued efforts to educate the locals. Their playfield has been the neighbouring counties, most of which have pastoralism as the main economic activity.

To deal with the issue, the police service has created a special unit named the “Anti-Stock Theft unit.” The situation has President Ruto frustrated.

“That work of disrupting the peace, inciting citizens, guns right, left and centre, we will stop it,” Ruto told a gathering on 13 November. “They either stop it voluntarily or they will by force.”

Earlier this year, hundreds of residents fled their homes in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties fearing for their lives.

Several students had to sit their final primary and secondary school national examinations in April away from their test centres, while requiring to be escorted by security personnel to exam rooms.

“We have close to 20 schools that are closed because of insecurity,” Ruto said. “I have gone to all those schools. We must reopen them, and everyone to go back to where their children and school are so that we move on as Kenyans.”

Police deployment

Speaking in November at a church service, Tiaty Member of Parliament William Kamket appealed to the president to withdraw police officers patrolling the area.

“The police are all over on the road,” he said. “No bandit is on the road, they are in the forest.”

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua told Kamket that the police were where they needed to be.

It is not for lack of something to do that they are there,” he said. “The way to remove the police officers from the ground is for leaders to speak to the people, surrender the guns and the police will get out (of Tiaty).”

Kamket comes from the Kenya African National Union, KANU, led by Gideon Moi, son of Kenya’s second president Daniel Moi. In the August election, Moi lost the senatorial seat in Baringo county to William Cheptumo of Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party.

In the days after the election, Kamket closed ranks with Ruto and the UDA in what was seen as a move for political survival as KANU now seems an island in Rift Valley politics.

“The few who are disrupting you and us, leave them to me,” Ruto said at the meeting attended by Kamket. “We will deal with [the bandits] so that they stop causing chaos.”

Tough talk

It was the third time that the president sounded a warning amid concerns about the security forces’ actions. The president’s sentiments came on Koome’s first weekend as Inspector General.

“Our strategy now is to target the lords (financiers), we are calling them livestock lords,” Koome said. “We shall engage parliament so that such people are dealt with for committing terrorist acts.”

Kindiki vowed to treat cattle rustling and banditry as akin to terrorism during a visit to Samburu in northern Kenya.

“There is no difference between Al-Shabaab terrorists who have attacked us before and people killing Kenyans here in Samburu,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ledama Olekina, senator from Narok county, urged the government to talk to local people in the areas affected by violence.

“My plea to the executive, stop these threats, go in, talk to these people, ask them because they are the experts,” he said. “Speak to the experts and understand how the security sector has been thriving.”

Valley of death

During President Kenyatta’s reign, several disarmament operations were conducted in the northern counties, securing dozens of illegal firearms each time.

However, insecurity kept recurring because of a continuous supply of illegal firearms.

In the Kapedo area at the border of Turkana and Baringo counties, 21 police officers were killed and their weapons stolen by bandits in 2014. Despite a visit by Kenyatta to the area that year, no person has ever been held responsible or prosecuted for the crimes.

“We cannot allow criminals to overrun our cities or any part of Kenya,” Ruto told a group of MPs from his coalition on 13 November. “We have given you (police) the instruments, you have the backing of the law to make sure we deal with criminals firmly in accordance with the law.”

January 2023 will mark 20 years of free primary education, a campaign pledge that was fulfilled by Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki.

Despite the strides and while Kenya’s literacy levels have grown to over 80% nationally, the northern region still lags behind, barely reaching 20% in Turkana county.

The region also retains cattle rearing as the top economic activity. A majority of people in Baringo live below the poverty line. At the moment, northern counties are part of a list of 23 that are facing starvation following a prolonged drought that has been termed the worst in 40 years.

Grinding poverty appears to be driving more people to crime.

While Ruto may succeed in quelling Nairobi’s costly but mostly petty crimes, the northern frontier may prove a tougher nut to crack.

News outlets have come to call the region the valley of death after bandits there claimed the lives of more than 60 police officers over the past 10 years.

“If any officer is in danger of criminals, they must use their firearms to deal with the criminals,” Ruto says. “Don’t wait until our officers are killed.”

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