Guns, land and votes: How cattle warlords are fuelling violence in the restive north

Wednesday December 03 2014

Armed residents and Kenya police reservists in Mukutani, Baringo County in Kenya’s Rift Valley keep vigil on June 10, 2014 following attacks by Pokot cattle rustlers. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN

The recent killing of 21 police officers by Kalashnikov-toting bandits in Kenya’s restive north has renewed debate on how to deal with the state of lawlessness in the region.

Last month, a group of heavily armed Pokot bandits in Kapedo, a small village in Turkana County, northern Kenya, ambushed a contingent of new police recruits and sprayed their truck with bullets.

The attack, reminiscent of the 2012 Baragoi massacre in which 46 police officers were gunned down by outlaws, shook public confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the long-standing feud between the Pokot and the Turkana.

All Kenya’s past three presidents — Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki — failed to reconcile the warring parties. And the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s approach reflects no change in policy.

“There has been no substantial change in how the government responds to the Pokot-Turkana conflict…it has always been the kneejerk heavy deployment of firepower,” said Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa analyst.

President Kenyatta has deployed the military with a firm brief to flush out the killers, disarm the Pokot tribe and pacify the violence-prone region.


However, the use of artillery and other heavy weapons in Kapedo has put the Kenya Defence Forces on the spot over human rights violations. Two weeks into the operation, local leaders have decried the use of conventional military power on a defenceless civilian population.

Human rights activists and politicians are now challenging the constitutionality of the operation in court, but the government remains adamant that lawlessness in the region must end.

For decades, the Pokot and the Turkana have been gripped in a generational feud over land, pasture and water.

Resource wars are common during dry seasons, and with population pressures and climate change increasing the frequency of droughts from one in every six years to one in every three years, incidence of violent conflict is likely to increase.

Conflict over shrinking resources between the warring parties has always been manifested through cattle rustling, particularly because these communities depend on the animals for their livelihood.

Traditionally, cattle rustling was sanctioned by the elders and was conducted under a set of strict rules, and targeted only historical rivals.

Killings were limited and women and children were spared. Now cattle raids are violent, killings are indiscriminate and just about any community is targeted by the Pokot rustlers.

It was also a form of economic redistribution — raids were conducted to restock depleting herds, for accumulation or revenge for previous attacks.

The collapse of traditional power structures has led to the evolution of a more complex form of cattle rustling, which analysts have described as “predatory.”

While guns were reportedly not prominent in the traditional raids, the proliferation of small arms beginning in the 1970s from South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda is seen as an important factor in the escalation of inter-ethnic conflicts.

Today, easy access to sophisticated weapons has entrenched a gun culture among the youth who conduct the raids, and tipped the balance of power over sanctioning of raids from the elders to them.

“Firearms are seen as a symbol of status and authority…the more you can buy the more command you have over the community,” said Leonard Kyalo, a security expert with the Nairobi-based Security Research and Information Centre.

Rise of cattle warlords

The Pokot-Turkana conflict, often involving regular banditry, ethnic cleansing and theft, has always been trivialised as a long-standing historical and cultural feud specific to these two communities or a violent struggle to access scarce resources in a harsh environment.

Experts, however, say these explanations fail to capture the changing face of the conflict in which war profiteers are fuelling the conflict, and have skilfully embedded cattle rustling in the social, economic and political fabric of pastoral communities.

These communities have also not remained static; they have undergone important economic and political changes.

Over the years, developments in Kenya have had a significant influence on the economic and political direction of these communities.

For example, the liberalisation of the 1990s and more recently devolution and the discovery of oil have provided opportunities for the Pokot and the Turkana to violently renegotiate their territorial claims, economic interests and political representation. 

A study by the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies (ISS) shows that modern-day cattle rustling has evolved from a traditional rite of passage into an organised murky business.

“Emerging political complexes fan cattle rustling and undermine efforts aimed at ending the menace,” the study notes, adding that political complexes are intertwined with an economic agenda.

In the late 1980s when the government lost control over the region, warlords emerged to fill the power vacuum, raising private armies from the heavily armed but destitute youth.

The militias, apart from providing security, also conducted raids against rival tribes. They have subtly enmeshed their commercial interests within the long-standing Pokot-Turkana feud over resources, to the extent that the real motives of a raid can only be discerned by people in the know.

“It’s not a case of tradition any more. Young men are heavily armed and the raids are now for generating profits,” said Dr Muiruri Kimani, a programmes co-ordinator with the Nairobi-based African Peace Support Trainers Association.

While previously the spoils of cattle rustling were shared or used to pay bride price, the cattle warlords have now turned the practice into a form of organised crime. And cattle rustling has now emerged as an important sector of the pastoralists “shadow economy,” further complicating efforts to disarm the warring tribes and resolve the unending wars between them.

Mr Kyalo concurs, adding that cattle rustling involves a sophisticated criminal marketing chain throughout the Horn of Africa.

“I talked to a police officer in West Pokot sometime back…. I remember asking how it is that 500 cattle can disappear without a trace, and he said once a raid takes place, the ‘criminal market chain’ goes into high gear,” he told The EastAfrican.

The warlords have established lucrative ties in the dynamic $1 billion livestock trade covering Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan and Kenya.

Politics and raids

That cattle raiding has also emerged as a powerful political tool adds to the complexity of ending the practice. While links between political leaders and cattle warlords remain obscure, local politicians have been accused of either profiting from or condoning the multimillion-dollar rustling business.

“Some politicians from that area are elected on the basis of being defenders of the community, and advocating for disarmament and ending cattle rustling is not politically safe,” said Mr Kyalo.

A 2010 report by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, for example, accused several Pokot politicians of being beneficiaries of commercialised cattle rustling.

Cattle rustling during the election season is also used as a tool to displace a rival community from a disputed land and disenfranchise the “enemy.” 

According to Mr Abdi, the Horn of Africa analyst, several efforts by Nairobi to disarm and resolve the unending Pokot-Turkana wars have failed because “the government is still stuck in the old security mind-set.” 

There have been more than a dozen attempts to compel the two tribes to lay down their arms.

For example, in 1984, Uganda and Kenya ran a joint operation targeting the Karimojong and Pokot from each respective country.

During the same period, the Kenyan government also ran other coercive disarmament drives in north-eastern Kenya, most notably the 1984 Wagalla massacre, in which the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission found the security forces culpable of extra judicial killings.

The current operation is likely to fuel further tension between the Turkana and Pokot as the disarmament drive is targeting the latter.

“Disarmament should have been done many years ago. However, if we don’t provide them with sufficient security, all the aggrieved tribes will train their guns on the defenceless Pokots who have been attacking them for decades,” said Dr Kimani.

In Uganda, successive governments have also been pre-occupied with disarming the Karimojong in the north-east.

READ: Amid relative calm, a blackmarket for guns is thriving in disarmed Karamoja

In 1971, Idi Amin pursued the campaign with so much zeal that he left the tribe vulnerable to the heavily armed Turkana and Toposa in South Sudan.

The shift in the balance of power among the border-region tribes reportedly forced the Karimojong Matheniko sub-group to sign a peace deal with their Kenyan neighbours in 1978, which was marked by literally burying a hatchet.

Given that more than 28,000 guns have been recovered from the Karimojong, what is it that Uganda is doing to make its disarmament programme successful?

According to Dr Kimani, Uganda has more leeway in the use of force in a disarmament exercise compared with Kenya, which is limited by law.

“We have different political realities in Uganda and Kenya…unlike Kenyatta, Museveni can utilise strong arm tactics,” said Dr Kimani.

There was also political will to deal with the Karamoja problem, as was demonstrated with the appointment of First Lady Janet Museveni, as Minister for Karamoja Affairs.

Also, since protecting livestock was the main reason for arming, authorities in Uganda decided to provide alternative sources of earning a living.

Labour-intensive ventures such as the building of roads, dams and communication infrastructure for example, have generated employment for the community. The Karimojong have also been introduced to farming as an alternative source of livelihood.

READ: Project promotes peace, food security in Karamoja

Through the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme (KIDDP), the Ugandan government has stepped up efforts to dissuade the Karimojong from engaging in commercialised cattle rustling.

The KIDDP also received millions of dollars from donors, especially from Norad, the Norwegian aid organisation in the early 1990s that had been kicked out of Kenya because of diplomatic disagreements.

Social amenities such as wells, schools and hospitals have been put up, and there is regular dialogue between warring clans.

Many of them interviewed in a survey by UNDP in Uganda said these community projects are keeping them away from violence “because everyone now has something.”