My life in crime: From a cattle rustler to peace crusader

Robert Matanda, a former cattle rustler.
By Osinde Obare

West Pokot, Kenya: The young man would pass for any other in the village. His quiet demeanour does not betray his ‘dark’ past, which he is keen to shed.

Robert Matanda was a notorious cattle rustler, who was feared by many. “I killed and maimed many people, young and old, including security officers using illegal firearms,” confessed Matanda, 35.

Matanda was the commander of a group of cattle rustlers that traversed Northern Kenya and neighbouring Uganda stealing cattle.

It all started in 1994 in Katikomor, a remote village in West Pokot, along the Kenya-Uganda border.

As a teenager, Matanda joined some youth to herd cattle for pastoralists. While herding the animals, he was trained in how to handle a gun.

During the training, Matanda hardly ever missed his target. His sharpshooting prowess earned him the admiration of local warriors, who recruited him into their group. “I had nothing to do then and we were struggling to make ends meet at home. I wilfully agreed to join them,” said Matanda.

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Uganda soldiers

Months later, he was enlisted into a group of 500 warriors for a raid on a Ugandan village. He had been loaned a gun. He recounted that they engaged the National Resistance Movement soldiers in a fierce gun battle before successfully driving back over 400 head of cattle.

“After the raid, the animals were shared among the warriors. Those who owned guns got a cow each while those who had borrowed paired to share an animal,” said Matanda.

He was one of those who shared a cow after returning the loaned gun. Having tasted the fruits of the vice, Matanda joined cattle rustling fully.

After four successful raids, he had five cows, which he gave out in exchange for a gun at a remote gun trafficking area along the Kenya-Uganda border. “Five cows are equivalent of the value of a gun on the black market. That is why there are so many raids as warriors try to own guns as well as amass wealth,” he added.

Matanda soon become famous in cattle rustling circles and was feared and listed by the police as the most dangerous and wanted person in West Pokot.

“Our executions were brutal and merciless. We could not allow anything to cross our path, not even a cat. Police were our number one enemy. We would always surround their camps before we staged raids,” explained Matanda.

According to him, warriors spend most of their time in the bush organising raids and rarely have time for their families.

Matanda organised several raids in Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Amdat districts in Eastern Uganda. Before going on a raid, Matanda ensured targeted villages and police camps were put under surveillance for several days.

“We would send a team of spies in advance, then devise a strategy on how to overrun police camps and surround the villagers,” he said. Warriors often split into groups of four or five as they organised the military-style raids.

There were those who surrounded homesteads, those who fought the police, those who drove the cattle and others who cleared the route.

Matanda’s most daring raid was in 2001, when with a group of other youths, raided a village in Kerita area of Uganda. A fierce battle ensued between them and Ugandan soldiers, who tried to intercept the cattle they had stolen from herders.

“We surrounded Kerita Camp as others rounded up animals from the nearby village. The battle was tough but we managed to overrun the camp. There were casualties. We stole livestock and even escaped with some of their radio equipment,” recalled Matanda. 

On the way back, the radio equipment started to broadcast the attack by Kenyan cattle raiders.

Surrender gun

“We heard them broadcast the attack. The warrior carrying the equipment dropped and smashed it with bullets. We thought soldiers were tracking our movements using the equipment,” said Matanda.

In 2005, the raider came face-to-face with former marathon champion Tegla Loroupe, who persuaded him to abandon rustling.

“I heard that Loroupe was looking for me and I agreed to meet her. We held a day-long meeting and she lectured me on the need to quit the vice. She also assured me that I would not be arrested when I surrendered my gun to the government,” he said.

They held four other such meetings and it was during the fifth one that Matanda agreed to hand over his gun. Accompanied by Loroupe and Pokot elders, Matanda surrendered the gun at Kapenguria Police Station, where officers were stunned that he would go to them.

In return for the amnesty, Matanda started to persuade fellow cattle rustlers to abandon the vice and participate in meaningful economic activities.

After participating in several peace initiatives organised by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, Matanda was picked as the chairman of the reformed warriors.

“The peace foundation has changed my life. From helping me initiate farming, I have managed to buy a matatu and generate an income for my family. Nowadays, I walk comfortably anywhere without fear,” noted Matanda.

“Since my son quit cattle raiding, we have led a peaceful life. In the past, hardly a day passed without police knocking on our door looking for him. It is good he left crime and is now doing better things,” said Matanda’s mother, Grace Matanda.

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Robert Matanda cattle rustling National Resistance Movement