Growing up in Kongoitiame village in Igembe North, Meru County, banditry was every child’s worst nightmare.
Armed bandits, or shiftas as we knew them, would creep up on the villages at night, stealing from shops and sometimes killing people before beating a hasty retreat. I remember nights when we would have to take cover in the bushes as the sound of gunfire pervaded the night as police reservists battled the heavily armed raiders.
Needless to say, the police reservists’ weapons and numbers did little to fight off the men who wielded more sophisticated weapons and came in their numbers.
Sometimes the bandits only stole cattle from the herders on the border grazing lands and did not make their way into the homesteads. As a result, many children struggled to keep up with long sleepless nights and early school mornings.
Thankfully, over the years, the situation improved greatly and children were able to get enough sleep every night and attend school without fear of what the nights held.
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Although the bandits no longer make their way into the villages, thanks to improved security through the establishment of GSU camps and police posts, they occasionally ambush cattle herders, driving away animals and, unfortunately, leaving people dead and others injured.
Nevertheless, the thought of cross-border armed banditry and the effects it can have on the communities on the receiving end still gives me nightmares.
Many communities that have had to deal with the challenge of cross-border insecurity can attest to the disruption of life and the anxiety brought about by the constant fear of the sporadic ambushes.
Women and children are most affected by the instability that the attacks bring to their lives, including psychological trauma and effects on the socio-economic well-being of the entire community.
Recent reports of a bandit attack in Meru that left up to 10 security officers injured are proof that cross-border conflict is still a major challenge in the area. But even as the police launch a manhunt for the attackers, it is important for the leaders to explore a permanent solution to the perennial problem.
One of the major contributors to cross-border attacks is the proliferation of illegal firearms in the communities. According to Human Rights Watch, illegal weapons circulating in Kenya mostly pass through conflict-ridden neighbouring countries from as far as China. A 2017 small arms survey indicated that Kenya has 740,000 illegal firearms.
The easy access to illegal small arms can lead to an increase in not only crime rates but also cross-border conflict manifested in cattle rustling. Despite sustained efforts by the government to curb proliferation of small arms and light weapons, it is clear that a lot more still needs to be done.
Setting up security camps along the borders of banditry-prone communities and increased aerial surveillance are some of the proactive ways to thwart attacks. However, it is important for security teams to explore other sustainable measures
There is need for intensified disarmament of communities through amnesties and enforced weapons collection programmes to take illicit weapons off the hands of civilians.
Cross-border armed banditry is often fuelled by lack of pasture and/or death of the animals especially during dry seasons. The establishment of county governments presents a great opportunity for the empowerment of traditionally marginalised pastoralist communities through implementation of drought-mitigating activities that can ensure availability of adequate pastures for the animals.
For sustainable peace, communities through their leaders should explore the possibility of peace agreements that aim at rebuilding relationships through reconciliation and compensation for lost animals and lives.
Most importantly, all community members should be involved in seeking lasting peace, their political affiliations notwithstanding.
Having experienced first-hand the effects of cross-border conflict and especially armed banditry, I hope that leaders in Meru and other banditry-prone communities will soon find a lasting solution to the conflicts so that women can confidently tend to their farms and children do not have to listen to horror stories of loss of lives to bandit attacks.
Dr Kalangi is a communications lecturer and trainer, Kenyatta University