Spate of invasions in Laikipia raise queries on herders' motives

Maria Dodds, the owner of Kifuko Farm in Laikipia County, going about her business on February 18, 2017. [PHOTO: KIBATA KIHU/STANDARD]

The open gates, burnt grass and acacia trees, bare ground and vandalised structures at the entrance to Kifuko Farm in Rumuruti, Laikipia County, tell a tale by themselves.

And the story mirrors that of many ranchers in Laikipia County, who have had to watch helplessly as herders drive thousands of livestock into their farms.

The armed herders have forced their way into various ranches and wildlife conservancies, posing a threat to an eco-system the ranchers have protected for decades. To make matters worse, the herders destroyed kilometres of electric fences.

At Kifuko, where one section along the Rumuruti-Nanyuki road is fenced with layers of rocks, the herders took their time to demolish them to make way for their animals.

Maria Dodds, the proprietor, says the invasions have left landowners with more questions than answers.

Although common knowledge is that the herders are seeking pasture for their livestock, Dodds says the attacks started way before the drought hit, and have had devastating consequences.

In September last year, Ms Dodds' son was shot at nine times and badly wounded as he patrolled the ranch along the fence.

"This occurred barely 10 days after I lost my brother in a plane crash. On the day of the burial, the raiders struck and stole 60 Boran breed of cattle, some of which were later recovered abandoned in a slaughterhouse the following day," she said.

At the time of the attacks, the ranch had a grazing agreement with neighbouring communities including the Turkana, where herders were allowed to graze a specified number of livestock on the ranch.

A few days later, an elder from the community, who was among those brokering the grazing agreement, was shot dead in a similar invasion. The elder and the community helped patrol the ranch to keep off invaders.

Dodds further recalls the June 2016 shooting and critical injuring of a nephew to retired President Mwai Kibaki, Wachira Mwai, who owns Lambala ranch.

Mr Wachira was shot in his right hand and leg as he drove along the Rumuruti-Mutara road and left for dead. The attackers attempted to escape with the vehicle but it stalled. Wachira was rescued by police officers patrolling the area. 

Around the same period, illegal grazers invaded Mugie Ranch, Laikipia Nature Conservancy, ADC Mutara, Lambara, Gorare, Ol Maisor, Gaze, Segera and Loisaba ranches.

Dodds adds that on December 8 last year, raiders attacked the ranch where they fired towards the compound, but nobody was injured. The family relocated an elderly relative since she was disturbed by the spate of attacks.

"Laikipia has all along been very peaceful, but the attacks have now proved otherwise. The attackers claim they want to graze their livestock, but the bloody attacks are proving there is something else which they are after," she said.

Similar attacks were reported in Segera Ranch, a conservancy which boasts of hosting international soccer star Samuel Eto'o and 100-metres Olympics champion Usain Bolt.

Several people were killed during confrontations with ranch security. Some ranchers who sought anonymity said they suspect politics could be behind the escalation of the attacks, while others intimate that the politicians are inciting the communities with the promise of land belonging to the large scale owners.

"We wonder what they want if it is not to scare us away so that they can occupy our lands. The most astonishing thing now is that they have started targeting property within the ranches which they are stealing and destroying, and even shooting at residences belonging to the ranchers," said a rancher who asked not to be named.

The herders are also burning down pastures in farms where they are repulsed. In neighbouring areas occupied by small-scale farmers, they drive their cattle in and destroy crops.

"We had enough pastures in various paddocks which could last our cattle for several months, but the invasions depleted all we had saved. We had to sell off the cattle and be left with a manageable herd which we now lock in the boma throughout and feed on hay and supplements," Dodds said.

Kifuko supplies milk in Rumuruti and neighbouring areas.

Laikipia Farmers Association (LFA), which is chaired by Ol Maisor ranch owner Martin Evans, noted that the invasions were a threat to the Sh4 billion-a-year investments which employ more than 5,000 people.

"Five of Laikipia's approximately 30 tourism enterprises have closed temporarily, including Suyian. The rest remain fully operational," Mr Evans said in a statement.

LFA represents private investors, land owners, property managers, and businesses operating 65 enterprises in Laikipia that drive a Sh4 billion local economy and fund at least Sh1 billion of local social development annually.

Laikipia County Commissioner Onesmus Musyoki said the situation is under control after the ranchers entered into herding agreements with pastoralists, hence dispelling talk that tension was growing in the area.