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Can return of feared chiefs stop bandits in the North?

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

The directive by Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki to arm some chiefs and allocate each five armed police officers has drawn condemnation and praise in equal measure.

Chiefs are excited about enjoying the powers their counterparts had before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution while ordinary Kenyans who tasted their wrath are a worried lot.

Critics argue that it will not stop rising cases of insecurity, especially in bandit-prone areas of Northern Kenya and parts of North Rift where many chiefs and police officers have died in the line of duty.

Third Alliance Party leader Ekuru Aukot is among those who have faulted the move by the Interior CS saying chiefs have played their roles perfectly and are always the coordinating factor on matters of security across the country.

“There is nothing new the CS is telling us because what is required is proper facilitation of chiefs with transportation and enough National Police Reservists (NPR) who understand the terrain in bandit-prone areas,” he says.

He blamed the national government for letting chiefs down, especially in areas like Turkana and Samburu, where the information they provide is never acted upon.

Aukot, who recently lost a sister to bandits, decried the deaths of many chiefs in Turkana East, including one who was killed together with his sister while responding to an attack three months ago. 

Chiefs in the region are just as hopeless as police officers, who despite being armed have become cannon fodder for the marauding bandits who roam the vast Kerio valley acacia thickets.

Nothing will change

“His orders are not any different from the situation of police officers being killed and the government promising hellfire and then doing nothing,” said Aukot.

“So, nothing is going to change unless they empower the NPR to protect chiefs and the people.”

Yesterday, a statement from Prof Kindiki’s office clarified how the armed police officers will be deployed and the requirements.

It said assigning of police officers to chiefs will be done subject to consultations and agreement with the National Police Service (NPS) which controls police deployment and operations.

The ministry also clarified that chiefs will not enjoy the exclusionary services of the police but they will instead only be available for assignments that need their services.

“This is especially important in insecurity hot spots that frequently require armed security interventions,” the statement read.

It clarified that only those chiefs working in zones prone to banditry, cattle rustling and violent incursions will be armed and not all, as misconstrued by critics.

Such armament will be preceded by thorough vetting and retraining and strict adherence to weapon handling and management.

But Prof Amukoa Anangwe who has done extensive research on insecurity in Kenya, with case studies in rural areas that are governed by chiefs, disapproves Kindiki’s approach to dealing with the menace.

He agrees that insecurity needs a multi-directional approach because it is a major problem not just in pastoral areas but it has become a source of concern to the people countrywide.

Anagwe thinks that the solutions that are being generated by the government are inadequate, including the decision to arm chiefs.

“There are multiple factors that are the root cause of insecurity in the country among them unemployment and the drought situations that is driving pastoralists to farming areas,” says Anangwe.

Sophisticated weapons

He has also observed deadly fights over pasture in Tanzania around Kilosa region every year, which means those problems are not unique to Kenya.

“Pastoralists depend on animals and therefore to them their health is matter of life and death and that is why they take all measures to make sure they don’t die thus creating conflict,” he said.

The government ought therefore to generate long-term measures like sinking boreholes, providing portable water and constructing dams to capture rainwater.

He proposes a different approach in some parts of the North Rift instead of merely arming chiefs to combat the bandits.

That is because the bandits are not only well-trained but are also have sophisticated weapons since  their leaders are former military officers.

Livestock is a resource that is much sought after by the bandits who cut across borders into Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia. “It is a goldmine because of the commercial dimension of cartels that come in to take the animals by hook or crook with the connivance of the locals and political leaders,” said Anangwe.

That there makes it difficult for a chief who is armed and protected by five police officers to fight hundreds of heavily armed battle-hardened Ngorokos as the bandits are locally known. The Ngorokos are not just cattle rustlers but very skilled people, and some of them acquired training in disciplined forces either locally or in neighbouring countries.

“They have the confidence to confront the policemen and fight them in long-drawn battles because they also know the terrain,” said Anangwe.

One solution is for the government to increase its presence in as many areas as possible across the vast region and also improve communication instead of chiefs and a few police officers residing at isolated trading centres.

According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) data, 450 police officers are supposed to take care of a population of 1000 people.

That means chiefs on their own cannot sustain security across the country unless there is a paradigm shift in how to deal with insecurity in slums and other densely populated areas.

Anangwe said the Nyumba Kumi initiative which has similar models in Tanzania and Ethiopia is a good idea that needs to be encouraged and facilitated.

Anangwe urges the government to also rely on elders, community leadership groups and churches which also play a big role in maintaining the social fabric.

That is because chiefs are double agents who also have to listen to what is happening in their localities and therefore rely on the same people.

Failure to do that makes them social misfits who find themselves caught between serving their communities and obeying orders from their masters.

And so chiefs use their own judgment, at times deliberately ignoring what they think doesn’t make sense and failing to implement government orders.

Anangwe gives an example of chang’aa and other illicit brews that are everywhere because chiefs cannot just arbitrarily arrest and prosecute poor women striving to earn a living.

“They are unable to do that because they can be labeled ruthless people and become social misfits in their localities,” said Anangwe.

So the problem is much bigger, including six million unemployed people most of them in rural areas.

Before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, chiefs held a powerful office under the Chiefs Act which gave them sweeping powers in the provincial administration.

They lost those powers when Kenyans voted for the removal of the provincial administration in the 2010 referendum that led to changing the Constitution.