When a gun was sold for 25 bulls in northern Kenya

A colonial policeman recording a statement about recovered livestock in the Rift Valley in March 1962. [File, Standard]

The restive north is aflame again. The military has been dispatched to the ‘disturbed and dangerous’ counties of Turkana, West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet, Samburu and Laikipia.

The world is, however, waiting to see whether the sandals made from car tires will outrun and outfox the military boots.

Here, the price of a rifle has fallen from 25 bulls in 1970s to three oxen in 1980s. Today, a square meal to a starving police officer in the operation area can secure a bandit a fistful of bullets. In this axis, where nearly every adult male has an AK47, the locals have not known peace since 18th century when the former reached the area via Dodoth Escarpment from Uganda and Sudan and had to flex their muscles to get grazing lands.

By the time the colonial settlers came to Kenya in 1890s, the Turkana and the Pokot were already inhabiting the area although there were constant fights occasioned by cattle raids meant to restock after cyclic droughts.

The first major government military operation against cattle raiders in the area was mounted in 1918 after militiamen estimated to be 5,000 persistently attacked their neighours and resisted government forces.

During this military expedition, the lead warrior, Loolel Kookoi was captured and exiled to Mombasa while his community lost nearly all their livestock in a communal punishment that would mark the start of ‘government’ cattle raids. Thousands fled to Samburu, Baringo and Isiolo.

Patrick R Devine in his PhD dissertation, ‘Persistent Conflict between the Pokot and Turkana: Causes and policy implications’ posits that the colonial government was worried about the dangers posed by cattle rustling.

Pioneer administrator, Charles Hobley at the time prophetically warned, “It is necessary at all costs to repress the pernicious system of inter-tribal raiding, the curse of this district for so many centuries….until inter-tribal fighting and raiding ceases, all real progress is impossible.”

Ironically, as Devine points out, the colonial government was not concerned about the progress or peace in the region but was more keen on securing the fertile land for the settler community and wading off foreign aggressors.

“The immediate concern was the progression and stability of their British settler program in Kenya.  Effective colonial rule, of necessity, entailed subjecting the Pokot and Turkana to the violence of its fire-power in order to protect British settler community interests as well as bring about law and order. 

The British were afraid of Ethiopian incursions into northern Kenya, which would compromise their political economic policy in Eastern Africa and the source of River Nile.

The region has never known peace long after the colonialists left, and have been forced to source for guns from the neighbouring countries while contractors cannot complete road and water projects.