Winning the war on cattle rustling needs more than police and army

"I can see you have plenty of water and food. We shall spare your lives since you are not armed," he said, ordering us to stand up. They helped themselves to the water jerricans and the packed food. After exchanging glances, they left us one jerrican and as fast as they had appeared, vanished into the thickets.

We scrambled back into the land rover. I ordered the driver to turn back. We were returning to our base, Garissa town. This was not my first encounter with shifta bandits during my tour of duty in northern Kenya as an information officer. Experience had taught me to always carry plenty of water and food. Never ever, should I be found in the company of policemen. Shifta bandits hated security officers. If our vehicle had resembled that of the military or police, they would have instantly opened fire on us.

Shifta bandits had, since 1963, turned northern and north eastern Kenya into a living hell. The regions became ungovernable. The shifta toyed with security forces and killed hundreds. It took the Kenya Army (now Kenya Defence Forces -KDF), several months to learn the ways of the unseen enemy.

Today, Kenya faces militia groups and bandits that are deadlier and better armed than the Shifta. In the counties of; Tana River, Isiolo, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera, the Shifta were replaced by Al Shabaab terror group, whose members are willing to die for their demonic agenda. In the counties of; Turkana, West Pokot, Samburu, Laikipia, and Baringo, armed gangs that started off as cattle thieves, have morphed into deadly commercial armies. They feed the meat markets of Nairobi and other cities with stolen livestock. They enjoy the support and protection of local leaders and top government officials. Each time you imbibe and enjoy nyama choma, your lips and teeth are most likely, dripping with the blood of men, women and children killed in cattle rustling raids.

Story of neglect

The story of banditry and cattle rustling is delicate, complex and a tearful one. It's a story of years of neglect and historical injustices. It's a story of neglect of certain communities by various governments. It's a story of a cultural practice that has been turned into a deadly and bloody commercial venture. It's a story of greed. It's a story of shameless avarice by a Kenyan elite.

Former Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Wilfred Ndolo, once told me, that "The amount of firepower and sophisticated weaponry in the hands of the Pokot and Turkana communities, is enough to engage the KDF for months."

Today, the government of President William Ruto is faced with an arrogant and boastful militia in northern Kenya. Men who are more experienced in guerilla warfare than most of our security forces. Men who kill and maim even women and children, an act that their ancestral bandits would have frowned at. Men who derive pleasure and receive accolades for killing policemen.

As the KDF and police move into the various areas listed as most dangerous by Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki, they must reflect about November 10 2012. On that dark Saturday, 42 policemen were butchered in Kenya's Valley of Death, the Suguta Valley.

Trans Nzoia governor George Natembeya. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

In a recent televised interview, Natembeya shared his frustrations in his attempt to tackle the menace. During attacks and security crisis, his telephone calls to senior government and security officials to seek backup and support would be ignored. Only President Uhuru Kenyatta, readily received his calls and heard him out.

Netembeya says that policemen operate under difficult, and inhumane conditions. They are starved, underpaid, ill equipped and demoralized. They have neither insurance nor medical cover. On many occasions, they would surrender to the bandits or agree to trade their bullets in exchange for food. "When a platoon of 30 armed policemen is faced with 200 rustlers armed with superior guns, what else can they do? At times they are forced to exchange bullets for food. It is immoral to place officers in these regions on same salary scale with their colleagues in Nairobi" says Natembeya.

Because of the commercial value of rustling, the bandits ensure that no development takes place in the regions. They sabotage building of roads and provision of water. Unless a road project is undertaken under KDF supervision, it will never succeed. They ambush and kill contractors and workers. They even spray water tanks with bullets.

The bandits are normally young men who have never stepped in formal school or who dropped out at primary school. They steer clear of officialdom and avoid acquisition of national identity cards. They operate under their own laws and easily cross into neighbouring countries after committing atrocities in Kenya. Attacks and raids increase with drought and starvation.

Historical Injustices

I recall the heart-breaking tales told by members of Kenya's marginalised communities during the plenary sittings at the Bomas Constitutional Review Conference. The, Somali, Maasai, Borana, Gabra, Turkana and Pokot emerged as some of the most abused and neglected people.

Delegates from Pokot and Turkana told of ailing families sharing drugs prescribed to one member since health facilities were miles away. They are starved of; roads, schools, colleges and hospitals. They have no access to water and electricity. Despite the fact that their land is rich in minerals that can transform livelihoods and the economies of these regions, only powerful families and multinational corporations mine them. The youth, who are denied the right to education, are armed with sophisticated weapons to indulge in cattle rustling. They raid neighbouring communities, kill, maim and steal their livestock which end up being sold to Nairobi and other urban centres. The money ends up in the pockets of the sponsors of war; politicians and senior civil servants.

Past interventions by KDF

The shifta bandits made their first attack on the Kenyan soil on the 28th December 1963. This was only two weeks after Kenya's independence. The guerrillas were trained and armed by the Somali National Army (SNA), inside the Somali Republic. They lay claim to part of Kenya's territory. After they had killed a number of civilians, administrators and security officers, Jomo Kenyatta authorized the Kenya Armed Forces (KDF), to flush them out. One of the officers, who participated in the early shifta campaign, Major (Rtd) Shadrack Muiu, says:

"The Northern Frontier District had increasingly become insecure owing to frequent attacks by militants fronting a secessionist agenda. This prompted declaration of a State of Emergency by President Jomo Kenyatta. Kenya, through its armed forces had to secure its territory. The Shifta War of 1963-1967 was a military operation by the Kenya Armed Forces to crush Somalia- backed secessionist movements. The Republic of Somalia openly supported Shifta with Radio Mogadishu and Somalia based newspapers congratulating the efforts of the Shifta and calling on Kenyan Somalis to join in the war for a greater unified Somalia. Kenyan Somali youth even volunteered and joined fighters training in Somalia."

Major Muiu says in the forthcoming, Defender of the Nation, a KDF publication, that KDF helped secure a big chuck of Kenyan territory and save lives.

"Operation Okoa Maisha"

In 2005, the beautiful, Mount Elgon region burst into flames. A deadly and ruthless militia, the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), was born. The guerrilla group began agitating for land rights of indigenous people while blaming the government of marginalizing locals. By 2006, the SLDF had become military-like, with a command structure. It became an insurmountable force that played and toyed with the police. The militia group committed gross violation of human rights in Mt Elgon area. The conflict threatened to escalate into a civil war.

The grafe of de facto SLDF leader Wycliffe Komon Matakwei. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

SLDF reigned terror on residents and state security agencies. It maimed and killed. It imposed a tax system for extortion. Schools closed down. Citizens couldn't access social amenities. In October 2007, the Administration Police's Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), the regular Police, and the GSU, launched a joint operation in Mount Elgon. It failed miserably. On March 10 2008, KDF launched, "Operation Okoa Maisha", to counter the SLDF and restore normalcy.

On May 16 2008, the KDF gunned down Wycliffe Komon Matakwei, the de facto leader of SLDF. The Defender of the Nation says that; "Demoralized, disillusioned, lacking strategic direction and coordination, the militia succumbed to KDF firepower. Thousands of fighters were arrested while others surrendered. Over 100 assorted weapons and 2000 rounds of ammunition were recovered. KDF finally ceased operations in Mt Elgon on 2 September 2008."

Winning formula needed

To win the war against banditry will require more than police and military interventions. It needs carefully thought-out policies of spreading education among the communities, wining the minds and souls of the youth and leaders and showing them greater and better opportunities to cattle rustling.

These communities, which have been neglected by all governments since the colonial era, must first be made to feel Kenyan. They have faced more than 60 years of neglect.

"The government knows the perpetrators but does nothing. The national intelligence service provides information even up to where the bandits are but they are never taken out because they serve major economic interests. If the military fails then Kenya will turn into a banana republic," warns Natembeya.

Baringo North MP Joseph Makilap says that Kenya should learn from Uganda which managed to disarm warring communities and restore peace in regions with similar history with northern Kenya. He argues that the government should first re-establish rule of law, punish impunity, and provide food and water to communities

Natembeya suggests that during the security operation, politicians should be banned from these counties.

"We must pay our officers well and give them incentives. We also need to urgently expose the shadowy characters behind the meat industry. Security forces should expect serious resistance. These bandits thrive on killing and if a bandit kills a commander, he gets more accolades. These are battle hardened criminals who are ready to die," says the governor.

As President William Ruto seeks a permanent solution to banditry, he might consider reestablishing the anti-stock theft unit which should be run professionally. Kenya needs a specialist police unit specifically trained and knowledgeable in this terrain. It needs a well-oiled unit equipped with light armoured personnel carriers, and helicopters. One that will use drones for intelligence gathering.

Meanwhile, the rehabilitation prgramme should start in each community incorporating elders, community leaders, and religious organizations. The residents of these neglected regions must be incorporated in to the country's economy. They need; roads, electricity, water supply, security, animal products and access to markets for their animals. We must make then creators of wealth with a stake in the country's future. Handled with seriousness, and with assistance from countries like Israel, these regions could actually be turned into Kenya's food baskets.