Frequent banditry attacks and killings of security officers have simmered in Kapedo at the border of Baringo and Turkana counties for decades.
The spillover of the conflict and economic collapse has caused ties between the two counties to fray as well, amid border closures, displacement of people and a security operation that is underway to rid the region of illegal firearms.
The border between the Pokot and Turkana communities is the North Rift’s most prominent inter-community standoff and one of the worst humanitarian emergencies the country has had to deal with lately.
The more than 500-kilometre long line dividing the counties is a magnet for cattle rustling that the government says has degenerated into organised crime.
Poverty, cattle rustling and illegal trade in firearms drive the creation of new armed factions and instil ferocious competition among local communities. And now the region is now under a massive security operation. It is faced with a turbulent regional politics as well.
The operation authorised by the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government has thrown families into chaos. It is now a no-go zone, as the government launched the second phase of the security operation.
Hundreds have been forced from their homes and made to seek refuge in neighbouring towns, as markets have been closed down and movement restricted.
To access the area, locals have to undergo serious security check, without which they are turned back. Armed security personnel are under strict orders not to allow even journalists into the area. “Just go back, there is no market. It was closed. We act on orders from above, even Kenya Red Cross officials are not allowed to the area, unless we get orders to allow them,” said an officer in one of the roadblocks along the Marigat-Chemolingot route.
The Standard had to find an alternative route. A normal three-hour drive from Nakuru to Chemolingot in Tiaty through Marigat took the team more than six hours. Along the route, the team came face to face with the predicament facing the residents, as they seek a lasting solution to the crisis. Deserted homes and silence characterise the better part of the journey. Locals and children who saw the vehicle approaching disappeared into thin air.
Some of the locals were eager to understand how we managed to reach the area. Our contact person had to first approach the locals to convince them that our mission there would not be detrimental to them.
At the once lively Chemolingot centre, countable shops remained open. Locals appeared tensed. Nginyang’ market also remained deserted.
Locals, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation, said life had been hard and that the operation had led to the collapse of the economy. Food, despite being a basic commodity, was hard to get, they said. “Road blocks were introduced and operation commenced. Any food supply to Chemolingot and Tangulbei was blocked,” said one of the residents.
To the locals, the operation being conducted does not target the bandits but the entire community. They, however, claim not much has been achieved, as security personnel are concentrated along the highway.
The source said there was no more trade, with Nginyang’, a major livestock market, being closed.
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With the roadblocks, buyers who used to travel from various areas, including Kiamaiko in Nairobi, cannot access the area. Several other traders came from Eldoret and Nakuru.
At least 2,000 livestock could be sold at Nginyang’ on a good day. This earned locals and the county government revenue.
Since the operation started in January, only four market days have been sustained. Locals said the market was closed since buyers could not access it.
“We have not seen any success in the operations. Not even a single bandit has been arrested and attacks continue to be experienced,” he said.
Local professionals feel they are the target of the police and the bandits. To the police the professionals are the ones behind the planned attacks, while to the bandits they are the police informers.
John Pkiyeny, a local, said the government had only instilled fear on the bandits who fled the area, leaving them to face the wrath of the police.
For Pkiyeny, the operations have not been working and there is need to change tact in the manner the government is approaching the insecurity issue.
He said there is need to engage elders and church leaders in finding a lasting solution.
He said basic commodities’ prices had gone up, with three kale leaves now going for Sh10. Accessing medical services is a problem, as most facilities closed down. What disturbs the locals is the killing of their livestock by the security personnel.
“The officers have turned their anger on the livestock; they kill cows instead of going after the bandits. A cow has nothing to do with banditry,” he said. Locals claim government is on a mission to sabotage the area’s economy. They demanded that government explains why those who abducted six people in January had not been brought to book.
The bodies of the six were found hours after government security agencies launched an operation in Kapedo and Tiaty following the killing of General Service Unit Operations Commissioner Emadau Tebakol at Ameyan bridge.
The operation that started on January 18 lasted eight weeks, and on March 23, it was halted as local leaders pleaded with the government to allow them to conduct a peace campaign in the region.
Kapedo is also a no-go zone, with locals calling on the government to supply them with basic commodities.
The locals, who used to get food supplies from Marigat, said it had since become a challenge. The 88-kilometre journey through Ameyan-Chesitet to Chemolingot is not safe.
The locals have to rely on relief from well-wishers and the county government. West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo said there had been efforts by the local leadership in Tiaty and the government to end insecurity and restore peace.
Prof Lonyangapuo was among leaders who spearheaded peace campaigns locally. “We have asked our people to believe in the government and work together so that property is not destroyed,” he said.
The governor said the destruction of property and infrastructure was a genuine concern. “We have asked the area MP to work with the government and ensure normalcy is restored,” said Lonyangapuo.
Baringo Governor Stanley Kiptis said peace in Tiaty could be achieved through a combined effort between the national government and the local leadership. Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya on April 6 said the scaling down of operations saw the resumption of attacks.
Mr Natembeya, in his address, said although leaders were determined to give a different solution to the insecurity problem, not much was achieved. He said they had held three meetings and only three illegal guns were surrendered.
The commissioner said with such a trend, it would take an eternity to rid the area of criminals and arms.
Natembeya, in an update on the operation, said they had managed to remove all illegal settlements where suspected bandits resided. He said they recovered more firearms compared to what leaders recovered in their peace campaigns.
Natembeya said they had since recovered Tebakol’s uniform and a firearm stolen from him.
He said initially there was a disconnect between government and the people, as chiefs operated far from areas of jurisdiction. “Movement in and out of the larger Tiaty is managed. We are not in the business of harassing people and government has not committed any atrocities. We are looking for criminals,” Natembeya said.
He said livestock were sometimes killed since bandits used them as shields during shootouts with police. “Whenever they see a police officer, they fire and take cover using the animals. It is them who kill the animals,” said Natembeya.
The Kenya Population and Housing census 2019 indicated that Tiaty had 12,153 households.
Natembeya said the operation had been extended to various conservancies in Laikipia, where the bandits are suspected to have fled to.