Since 1902

By Allan Olingo, Osinde Obare and Lucas Ng’asike

Over the decades, areas near and along the common borders of Turkana, West Pokot, South Sudan and Ethiopia have experienced escalating incidences of insecurity related to cattle rustling and boundary disputes

Turkana pastrolists have been forced to herd with

their guns. [Photo: Martin Mukangu/Standard]

Early this month, police in Turkana smashed an arms smuggling racket across the borders between Kenya and Uganda. During the operation, the police arrested about ten individuals who they suspected of being behind the racket. Majority of the suspects were from South Sudan who police believed were involved in smuggling of arms into the country.

According to Turkana West OCPD Jonathan Ngala, the suspects, who included nine South Sudanese citizens and a Kenyan, were found in possession of 300 AK 47 bullets, 3,700 G3 bullets and four guns, which they believed had been smuggled into the country for sale.

“We have intelligence that some of these people are arms dealers fanning the conflicts between the various pastoralist communities within this area. We believe these are some of the people who have been selling arms to gangs across the border and we are looking for more suspects involved in the illegal trade,” Ngala said.

Illegal arms

Government estimates that the gangs, including cattle rustlers, are holding more than 50,000 guns illegally. Efforts by the Government to disarm the groups have yielded little success over the last three years. Interestingly, in the Government disarming process, only about 3,000 guns have been voluntarily surrendered by some of the communities.

According to Turkana South Constituency Member of Parliament who is also the Assistant Minister for Forestry and Wildlife, Josephat Nanok, almost every month, dozens of lives are lost and hundreds of livestock stolen by bandits who operate with impunity in Turkana and Pokot Counties.

“It’s very sad that these communities are living in fear as the insecurity situation within these counties has made businesses to almost come to a halt, as entire communities are rendered destitute. This makes majority of the residents now depend on relief food,” says Nanok.

Nanok says the incidents of insecurity along common borders are now treated as routine occurrences by the Government, yet citizens continue to lose their lives and livelihoods.

“The promises by the Government that they will pursue the bandits remain just promises. When another incident occurs in another area, the previous one is quickly forgotten,” laments Nanok.

In January, the Government noted an increase in conflict incidences between the Turkana and their neighbours. Unfortunately, they all resulted in the loss of human life and property.

Unnecessary deaths

For instance, on January 4, raiders from East Pokot killed a chief while on his way to Kapedo from Lokori while escorting relief food. Three days later, Katilu Division was raided, which resulted in the deaths of three herdsmen and loss of 2,000 head of cattle. During the same period, raiders from South Sudan attacked three kraals in Lokichogio Division and three people were killed and 120 head of cattle and 100 goats stolen.

Interestingly, Government officers have also been casualties in the crossfire of these bandit attacks, which has now moved to international borders. Since last May, the Ethiopian militia has killed up to 50 people including security officers. This has forced hundreds of Turkana families to move away from the rich fishing grounds along the shores of Lake Turkana to Lwarengak, around 20 kilometres away, for safety.

In mid April, more than 300 heavily armed Merille militia killed two Kenyan security officers and wounded five others in an ambush at a remote police camp in Todonyang’ near the border with Kenya.

The Turkana cross border Riam Riam peace coordinator Joseph Elim says for more than a decade, Turkana and Pokot conflicts over resources has become difficult to tackle due to political involvement.

“We have conducted several peace efforts to unite the communities and to foster peace in the area in vain,” Elim says.

He says Pokots have threatened to evict more than 3,000 Turkana families living in Lorogon area near Turkwel Power Plant on claims that the community was occupying part of their land.

The official says Turkana and Pokot communities were fighting to secure ownership of the plant because they were not benefiting from the electricity generated from it.

“We want the Government to resolve this problem and re-unite the communities. Why should the communities fight over power that is not directly benefiting them,” Elim wonders.  

Peace meetings

After a series of peace meetings organised both by the Government and NGOs to end cattle rustling and restore peace along the common border of the Turkana-Pokot, the situation has not changed.

In the past, the Government has sought the help of elders to solve the disputes, but little has been achieved as such wise approach has been ignored by members from both sides.

Last year, the Government and peace actors in the region formulated a homegrown effort to restore peace after excessive use of force failed to offer solutions to the problem.

The formation of Kainuk-Sarmach-Turkwel-Masol Corridor Peace Agreement on December 20, last year, had seen a decline in cases of banditry and cattle rustling but the emerging boundary dispute is a threat to this peace.

John Emeripus, a professional from Turkana who helped draft the regulations, explains that the rule of law had for many years failed to establish law and order.

“For decades pastoralists have been engaging in vicious conflicts fuelled by the proliferation of illegal arms and fight for scarce resources,” says Emeripus.

“If the Government can unleash its entire might on the Al Shabaab militants in Somalia, why can’t it do the same to bandits terrorising innocent mothers and children within its borders,” poses Nanok.

Last Thursday, the Government announced that heavily armed troops had been moved to the Todonyang area of Turkana after tension along the Kenya-Ethiopia border heightened when the Merrile herders attempted to invade grazing fields inside Kenya.

“We are having a lot of tension at the border and we have moved a big number of security troops to beef up security after Ethiopians tried to cross to the country. We have established security units at the various entry points along the common boundary,” Turkana North DC Albert Mwilitsa said.

Heightened security

Mwilitsa added that the Government had now established a fully fledged police station, a General Service Unit and rapid deployment unit from the Administration Police to deal with the Ethiopian militia.

Acting Internal Security Permanent Secretary Mutea Iringo announced last week during a security meeting between Kenya and Ethiopia officials in Mombasa that Kenya had established an army base along the Kenya-Ethiopia border in Todonyang, Turkana County, to curb militia attacks.

“It is important for Ethiopia to establish the same on its side of the border to allow the security personnel to tighten surveillance and address security issues as they arise on the ground,” said Iringo.