Tormented North: Inside the unending conflict in Samburu

Bandit attacks and cattle rustling in Kenya’s North are not new phenomena. Hundreds of lives have been lost and thousands of livestock stolen, in a vice that has left communities living in the Suguta and Kerio valleys desperate. So, what happens when both leaders and their electorate despair while the government continues talking tough with no real results? This is the situation facing many residents of Samburu West constituency who are victims of recent bandit attacks that have left over twenty people dead in just two months. 

In Noibor-Nkare village lays a fresh grave of Andrew Kamain. A conspicuous brown cross with his name written in white stands tall on the mountain of soil sitting on top of his body buried underneath. The only bears the year of birth, 1999 but has a date of the day he died, 18th October 2022, a clear reminder of a death that saw area member of Parliament Naisula Lesuuda break down in tears as she addressed interior CS Prof Kithure Kindiku as lined up seeking Parliament approval for his formal appointment. 

It was another sad and grieving day in the North. 

Another bandit attack had occurred, another life had been lost and livestock is stolen, it was yet another tormenting moment for desperate residents.

“When will one life be too many to lose in Northern Kenya?” asked Lesuuda.

Andrew Kamain’s killing gripped the country’s attention. He was violently uprooted from this world by a bandit’s bullet at the age of 23 years. The victim was with his elder brother Joshua Lenchalote when the attackers who were hiding in the bushed opened fire on them. The two were among a search party that was tracking down cattle rustlers from a neighboring community who had raided their village the previous night and made away with at least forty goats of their neighbor.

 Whenever a raid occurs, it’s the duty of all young men to gather and pursue attackers and recover stolen animals, which are their economic mainstay. According to Joshua, his late brother whom they were walking side by side, received a phone call that coincidentally called him to the next world. Joshua’s attempt to ask him not to talk on the phone to avoid attracting attention was too late when he was gunned down forcing him to scamper for safety in the thickets as bullets were fired in his direction. He survived, but the younger brother was not lucky to live another day.

Inside his one-room shelter which has a shop at the front side, is 18-year-old Josephine who had just married late Kamain and was now settling down to start a family, but that was not to be. Her 23-year-old husband had just finished his secondary education. She sits on the bed, looking lost in her thoughts with her white eyes darting across the room throwing glances at visitors who have come to condole with her. Josephine has been widowed even before she started enjoying life in marriage. She is just one of the many women, both young and old who lose their husbands whenever ruthless cattle rustlers roam freely in the Suguta belt strike.

Mzee Samuel Lenchalote shakes with rage as the reality sinks his younger son is gone, never to be seen again. He says, upon arriving at the scene where the son was killed, his advanced old age notwithstanding, he was determined to pursue his son’s killers but was restrained. He is worried the Samburu community could be starring at extinction given the never-ending killing of middle-aged men, as the older population continues aging and dying. He says soon there will be no young men in the community if something is not done urgently.

As you cross through thickets and open fields as well to Longewan village, you are shown another grave of a young man. A form two student was killed in October as well while grazing animals. His parents are still reeling in shock weeks later, too emotional to speak. 

He was buried in a bush on the outskirts of that village as per the culture of young men who die before getting married. 

In the outskirts of Maralal town, is another survivor, Morgan Lekishorumongi who is nursing gunshot wounds inflicted on him by bandits from a neighboring community. He now depends on crutches to move with a lot of difficulties and excruciating pain. His injured right hand can not hold or support anything, a situation which makes him infuriated that sees him click frequently as he talks.

He was attacked on Monday 17th October at 3 pm in Pura village in Loosuk location while grazing cattle. 

The bandits who made away with their 37 cattle were aiming to shoot him in the head, but somehow they missed the target and short his hand, with the bullet bruising his right-hand thump and his left thigh which makes it painful for him to walk or sit for long. 

“I had lie on the ground faking death which saved me. They knew I was no more because of the heavy bleeding” Morgan Lekishorumongi, a survivor.

It is evident locations on the border of Samburu and Baringo counties are the hardest hit by the never-ending banditry unleashed by criminals who roam the territory unchallenged. 

When we visited the area, a crisis security meeting had been convened at Loosuk location chief’s office. Senior chief Philip Lerno told the meeting chaired by area Mp Naisula Lesuuda that the situation is getting out of hand. 

“We have now lost over ten people in about three months,” Philip  Lerno, Senior Chief, Loosuk.

Most businesses in the area have been shut with owners escaping to safer zones like Maralal town. A few of the elderly men who remained behind engage in playing draft as they kill time, hoping all will end well each particular day. 

Regular attacks have seen residents here flee their Manyattas to seek refuge at Loosuk shopping centre as others moved to far-flung areas.

During the day morans are tasked with the responsibility of providing security for the elderly, women, and children as well as keeping an eye on the few remaining animals. They usually gather under a huge tree in Nooikera village armed with speakers, bows and arrows, and Panga to boost the efforts of police reservists. Every morning, a few morans detach from the bigger squad to go, spy, the entire day if enemies are closing in, and are the ones to raise alarm alerting the larger group to prepare and fend off the enemy or move their remaining animals to safer zones.

Nasur village in Amaya location is the last village sitting on the border of Samburu West and Tiaty constituencies. Residents vacated this area a long time ago and as a consequence, Amaya primary was forced to close down. The school has been vandalized. It was a mixed day and boarding school but now what remains are just abandoned dilapidated structures. Area chief Benjamin Lengapien tells us the school has produced senior government officials in the past among them a senior human resources officer now working in Parliament, a Kenya army colonel, and current Uwezo fund chief executive officer. The institution risks ceasing to exist unless the situation is arrested.

Perennial conflict has rendered that village a no-go zone, and our arrival here in the company of area chiefs and rangers from Ltungai conservancy was a shock to some members of the neighbouring community. A woman quickly emerged from one of the houses and after establishing our mission, she offered a prayer seeking divine protection as we head back to our operation base.

Last month, Ltungai conservancy was raided by bandits who left behind a trail of destruction, damaging whatever they set their eyes on out of frustration after their mission failed to yield the expected result.

The Conservancy has four camps and a total of 23 rangers, meaning about six officers per camp who work in two shifts a day, that is three on any given day. On that day a meeting has been convened to decide whether or not to have the camps merged to bolster numbers. There are no taking chances anymore.

“In this Lolmolok location, there are no police officers as well an anti-stock theft unit. It is only we the rangers who also provide security to the few remaining residents here and Longewan,” Francis Lakono, Conservancy Warden.

In Pura village, pin-drop silence at midday tells it all. The tranquility here is a result of less human activity and the absence of livestock. Locals here are on the verge of despair.

Pura, Loibor-Nkare, and Malaso villages have fertile, arable land where crop farming thrives but only a handful have been lucky to till their land.

Residents are crying for help banking their hopes on area leaders…the leaders too now overwhelmed and weighed down by the tears of their constituents are also crying for help….

Accusations and counter-accusations among the neighboring, warring communities are the order of the day.

Elected leaders from the various communities also often trade barbs over the issue. Baringo woman representative Florence Jematia has repeatedly called out  Tiaty Mp William Kamket claiming he’s shielding the criminals from his backyard.

However, Kamket who has dismissed the allegations says the Sugata Valley is a triangle of enemies from Pokot, Samburu, and Turkana communities who remained ungoverned. He says the government has a monopoly on violence and should act instead of blackmailing civilians and a section of elected leaders.

We found women folk gathered in a  place of worship to seek divine protection, their payers and tears were for different families. In here were some who have lost husbands. Some who lost sons. Some lost brothers. Others have lost in-laws and some have lost grandchildren.

Apart from livestock theft that threatens to impoverish the Samburu community, elders are even worried that the community might start facing extinction due to the senseless killings. Young men continue to be wiped out by the day as elders continue aging. It is a tormented North where banditry reigns supreme. 

President William Ruto has ordered a massive crackdown to vanquish criminals threatening to deploy the military to pacify the Sugata belt should the situation demand.

In the meantime in the unforgiving terrain of Samburu, it is simply another day, another regime, another executive threat.

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