Kenya: Why herdsmen won't give up guns

Showers of rain hamper the drive through Kitale, the country's breadbasket that's now basking with flowering maize. Through the misty vision, the sight of pollen falling off anther evokes a beautifully, magical feeling.

It does not last long, neither does the rain. The Kitale-Kapenguria road soon dries up and twirls in swirls of dust, before the strips of tarmac disappear to reveal bare earth.

By the time we reach Kanyarkwat, four hours from Kapenguria, we have crossed rivers of sand and acacia-dotted hills, and waded through deep, wide cracks – enough to swallow a car tyre – yawning in the ground. More than once, we feel tempted to abandon the 4-wheel vehicle and walk, as does everyone in this part of the world.

Solomon Lokipurat, wife Margaret and their two children had been walking for 12 hours to the nearest dispensary in Kacheliba, the divisional headquarters.

"The children were feverish all night, and at dawn we started our journey to the dispensary," said Lokite when we caught up with him at around 6pm. We offered them a lift.

Such heart-breaking stories, and the obvious hardships that residents face due to poor roads, are the initial hints of the hard life in the forsaken frontiers of West Pokot.

Political neglect and under-development have been recurrent themes whenever West Pokot and its Turkana and Marakwet neighbours are mentioned. There are also the twin issues of cattle rustling and banditry. Now the region is in the picture as the Government tries to mop out guns that have flooded the districts.

Soon after the Government declared its intentions early this year, residents have been fleeing to Uganda to escape the dragnet, re-enacting a similar movement in 2001 when Turkana pastoralists who had been living and grazing animals in eastern and northeastern Uganda for almost 30 years, returned to Kenya to avoid handing their guns over to the Ugandan Government.

Internal Security minister John Michuki says 2,200 firearms and 3,700 bullets had been surrendered by end of August, out of 50,000 firearms estimated to be in civilian hands, although Independent sources say they are 200,000.

The resistance of the citizens is not surprising, for past military operations – the earliest dating back to colonial Kenya in 1925– have not yielded much. Gun culture is so deeply rooted in the region that rooting them out will take more than ministerial decrees.

On a lift from Action Aid, the British aid agency that's been monitoring the conflict, the Nation team toured Kapenguria and Turkana districts to assess the disarmament programme.

The weapon of choice is Russian-made AK-47. It is light and portable and has come to be accepted as a crucial tool in the North Rift.

To understand the roots of the gun culture, and why the Government might fail in the on-going disarmament programme, it is imperative to reflect on how the guns got in Pokotland in the first instance.

Historical accounts trace the earliest guns from Ethiopia, which considered Pokotland and Turkana to be part of their territory. Ethiopia is said to have armed the two communities to fend of the British at the turn of the 20th century. Over time, the AK-47 gained special attraction as it became an avenue to riches, coming handy in raids and individual and animal protection.

By 1979, when the political crisis in Uganda saw unchecked looting of the armoury abandoned by Idi Amin's fleeing troops in Moroto, Uganda, the proliferation of small arms reached an all-time high.

At that time, the AK-47 was so treasured, and was exchangeable for about 40 animals.

There had been a series of military operations to repossess the guns, and in 1984, the Government changed its approach. Soldiers and policemen descended on Pokot villages, terrorised everyone and confiscated thousands of animals. People were blackmailed to give up arms in return for the animals.

"After the 1984 operation," says 28-year-old Losiuareng Ng'arikwang, "Everything was taken away. I dropped out of school after Standard 3. "We gave our guns half-heartedly," he says. "The beating was so severe we had to give them up."

But as others found out, the Government was not likely to give back the animals even to those who surrendered their guns.

"If five animals had been taken away from you, you were given back one or two, and the rest were kept by the soldiers," says a man who sought anonymity. "Every day, several animals were killed to feed the many soldiers in the operation. An army helicopter took the rest of beef to Nairobi for sale. The people lost everything."

Since animals were in short supply, and guns were to be found in abundance, it was natural that the gun price went down. An AK-47 was exchanged for 20 animals, which later dropped to 10. Today, the gun fetches between two and seven animals.

Another historical episode that has somewhat complicated the disarmament process is the historical relationship between Kenya and Uganda. The whole of Kacheliba constituency had been ceded to Uganda from 1930 to 1970.

The long sojourn in Uganda means many Kenyans have relatives there, who accommodated them when the heat was turned on on either border, and most are registered as citizens of both countries.

But one core issue that has ensured that the conflict rages, and make residents hesitate to give away their weapons is the region's harsh terrain, which limits economic activities to pastoralism. Neither do the Pokot feel safe handing in their guns when their neighbours are armed to the teeth.

Mr Titus Lotee, the Action Aid coordinator in Kapenguria region, concurs: "The Pokot fear that giving up their guns will expose them if the Karamoja and Sabiny in Uganda have guns."

The Government also supplied guns to home-guards, who have now been replaced by volunteers in the Kenya Police Reserves.

There are about 10 reservists in every location in West Pokot, but the number might be reduced as some have been disarmed on suspicions of complicity in cattle rustling, according to a police source.

"Animals are the only source of income here, as the land is too arid to farm. Poverty is a source of conflict," says Mr Ng'arikwang, who suffered a severe blow early this year when his entire herd of 42 animals was stolen by Ugandan raiders. "Only 20 milk animals that I had left in my parents compound were spared," he says.

"We tried to brand animals in West Pokot, so they could be traced if stolen. But if the raiders are taking them to Uganda, they don't care whether they are marked or not," says Mr Lotee.

Dr Paul Goldsmith, a researcher who has written extensively on the region, says for disarmament to work, Kenya cannot go it alone, as there are other players in the security equation.

"The multi-national dimensions of the problem multiply the logistical challenges of a realistic disarmament strategy," he wrote recently in The EastAfrican.

Goldsmith's contention is that instability in the neighbouring countries has worsened the problem in the North Rift.

"Unsettled conditions in southern Sudan and the warlords ruling Somalia would render the impact of regional disarmament only temporary."

There are other internal dynamics that continue to fan the conflict in West Pokot, the most entrenched being the influence of laibons (seers), who "bless" youths before they begin raids.

Currently, there are five laibons, all revered by huge portions of the population in West Pokot. But they are seen as war-mongers because they direct youths where to raid, and may even predict what animals they should bring back from their raids.

The establishment of Potu District Peace Committees is one of the many peace initiatives trying to foster dialogue between the Pokot and the Turkana. Potu is an acronym for Pokot and Turkana. It is chaired by Mr Mark Eshuman, an elder.

Mr Eshuman attributes the endless conflict between pastoralist communities to the acceptance of "biashara ya kuiba" (the business of rustling).

He says his brother was killed in April, bringing the number of those killed in rustling raids since 1997 to 125.

"He was killed for no reason at all," he says, eyes panning to the slow moving Suam river that feeds the Turkwel Gorge power project.

The hydro-electric dam is a source of conflict, contested by the Pokot and Turkanas, each claiming ownership.

Potu meets every month to put a case for peace, or to negotiate for the return of stolen animals.

Do they consider disarmament as key to lasting peace?

"Yes," Mr Eshuman says without hesitation. "Every one should be encouraged to surrender illegal firearms."

He says in the past, deaths resulting from raiding expeditions were minimal as spears and arrows are not as devastating as firearms.

In Kanyarkwat, 34-year-old Apolong'ole Lokong'oria makes a startling claim: "When the disarmament programme started, names were forwarded of people suspected of having guns," he says. "People used that to settle scores. The authorities were told I have a gun but I do not. Now we are all afraid. We can't take the sick to Kapenguria for treatment as we are afraid we might be arrested. Three quarters of the people listed do not have guns."

Darkness descends fast in Lorogoran village and children play in the fading light. Flickers of light flash in the manyattas, as men sit outside the huts and talk.

"The last time, the raiders came, they passed through this path, herding animals away and shooting anyone in sight," says Mr Eshuman.

There is an eerie stillness in the night when we leave Lorogoran village. The lighted manyattas soon fade and a cover of nothingness envelopes the land. The village feels like a sedated patient, dead to the world. Unable to find its pulse, one cannot quite tell if it's dead or not.

Will the sound of gunfire break the silence again?

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