Rustlers, bandits and gun runners: the gangs vying for cattle in Kenya
On a hot morning in May, Wilson Kemei stands with an old Soviet rifle in his hands, ready to protect the hundreds of people taking refuge in a tiny, makeshift camp in Baringo county. They have fled there after gunmen shot and killed their neighbours in January.
Six years ago, Kemei was recruited to the Kenya Police Reserve (KPR), a ragtag militia whose members wear mismatching uniform – a camouflage jacket here, green army trousers there, with toes poking out of rubber sandals. They receive as little as a single day of training before being handed a gun, weapons like the wooden-stock SKS rifle clutched by Kemei.
“It’s not good,” says Kemei, 41, of the malfunctioning weapon. “You have to cock it one bullet at a time.”
The reservists are tasked with carrying out the work that Kenya’s police and armed forces have been unable to do: fighting off armed bandits who are terrorising Baringo county and other parts of central Kenya as they steal livestock and shoot anyone who gets in their way.
Theft of livestock has been going on for thousands of years, but in recent decades the practice has increasingly involved the use of modern-day firearms. In Kenya, some of these weapons are smuggled in from neighbouring countries, but many have been passed down from one generation to the next, or resold. A study by the Small Arms Survey (pdf) in western Kenya found that those questioned “indicated gun ownership was part of tradition”. In northern Turkana county, there is a “motivation to rustle for pride and dowry”, the study says.
Herders carrying rifles as they move their livestock across dry landscapes has become a common sight. Sometimes the line between herder and rustler becomes blurred as pastoralists take up arms for defence or for retribution. With weapons and ammunition, raids that might otherwise net just a handful of cows now capture hundreds. And the arms race is cyclical, the study shows.
“The ubiquity of the gun, especially in pastoralist areas, and the government’s failure to collect all illicit arms have fed perceptions of impunity. Hence, some choose to own a gun because it is the order of the day anyway,” says the study. One respondent said that since others had arms and no action had been taken against them, his community was now also buying guns.
Many of the guns owned by herders in central Kenya are old Soviet- or Chinese-manufactured AK-type rifles, but some are variants of the G3, which was developed by a German manufacturer in the 1950s for use by Nato forces. The guns are often traded at cattle markets right alongside the livestock, smuggled into Kenya across land borders, or even through the port at Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.
“Some of the cargoes in which firearms are hidden include sand, charcoal, and cooking fat,” one focus group near the border with Somalia told the Small Arms Survey (SAS). “Somalia is perceived to be the main source of most arms in Kenya, but firearms are thought to come from Ethiopia [and] Uganda.”
Weapons are also believed to be sourced from recently independent South Sudan. Last year, the SAS estimated that more than 600,000 firearms were in circulation in the country, which has a population of just 12 million. South Sudan’s border with Kenya is known to be porous, and some arms trafficking experts suspect that even more weapons may now be arriving from that country than from Somalia.
In November, the Kenyan government destroyed more than 5,000 firearms, which it said had been recovered from cattle rustlers and other criminals. But as of 2011, between 530,000 and 680,000 small arms were estimated to be in circulation among civilians alone.
Kenya is one of 12 African countries that manufacture weapons or ammunition, or both, and news reports routinely trace bullets and cartridge cases found at crime scenes to the military ammunition factory in the western town of Eldoret. Intended for Kenya’s armed forces and police, the ammunition is thought to be siphoned off by corrupt officials.
The reasons behind the increase in instances of gun owners using their weapons to steal livestock and attack herders are complex. Some point the finger at the lack of opportunities for young people in rural areas, where unemployment rates are at 22%, according to the World Bank. In Kenya’s former North Eastern province, which includes Baringo county and where cattle raids are rampant, 60% of young people are unemployed.
The long-distance runner Tegla Loroupe, a native of the Pokot tribe that is often blamed for much of the stealing, runs a foundation that engages young men – including former cattle rustlers – in competitive sports, business enterprises and small agricultural projects to help them find a way into gainful employment. But such initiatives are unlikely to solve the underlying reason for large-scale cattle rustling in Kenya: money.
“The police are corrupt. These people stealing cows are giving money to police for security,” said Isaiah Bowen, who leads the security committee at the Baringo county assembly and goes by the name Nanga. “It’s not cultural, it’s money. They make a lot of money off these cows.
“Where are these guns and bullets coming from? Who is organising? That is the question. These people have a lot weapons. Even boys of 10 years old, they have guns. They defeat the army, even the police … It is a small group benefiting from this thing.”
The problems caused by rustling have been compounded by a severe drought that has left much of the sparsely vegetated land of Baringo dried to a crisp. With nothing for their livestock to eat, herders drive the animals further afield in search of greener land. Since January, Pokot herders in Baringo have entered land used by other tribes. As cows and goats have starved to death, some have stolen cattle to recoup losses.
The violence has become so intense that thousands of children in neighbouring West Pokot county were unable to return to school this year because their parents feared they’d be caught up in the crossfire. Some children have dropped out of school entirely after fleeing with their families to places like the camp for internally displaced people in Baringo county.
That camp came into existence after two men were shot and one killed by gunmen in the town of Loruk in January. The next day, hundreds of people living nearby fled their homes, only taking what they could carry: “Just bedding, lights, maybe one sufria [cooking pot], one container of water, maybe two cups,” says Tarus Reuben, 28, who was among them.
Camp residents say they hope the occasional police vehicle that passes along the paved road will deter gunmen from attacking them, but the truth is that they have little worth stealing; many have had their cattle taken by armed herders, or the animals have starved to death.
Also living at the camp is Jane Chepsergon, who sleeps on the ground in a small shack with her two children, aged five and seven. She stopped sending them to school two months ago, she says, fearing the violence. This year their school shut down.
Kenya’s primary response to the violence and displacement has been to fight guns with more guns. In November, authorities pledged to hire 3,200 more police reservists like Kemei.
“They are given guns and are not even trained,” Chepsergon says of the reservists. “Just yesterday, we buried a KPR guy after two of them were killed [in an ambush].”
Many pastoralists believe the weapons given to reservists by the government are now being used to steal livestock. Chepsergon says that after a boy was killed in Loruk this year, his neighbours found cartridges that had been manufactured in Eldoret.
Security committee chairman Nanga holds out little hope that the new police reservists will be able to reduce cattle rustling. “[The] KPR, they are blind,” he says. “The people who should do that work are police.”
Raila Odinga, the opposition frontrunner in the August presidential election, says handing out guns to civilians is “basically an acknowledgement of failure on the part of the government”.
“Last week I went to Baringo,” says Odinga. “Before that, I went to Kenyatta national hospital where there was a young, 13-year-old boy who was herding his father’s cattle when he was shot by bandits in the leg. He’s still there in Kenyatta … suffering seriously. There are people there with very dangerous weapons, AK-47s, running around the area.
“What statement is the government making by giving ordinary civilians weapons? That the government cannot protect you – that you must protect yourself? That when the bandits come at night in a group and you’re alone [and they have a G3 or an AK-47] – you’re dead meat.
“The best thing would be to disarm all these bandits who are carrying these dangerous weapons. And secondly, to deal with the poverty that has afflicted people in these areas as a cause of cattle rustling. Those areas have been neglected for a long time.”
Anthony Langat contributed to this reporting