The government has, for more than 50 years, been giving guns and ammunition to police reservists and homeguards but does not know how many weapons it has issued owing to poor record-keeping.
In what senior security officials describe as a “scary scandal”, and the “biggest internal security threat”, nobody seems to know exactly how many officers are in the National Police Reserve (NPR) and the whereabouts of the guns given to civilians who previously operated as Home Guards and Kenya Police Reservists.
While it is estimated that there are over 9,000 NPRs strewn across the northern part of the country, the actual number is not known since successive regimes did not keep records, the Nation has established.
And, since they are not under the control of security chiefs, there is fear that they could turn out to be a deadly militia in the volatile north.
Security insiders believe that these armed men, for whom the only qualification for recruitment was attainment of 18 years and volunteering for service, could be the main source of insecurity in the region.
Last year, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey reported that Kenyan civilians could be holding about 750,000 firearms, up from 680,000 in 2016, the largest cache of guns in private hands in the region.
Of these, the agency said, only 8,136 were registered. In the ongoing vetting of firearms holders, the government had by May 24, 2019 vetted 7,190 owners and revoked 296 firearms certificates. It also withdrew 20,347 rounds of ammunition and 1,000 air pellets.
So disjointed was the issuance of gun certificates and NPR weapons that, at the beginning of this year, an attempt to give an additional 12,000 guns to a community in North Rift was stopped at the eleventh hour after it emerged that local politicians were behind the push.
The guns were destined to what is internally known within security circles as “Triangle of Hell” and which consists of West Pokot, Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo.
The move to clean up the gun menace was given a go-ahead by President Uhuru Kenyatta in January after a closed-door meeting at State House, Mombasa, attended by senior security officers.
The meeting resolved that all licensed gun owners should surrender them for registration and vetting. It also emerged that nobody knew how many guns were held by NPR.
“It is true that we have no register and do not know how many guns we have given out over the years,” a senior security officer privy to the details told Nation. “It is scary and we are sitting on a time bomb. We are only lucky that we have never had a civil war in this country … otherwise we have an armed militia out there.”
In the regions that these armed reservists operate, the armed civilians are usually under the control of local politicians and, unlike licensed gun owners, they neither go through any vetting nor training on how to handle and secure their guns.
“The other problem is that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations have no ‘comparison traces’ of these guns and, when used to commit crime, we can never know whether or not they are police-issue guns,” said a senior police officer involved in the current push to mop all the guns.
Already, President Kenyatta has given security agents a go-ahead to record all guns in the hands of civilians and determine those who are fit to hold a firearm. By yesterday, the Nation established, the government had collected more than 6,000 guns and 90,000 rounds of ammunition.
“In a few days’ time, we think that we shall have collected more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition, which is enough to set up a powerful militia group,” says a high-ranking security source.
But the exercise is already facing political resistance with leaders in the North Rift and Kerio Valley, which are the most-affected by banditry and cattle rustling, demanding the return of the guns.
Last week, a section of these leaders criticised the move to disarm NPRs claiming that the communities are now more vulnerable.
Led by Turkana Governor Josephat Nanok, the leaders claimed that more than 20 people had been killed, 30 schools closed and hundreds of livestock lost since the disarmament.
The criticism came at a time when Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho and other senior security officers were in the north Rift in a bid to convince civilians to surrender illegal firearms before the start of a major operation to mop up all the guns in the region.
“We will have a crack operation on the ground and we have to stop all forms of insecurity in the region once and for all,” the Nation was told.
Sources say that intelligence reports indicate that some politicians have started forming their own militia to terrorise opponents.
They have also become the main source of insecurity. In the last few months, some 75 police officers have been killed while in the line of duty by the bandits “working together with NPR’s”.
Insiders say that some of the guns used in the multimillion shilling cattle rustling syndicate are actually issued by the government.
“It is disheartening that these criminal elements use our guns to cause insecurity and then we have to send our officers to maintain order. In essence, we have been aiding this racket,” said our source.
But politicians in the region have dismissed the move to disarm the NPRs as political and asked the government to rearm them to secure the populations.
"We cannot allow a scenario where a Cabinet Secretary sits down with his team to make such decisions without consulting other stakeholders, this is a serious matter and it is very wrong for one to make decisions based on 2022 politics," Senator Kipchumba Murkomen told journalists last week.
The NPRs usually have a local arrangement between them and politicians who usually blackmail security officials to issue guns.
“These people then become part of the banditry problem and they have over the years been running the multi-billion-shilling meat trade thanks to stolen cattle,” says a source familiar with the ongoing operations.
Insiders say that cattle-rustling and insecurity is planned by politicians in order to recruit more NPRs and, in effect, get more guns for their communities. Attempts by regular police to tackle these rustlers have always been frustrated by NPRs.
“It is even more scary when we have security meetings and government officials are surrounded by armed civilians holding government-issued guns but not under anyone’s control,” says a senior government official. “This is the height of recklessness.”
In Marsabit County, the government has already disarmed most of the NPRs and ever since, according to police records, no single incident of bandit attack has been recorded.
With the current move to disarm civilians facing political opposition, there is fear that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in bandit-prone regions will continue.