Benson Kukat remembers the first time he picked up a gun and marched to war. It was in 2010 — in the midst of a vicious cholera outbreak that killed tens of people and devastated his community. He estimates that he was just 13-years-old, a fresh adolescent but with an overwhelming sense of duty.
Kukat had grown up knowing that Turkanas were his natural enemies and had been taught that to exist as a Pokot is to participate in seemingly endless acts of aggression in a deadly dance for supremacy and livestock.
The target was Lomelo in Turkana, around 80km away as the crow flies, but one that the warriors would take a week or so to cover after beating a path through thorny bush and rocky ground, afraid to take the established roads in case they were spotted.
But that raid, his first of three, saw him go back home empty-handed. “We successfully made away with dozens of cows and goats but the Turkanas came after us. They waylaid us on our path back, waiting in the bushes and picking us out one by one. Three of us died that day, and many others were injured. More painfully, the Turkana made away with all their animals. We returned home empty handed,” he said.
Subsequent raids have not been successful either. The most he has ever taken home is a few goats. It is becoming increasingly harder to justify going on potentially fatal livestock theft missions if the returns are so low.
And perhaps that is one of the reasons Mngetich Lokochil has quit. At 34, he has two wives and seven children, and spends his days looking after livestock.
In 2005, he joined a cohort of Pokot raiders passing through his village on their way to Ilchamus in Marigat for a raid. Armed with a spear he marched with all the confidence of a 21-year-old.
“I felt that I had come of age and it was time for me to acquire a few cows of my own. Besides, I had grown up hearing stories from my grandfather about how he would go on raids in his youth, and it was implied that I should be doing the same thing too,” he said.
But Lokochil’s first raid was also his last. His band of 60 or so warriors suffered such massive casualties that he swore never to go on such a mission again.
“I was lucky to survive with no injuries and to return home with five goats, nowhere near the great bounty I had imagined. I saw my friends die in that raid, and the task of breaking the news to their families fell on us who survived. I have children now; if I went out there and died, who would take care of them?” he said.
To prepare for days of hiking through unforgiving terrain, the warriors carry boiled maize, sugar, tea leaves, water, sufurias to cook tea in, money and medicines such as antimalarials or snake bite antidotes. And, of course, weapons.
“We don’t carry sleeping bags, we sleep wherever we are when we get tired. We walk mostly in silence. We have leaders who go ahead of us to spy, they then come back, give us information and organise us into groups, which inform our attack strategy,” he said
This knowledge, along with the expertise to use guns, is passed down the generations, fuelling a deadly conflict in whose wake death and devastation follow. And the Pokot, Turkana, Tugen, Marakwet and Ilchamus have been in conflict for as long as anyone can remember.
Perennial insecurity in some pockets of the Kerio Valley, a region whose territory sweeps from the arid bushland of South Baringo to the foggy hills of West Pokot, has continued to stump experts and policy makers, who have been unable to implement any long lasting solutions to peace.
The Greater Rift Valley’s problem with guns and militarisation dates back to colonial days and the government’s systemic isolation of nomadic pastoralism.
According to Small Arms Survey, a report on small arms proliferation in Kenya, nomadic pastoralists have armed themselves over the years due to their proximity to conflict riven countries and the Kenyan government’s inability to protect them. Experts say that between 530,000 and 680,000 firearms may be in civilian hands nationally.
“Northern Kenya, confronted by the multiple challenges of underdevelopment, interethnic resource-based conflicts, and proximity to war-prone neighbouring countries, has had the highest prevalence of small arms, with the highest estimates at over 100,000 in 2003,” states the report published in 2012. It is these challenges that have continued to prevail throughout the years, creating a marginalised region that has had to survive by its wits.
Dr Mutuma Ruteere, a conflict and crisis expert, agrees. “The very nature of nomadic pastoralism requires the people who practice it to own guns. Their survival depends on livestock being restocked after every dry period, and often the only way to do this is by stealing from other pastoralists, hence the need for firearms,” he said.
In the past, the government has engaged in many disarmament exercises based on the premise that if you can get the people to give up their guns, then you can stop conflict from escalating and make peace treaties more likely. But this approach only works if the players actually give up their guns.
“Many pastoralists own more than one firearm, so what they do during disarmament campaigns is give up their oldest weapons and keep the rest. Besides, the smuggling routes still exist so it is only a matter of time before they rearm,” he said.
Many of the residents interviewed in the region admitted to carrying firearms, which they say are for their protection. “Some of us have registered our weapons with the government, but we are not willing to give them up because that would make us vulnerable to attacks from our neighbours,” said Adumorita Lodomoki, who at 28 says he has participated in several raids.
But if the theory of drought and lack can explain the frequent raids in Baringo, it comes apart when applied to the rich highlands of Lelan, where potatoes grow almost at will and where fat cows graze on carefully demarcated farms. The land is rich and the people prosperous. Yet, even in this corner of paradise, violence remains an ever present threat. The highlands straddle West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet counties, forcing the Pokot and the Marakwet into a conflicted proximity. Sporadic gunshots are not uncommon, and residents have got used to high speed police patrol vehicles traversing the area.
Anderson Kariono, a Pokot farmer who has lived his entire life in Kamelei Sub Location, Tapach Location, West Pokot, used to make hundreds of thousands of shillings a year selling potatoes and milk. He is now an internally displaced person, living in tents in a forest with his family after bandits razed his house and stole half of his livestock.
“I woke up one morning at around 6am to the sound of gunshots. On getting up to investigate, I found chaos. A crowd of Marakwet warriors were steadily advancing towards my gate and the hills appeared to be engulfed in large clouds of smoke. My neighbours houses were on fire. I quickly woke my family, managed to grab around 20 cows and we fled towards Sawa Forest, four kilometres away. We knew that staying behind would mean death,” he said.
On that raid, in February this year, hundreds of families were forced out of their homes and an unknown number of livestock was stolen. The displaced families are still living in Sawa Forest. The farmers sometimes sneak back to till their lands, but they dare not farm on the scale that they did before.
“I have currently planted potatoes on only one acre of land, leaving the other four bare because I am afraid that the attackers will strike again. As long as the threat of violence hangs over our heads, life cannot go back to normal,” he said.
There had been other raids before that one. Since violence broke out in 2016, seven people from both sides have died, and just two weeks ago, an administration police officer attached to the Anti Stock Theft Unit was shot and killed by cattle rustlers during a mission to recover stolen livestock from Embobut Forest.
“Both the Pokot and the Marakwet are perpetrators of violence, so there have been a lot of retaliatory attacks. Some 180 houses been burnt down since February this year, 30 of them belonging to the Marakwet,” said assistant chief Benjamin Kelan of Kamelei sub location.
West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo has put the violence down to the eviction of the Marakwet and Sengwer communities from Embobut Forest in 2014 by the government. Evictions from the forest, designed to arrest illegal logging and degradation of water towers, have been fraught with opposition from forest dwellers and activist groups.
“The government evicted people on the Marakwet side, burnt houses three years ago [and] gave residents Sh410,000 each. But it did not explain that they were staying in forest land. The issue is causing havoc,” Governor Lonyangapuo said in February.
If this is a resource war, it follows the pattern seen in Laikipia County in the past few months. In 2017, herders from Isiolo, Samburu and Baringo counties descended on the lush savannahs of Laikipia and invaded ranches, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. By the time the gunshots went silent, many smallholder farmers had fled their land, hundreds of livestock stolen and wild animals in conservancies killed. That year alone, 22 people lost their lives, including eight policemen.
According to Dr Ruteere, inequality is the biggest driver of violence and conflict. “The presence of ranches has created systems where incredible wealth lies side by side with incredible poverty. This is unsustainable and will always cause conflict. A solution would be to create a better model where wealth is shared so that neither community feels shortchanged,” he said.
In some cases, the violence is down to dirty politics sparked by local politicians to hold onto power.
In Tiaty constituency in Baringo County last year February, two politicians — Parliamentary aspirant Pepee Kitambaa and ward representative Kibet Cheretei — were shot dead in a night club. Their deaths were put down to political rivalry.
“Local politicians are involved in arming the youth to carry out these attacks. There is no way ordinary citizens could have access to bullets from the Eldoret Armoury without help from senior government officials,” said Kennedy Ayabei, a local resident who works with an initiative called Jamii Dhabiti to reform bandits and restore peace in the area.
He added that cultural factors, such as bride price, could also be a driver of violence. “Many times these warriors go on raids to raise the hefty bride price demanded by the community. The Pokot charge an especially high dowry; around 60 cows and goats, forcing their young men to steal,” he said.
But whether the raids are driven by a desire for more livestock or acquisition of new territory, the presence of firearms has escalated the violence.