25 April 2008

Kenya: Peace Elusive in Laikipia As Illegal Firearms Flood Area

Nairobi — Residents and leaders in the larger Laikipia district have appealed to the Government to mop up illegal firearms in the area following a fresh wave of killings by bandits.

The call follows increased cases of murder, robbery and stock theft. Residents have been killed by bandits and cattle rustlers and hundreds of cattle, sheep and goats stolen. Laikipia West district commissioner, Fredrick Shisia estimates the number of illegal firearms in the area at between 3,000 and 5,000.

Buying guns

"There's no community that is not arming itself. Pastoralists have always had firearms to protect their animals from rustlers and now farmers are buying guns after falling victim to the bandits," Mr Shisia told the Nation by phone.

Farming communities are now shunning livestock rearing for fear of raids by pastoral communities. People who bought land in the area in the 1970s have not occupied it because of the insecurity and the parcels of land have become battlegrounds for the rival pastoral communities.

Security officers believe that some of the guns held by the pastoralists end up in the hands of criminals. Laikipia East MP Mwangi Kiunjuri says that seven people had been killed in one week.

"The situation is so serious that people in areas like Sirma and Segera can longer rear livestock for fear of being attacked by cattle rustlers," said Mr Kiunjuri.

Among the latest victims was Laikipia County Council vice-chairman, Johanna Mwaniki, whose killing this month prompted fresh calls for a mop-up operation of illegal firearms and deployment of Kenya Police reservists to protect unarmed communities.

Hail of bullets

Mr Mwaniki, 38, died in a hail of bullets when a three-man gang accosted him as he drove home. Four passengers in the car, who included his wife and their 14-year-old daughter, were not harmed.

Police are yet to establish the motive of the murder. Four suspects have been arrested.

Before his death, the civic leader had sent a passionate plea to the Government to protect the farming communities in Ol Moran, Ng'arua and Rumuruti. He had proposed the recruitment of homeguards to protect the farmers and had also called for the seizure of all firearms in the wrong hands.

Farmers, teachers, traders and passengers are easy prey for the gunmen, especially on the Rumuruti-Maralal road.

Forest officer, John Muhoro, was at the weekend shot dead when the bandits raided Thiria. Two other people are nursing gunshot wounds at Nyahururu District Hospital following the attack. Laikipia West MP, Nderitu Muriithi, says the key to restoring security in the area lay in mopping up illegal guns, deploying more security officers and transferring officers who have stayed too long at one station.

"The minister for Internal Security, Prof George Saitoti, was here early this year and there are some proposals that we made which should be implemented quickly," Mr Muriithi said.

He said the killings had become routine in areas like Salama in Rumuruti Division and, in some cases, the motive is not even cattle rustling. In September, Mr Anthony Gathaiya Thuo was shot dead in his house at Salama trading centre. Nothing was stolen.

A few weeks ago, residents held a demonstration after gunmen indiscriminately killed more people. The lack of security is so bad that a bride was raped on the first night of her wedding in her husband's presence by three gunmen who attacked them at their Ndurumo village in Ng'arua Division on April 1. The newly-weds were also robbed of all their wedding gifts.

Mr Shisia appealed for patience and said the Government was tackling the problem from two angles - dialogue and mopping up of illegal guns. "Before we carry out a security operation, we want dialogue first. Over the past month, each community has held at least two security meetings and some of them have forwarded to me the names of people suspected to be perpetrating criminal acts," the DC said.

He said it would be dangerous to recruit police reservists before the hundreds of illegal firearms are surrendered. "We want a sustainable peace process and it is important the affected communities know there is a Government in place. I am happy because every community has picked 10 elders to work towards peace," Mr Shisia said.

Some security personnel are, however, pessimistic about the success of such an operation. A senior police officer in Laikipia said that recovering the guns from the hands of pastoralists was a daunting task. "These herdsmen are not stationed in one place and come to Laikipia from Isiolo, Baringo and Samburu districts. There is no way a person can call for an operation targeting Laikipia alone while ignoring neighbouring districts," said the officer who has been involved in past operations in Laikipia West District.

The officer, who requested anonymity, said firearms are usually hidden in the forest and only retrieved when needed, a situation that renders a mop-up operation daunting.

When asked what steps security officers were taking following calls by leaders to deal with the proliferation of illegal guns in the area, Laikipia head of police, Walter Aliwa, said the situation was no different from other parts of the country like Machakos, Nairobi or Nakuru.

Armed criminals

"There are many illegal guns in the country and you do not expect Laikipia to be an exception. Our statistics indicate that on average, three people die each month at the hands of armed criminals in Laikipia West District. These figures are very low when you compare them with other regions in the country," said the officer.

While it is no a secret that pastoralists have sophisticated firearms like AK-47 rifles to protect their animals from rustlers, Mr Aliwa says it is the locals and not the migrant herdsmen who are involved in criminal activities.

Other leaders in the region believe the situation is crying out for urgent intervention. Officials of the Kenya National Union of Teachers and the Kenya Union of Post Primary Teachers are clamouring for a military deployment. "Insecurity is disrupting education programmes especially in Laikipia West and we want the army to be deployed since police are unable to bring the situation under control," said area Knut executive secretary, Muriithi Kamanja.

He cited the case of a teacher at Island Primary School in Rumuruti Division who was shot dead late last year, prompting the school to close for some time. His Kuppet counterpart, Mr Timothy Kariuki, said until the military seizes the illegal guns, peace would remain elusive.

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