There are emerging fears that the deadly attacks happening in the Kerio Valley that have claimed 12 lives and displaced hundreds of families are being fuelled by spiritual leaders who offer blessings and administer oaths to bandits before they stage raids.
The spiritual leaders, referred to by local communities as laibons, plot the raids and issue instructions to bandits and it is believed their supernatural powers are absolute in governing blessings or curses.
But the laibons are now on the spot over the heinous killings in retaliatory attacks between the Marakwet and Pokot pastoral communities.
"The spiritual leaders administer oaths and offer blessings to bandits who participate in the attacks, reversing gains made in promoting peaceful coexistence among pastoral communities," said Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya at a security meeting in Tot last Wednesday.
He urged spiritual leaders to surrender or risk being arrested over their involvement in the fresh armed conflicts.
"It is unfortunate that these laibons even issue threats to security teams involved in the ongoing crackdown against criminals behind the attacks," he said.
"According to our intelligence reports, they had predicted that we will not hold a peace meeting here."
He warned that the law will be tough on individuals who fuel armed conflicts irrespective of their position in the society.
These developments came as security teams confirmed that Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i will visit the troubled Kerio Valley, whose two-year peace has been disrupted by attacks that now seem to target individuals as opposed to random attacks on innocent victims of yesteryear.
Laibons are revered for their perceived supernatural powers among the Marakwet, Pokot, Turkana and other Kalenjin and Nilotic communities.
Two spiritual leaders were arrested in Baringo County last year and arraigned over their alleged connection to protracted armed conflicts in the region.
The naming of suspects behind recurrent cattle raids and an ultimatum issued by the government for residents to surrender illegally held firearms have triggered fresh attacks among the warring pastoral communities.
Among those killed were two peace committee members from Endo, Marakwet East, who were shot dead last week by suspected Pokot bandits.
Desmond Kiptoo, a Grade Four pupil at Sobero Primary School in Marakwet East, was shot dead while taking care of his family's livestock on the banks of River Kerio.
"I do not understand why they had to kill such an innocent child. They should have taken away the animals and spared his life," said Salome Ruto, Kiptoo's grandmother.
The boy was buried last week in an emotional ceremony attended by local leaders, who called for the clashes between the communities to end.
"They sprayed him with a lot of bullets as if he was a criminal. It pains me a lot considering he was my only boy," said Kiptoo's father Eliud Chemitoi.
Among families mourning their loved ones killed in retaliatory attacks is that of Benjamin Lokerem, a peace committee chair in Kowowo location, Marakwet East, who was shot by suspected Pokot bandits two weeks ago.
"He was our breadwinner and his killing spells doom for the family," said his widow Bilaras Cheboi.
Residents the Nation spoke to said the retaliatory attacks were undermining the socio-economic conditions of people in the two communities.
"There are a lot of accusations and counter-accusations on the actual cause of these attacks. Security teams need to pursue suspects behind the attacks and bring them to book," said Lokarem's brother Julius Changur.
A list of nine notorious bandits - three from Pokot Central, three from Marakwet East and three from Tiaty, Pokot East - has been handed over to security leaders following a series of peace meetings by lawmakers, elders and administrators from Elgeyo-Marakwet, West Pokot and Baringo counties.
"We have decided to name and shame those who are behind instability in the area. We cannot allow a few criminals to reverse the gains made by the prevailing peace in the region. They must be arrested alive or dead," said Marakwet East MP Kangogo Bowen at a previous peace meeting in Chesogon.
"If you are from West Pokot County and you cross over to Elgeyo Marakwet to steal animals, we are very sure that you will not share the loot with the entire community but your close family," said Sigor MP Peter Lochakapong during the peace meeting.
"We will therefore come for you as a person and it is the responsibility of your relatives to disclose your hideout."
The cattle thefts, the lawmaker said, are well-coordinated networks among pastoralists in the region.
It is a change of tactics as raiders and bandits turn digital, embracing mobile phone technology and social media to organise attacks and escape security patrols.
Raiders in pastoral communities in Northern Kenya who had for a long time been considered illiterate and not tech-savvy are utilising mobile phone apps like WhatsApp to mobilise reinforcements during attacks and link up with their kinsmen in urban areas who supply them with the gadgets.
Abuse of social media
"Cellphones have proved convenient and reliable as raiders adopt fresh tactics in staging attacks. This makes it difficult for security teams to crack down on criminals," said Mark Ajon Lokwawi, from Lokiriama in Loima, Turkana County.
Most herders in Turkana and West Pokot counties, especially youths between ages 18-40, own mobile phones.
"Most youths here are embracing technology. They are using social media platforms like WhatsApp to advance their interests, including organising raids and circumventing security teams," said human rights activist Esekon Ekiru.
He linked the deadly attacks pitting pastoralists against one another to abuse of social media by elites from warring communities.
"Some personalities, especially in urban areas, use social media to incite communities against each other, which results in revenge attacks."
The warriors use mobile phones to receive updates on current affairs, including government plans to carry out disarmament operations.
"Digital platforms have made it easier for most people to obtain information on such remote areas where newspapers are hard to get," said Zablon Natieng, from Natira, Turkana West.
In the insecurity-hit Kapedo, on the boundary of Turkana East and Tiaty sub-county, calm is slowly returning after Safaricom erected base stations and masts to boost the communication network and complement the work of security agencies.
Improved mobile networks
The Safaricom masts on the Silale hill in Tiaty sub-county and Napeitom in Turkana East have made it easier to make distress calls to security officers in the event of an attack.
Francis Lopalal, a trader at Kapedo shopping centre, claimed that lack of mobile networks in the past had contributed to incessant bandit attacks and livestock theft in the area as criminals staged attacks and fled to their hideouts unreported.
"The communication mast on the Silale hill has helped us get access to the outside world and because this area is volatile, it also helps us to raise the alarm when criminals strikem," he said.
"There was no access to such services in the past and people were killed and livestock stolen by armed bandits who, after executing the crimes, fled to their hideouts unreported."
In the past, locals would get on a police truck, go to Chesitet, where there was a mobile network, and they would make phone calls for a stipulated time. They would then be driven back by the armed police to protect them from being attacked by criminals.
Ali Etukan also lauded the improved network, which he said had helped to improve security and boost economic standards in the area.
"We normally get our fresh produce in Marigat town, more than 40kms away, but due to insecurity in the past and a poor communication network, several people including security officers lost their lives after being ambushed by armed criminals on the way because they were unable to raise the alarm," he said.
"Things are now better because we can make follow-ups to ensure that they reach their destinations safely."
James Etee, a security officer in charge of the Kapedo Rapid Deployment Unit, noted that a better mobile network in the banditry-prone region has eased security operations and patrols.
"We used to have a challenge when carrying out security operations in the hotspot areas because when our officers are deployed to various destinations, they could not communicate to tell us where they were at any particular moment and this exposed them to attacks by armed criminals," he said.
"The mobile network has also helped us to follow the movements of criminals over the phone because someone may spot them at a certain place and we can coordinate in repulsing them easily, unlike in the past when you could walk in the bush looking for bandits who had their own ways of communicating and thus end up killing you instead."
The officer noted that communication had also eased response, information coordination and dissemination among security agencies.
Lomelo division Assistant County Commissioner Jake Jirongo said that in the past, with poor mobile and road networks, it was difficult administering the insecurity-prone region.
"Livestock theft used to be very rampant because of a poor network and pursuing criminals was a mirage because you could not tell where they headed to with the stolen animals," he said.
The setting up of the Safaricom mast at Napeitom in Turkana East in 2018, he said, had also helped beef up security.
"Armed criminals are techno-savvy and normally take advantage when they know that there is poor communication in an area to allow them to execute their crimes unreported," he said.
"The communication masts in this area have paralysed their operations. Though we have isolated cases, locals are now at peace."
Several attacks have happened in the area in the past, including the killings of 19 Administration Police officers, who were shot dead in a deadly ambush in Kasarani in 2014.