Militias use cover of lush
forest to steal cattle worth millions and evict 'outsiders'
Story by KEN OPALA
06. March 2008
Security forces have identified Kabolet Forest as the base of
ruthless militias that have killed dozens of people and stolen
their livestock worth millions of shillings.
And this week, the security officers have planned a major
operation to smoke out the raiders from the dense forest in the
heart of Rift Valley Province.
Sources said that Kabolet, which is part of the Cherengany Hills
forests, harbours over 5,000 militias from West Pokot, Marakwet
and Mt Elgon districts. This is where they hide the thousands of
cattle stolen from Cherengany, Kwanza, Saboti and Mt Elgon.
A contingent of police officers is expected to comb both Kabolet
and Mt Elgon forests to flush out the raiders and stop the mayhem
that has rocked the area since last year.
“The operation will be coming so soon,” a top provincial
administrator said in an interview with the Nation. “The forest
will then revert to the Forest Department and be declared a no-go
zone to the public.”
Security chiefs from the area – including West Pokot district
commissioner Loyford Kibaara and his Trans Nzoia East counterpart,
Mr Seis Matata, confirmed reports of the impending raid. However,
they could not divulge details.
“There are illegal settlements in the forests, some animals are
hidden there,” Mr Kibaara said. “We need to flush them out within
Cattle rustling is a double-edged sword used to raise money for
war mongers and to evict “outsiders”. There are fears that the
militias are planning to overrun villages and confiscate land,
fears confirmed by Science and Technology minister Noah Wekesa
whose Kwanza constituency has been attacked several times by the
Sabaot Land Defence Force.
“Don’t call it cattle rustling. It is not. These people are out to
evict (other communities),” Dr Wekesa said in a telephone
Some community elders are convinced the cattle theft could be the
initial “strategy” used by the Pokot and Marakwet militias. The
two groups that once fought each other for decades joined forces
in the wake of the post-election crisis to displace those they
One of the groups devastated by the raids is the Sengwer, a
community settled at the edges of Kabolet Forest. “They (raiders)
come out of the forest in big numbers, steal cattle and rush
back,” said the Trans Nzoia East district commissioner.
The larger Trans Nzoia is being hit from two sides: by the Sabaot
Land Defence Force with roots in Mt Elgon and the militias from
Some of the stolen animals are sold in Uganda; others find their
way into local meat markets especially in Nairobi and Eldoret.
“They are transported in lorries to Eldoret and other towns,” says
the West Pokot DC, Mr Loyford Kibaara.
According to sources, proceeds from stolen livestock go towards
acquisition of animals since the militia “don’t want to part with
their own animals” when they pay dowry or sell livestock.
The high number of illegal guns and the “commercialisation” of
cattle raids have left authorities worried about the possibility
of war mongers seizing control of parts of these frontier
War wongers are invoking the names of their communities to pursue
ethnic interests. In Trans Nzoia, West Pokot and Marakwet
districts, some leaders, including politicians are staging the
raids to raise funds for their militia groups, according to police
“There are cases where raiders have been ferried in lorries from
Marakwet to Trans Nzoia,” said a security officer on condition of
unanimity. “The laibonis (community leaders) are so powerful that
the Government fears antagonising them.”
Internally displaced people in Trans Nzoia name two tycoons as the
architects of the raids. One of the suspects is from Kaplamai
while the other is from Cheptaragai.
A matatu operator who also owns property in Kitale and Makutano
towns is alleged to be using her vehicles to transport arms to the
Mr Gilbert Saina, the legal officer at the Kitale Catholic Diocese
Peace and Justice Commission said “elites are now using warriors
to steal cattle”. Whereas the “elites” know what they are doing,
warriors “don’t see it as an economic thing but as a cultural
Although sources said 5,000 raiders were holed up in Kabolet, the
Trans Nzoia East DC, Mr Matata disputed the figure. “It is not
thousands as people put it.” He said raiders had taken advantage
of the forest to operate cattle rustling rings from caves.
But he conceded that “they come from the forest in big numbers,
strike villages and escape back to the forest.”
Yet the spontaneity and widespread nature of raids have convinced
local leaders that an army of militiamen exists in the forest.
“They have big guns and they come in their hundreds during the day,”
said Mr John Kiplagat, a village elder at Kabolet Scheme, a
settlement just outside the forest. “They killed our people when
we tried to pursue them in the forest.”
The violence unleashed by the attackers is usually massive. The
house of Bishop Barnaba Mengich of the Apostolic Faith Church was
destructed by grenades during an engagement between police and
raiders. It’s not clear who used the grenades. John Cheruiyot, a
Sengwer community elder, said eight unexploded grenades have been
discovered at Kabolet scheme.
And Mr Leonard Barasa, the director of Kitale Catholic Diocese
Peace and Justice Commission, said the militias strike in columns
of hundreds of heavily armed men. “They strike in three columns,
each comprising 300 killers. As one column seizes a village, the
other drives away the cattle while the third column engages
security forces. And there can be as many as three simultaneous
raids in different parts.”
The 20,000 hectare Kabolet forest – the most dangerous of the nine
forests that form the 100,000 hectare Cherengany woodland complex
– traverses Trans Nzoia East, West Pokot and Marakwet districts.
Seized water project
Last month, militias temporarily seized a Sh3.5 billion water
project outside the forest, forcing nine police officers on guard
to flee for safety. About 100 cattle were driven past the
project’s gate as the militias took control of the water plant for
hours. Construction work on the project – which is expected to
supply water to Kitale, Webuye and Bungoma – has since stopped
following the raid.
The Sabaot Land Defence Force has killed 400 people in Mt Elgon
and another 100 in Trans Nzoia in just 18 months. They have
displaced 40,000 others in Trans Nzoia and 80,000 in Mt Elgon
besides stealing over 30,000 cattle in Trans Nzoia alone.
Raiders from Marakwet and West Pokot have killed dozens people in
Cherengany and driven away thousands of cattle.
The Catholic Church said it had identified corridors in Kabolet
Forest through which raiders drive cattle to Uganda and parts of
Kenya. “We even gave police the details. But it would appear,
rather than block corridors, they (police) have been busy securing
internally displaced people,” said the church official.
In Kaplamai, an area in Trans Nzoia hit almost a dozen times in a
year, the chief’s office was manned by four Administration Police
armed with just two rifles. And when the raiders attacked the
village, the APs could not stop them, said a source.