News 2008


Militias use cover of lush forest to steal cattle worth millions and evict 'outsiders'

Daily Nation

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.”

Impending raid

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 a week.”

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 interview.

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 regard “outsiders”.

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 Kabolet.

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 districts.

Ethnic interests

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 sources.

“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 militias.

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 thing”.

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.

Identified corridors

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.