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Historical context of Isiolo/Samburu raids/violence

Underlying the recent flare-up of violence in the area is a complex history, and though the natural inclination is to dismiss the news reports as the typical “banditry” and “cattle-rustling” that goes on in Northern/North-Eastern Kenya and point to the current drought as the trigger (lack of water / pasture is playing a role but it’s not the full story), I think it’s helpful to try and unpack the reports that are coming in and offer the context that the mainstream media won’t offer. So I’m posting a bit of historical background from one of my sources below…feel free to add and/or challenge in the comments. You’ll realize that we know so very little about this Kenya of ours…where are our documenters? Writers? Story-tellers? Journalists? Historians?

My point with these posts is not to highlight the victimization of one side vs. the other (though victimization is happening), but to point out the following bigger picture concerns with an eye towards 2012: government interference on one side; the troubling easy access to arms; the implications growing spread of ethnic-based militia around the country; the disturbing role of Somalia/s; the powerful role of a provincial administration (grown exponentially under Kibaki) that is accountable to no one; the inability of the govt to secure the place.

P.S. Anyone looking to help get the story out, help in other ways please email me: kenyanpundit-at-gmail

On to the history…

Families close to my own first came back to Laikipia in very small numbers in the drought of 1980. After every 4-5 years most often in response to drought more and more Samburu families moved onto Western Laikipia. Many like bought land others just came. They all thought that they were coming back Home to the land they call Ndororr from which they had been evicted in 1922-23. When Kiliako age set were Warriors. Some Mekuri were initiated just on the Western boundary of P&D ranch in 1936 but after that Samburu settlement stopped on Laikipia stopped for nearly 50 years. except for those who still worked on the large commercial cattle ranches . The Samburu return was slow and steady and remarkably peaceful but by the mid 1990s there were a number of Government led initiatives to burn Samburu houses and bomas and force them to go back North and East. None of these efforts to move the Samburu was very effective. Until the Pokot finally got support from State actors.

In the mid 1990’s large numbers of Pokot and their cattle also moved onto western Laikipia where for several years they coexisted peacefully as, Latia, neighbors, with only minor exchanges of small stock theft. But at that time the Pokot were carrying out increasingly effective cattle raids against the Turkana in South Turkana district. These armed raids were going strongly already in the mid 1970’s and escalated dramatically after the Kenya police commissioner at the time Bernard Hinga went into partnership with the main Somali trading family based in Maralal and headed by Yusuf Mohammed Ismael where they shared a 5000 acre ranch in North Central Laikipia. At that time guns and ammunitions were being sold to both sides to speed up the incentive for both Turkana and Pokot to step up their cattle raiding to both steal and recover from raids on both sides.

It took nearly twenty years but the Pokots with greater access to political protection and power vastly reduced the herds held by the Turkana. The bulk of the Turkana poulation was driven into towns. The raids by Pokot were initiated in the very late 1990s as Turkana was destocked and attention shifted from raiding Turkana to raiding Western Samburu.

The Pokot boasted that they would “urbanize the Samburu” the same way we drove the Turkana off their range lands. After the Ogaden conflict of 1982-83 the Borana pastoral people lost their cattle being squeezed between Samburu and Somali and this surely set the stage for the recent attacks.

The past 3-4 years have been devastating to Samburu cattle herds with at least 11,000 herd being driven off by Pokot raiders without significant recovery or compensation. The raids are often described as reciprocal, mutual and traditional but in fact these days successful large scale cattle raiders require partnering with individuals who can support the raids with State Power.

In one incredible case the Samburu DC at the time was in the air in a police or GSU helicopter when the Pokot raiders (whom he was supporting) knocked him out of the sky with a lucky RPG round (they thought that since they had raided Samburu and were running off stolen stock that the Helicopter was trying to recover stolen stock so they killed the DC by mistake when he was just trying to be sure that the Pokot raiders got away unharmed! The widely shared Samburu reaction was that the DC had been cursed by Samburu women whose houses had been burnt six moths before in operations the DC had OK’d. He was quoted in the press at the time saying “It is not possible that any Samburu houses have been burned in the recent operations to get these nomads to go back to their home district since it is well known that the Samburu have no houses, instead they live in tiny huts made just of mud and sticks”!

21 comments to Historical context of Isiolo/Samburu raids/violence

  • KE

    It’s interesting to read that state sanctioned tribal clashes were stepped up in the early 1990’s as this was also when we started seeing (for the first time)tribal clashes in the rift valley between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin and those were also state sanctioned.

    When the Samburu were moving into Laikipia in the 1980’s, did they have title deeds to buy the land or were they just roaming the area with their cattle in search of grass and water? I can’t imagine pastrolists like the Samburu having enough money to buy those large ranches in Laikipia. Those ranches are owned by white people who stole during colonialism or by Kenyan politicians who stole after independence.

    RPG’s?? Pokots have RPG’s? that’s very dangerous.

    Outside of Nairobi, Kenya remains a very primitive country.

  • Ory Okolloh

    On the Samburus, some bought others were nomads (based on my source).

  • orangasli

    Thanks for the additional material. I begin to understand. Sort of. So the claim is that Pokot raiding of Samburu livestock is in reality a business enterprise that has over the years been ran by government administrators. And that attempts at disarming the Samburu without doing likewise to their rivals/competitors has been intended to make the Pokot/Somali raids easier. What a crying shame!

  • kwenda kabisa

    One thing that no one has mentioned so far is that the Pokot are classified as Kalenjin though they are closer to the Turkana(think of the statement “The Rift Valley should never be divided”). This is what enabled them to get hold of guns in the 90’s. Moi armed them for “security” reasons. The Turkana and Samburu were disarmed in the same time since they had had access to guns from Sudan and Somalia and also after some ugly fights over watering holes. The only people who are armed in the region are the Pokot and the Somali’s. Once you have a gun the high cattle prices in Southern Sudan…just the perfect setting for cattle raids!

  • sura mbaya

    Oh dear, I never thought of the Pokot as ‘closer’ to the Turkana. In fact, I always thought Turkana are ‘closer’ to Iteso and to Joluo. It nice to learn something new. Thank you.

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