Gunfight at the K.C. Corral

Why the Kenyan government won’t do anything to stop attacks on cattle ranchers, including the last remaining white "Kenyan cowboys.”


LAIKIPIA, Kenya — When Esther Ari awoke to gunfire, she knew it wasn’t her husband chasing away thieves with a few warning shots. Cattle rustling is a part of life in Kenya’s freewheeling central region, where poor farmers like Ari till meager plots next to sprawling, thousand-acre cattle ranches, many owned by so-called Kenyan Cowboys, the white descendants of colonial settlers. But this was different: the rat-a-tat of semiautomatic gunfire.

Then the phone rang. Nomadic herders from farther north — known as pastoralists — had opened fire on Ari’s husband, a breathless neighbor explained, spraying him with bullets and leaving him to die. “Other years, they used to steal livestock, but not shooting and killing. This is new,” she said recently. “Now there is fear. There is so much fear.”

Chaos has descended on the once-idyllic highlands near Mount Kenya, whose sweeping savannahs are dotted with acacia thickets and wildlife of prehistoric proportions. The region has always had to deal with ethnic and economic tensions. A handful of large-scale ranchers own more than a third of the land, while poor farmers and herders barely scrape out a living on the rest. But friction has increased in recent months because of drought and political maneuvering ahead of this year’s general election.

Beginning late last year, thousands of nomadic herders from the drought-ravaged north swept across famous wildlife reserves in the middle of the country, shooting giraffes, elephants, and zebras and destroying tourism. They brought with them hundreds of thousands of cattle, heeding the call of populist politicians to invade large ranches in order to graze.

Dozens have died in months of intermittent clashes. British-Kenyan rancher Tristan Voorspuy, said by the Spectator to be “among the last of the stylishly mad people in Kenya,” was killed in Laikipia in March. Then in April, invaders shot and injured the Italian-born conservationist and author Kuki Gallmann, whose memoir was made into the feature film I Dreamed of Africa, while she inspected damage to her property.

But while white ranchers have received the bulk of attention, the majority of those killed have been poor Kenyan farmers like Ari’s husband who were caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, the government has done little to halt the violence, perhaps because defending wealthy white landowners at the expense of impoverished herders doesn’t make for good optics in an election year.

In August, President Uhuru Kenyatta will stand for reelection against Raila Odinga, Kenya’s perennial opposition leader whose disputed 2007 loss triggered post-election clashes that claimed 1,300 lives and displaced a half-million people. Few analysts expect another nationwide bloodbath, but the chaos in Laikipia is one of several worrying signs that this year’s polls could be marred by violence, especially at the local level. Last month’s party primaries were disrupted by claims of rigging and violence that resulted in one death and one injury. Earlier this month, 62 people were arrested in connection with the chaos.

Central Kenya’s slide into lawlessness has been cheered by some who see a decolonization narrative: poor Kenyans reclaiming stolen land from white settlers. The reality is more complicated. Some farms have been in white families since the colonial era. But others were purchased after Kenya’s independence in 1963. Still others are owned by wealthy black Kenyans, like John Mwai, a nephew of former President Mwai Kibaki, who was shot and injured in Laikipia last year.

The farm invasions have been driven in part by a devastating drought in the country’s northeast, which left 2.7 million people without enough to eat and prompted the government to declare a national disaster. Pastoralists were hit especially hard, with thousands of livestock reported dead in the north of the country.

“The drought has brought so many problems — goats are dying, children are suffering because they’re hungry,” said Margaret Leadismo, a Samburu herder who regularly travels between northern Kenya and Laikipia to sell goats.

But politics have also fueled the wave of invading pastoralists. After the post-election violence in 2007 and early 2008, Kenya adopted a new constitution. Authority and revenue were devolved from the bloated central government to 47 county governments, including Laikipia. The change brought new roads and boreholes to long-neglected corners of the country. But it also created cutthroat competition for new local positions with lucrative budgets and high salaries. The reforms were meant to guard against electoral violence, but they may simply have devolved it to the local level.

“The national positions are not anything that people will die for anymore,” said Karuti Kanyinga, a political science professor at the University of Nairobi. “Now, the positions of governor and MCA, those appear to be positions that many people could die for,” he said, referring to Members of the County Assembly, one of the new local positions.

This appears to be what’s going on in Laikipia, where last month a member of parliament, Mathew Lempurkel, was arrested for allegedly inciting the invaders who murdered Voorspuy. Critics say he was attempting to move pastoralists into his district in Laikipia and cultivate them as an electoral base. Lemperkel, who was later released, maintains the arrival of new people in Laikipia is solely about drought. But he also doesn’t shed many tears for their targeting of large-scale landowners.

“We have historical injustices which we feel should be addressed,” Lemperkel told Foreign Policy at an opposition rally, where he was supporting Odinga. “There’s nothing special the white ranchers are doing that we cannot do. If it’s about conservation, we conserved these animals before they came to this country.”

Lemperkel has called for seizing land from large-scale owners and redistributing it to ordinary Kenyans. “Kuki Gallmann has 100,000 acres of land, and other Kenyans don’t even have one acre,” he said.

Few expect the government to pursue expropriation of white-owned farms. Still, in a country that emerged from colonialism just 50 years ago and where a significant share of the land is still owned by white ranchers, it’s no wonder that Lemperkel’s rhetoric resonates.

“These areas are so marginalized, and it’s so hard to make ends meet,” said Josh Perret, the manager of the Mugie Conservancy, one of the first properties to be invaded and one of the only to strike a compromise with invading herders, allowing them to graze temporarily if they leave their guns behind and the wildlife alone.

Most farms have simply been overrun. Warren Evans, whose family has owned the Ol Maisor ranch since just after decolonization, says he hasn’t been able to access half of his land for weeks because armed pastoralists are occupying it. They set fire to staff homes and security guard postings along the perimeter of the property and destroyed almost three miles of electric fence. Two of Evans’s employees have been killed in the violence.

“If you just wanted grass, why would you steal and vandalize, kill elephants, and torch buildings?” Evans asked. “It’s just chaos, it’s a free-for-all.”

Although Lempurkel was arrested and other politicians have been criticized for incitement, it’s unlikely that any of them will be held accountable because the charge is especially difficult to prove in Kenya. “A lot of the mobilization is done orally, it’s not written down, it’s not recorded,” said Nicholas Cheeseman, a professor of democracy and international development at Birmingham University, who writes a regular column in Kenya’s most widely circulated newspaper. “[E]veryone in the area can have a sense of what happened without having the evidence that would hold up in a court of law.”

What’s clear is that many Laikipia residents think Lempurkel bears responsibility.

“The main cause of this issue is Lempurkel. He is afraid that the other politicians from Turkana are going to take him from his parliamentary seat,” Jane Amana said. In November, herders stole 50 of Amana’s goats and fired upon her house in Laikpia.

The upcoming election may also explain the sluggish government response, as the ruling party, which holds sway over the police and the army, is loath to be seen as siding with white farmers. Victims of the violence complain that the authorities let the invasions play out for months without intervening. They still haven’t bothered to mount an official investigation.

“Rushing in to protect the interests of white farmers over black Kenyans who have been impacted by the drought is not a good image for the government going into the election,” Cheeseman said.

Mwenda Njoka, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, says political optics haven’t been a factor in the government’s response. Rather, the government didn’t realize the magnitude of the violence until it was too late. “Possibly it was a mistake on our part not to have moved with force faster than we did,” he said.

In late March, after months of violent clashes, the government finally deployed the army to Laikipia. But instead of quelling the violence, Kenyan soldiers appear to have made the situation worse. Residents accuse them of tossing grenades at suspected pastoralists, indiscriminately targeting anyone from the same ethnic group as the majority of invaders, the Samburu.

“Instead of helping us, they’re killing us,” said Leadismo, who added that the Kenyan army burned down her home.

In recent weeks, the seasonal rains have returned to Laikipia, bringing the drought to an end. The violence, too, seems to have subsided, although the pastoralists have not vacated the farms.

Ari’s small plot in Laikipia used to grow potatoes and other staples, but the invaders trampled on the crops and dug up the potatoes. A small cross bearing her husband’s name now sits atop the upturned ground. The invaders that killed him still circle the farm, making Ari worry that with the upcoming election, her trouble is only just beginning.

Offbeat Safaris Ltd/ Tristan Voorspuy 

Abigail Higgins is a freelance journalist in East Africa.

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