Star (Kenya)

Is rebellion the next phase of Laikipia violence?

Jun. 05, 2017, 12:00 am

Cows belonging to Pokot tribesmen walk around the carcass of an elephant killed by armed cattle herders in Mugui Conservancy, Kenya February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Cows belonging to Pokot tribesmen walk around the carcass of an elephant killed by armed cattle herders in Mugui Conservancy, Kenya February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

A mysterious report about the Laikipia invasions is circulating through embassies, NGOs and members of the farming community.

It warns that the Laikipia crisis is driven by an attempted land grab that could turn into a rebellion by disgruntled young pastoralists from northern Kenya.

The author’s name is not given but the academic paper appears remarkably well informed about politics and history of northern Kenya. The author would appear to be a British anthropologist.

The paper is entitled Cattle Barons: Political Violence, Land Invasions and Forced Displacement in Kenya’s Laikipia County.

The author says he met 135 respondents in Laikipia county between January and April 2017.

“The identity of the respondents in this research has been withheld, along with details about their home community and dates of meetings with the researcher, in order to protect them from harm,” the author states.

Read the full text of the paper.


What follows is a summary and highlights of the report.



The paper argues that there is a five-year long strategic plan to invade Laikipia’s private land, coinciding with national devolution, the creation of Laikipia North constituency and the election of Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurkel in 2013.

“This far predates the onset of Kenya’s recent dry spell from November 2016 onwards, dispelling illusions that the land invasions are driven by drought. Rather, the declaration of drought countrywide in February 2017 has served as a timely mirage behind which the true ends of the invasions in Laikipia have been obscured to outsiders.”

“Into this power vacuum has stepped a network of pastoralist elites from Laikipia, Samburu, Baringo and Isiolo counties.”

“The invasions are choreographed through meetings and mobile phones, and supported with active armament of weapons and munitions, cash payments and other material support from the elite cartel. Accordingly, the invaders operate in a militia-like formation.”

Elephants walk in front of cows belonging to Samburu cattle herder tribesmen, who destroyed the fence and entered Mugie Conservancy and chased elephants away from drinking water, in Kenya February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The paper argues that a crisis of pastoralism is accentuated by the introduction of technology.

“Specifically mobile phones, M-Pesa and social media, incomplete education, militarisation through a proliferation of weapons across northern Kenya, and a population explosion, have brought about problematic mutations of their customary ways of life.

The paper concludes that the long-term solution to prevent this crisis from cyclically re-emerging is to tackle the unsustainability of pastoralism in its current state and the resulting susceptibility of its frustrated youth to political co-option in the affected counties.

There must be education and viable employment opportunities offering young people alternatives to pastoralism, rehabilitation of the severely degraded northern rangelands, the revival of veterinary standards and protocols, together with better livestock marketing systems.



The paper estimates that the invasion brought 135,000 cattle together with 200,000 sheep and goats into Laikipia by early 2017, displaced at least 10,000 people and killed scores of residents. A security operation started on March 17 but violence continues.

“Laikipia is among Kenya’s most ethnically heterogeneous counties. Maasai, Turkana, Kikuyu, Samburu, Pokot and Tugen are among the most populous tribes, as well as Kenyans of European descent, Somalis and a variety of other foreign nationals.”

“What happens next in Laikipia will impact much of northern Kenya,” the paper states. “Laikipia could serve as the crucible from which tensions could propagate and bleed into the surrounding counties or the country’s centre.”

“Laikipia’s current crisis does not lend itself to the typical labels applied to African conflicts; it is not simply one tribe against another, or black versus white, or ‘haves’ versus ‘have-nots’. The fault lines of this conflict lie between two groups: those whose interests are in stability and the rule of law, and those who profit from its absence. The former group requires strong, institutionalised governance, particularly with regard to land tenure enforcement and the management of sustainable livelihoods at the grassroots level and by the government. Meanwhile, the latter flourishes in the absence of law, with the trading of cattle, guns, land and votes.”

“We can call this environment a ‘political marketplace’, a localised mutation of the political culture that presides over much of the Horn of Africa and conflict-prone nations.”

A KWS ranger drives out cattle from a ranch in Laikipia on March 10, 2017. JACK OWUOR


“In 1911, a new agreement was signed between Maasai elders and the British East Africa Protectorate administration, under which the ‘Northern Maasai were forced to migrate again from Laikipia to an extended Southern Maasai Reserve.”

“Meanwhile, the arrival of European settlers over the subsequent decades into Laikipia led eventually to the establishment of large private ranches. When power was transferred from the colonial to the Independent Kenyan government in 1963, a process of ‘Africanisation’ of land ownership was adopted.”

“Land-buying companies purchased and subdivided large properties across Laikipia. Individual buyers, commonly Kikuyus from central Kenya and Nairobi, often then purchased the subdivided plots. However, the semi-arid land could not support the higher intensity of farming that the smallholders wanted, and with a stocking rate of about one adult cow to 15 acres in this ranching area, their plots were usually too small to practise livestock keeping on any adequate scale. In time, insecurity from raiding pastoralists played its part, driving residents out and creating what are now known as Laikipia’s ‘abandoned lands’. This was an early precursor to the current invasions.”

“Whilst clusters of smallholders have remained to cultivate their land, more commonly, the absentee-owned land is today occupied by transhumant Samburu and Pokot,” says the report.

Group ranches were devised to accommodate Laikipia’s resident pastoralists, namely the Laikipiak Maasai, indigenous descendants of the pre-colonial inhabitants of the county who avoided being moved in 1911.

Today, 37 per cent of Laikipia is under large-scale ranches or conservancies.

Group ranches owned by pastoralist communities cover another 32 per cent, while around 20 per cent of Laikipia is owned by smallholder farmers, typically from the Kikuyu or Turkana communities.


“Large private ranches, group ranches and smallholders often share a common interest in the enforcement of land tenure and property rights. “

“For pastoralists from the Pokot and Samburu tribes, land use has traditionally been conceptualised differently. Pre-colonially, the ownership of land through legal tenure did not exist. Today, legal land tenure is only partially or selectively recognised.”

“A Samburu elder in Laikipia states simply: ‘We do not need boundaries.’”

“The word for ‘boundary’ does not exist in the Pokot language.”

“For the Pokot and the Samburu, the herds of cattle are rarely used for subsistence (that is, eating and trading) but are rather a symbolic show of status, wealth and masculinity.”

“Herd size has traditionally been limited by cycles of drought and inter-communal raiding, which acts as a natural destocking system.”

“However, rapid population growth has combined with an increase in cash wealth, particularly among the pastoralist elite, and paved way for a gradual increase in cattle populations in these rangelands, sharply accelerated in recent years by a period without severe drought.”

“Much of Samburu and Isiolo counties now have a chronic lack of pasture, and likewise in Baringo, rangelands are degraded and the remaining grazing land has been heavily constricted, partly due to growth in agricultural activities on the land.”

Mugie Conservancy wildlife manager Jamie Manuel walks in front of a bush fire which is set up according to witnesses by cattle herders in Mugui Conservancy, Kenya, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic


“Anthropological study has labelled the Samburu society, which by extension can be largely applied to the Pokot and the Maasai, too, as a gerontocracy, wherein power rests with older men.”

“The pastoralist encounter with various trappings of development and modernity in Kenya has in recent decades eroded their gerontocratic governance structures.”

Partial encounter with education, rather than no education at all, has bred irreverence among morans, one Samburu elder told the researcher. “Violent armed movements in rural areas from South Sudan to Sierra Leone have been fuelled by a comparable sense among the male youth of a simultaneous alienation from both the traditional ways of home and the modern structures of the educated or urban society.”

“The adoption of the mobile phone is very widespread among morans, and its contribution towards transforming pastoralist society, particularly through an erosion of customary modes of authority, is highly significant.”

“Normally, a moran would be organised and provided with information through the elders within his own community, allowing the elders to closely manage their communication and activities; now phones allow anybody to communicate with the morans.”

“Accompanying this, the M-Pesa mobile money transfer system, also widely adopted, allows cash to circulate freely.”


“Morans herding or trespassing cattle are invariably poor family members or hired employees given ‘warrior’ status and often armed with guns and supplied with food and alcohol, but they are not the owners, and the majority of these pastoralists own very few cattle. Ownership can be determined because the cattle frequently carry the owners’ brand, allowing staff on invaded ranches to identify which barons are involved.”

Owners can be wealthy businessmen as well as politicians.

“At the centre of this ‘cartel’ in Laikipia North sits the incumbent Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurkel,” the report claims.

It also names MP for Baringo’s Tiaty constituency, Asman Kamama, as “driving the invasions by Pokot from Laikipia’s western side”.  He was chairman of the Parliamentary Security Committee until political pressure forced him to step down in March 2017. Kamama’s own herds are allegedly grazing in Laikipia’s invaded ranches. Another five MPs and senior politicians are named as having cattle grazing on the invaded ranches.

One of the brand new KOFC ammunition used by attackers in Laikipia and manufactured in the government’s Eldoret bullet factory. /COURTESY


“However, the invasions of large private ranches in recent months are not the start of the problem, but rather just the latest and most visible stage in a five-year trajectory of political violence against landowners and residents of Laikipia.”

Phase 1: “Pokot livestock herders have been invading sporadically since the early 2000s, with an increase in insecurity during every election year, but with an unprecedented spike in the frequency and aggression of attacks on the largely Kikuyu smallholders since 2013.”

Phase 2: “ Late June, heavily armed Samburu invaded Segera Ranch from then Lombala, and the incidence of attacks increased.”

Phase 3: “From early January 2017 — the beginning of the election year — the invasions escalated sharply in scale of numbers and the level of violence.”

Among the ranches invaded were Mugie, Sosian, Suyian, and Sosian where Tristan Voorspuy was shot dead in March. The attack on Kifuku became an all-out siege.

“Meanwhile, on Laikipia’s western edges, the violence has continued to escalate. Smallholders in the Kamwenje and wider abandoned lands area have faced armed attacks on their homes with increased frequency by both Samburu and Pokot, who residents say are very well armed.”

“Around the middle of March [March 17], a long-awaited joint security operation between the police and KDF was deployed to key ranches — LNC, Suyian, Sosian and Ol Maisor. At the time of writing, the outcome of this operation has not yet become clear.


The report says radio and social media is a key driver of Laikipia’s land invasions.

It cites the “well-known case” where Lempurkel announced on the Maa-language radio station, Serian FM, that “there is no private land in Laikipia North. Nobody will go short of grass while I am MP”.

Cash is also widely distributed through M-Pesa and in early March 2017, the confiscated mobile phone of a Pokot man arrested on Mugie conservancy contained lengthy phone calls from an MP, as well as numerous M-Pesa transactions.


“Violence and displacement among Laikipia’s resident communities are not just accidental side-effects of the land invasions – they are in fact a central, if not the central, aim.”

“Across all types of land in Laikipia, both large and small properties, a general trend is visible of trying to intimidate the title deed holders, presumably so that they will vacate the land.”

“For example, in Kamwenje, since 2014, a pattern has emerged of grave sexual violence by the Pokot against Kikuyu smallholders.”

“Meanwhile, on Laikipia’s eastern side, the violence against the Laikipiak Maasai communities by Samburu invaders in recent months has reached a shocking scale,” the report says. “The fact that indigenous Laikipiak Maasai are being targeted in this way indicates how the land invasions are not really about addressing colonial era injustices — but they are certainly about election politics and land.”

Sosian ranger John Morijo who was shot in the face by a Pokot militia on April 23, 2017 during a cattle raid and is now suffering from PTSD. /COURTESY


“Laikipia as a whole is ethnically cosmopolitan, and the Samburu as a voting bloc, even combined with the Pokot, would struggle to secure a pastoralist seat for county governor, senator or any of the other county-level positions. However, at the constituency and ward level, the ‘ethnic arithmetic’ stands more in the minority group’s favour, which explains why the MP and MCA seats are so hotly contested by Samburu and Pokot candidates.” “Eyewitness reports from multiple sources have described how Lempurkel has told Samburu from the northern counties at several community meetings that as long as they register to vote, obtaining a voting card in Laikipia North, he will ensure their continued access to ranch grazing land.”

“Preliminary IEBC data showing the number of registered voters in each polling station in Laikipia North (of which there are 100 ) in 2013 and 2017 respectively, tend to confirm the truth of this allegation.”

Laikipiak Maasai, Laikipia’s second-largest voting bloc after the Kikuyu,  are being displaced from their community areas, including Makurian and Il Ngwesi group ranches.

“It is widely accepted among the respondents of this research that the pastoralist elite ‘cartel’ and their moran foot soldiers want to stage a mass land grab of the county’s private land.”

“The inciters’ claim — a fiction — is that when 99-year land leases of the Anglo-Maasai agreements expire, the land will be up for grabs.”

The report says that Laikipia’s local pastoralists cannot resist the invasions because their morans are far less well armed than the northern Samburu or the Pokot.

Similarly, the Kikuyu, Turkana and Tugen small farmers are powerless against the armed Samburu and Pokot trespassing on their land, stealing their livestock and attacking their families.

The report warns of a possible escalation of violence as “some households had begun arming themselves.”

“A proper disarmament excise of the Samburu and Pokot at this stage is, therefore, all the more essential.”


The report says that the larger private ranches have grazing agreements with immediate neighbours, who are pastoralists. A quota of livestock is allowed to graze in exchange for a small fee or in some cases for free. On the community side, grazing committees, normally comprised of elders, manage the deal.

In exchange, the ranch is supposed to be protected from invasion.


“The police force in the county is internally divided.”

“In smallholder areas, the police have confronted invaders fleetingly, or not at all. “

“Likewise on the group ranches, police engagement has been short-lived and limited.”

“The inaction by police on the ground could be due to a combination of both an unwillingness by the deployed police officers themselves, faced with heavily armed and well-organised pastoralist militia, and because of instructions from their more senior officers.”

“During some of the major invasions from January to March 2017, Laikipia’s residents speculated whether an agreement was made at the elite level, whereby the police would deploy a security operation but not actually confront the invaders.”  “In order to meet the shortfall in police support, many communities have requested National Police Reserve status.”


“Every interviewee in Laikipia’s smallholding areas, as well as the group ranches and the majority of the private ranchers, voiced a unanimous opinion: that the only thing to improve the situation would be full government engagement, including a robust security operation.”

“Where government security services were deployed proactively in Laikipia, in the form of the Kenya Wildlife Service on rhino sanctuaries including Ol Jogi and Ol Pejeta conservancies, those properties have not been invaded at the time of writing.”

The report asks: “Why would the Jubilee (government) allow an ODM leader (Lempurkel) to gain so much momentum?”

“Until March 2017, all that Nairobi had done was to issue a public statement saying that the land invasions will not be tolerated. The ongoing KDF operation, with around one company deployed, is relatively small in scale and firepower.”

“The Jubilee Party may be scared that a security operation could a) radicalise pastoralists who are currently politically moderate; b) fuel and justify further pastoralist insurgency in the name of ‘self–defence’ and rebellion, c) lose the Jubilee party crucial pastoralist voting blocs.”

Ol Maisor employee Athaju Eloto, who died after being shot by Pokot militias on April 13, 2017. /COURTESY


“Laikipia’s invasions have emerged out of two coinciding crises: a pastoralist crisis and a political crisis. The former has been building over the course of several decades. The political crisis gained pace in 2013, when chauvinist politicians with increased resources in the new devolution era exploited the crisis in pastoralism to create lawlessness because they saw this as the best way to gain or stay in power.”

The report says the risk of “young, uneducated Samburu morans… accomplishing a land grab in Laikipia seems remote”.

“Nonetheless, this crisis holds all the key ingredients needed for an insurgency. In the appropriate conditions, an armed rebellion could arise from the pastoralist communities of Laikipia, Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties.”

“There are reports that some armed Samburu morans operating together in Laikipia have already begun calling themselves the Samburu Defence Force. This militarisation in turn leads to a distancing from members of their own community and disregard for the customary systems of governance.”

“In the long term, the only way to forestall this crisis from cyclically re-emerging is to tackle it at its source, that is, the unsustainability of pastoralism in its current state and resulting susceptibility to political misappropriation of its frustrated, often armed, youth.”

“Measures to remedy this would need to be robust and these are beyond the scope of this particular research project. They include education at the primary and secondary level, accompanied by realistic and obtainable opportunities for employment and integration into the cash economy, emphasising skills-based or vocational training.”

“Second, a rehabilitation of the northern rangelands, a diversification away from pastoralism with alternative forms of livelihoods. Management of livestock-carrying capacity on the rangelands should be at the forefront of any such long-term efforts, together with revival of the veterinary standards and regimes that once existed in post-Independence Kenya, and effective measures to market livestock.”