NAIROBI, Kenya — Hundreds of people in Kenya’s remote north are fleeing their homes as the army hunts down cattle rustlers who ambushed and killed as many as 42 police officers last week.
Turkana tribal warriors have been blamed for the ambush in the rugged Suguta Valley. But fears are growing that Turkana civilians may be targeted in retaliatory attacks by Kenya’s security forces, which are frequently accused torture, murder and other human rights abuses.
“The Turkanas are fleeing from Suguta area with their household goods, goats and cattle," Peter Legerded, a shopkeeper in Baragoi, close to the ambush site, told Reuters. An elder of the Samburu tribe, which lives alongside the Turkana in the area, said that “3,000” Turkana people had so far fled.
President Mwai Kibaki ordered the army into the region on Tuesday as outrage grew over the unprecedented scale of the police killings and the government’s lethargic response.
“No part of this country can be a safe haven for bandits,” Kibaki said.
Police Commissioner Matthew Iteere said the coming operation would be “serious.”
“We cannot allow such things to happen. I think they were testing the waters and in due cause they will know the depth of the river," he warned.
In the early hours of Saturday morning as many as 300 Turkana warriors occupying the high ground on either side of a deep ravine opened fire on the police officers below with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Residents of the area say Turkana warriors had long used the location of the ambush as a place to trap and kill enemies.
According to security sources, the assault happened as police units were preparing an operation to reclaim an estimated 450 Samburu livestock stolen by Turkana raiders on Oct. 30.
Tit-for-tat cattle raids between pastoralist communities such as the Turkana and Samburu are a feature of life in northern Kenya. But rarely do they kill so many, and never before so many police officers.
Traditionally, cattle rustling was a rite of passage for young men and a way to win enough cows to pay a dowry. But as AK-47s replaced spears, the raids became a whirlwind of violence, triggering blood feuds lasting years.
Many experts blame the thriving trade in illegal arms and ammunition in northern Kenya, which borders South Sudan and Somalia, two countries awash with weapons after decades of civil war.
All previous attempts to disarm pastoralist communities in the north have failed, often due to a lack of political will.
Political groups jockeying for support at times also perpetuate the violence.
Politics is suspected to have played its part in this latest incident, as Kenya prepares for elections in less than four months time.
“There is every likelihood that politics is at play in this: cattle rustling is used as a tool to disenfranchise communities,” said Michael Tiampati, national coordinator of the advocacy group Pastoralist Development Network of Kenya.
Politicians were suspected of involvement in a series of tribal attacks that killed more than 100 people in the Tana Delta on Kenya’s coast in September.
Tiampati said cattle rustling helps raise campaign funds and spreads fear among political opponents and their communities. The violence also forces people from their homes, disrupting voter registration, which is due to take place in the area next week.
Government officials in the capital Nairobi have always regarded the semi-desert reaches of northern Kenya as a backward place, a bandit country full of uncivilized tribes. Over decades the relationship between the state and the semi-nomadic pastoralists has broken down and come to be defined by marginalization, disdain and mutual distrust.
“Pastoralist communities feel sidelined and marginalized by government to the extent that when they come towards Nairobi they say they are ‘going to Kenya,’” Tiampati said.
He added that when state security forces are deployed in the north, “It is often viewed as an invasion by a rival community on their land, so they retaliate.”
Kenya’s police force is frequently used at the whim of local power brokers and politicians. In this case, a large contingent of Samburu reservists were among the police squad sent to retrieve the stolen livestock, giving it the complexion of a partisan force and therefore a legitimate enemy.
This weekend’s attack has cast doubt on the government’s ability to provide adequate security during elections in March of next year, the first poll since 1,200 people were killed in violence following the December 2007 vote.
With the army moving in violence in the north appears set to escalate. As one person who knows the area well put it: “The Suguta Valley is not somewhere even the army can win.”