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A night out with invading herders at Laikipia ranch

A group of Pokot herders at Sosian Ranch in Laikipia County after a night of vigil on March 10,2017. PHOTO:KIPSANG JOSEPH

The response by illegal herders to a Government order to vacate private ranches in Laikipia smacks of a mockery of State and private ownership of property.

Instead of moving out, the herders have increased their numbers and are staying put, as The Standard team found out on a tour of the vast ranches.

The invaders have even built kraals there. The Standard was welcomed by lowing cows after being granted rare access by the herdsmen to spend time with them in the vast Sosian ranch.

The armed herders, in their hundreds and with livestock estimated to be over 30,000, are a law unto themselves. Though calculated in their talk and what they share with strangers, they are clear in their resolve; they are not moving out of the ranches any time soon.

“Where do you want us to go to?” asked Musa Ngolola through an interpreter.

Ngolola is one of the hundreds of grazers now occupying Sosian, Suyian, Ol Maisor, Kifuku and Jennings ranches in the once wildlife haven.

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Tourists are now keeping off the plateau as carcasses of buffaloes, elands, elephants dot the landscape that would normally be brimming with life — this being the peak season for game safaris.

At waterholes where the tourists usually converge to view wild animals as they come out to quench their thirst, there is livestock as far as the eye can see.

Standing beside their livestock are herdsmen dressed in red shukas, armed with all manner of crude weapons ranging from spears to poisoned arrows.

One should not however be deceived. At strategic points in the bushes and within sight of the animals are sentries armed with AK-47 rifles.

Their job is clear; to provide security for the animals and deter attacks from police officers deployed to the area. Any movement towards the area where their animals are grazing would result in death.

“We will shoot them. Let them try,” said one of the warriors only identified as Loudir as he held his fairly new AK-47 rifle.

Approaching the armed men for a talk is very difficult. Even when they agree, the men talk very sparingly. They are  suspicious and have no kind words for “serkal”, the Government.

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“They shot our animals and we had to respond. We will defend our animals’ right to graze here. They (whites) have their land where they came from,” said one of the herders, who our source confided was the commander.

As night falls, thousands of livestock are taken to various kraals the herders have put up in the area. Their owner also sets up a place where young boys sleep near the kraals.

In the meantime, warriors, with weapons at the ready, surround the vast area where all the animals spend the night, strategically waiting for the enemy – the police, ranch security and owners, to approach.

That was the mistake Tristan Voorspuy, 61, made when he went to assess the burnt property belonging to his fellow director, Richard Constant. The men lying in the bush shot him dead.

VIRTUES OF COURAGE

Knowing that their wall is impenetrable, elders of the community congregate at another location where they talk to the young men, extolling the values of courage and the need to protect the community herds.

The first to speak is a man referred as to as “commander”. When on his feet, not even murmurs are heard. There is complete silence. As he talks with immense authority, he walks from one end to another stamping his feet on the ground, and occasionally picking a spear planted in the ground.

At some point, I fall asleep on the bare ground. I am woken up by a man sleeping next to me. He tells me it is time to bless the cows and curse the enemies.

As I struggle to rub my eyes, I spot an AK-47 rifle placed at my feet. I pinch my go-between and motion towards the gun.

“They are all over,” he whispers to me.

“How many?” I whisper back.

He ignores me as he joins the chanting led by an elder.

I learn that the chant imposes a curse on a senior government leader for waging war against them.

As soon as it is over, roasted meat is served. It is done methodically. From the intestines to the real meat.

Clearly, the men, numbering over 200, are enjoying themselves. They engage in loud conversations and the fire is huge and can be spotted from afar.

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My thoughts go to police officers, stationed a short distance from Sosian ranch’s main offices.

They were almost 100 with an armoured personnel carrier to boot.

“Don’t you fear they can attack?” I ask my go between.

He laughs and in jest says: “Wajaribu”(let them try) as he continues chewing his meat. “We have thousands of guns,” he says.

And as the night wears on, at around 1am, a group of men starts trooping in. These are the men who were manning the borderlines of the annexed grazing area. They have changed shifts. New sentries have taken over their posts.

The commander invites one of them to give a report on the situation. They are then served meat as elders, one after another, take to the floor to dole out advice and motivate the herders till break of dawn. Then most of the men go back to their kraals to check on the animals and release them to the grazing fields. The armed men also change shift for the day.

Earlier in the day we had talked to Richard Constant. He said although the police were trying, the herders seemed to operate on some supreme spirit. They do not fear them.

But what makes the officers, with all the weaponry, tremble in fear of the herders?

A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were under instructions not to shoot the herders. It seems the herders are also aware of the “do-not-shoot” directive.

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Another source told us that the animals do not belong to the herders but to senior government officials. The herders are a convenient smokescreen.

Interestingly, the officers on the ground cannot even return fire in a shoot-out with the herders. They have to first seek permission from their commander stationed in Laikipia, confided the source.

“By the time a signal comes back, it is too late,” said the officer.

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