Bandits against a neo–colonial state


I just came out of a police cell, after spending the entire weekend there. Reason for my arrest? I recorded two police officers on video assaulting my friend and later arresting him. The police were not in uniform and they refused to introduce themselves or even say why they were arresting my companion. A few minutes later, a police vehicle came with more officers. My comrade – Kinyua Maina – and I were both arrested. No charges were preferred against us until the video went viral in a span of 2 hours. The officers then pressed fabricated charges against us. The charges included possession of 85 rolls of marijuana, incitement to violence, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice. After we pleaded not guilty, we were taken into custody where we were ordered to either stay in custody for 14 days or pay a cash bail of 30,000 shillings per person. That’s how we ended up in custody for the entire weekend, before the Defenders Coalition came to our aid and released us on a cash bail.

While inside the cells, I interacted with all kinds of people. They all had a story to tell, just like we did. One of the leaders in the cells known as Kinara was someone we knew from the slums. He directed us to a space where we could sit and stretch a bit. Next to us was a group of young Maasai boys who looked between the ages of 16 to 21 years. When we asked them why they were arrested, they responded with a common phrase in Laikipia County; “Nyasi imekula ng’ombe”. The phrase in English literally translates to “The grass has eaten the cow”. It is a paradoxical phrase which contextually means that their cattle were grazing on a white man’s land which made the police arrest them and, as a result, the boys did not know the whereabouts of their cattle.

One of the Maasai boys had a gunshot injury. The injured boy said that he had been shot by a police officer while grazing. He also told me that they had left more than 29 cows roaming outside and that they had been in custody for over a week. They also informed me that if the police arrested you as you watched your livestock graze on a white man’s land, you would be forced to pay 500 shillings for each cow, and 250 for sheep and goats or the white man would confiscate them. Now picture a person who owns a small herd of around 60 cows, 280 sheep and 140 goats. He is expected to pay a whooping 135,000 Kenyan shillings in case their livestock is found grazing on the said land. This information enraged me. How on earth do we pay for our livestock grazing on our own land? How does the government have the audacity to arrest even underage herders and put them in custody just to protect the people who colonized us?

At this point, I started to think about how Kenya’s military has been working against the people of Laikipia County. This made me question the kind of advocacy I had been engaging in. I came to the realization that NGOs are working hard to maintain the status quo in Laikipia. This made me wonder where the people who taught me to speak up against injustice were.

I decided to ask the two Maasai boys about the reportage on banditry and bandits in the northern parts of Kenya. They disputed the depictions of the situation. They argued that the turbulence in the north was really an uprising against white and black neo-colonial settlers who appropriated communal land, making it their private property. They said that “bandits” were people who were fighting against the privatisation of land as their people had no concept of privatisation of communal land. They also mentioned that they were also having hard times as some “meat cartels” attacked them; killing the herders and loading their animals in lorries, whether the animals are dead or alive. He stated that this was one of the reasons why they are always armed. One of them asked me:  “Wewe unaweza chunga ng’ombe zaidi ya mia tatu na kijiti? Na fisi akitokea msituni utafanya nini?” (Can you graze over 300 cows with a stick? What if a hyena attacks?) It was at this point that I took a different view of the situation.

On my way home, I passed by a dumpsite.  You can purchase a meal for the night at the dumpsite and probably some snacks for breakfast. Yes, you read it right, at the dumpsite. Here, you can get a full chicken at 30 shillings, 3 sausages at 20, Tuna Fish and rice at 20 shillings. Pasta bolognese and pindi chan are usually given as discounts or bonuses. Oats, drinking chocolate, coffee, peanuts and dried fruits go for 10 to 15 shillings. To put it simply, this is food that has been discarded, locally known as mkururu. They are products from the British army. Most of these products are thrown away before they are opened after which they are  collected by dumpsite scavengers who later resell them to us. After purchasing 4 meals at a hundred bob, one is guaranteed to survive for another day.

As I continued walking home, I wondered why we have many white soldiers in my hometown, a phenomenon that predates my birth. Several questions came to mind. What is their interest and why, out of all the towns in this country, did they settle in my hometown? Over time, it has become clear to me that the oppressive forces of imperialism and the relentless grip of capitalism faces an uprising as the neo-colonial era hits its 60th year in Kenya. Many people in Kenya find themselves confined to slums, grappling with exorbitant rents and enduring days on end without any form of sustenance, victims of a system that denies them ownership of the means of production, especially land. Alongside these problems, the spectre of global climate change looms large, a dire threat to humanity that is conveniently ignored by those who benefit from monopolizing means of production. These are the owners of private capital who use the military and the courts to protect their interests while they keep amending the constitution in their favour.

Take, for instance, in Laikipia County where an 80-year-old Italian woman named Kuki Gallmann owns close to 100,000 acres purportedly for the purpose of environmental conservation. Her Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy in Laikipia transcends county borders, and is part of the Amaya triangle initiative which purports to combat banditry. However, the truth remains obscure, manipulated by a media beholden to capitalist and selfish interests.

Inside the fence of the conservancy, the vast lands are lush green with lots of grass and indigenous trees in which birds, wild and domestic animals roam freely, all owned by an individual. The land stretches miles upon miles. All the rivers and dams and water pans found within those fences are termed as private property. Outside the fence, on communal lands, the land is dry, cows graze on the roadside. You see carcasses of livestock after every 100 meters or so. There is no water or pasture for the original inhabitants of the area and when they revolt (read: graze on the conservancy), the government readily uses the military to kill those who protest the land question.

In places like Ol Moran, the government’s nonchalant attitude towards cattle rustling is exposed; a façade to mask the orchestrated terror designed to displace the people and seize their land. The orchestrators? Meat cartels, colluding with some operatives of the state. The Kenya Meat Commission, once a symbol of the country’s sovereignty, is currently a pawn in the game of capitalism and reliant on militarization.

The ominous presence of the British military, deeply entrenched in Kenya since 1964, unveils a disconcerting reality. Their multiple bases, including Nyati Barracks in Nanyuki, Kifaru Barracks at Kahawa barracks and more, illustrates their infiltration of our military. The presence of the British military in these and other barracks raises alarming questions over the country’s sovereignty. This foreign militarization, evident in over five bases in a country like Kenya, is designed to extinguish the fires of radical revolution in this country.

This exposes the role of the British government in stifling resistance against colonial and neo–colonial masters. The British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) serves as a barrier, safeguarding imperial interests at the expense of Kenya’s autonomy. They kill our people, then fly back to their land. For instance, in June 1985, BATUK returned a scrap vehicle to a mechanic known as Jaffer Mohamed in Nanyuki town. Although the vehicle had been used for target practice at Mpala ranch, Mohamed was not told it contained UXO, short for Unexploded Ordnance. Britain’s High Commissioner, Leonard Allinson, said Mohamed was “hammering a discarded mortar fuse, part of a scrap consignment” when it exploded. Mohamed left behind a wife and four children. In 2007, Robert Swara Seurei died after igniting a piece of a plastic explosive. Seurei had been hired by BATUK to clear debris from an exercise where he found the device. He believed it was a candle and lit it at home, resulting in the tragedy.

On March 31, 2012  a soldier attached to the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, stabbed and dumped the body of Agnes Wanjiru in a septic tank.  Agnes Wanjiru, aged 21, was a hairdresser who had “recently turned to sex work”. She was last seen in the company of two British soldiers at the Lions Court Hotel in Nanyuki. A judicial inquest in 2019 by Ms. Njeri Thuku, principal magistrate at Nanyuki Law Court stated: “After the conclusion of the inquest, I have formed the opinion that Agnes was murdered by British soldiers”. Magistrate Njeri Thuku further wrote, “It may have been one or two. But what is certain was that it was British soldiers because they were dressed in their uniforms.”

In 2015, a 13-year-old Samburu boy, Lisoka Lesasuyan, lost both arms and an eye after picking up a mortar fuse near Archers Post in Samburu County. BATUK agreed to pay compensation to the boy’s father. The type of fuse involved in the incident was withdrawn from British army service in 2009. It contained an explosive which the UK Ministry of Defense had known to be unstable since 2009.

In March 2021, a fire was reported at the Lolldaiga Conservancy in Nanyuki. The fire, which was allegedly caused by a military exercise by the 2nd Battalion, Mercian Hyperling, gained public attention after a British soldier in Kenya allegedly posted on Snapchat during the incident: “Two months in Kenya later and we’ve only got eight days left. Been good, caused a fire, killed an elephant and feel terrible about it but hey-ho, when in Rome.”

It is clear that the British Army does not respect the sovereignty of our country. They are colonial masters who are running the show in towns such as Nanyuki where they have a permanent base. In Doldol, Laikipia North subcounty, they are here to protect settlers who are still in possession of stolen lands.

One day, I was talking to an elderly friend from the slum. He is popularly known as Thahabu. As we were taking tea in one of our local joints (Kwa Binaisa), he mentioned that the government uses state apparatus to suppress the weak. I asked him what he thought about the fact that the Kenya Land and Freedom Army fought for land that we, their descendants, do not have. I also asked how this was possible while admitting the fact that we are overburdened with debt to the point of not being able to produce our own foods as most of the land, the main means of production, are owned by white and black settlers. Thahabu told me that if we have to talk about that topic, we had to look for a safer place to hold the conversation as it was treated like a taboo in the area. This was because of the number of people who lost their lives after raising the land question. This made me worried. It made me curious about how we ended up losing our land and country to the settlers. After doing some research, I learnt about the 1911 agreement between the Maasai and the imperial government. The funny part was that none of the signatories in that agreement was a black man – they were all white colonial masters.

Some of the people from my neighbourhood in Nanyuki are very happy that we have a foreign military camp as it is a source of employment to a few of us. But only a few are worried about the safety hazards that come with the presence of these soldiers. For instance, the permanent base of BATUK in Laikipia, is located in Nanyuki, next to the base of the Kenya Air Force. They actually share a fence. When I was a child, we used to see from our homes during national holidays, fighter jets leave Laikipia Air Base and then on TV arrive at Nyayo stadium in Nairobi in a short span of time. We would often rush to our houses to see them doing their tricks on TV. This means that it would take a short time for the British Army to compromise our Airbase and attack Nairobi or any other part of the country. Bear in mind that the British have more than 5 military bases in Kenya.

We shall end this reflection with the words of Thomas Sankara who once said, “a soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal.” The uprisings in Laikipia lack political and ideological grounding. Perhaps that is why it is easy for the government to brand them as bandits or terrorists while we watch from a safe distance.

*Darwin Theuri is an activist based in Laikipia County.

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