|A militia in Mt Elgon District now being hunted by the Kenya army operated like a government extorting illegal taxes and imposing its own laws, the Sunday Nation can reveal.
|Mr Wycliffe Matwakei, the self-styled deputy commander of the Sabaot Land Defence Force, addresses journalists in February 2007 at the edge of Mt Elgon forest. Photo/ FILE
The rag-tag army turned on the community it claimed to fight for and imposed illegal taxes, raided farms and abducted residents and led them captive into the deeply forested mountain never to return.
At least one chief, Mr Isaac Bomji of Emia Location, and two of his assistant chiefs fled from the very place he was supposed to assist in keeping law and order as the militias exerted their illegal influence across the constituency. They fled after a third assistant chief, Mr Thomas Satia, was gunned down by militiamen in his homestead in August 2006.
The latest twist came when militiamen joined displaced people – victims of their own violence – in stealing relief food distributed by the Kenya Red Cross Society.
“They would cause a commotion at distribution centres and grab the food. Alternatively, they would seize ration cards from residents and line up,” said a provincial administration official who witnessed one incident.
“The food would end up in the mountain.”
So deadly has the conflict been that the government – in a rare move – decided to call in the army in the hope of dealing decisively with the crisis created by the militia.
“We will hunt down these criminals until we ensure that we have totally cleared this problem,” Western Provincial Commissioner Abdul Mwasera told the Sunday Nation.
“The army was called in to beef up the operation.”
For six days and nights, military personnel, who have set up an operations base at Kapkota at the foot of Mt Elgon, have conducted ground and air operations in search for the men who have terrorised the district, leaving death and misery in their wake.
As the army continues the search for the militia, area MP Fred Kapondi told the Sunday Nation that he would rather that the government intensified intelligence gathering and use covert operations to hunt down militiamen rather than resorting to the brutal might of the military.
“They are going about it the wrong way. Let them intensify intelligence and use covert operations,” he said.
“The operation should go beyond Cheptais division and extend all the way to Trans Nzoia covering the mountain from the east to the west.”
Mr Kapondi believes that criminals have already fled from the military operation and are likely to return when it is over and cause trouble.
“Criminals are always smart. When they heard of this operation, they fled … they will come back and the same people will be victims. It’s the people who are feeling the weight of the military,” Mr Kapondi said.
The PC, on the other hand, said the operation will go on for as long as it takes. The Sabaot Land Defence Force, blamed for nearly 400 deaths and the displacement of 150,000 residents, was formed by the Soy clan to fight the Ndorobo clan in a conflict involving the allocation of land by the government.
The militia later transformed into a criminal organisation similar to the Mungiki. The militiamen have made clever use of the dense mountain forest, which they know well, and proximity to Uganda, only a walking distance westwards from Cheptais town, the source of their guns.
The interest in land later turned to money and extortion and, at one point, the militia decreed that no one was to take alcohol.
Those found drunk had their ear lobes sliced as punishment. The militia’s network extends to all 16 locations in the district. It has established sleeper cells which are activated as need arises, a provincial administration official serving in the district and who did not wish to be identified said.
Mr Kapondi said he was aware the militia had adopted a “Mungiki-style” mode of operation.
“They would solve small disputes and demand taxes for it, Mungiki-style,” the MP said.
“They demanded money from everyone including teachers and civil servants,” added the provincial administration official. “Every business operating in Cheptais had to pay some money to this group.”
One former teacher interviewed near Cheptais market said the militiamen had become mercenaries who could be hired to kill or extort money on behalf of criminals.
“We would not like this to continue. Our fear is that we will raise a savage generation,” he said. “Our biggest hope is that the operation will continue until the masterminds are captured or killed without hurting the innocent.”
The conflict is also said to have turned into a war for supremacy between rival laibons (traditional spiritual leaders) who, in turn, are suspected by some residents to be administering oaths to those recruited into the militia.
Residents spoke of the SLDF in low tones and sometimes in whispers, a sign of how deeply the militia have instilled fear in the residents of this agriculturally endowed district.
Its latest victim was abducted on the night of March 7 at 8 p.m., about 36 hours before the military arrived in Cheptais Division, believed to be the epicentre of the terror group whose deadly effects are felt across the district.
The victim was identified by residents as Mr Julius Chepkurui and is the 12th disappearance in a list maintained secretly by residents who now hope that the current military operation will permanently close the era or terror.
Residents said that the militia imposed a monthly Sh2,000 illegal tax on primary school teachers and Sh3,000 on secondary school teachers. Additionally, they collected between Sh100 and Sh200 from every household.
“Those who refused or were unable to pay were summoned to “court” sessions conducted by the militia or their sympathisers,” one resident who is a former teacher said.
“The sessions would either be held in the forest or at the homes of their sympathisers and sponsors.”
At these sessions, the offence would be stated and a fine imposed. It was literally the law of the jungle as disputes ranging from those dealing with boundaries to domestic quarrels were settled deep in the forest.
Those who turned to chiefs and sub-chiefs for dispute settlement were punished through heavy fines handed down by the bush “courts”. “Many had to sell property, livestock or even land when the fines imposed became too heavy,” said a police officer familiar with the workings of the militia. “And they would never report to us because they were being watched all the time by people they did not know.”
Those who refused or were unable to raise the fines would almost always pay with their lives, the policeman said. Residents said that the militia reached their peak during the post-election violence when a man was abducted from the market in Cheptais, a stone’s-throw away from the DO’s office in broad daylight and dragged away to meet his fate.
Earlier on, the militia, acting with impunity, had abducted the brother of an influential elder who formerly served as an officer in the Judiciary, demanding a Sh1 million ransom.
“He could not raise the money and the militia struck at his compound and drove away 15 cattle,” said a resident familiar with the details of the raid. “They also went away with Sh100,000 from the man who they disliked simply for his political leanings.”
A chief’s brother was also driven out of the district for expressing political ambition and, like thousands of others, can only return when the conflict is truly resolved.