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No respite yet despite the killing of Sabaot militia leader

Published on May 25, 2008, 12:00 am

By Isaiah Lucheli

Villagers turned up in large numbers to view the body of Wycliffe Komon Matwakei, as the military basked in pride of felling a dreaded gang leader.

For the Government, the killing of Matwakei, the surrender of several commanders of Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) and recovery of a cache of arms are major achievements in restoring peace in the violence-stricken Mt Elgon District.

Army officers remove the body of the SLDF leader Wycliffe Komon Matwakei from a Land Rover. Picture: Peter Ochieng

But many underlying issues will play a key role in determining lasting peace in the district that has witnessed three years of murder, kidnapping and destruction of property. Land allocation dispute is blamed for the formation of the militia and, most likely, unless the controversial exercise in the Chebyuk Settlement Scheme is reviewed, peace will remain elusive.

Matwakei was just one of the pawns in an intricate game that involved politicians from the Rift Valley, spiritual leaders (Laibons) and some Government officials in the district.

The fallen militia leader was referred to as the deputy commander of the SLDF and this leaves the biggest question: Who is the commander? SLDF spokesman John Kanai had, late last year, said the commander of SLDF would be announced in due course.

SLDF had also acquired military and police uniforms, grenades and guns. This also poses the question of the group’s financiers.

The Mt Elgon violence erupted after the Government allocated a paltry 1,732 people land out of the over 7,500 people who had been living in the Chebyuk Settlement Scheme. Those dissatisfied with the allocation formed the militia group. In its earlier operation, it championed the interest of the people before turning against them. But politicians worsened the situation. They assured people living in the scheme of a guaranteed allocation of the land during the 2002 General Election campaigns.

However, the Government policy on land allocation provides that beneficiaries should get a minimum of two and a half acres to avoid the establishment of slums as well as facilitate viable economic activities.

Matakwei’s family had grabbed more than 400 acres of land in the scheme, while some of the Laibons had also allocated themselves huge chunks of land. A committee, formed to vet the applicants selected 1,732 people as beneficiaries of the two and a half-acre each, sparking the controversy. The selection was based on set requirements, which stipulated that beneficiaries be over 18, be landless and living in the scheme.

The disgruntled people during the allocation formed SLDF and began attacking their counterparts for allegedly messing up the process.

In addition to the Chebyuk issue, the Sabaot feel short-changed by the Government in the allocation of land in Trans-Nzoia District, a factor that contributed to the spreading of the SLDF reign of terror. They claim that a particular community was allocated 29 out of the 31 farms formerly owned by the white settlers who had acquired from their ancestral forefathers.

Therefore, land remains the major grievance among the residents and unless the Government addresses the issue, peace in Mt Elgon will be short-lived.

The existence of the Laibons, who assure the militia of protection against the police and their perceived enemies, kept the spirit of SLDF burning. The spiritual leaders helped in the recruitment of youths into the militia group and made them believe they were invincible.

The villagers respect the Laibons and their word is law. This has made the gang to defy the Government.

The arrest of one of the Laibons and the fleeing of two others to a neighbouring country could also determine whether lasting peace would be reached.

Support from local leaders

“The family of the arrested Laibon had huge tracks of land in Chebyuk and he had a close relation with the Matwakei family,” a villager told The Sunday Standard.

The spiritual leaders who fled to the neighbouring country are still communicating with SLDF members.

It also emerged that some elders who claimed to have some mystic powers were also supporting the SLDF and convincing more youth to join their ranks.

Government’s commitment to apprehend and prosecute the Laibons will determine the restoration of peace in Mt Elgon. It also faces an uphill task of bringing to book politicians supporting the gang, which enabled them to acquire deadly arsenal and combat gear.

Intelligence report intimates that politicians from the province secretly supported the gang.

“Politicians have been supporting the gang both morally and financially. This enabled it to extend its reign of terror to Trans-Nzoia,” said an intelligence officer.

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNHCR) held negotiations with the militia but failed to reach an agreement. However, KNHCR has never made public their negotiations.

The demand by the people of Mt Elgon that the Government hives more forestland to facilitate settlement of squatters is not feasible as the area is an important water tower.

The Government has very few options because the land can only accommodate 1,732 people. The options could include either reverting the land to forestland, as it has not been gazetted to facilitate settlement or hive more land from the forest.

An operation by the police, General Service Unit and Administration Police failed to contain the gang, forcing the Government to deploy the military.

For over two years the mere mention of the name Matwakei sent shivers down the spine of villagers but his murder has elicited mixed reactions among the residents.

There are those who still believe that the man who fought and eluded platoons of the dreaded GSU for over two years is still alive and ready to pounce again.

The gang has been accused of murder of innocent people perceived to be opposed to their operation and the imposing of laws and taxes. The militia group had banned the selling and drinking of illicit brew and had imposed levies. Those who failed to abide had their ears chopped off or were killed.

The militia took refuge in Mt Elgon forest to escape crackdown by security forces. They vowed to protect the villagers from exploitation and flawed land allocation.

Mt Elgon MP Mr Fred Kapondi, who led a delegation of leaders from the district to visit Prime Minister Raila Odinga, said the military operation should be stopped. He was among some leaders who have accused the military of using torture. However, area councillors led by Mr Joseph Ngomat, who is the vice chairman of Mt Elgon County Council, Ms Susan Chepkosgei, Mr Eliud Chelasha, Mr Bismark Bokose, Ms Salome Sendet, Mr Peter Cherui and Mr Amos Tulkon have supported the military operation.

The county council chairman Mr Benson Chesikak (Emia Ward) had earlier condemned the operation. The chairman has since been arrested alongside Mr Job Kipnusu of Chongeiywo Ward and Mr Reuben Ndara, a former chairman of Mt Elgon County Council.

Civil society groups have protested over the military operation, based on human rights violation, calling for its immediate stop.

And as the military wind up the operation Okoa Maisha, it is yet to be seen if the lasting peace will be restored.


About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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