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Laikipia’s Valley of Death: The mystery that is Ol Moran conflict

In Summary

  • Historical land injustices, changing land ownership and use, heightened competition for natural resources, exacerbated by climate change, have been attributed to the conflict in the volatile region.
  • The region is currently designated as security operation zone, with the government promising to find a lasting solution to the banditry menace this time around.

As we drove into the vast and troubled Ol Moran area of Laikipia County on September 10, 2021, a cloud of thick smoke was filling the air.

As we made our last turn into the town, we are welcomed by a military-grade Humvee, two police Landcruisers and a lorry full of armed soldiers, who escort us to Ol Moran Police Station which has become the heart of the multi-agency operation.

They had just come from Dam Samaki and Survey villages which had been attacked that morning. At least eight houses were torched, according to police records, with residents confirming two more houses belonging to two Kenya Police Reservists were also razed down in the early morning arson attack.

The last time I had seen such a police convoy was on the Christmas Eve of 2016. I had just landed in Wajir County from Nairobi. It was a quarter to 7 pm. My long-time friend Ahmed had just gotten into one of the Ivy League universities and we decided to catch up by the roadside after the evening prayers at the neighboring community mosque.

We talked and reminisced over the good old days. The silly mistakes we had made in school. We talked about the future and what it had in store for us. For a moment, we felt like kings, and in control. Seconds into our little dream, a loud bang deafened our ears as if to wake up and bring us back to reality. It was soon followed by flickering lights in the air.

It was not once, twice or thrice. It was like a rhythm and we stood there by the road like little kids in a new neighborhood. For a moment, we thought they were fireworks. They were so unknown in these parts of the country. But this felt so wrong. It was not normal. In less than five seconds, shops had closed and the streets left empty. Then it dawned on us, it was a shootout.

On our knees, and scrawling like reptiles in the hot sands of the Sahara, we abandoned the main roads and scampered for safety.

For the next few days, heavily armed officers from the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) patrolled the town in search of two terrorists who had shot indiscriminately at revellers at a joint that night, killing two police officers in the process.

Back to Ol Moran…

But unlike me, locals who gathered near the chief’s office seemed to have given up on fate. This was the new normal. Armed police convoys, gunshots and dusty debris of houses torched by bandits was the latest face of the volatile Ol Moran.

Just a 100 meters across the street, a farmer – Paul Noroge was smoking his last joint of handmade tobacco. His farm remains deserted and for two weeks, he has been walking to Ol Moran shopping center not to shop, but to clear his thoughts.

“I came here when I was in grade two and I am now old,” said the 48-year-old farmer as he narrated incessant banditry attacks, and failed promises of restoring peace in the area.

“I have been living with the hope that Ol Moran will become peaceful and I have been telling my kids the same. That there will be peace,” he continued.

The perennial banditry attacks in Ol Moran have left hundreds homeless, the latest claiming the lives of at least 10 locals, leaving tens of others injured.

Women and children have been the most affected, and churches and humanitarian organization centers have become their solace.

Margaret Wangeci is one of the victims of the latest banditry attacks. On September 2, unknown assailants ambushed their house late at night, stabbing her husband to death, before torching their house.

She managed to hide under her bed. As she watched her husband die, her pain gave her away, leading the bandits to her. She would later be left in the middle of the thick forests of the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.

“I climbed a tree and found safety in one of its trunks. At 4 am, I began walking towards the town, using the headlights of passing vehicles as a guide,” Wangeci said, narrating how she narrowly escaped death at the hand of her captors.

According to Njoroge, fear of being attacked has forced them to leave farms and homes unattended and at the mercy of bandits who invade their homes once in a while in search of pasture.

“We have food in our farms but we cannot go to the farms because we fear being attacked.”

Paul Njagi, an opinion leader and a flower farmer whom I met as he walked back to the town also agrees with Njoroge, “I did not see anyone walking around and so I came back.”

The Ol Moran conflict dates back to the colonial era. It is believed that the Samburu were the original inhabitants in the area but were displaced by the British and pushed to the drier parts of Laikipia.

According to pastor Richard Mwangi of the Ol Moran Deliverance Church, when the settlers were forced to sell the land back to Africans at discounted rates, real estate companies sub-divided the land, selling them to investors. Mwangi’s family was among the first buyers and moved to Ol Moran in 1979 at the age of six.

As more and more investors came to settle in Ol Moran, the Samburu and the Pokots from the neighboring Baringo County felt threatened, setting the pace for what would become at least two decades of hostility. According to Mwangi, the reasons and approaches to this conflict have changed over time.

“The people who came recently have bought hundreds of acres of land, some of them are powerful people in the government. Others started farming and some of the ranches have been fenced. The pastoralists felt threatened. The Pokots and Samburus sometimes fight among themselves over grazing lands,” Pastor Mwangi notes.

But most communities, even the pastoralists have now picked up farming as a source of livelihood. Nearly all the plots of land have updated and legal title deeds, even as the Pokot and Samburu wage war against those they believe ‘took away’ their land.

“People used to say that it is only the Kikuyus that engage in farming. But that has changed. Now, everyone is a farmer. So I doubt it is about food or pasture,” said Njoroge as he tried to understand the root cause of the conflict in Laikipia.

“They chase people away from their farms but every land here has a title deed. There is no land that is lying idle,” adds Samson Njuguna, a mason who moved to Ol Moran in the 70s, an issue that Interior CS Fred Matiang’i has sworn to look into.

“We will look into the issue of title deeds and the ownership of these lands to make sure that everyone who bought land here is not evicted,” assured Matiang’i during his visit to Ol Moran in September.

The conflict got worse in 1998. The bandits had advanced in their attacking formation and were now armed with rifles. According to Mwangi, the 1998 banditry attacks were political, an idea that CS Matiang’i believes could have fueled the current crisis in Ol Moran, leading to the arrest of Tiaty MP William Kamket and his ex-Laikipia North counterpart Mathew Lempurkel who has since been released on KSh150,000 cash bail.

“We know that these tricks happen before the elections to manipulate the turnout and results. And I want to be very honest to the political leaders who are here, we are going to walk the talk. You are not going to use the lives of our people as collateral,” the tough-talking CS Matiang’i said.

But at the heart of the Ol Moran conflict is the expansive 88,000-acre Laikipia Nature Conservancy, whose wilderness bandits exploit as hideouts. But questions such as how the bandits have survived amid heavy police presence in the conservancy still baffles some of the residents to the core.

“It is like they are under instructions from influential people. Sometimes we ask ourselves some very tough questions. Our livestock is stolen and we trace them back to the Conservancy, we are promised that the officers patrolling the Conservancy will return them but they do not,” says Pastor Mwangi, whose church has become a rescue center for hundreds of victims fleeing their homes.

Governor Muriithi: Laikipia Nature Conservancy cause of our tribulations

Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi has, however, asked the government to take over the management of the ranch, “It has been the cause of our problem and a private citizen cannot solve this stalemate. We want the government to take over the ownership of the conservancy and bring in the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) to manage it.”

However, residents are hopeful that Matiang’i’s hard-handedness in solving security crises would bring back sanity in Ol Moran.

“As Matiang’i has said, we think there will be peace this time around. But if there won’t be, we may leave and maybe lease our lands,” says Njoroge who insists he is fed up with the insecurity in Ol Moran, an area known for nature’s best ranches, favorable climate and home to some of Kenya’s fresh foods.

As the government makes changes to its operational tactic in Ol Moran, it turns out, it is the rich history that binds the communities that live in this part of Laikipia that divides them; politics and the fight for pasture too. But the source of this conflict still remains a mystery with the government promising a long-term presence in the area.

The Valley of Death full video


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Musa Salah
Musa Salah is a political affairs reporter and news anchor at TV47. He is passionate about politics and development. He is also the producer of Game Plan 2022, a political feature that focuses on the 2022 succession politics in Kenya and which airs on TV47 every Sunday at 9pm.
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