The trouble with Laikipia

On the morning of March 6th, and after a night of fierce fighting, a search party that had been dispatched from the Sosian ranch headquarters in Laikipia country got to the front door of what was once a must visit destination for visitors to the ranch.

A caved in roof sat where the living room existed. An exploded gas cylinder marked the kitchen. Then a few metres from the main door of the burnt house, Tristan Voorspuy a co-owner of the expansive property lay in a heap. Immobile. Hunched over. Pale from bleeding out. It had been almost 24 hours since he rode off on horse-back, unarmed towards the house on what he thought would be a peace mission in the middle of a bloody ranch invasion

“He thought he could reason with them. But sadly they were not ready to listen,” David Macharia, a manager at Sosian ranch said.

Soon, news of the death of the South African born rancher hit the news, and just like that, Laikipia, or at least the ranches that characterise its landscape was in the news for all the bad reasons. Cattle herders were invading largely white owned farms causing havoc and leaving chaos in their wake.
The heart of Kenya’s conservation efforts was under siege. Businesses that had taken generations to set up were destroyed in minutes.

More importantly, lives were lost and no one seemed to know why this was happening at the time, but like most conflicts, the easiest scapegoat seemed to be a natural phenomena.
An ongoing drought was fingered as one of the causes of the conflict. Some blamed it on historical land injustices that continued to broaden the gap between the rich and the poor in Laikipia.

What no observer was talking about was the politics of the region and the delicate ethnic balancing act that incumbents and political novices relied upon to get elected into various political offices. Like most parts of Kenya, Laikipia is no stranger to the politics of divide and rule. The only difference being that in Laikipia, particularly Laikipia North and Laikipia West, these politics went a step further to include destruction of property, arson, rape and murder most foul.

And one man’s name consistently, as being responsible for the violence that shook parts of the county to its core.

A month to the general elections, Mathews Lempurkel invited dozens of elders to his ancestral home in Oldonyiro, some 80 kilometres from Nanyuki town. To get there, you have to leave Nanyuki, drive south east towards Doldol then head to a little centre called Oldonyiro. While there, anyone within sight would direct you to his home.

The compound in which his father’s remains lie is at the highest point in the region, enjoying beautiful views for as far as the eyes can see. Men, having slaughtered several, had chunks of meat slowly roasting over open fires. Turning over the pieces every so often. A few tents and a water bowser completed the setting.
Women from self-help groups within the area were singing songs of praise and bravery for their son, who at the time, looked to stand firm against a wave of accusations. Lempurkel had a pending assault case. And another pending incitement case.

Yet, amidst all this, he had sought the blessings of the elders, from whence he came while surrounded by his peers and morans young enough to be his children or his younger brothers. He was also accused by several people, as being the wind beneath the wings of the hundreds who were raiding ranches in waves.


Jeremiah Lemiruni says he feels cheated that local politicians convinced Samburu young men to drive thousands of animals into private, largely white owned farms. 


“We feel cheated and used. We were promised pasture and land. He used to tell morans to get their animals into the ranches and when the grass gets finished they take the land,” Jeremiah Lemiruni said.

On October 27th last year, it was Aidan Hartley’s turn to get invaded. The electric fence to his 2,500 acres of land was cut up in several places. By the next morning, he had 10,000 heads of cattle on the ranch.

“It was a well-coordinated raid. It could not have been spontaneous because the invaders were moving from one ranch to another. There were no spill overs. They would get into one ranch and leave the next one untouched. Then move to another one before coming back to the one they left untouched,” Hartley says. “It looked like there was a list they had been given and they followed it to the latter.”

Every morning, parts of his property were littered with small bottles of local brews and cans of energy drink Red Bull.

“It looked as if they were on something. It was complete euphoria. No force could put them off once they decided it was your ranch they were coming to next,” Hartley, a farmer , writer and entrepreneur who has been on his ranch for close to 20 years said.

The raiders understood the power they had when together. In other neighbouring farms such as Mugie Ranch, which was among the first ones to be invaded, up to 90,000 cows breached the fences at the height of the invasions. The invaders had a word for this large number of cattle. They called it the ‘password.’

“Nothing could stand in their way. Once they got to your gate, they would have all access,” Harltey said.
At the time, a statement from the Laikipia Farmers Association said that attempts by government forces to rebuff the invaders had been unsuccessful.

The cows never belonged to the minders. Most of them belonged to politicians.

“Almost every politician in the region or any big person in past and present governments owns some of the animals,” Lemiruni says. The pay to the young men who continue to look after the cattle is one cow per year. The herders are however allowed to live off the herds by getting milk, blood and meat.

On the 21st of August, Mugie suffered another wave on invasions. They were able to confiscate close to 400 heads of cattle, 59 of them belonging to an area MCA, newly elected in the August 8th poll.

“The invaders are relentless,” Henry Bailey, the operations officer at Mugie said. “They just didn’t graze their animals, they killed wildlife just for the sake of it.”

In Laikipia, and its neighbouring counties of Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo, livestock keeping has always been more than economic activity. It is a way of life. Recently though, political competition has also claimed a stake of the people’s day to day lives. But the politics of livestock and land have since last year combined with deadly, sometimes fatal outcomes.

“My opponents can say anything because we are on an election year. They will say anything to win. How can I send them to invade people? They say I send them in so that they can give me more votes and keep me in power. How can I send them? They get into the ranches because of the drought. I have not incited anyone,” Lempurkel said.

Kenyan politicians hold a lot of sway in many local matters. Sometimes though, it seems like they just take advantage of current situations to their advantage. Kenya’s 54 year history is full of instances where elected leaders ride the wave of prevailing public sentiment to their advantage.

Lempurkel has been quoted on several occasions telling the Samburu to get their cows into white owned ranches. To not let their cows die while across the ridge lies endless paddocks of knee high grass. To not die of thirst while ever flowing springs gush from private property just a day’s journey away.

Lare Soro is a small village named after a seasonal river that drains into the Ewaso Nyiro at a point behind Archer’s Post town some 30 kilometres from Isiolo town. For decades, Lare Soro the river has been the lifeline for Lare Soro the town. But not anymore.

Where the river once roared is a silence only punctuated by the singing of birds and the laughter of children who have turned the sand at the bottom of the dry river bed into a playground. Putting together little mounds of the soft soil and jumping up and down on them like some sort of trampoline devoid of any elasticity.


Children play in the dry bed of Lare Soro river. The absence of water means an abundance of sand. For the children, this translates to extended play time.


“It last rained here in April,” herder Lenamada Ladura says.

Laikipia iko mvua,” he asks. And when you tell him it rained in Laikipia for the better part of the previous afternoon he wistfully looks towards Nanyuki. But his gaze seems to go past the slopes of Nanyuki and towards a better past.

A sadness flashes across his face. He looks down at his feet. The loose soil, rocks pebbles and thorns will meet his gaze with fierceness. He will look up and then a faint smile replaces the sadness. All his cows are somewhere in Laikipia. So are his cousin’s. His neighbour’s too. And those belonging to every man he knows.

For as far as the eye can see, Lare Soro is a dust bowl. Thorn trees, dust and rocks. Nothing more.

“Yes, we go to the white man’s land and steal grass. If we don’t do that, our cows will fall down and not get up,” Ladura says. “We go into the night, cut down the wires and feed our animals. Look around. Do you anything that our animals can eat here,” he asks.

But the invaders didn’t just steal grass. At Sosian Ranch, they looted household goods on the eve of that attack. The next day, they shot Voorspuy dead. Then burnt the house, which belonged to his business partner down. They cut up water pipes. Punctured water tanks. Destroyed generators.
It was the same at Kuki Gallman’s Olare Nyiro. Destruction and violence.

“It couldn’t have been just about grass. There was much more to it. It was a cynical plan to win an election,” Hartley said.

Author and entrepreneur Aidan Hartley at his farm

Ladura’s friend and neighbour Logilan Tesina says it is unfair for someone to own land that stretches further than the eye can see.¬†Laikipia, Baringo and Samburu have a combined area of almost ten million acres. The Ranches occupy 250,000 acres of this.

“It is inhuman and unfair,” Tesina says. “Plus that is our ancestral land.”

But the trouble is, it is human and fair. Many of the ranch owners are bona fide business owners who bought the land above board and continued to invest millions of shillings in agriculture and tourism.

Lempurkel is no longer the Member of Parliament for Laikipia North. He lost out to Sarah Korere by 3,000 votes. The ranches which faced most violence during the invasions collectively employ 4,500 people whose political allegiances, it was believed, lay outside the loyalty of the former MP and some say, displacing these workers from the ranches was part of the plan.

As the first MP for one of the youngest constituencies in the country, he was confronted with unique challenges that no predecessor had been faced with before.
An emotive land issue, drought in five years and age old injustices such as a lack of schools, hospitals or alternative economic activities to substitute traditional cattle rearing. The problems will persist even as he exits the political arena.

“As we look for solutions, local communities claiming indigenous rights ,must be discouraged from being nostalgic about land. We have to be real and pragmatic and deal with perceptions of historical land injustices with finality and with perspective,” Odenda Lumumba, chief executive of the Kenya Land Alliance said.
“Unplanned cattle keeping for one cannot be a solution. Neither can carving out the ranches and dishing out small pieces to people who think they can do better with it,” Lumumba said.
Lumumba says there are tensions around land ownership not only in Laikipia but throughout the country.

“But no one wants to have this conversation. Circumstances will force us to have it,” Lumumba said.
As the rains pounds Mugie, Suyan, Kifuku, Ol Masior, Sosian, OlareNyiro and many others in that area, it remains dry in Samburu. In Baringo, the rains have failed and the residents once again stare at a future of inadequate pasture. And possible future unrest. Newly elected leadership, particularly that of Korere as MP promises calm to some.

“We are excited about what the future holds,” Aidan says. “We might have got it right in terms of leadership.”
For others, the exit of Lempurkel is a sign of bad times ahead.

“My herd has been reduced to almost nothing and the man who was fighting for us has left. There is nothing to be excited about? Until grass grows here we will remain in their farms. Whether someone tells us to go in or not,” Ladura says.

Story originally published in the Sunday Standard on 27th August 2017

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