The Mount Elgon Insurgency.
It was a mellow evening and the sun was setting in the West. You could clearly view the edges of Mount Elgon as the last rays of the day illuminated its magnificence. I strolled slowly towards the local bar hoping to catch the Manchester United game. I was in my home county, West Pokot for a family celebration.
On arriving, the bar had a faulty connection and unfortunately, they could not air the game. Since I was already there, I decided to play pool to pass time. That is when I met Bismarck Kemei, a young jovial man who I was yet to get acquainted with in the deepest of ways possible.
He won the first game with such finesse that I was impressed. After ordering drinks, we stated making small talk.
“Have you ever wondered about your name Bismarck?” I asked.
“Yes. It hailed from the name Otto von Bismarck, a conservative Prussian statesman.” He replied.
“So where do you come from.” I continued.
“I am a Sabaot from the Mount Elgon region.”
” Ah, you are our neighbours to the West. So where you there when Wycliffe Matwakei started the insurgency?”
The look in his face said it all. His smile turned upside down and I knew I had touched a soft spot. He seemed to be in deep thought. He sighed and took another perfect shot sinking in the black ball for his second win of the night.
Bismack was 15 years old and was heading to form one when the insurgency begun in 2005. The conflict started when the government redistributed land in the Mount Elgon region in a bid to save the Mount Elgon ecological zone. Disgruntled members of the Sabaot community who were affected formed the Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF) militia which was against land redistribution in the Mount Elgon region by the government.
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Mount Elgon Regional Ecosystem Conservation Programme (MERECP) was launched in the same year the insurgency started. An agreement was signed between IUCN-The World Conservation Union and ICRAF-The World Agroforestry Centre to collaborate in the implementation of the Mount Elgon Regional Ecosystem Conservation Programme (MERECP), overseen by the East African Community and supported financially by the Kingdom of Norway.
The purpose of the agreement was to provide technical support to MERECP’s institutional partners for the implementation of the programme. The partners included Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, Kenya Wildlife Service, Forest Department (Kenya), Mt Elgon County Council, Mt Elgon District, Trans-Nzoia District and NEMA for Kenya and the Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment; Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry; Uganda Wildlife Authority; National Forestry Authority; Mbale District; Kapchorwa District; Sironko District and NEMA for Uganda.
The affected community members which was largely the Sabaot community were to be relocated under the controversial Chepyuk settlement scheme. Wycliffe Matwakei was one of the Sabaot community members who was affected by the land redistribution process.
Noting that the government could do little to help his cause, Matwakei formed the SLDF with other disgruntled members of the community. The militia started on a noble cause which was supported by majority of the community members who hoped that they would get land allocation or justice for their grievances.
It was not long before the group that championed for the interest of the people turned south on them. Political, spiritual and economic interests saw the militia go rogue against the community in a bid to protect vested interests of few individuals.
“The years between 2005-2008 were the worst years of my life. I underwent psychological torture.” Bismarck replied to my earlier comment.
Bismarck was from the Pok subtribe of the Sabaot community. He was to be recruited in the SLDF but was fortunate enough to be left out as he was going to school. Although he was not part of the militia, he had to conduct himself in accordance to the militia instructions. This was also the case for all other community members.
The militia were against all who occupied the land in question; those who criticised SLDF land distribution aims; those who failed to follow the SLDF rules; those who reported SLDF activities to the police and SLDF political rivals.
The SLDF had a clear organisational structure with Wycliffe Matwakei at the top followed by David Sichei who was second in command. David Sichei was a former police officer in charge of training recruits of the militia. The structure constituted military, political and spiritual departments.
SLDF force recruits were mainly young boys the age of Bismarck. The recruits were put under tremendous psychological torture in order for them to serve the militia. Some were told to kill their own parents by their area commander to show allegiance to the militia. The spiritual leaders also convinced recruits to join SLDF.
“One of my long term friend Kitum Chesiro, got recruited in SLDF.” Bismarck continued.
“He came to my home in 2006 while wearing full combat uniform with a gun. He shot several times in the air and laughed while doing it. Seeing my frightened face, he asked ‘Why are you scared na sisi tushajipanga?’ Chesiro had fully embraced the militia agenda like most youthful men in the area.”
“How did the militia get guns and how did they get finances to run the organization?” I asked.
“Political leaders funded and armed the militia to support their own ambitions. The militia also taxed the local community. Every village (kijiji) was to pay a monthly tax of 10,000 Kenya shillings for protection. The militia had machine guns, rocket propellers, hand grenades, land mines, rocket launchers, Ak-47s and G3 rifles. The police and Kenya Police Reserve (KPR) were no match for them.” Bismarck replied.
“The militia committed many atrocities. From mass murder to rape, the community was completely traumatised. Anything you did could result in death. Failure to donate to the militia, failure to cooperate or failure to convey information had a death penalty. Even dating a girl could result in death. The militia argued why would one enjoy himself while others were in the forest fighting for the community.” He continued.
“The militia conducted its operation in secret just like in the military. The secret question was ‘teta’ meaning cow and the answer was ‘cheko’ meaning milk. Failure to give the right answer resulted in death. The assailants would ask if you wanted to die with your mouth open or closed. If you said open, they would cut your lips and sew your mouth if you said closed.” Bismack explained.
The SLDF terrorised the Mount Elgon region until 2008 when the government deployed the military to join the police force against the militia. The operation was called Okoa Maisha. According to Bismack, this had been predicted by the Songok prophecy where spiritual leaders has skinned a live goat and sprinkled salt on it. The goat’s cry in pain was to symbolize the cry of the people who wanted to be liberated. A goat was also slaughtered a white cloth dipped in the blood. The blood trickled from the white cloth indicating that blood would trickle until peace was restored.
Wycliff Matwakei was killed by the military in 2008 ending the insurgency. The military has been accused of torturing and killing of some of the militia members. There were cases of extra judicial killings and detaining of suspects without trial. The community was left emotionally and economically scarred.
The land dispute which escalated to the insurgency continue to riddle the region despite President Uhuru Kenyatta issuance of title deeds to some of the squatters in the controversial Chepyuk settlement scheme. The Sabaot community has felt short changed since independence following that their land which was occupied by the White man was never returned to them. The Mount Elgon insurgency was only the tip of an ice berg of deep rooted land grievances which constitute one of our greatest divides as Kenyans according to the TJRC report.
“Education saved my life.” Bismarck concluded.
“I will work hard to support my family and my community. I hope to never experience such a thing again in my life.”
It was now dark outside. After bidding my new friend goodbye and promising to write about his story, I slowly walked home deep in thought.
“I came to watch a game but life had a lesson in store for me.” I thought to myself.
The only truth I learned from this experience is that unless we as Kenyans face our problems and resolve them on our own, we would forever remain divided.
Bismack is currently a chef after successfully completing the National Youth service (NYS) program.
Bismack Kemei statement