This is the most deadly attack on Kenya’s police since independence
by Karen Allen BBC News, Sugutu Valley
This is the most deadly attack on Kenya’s police since independence
Cacti, acacia trees and dust – these are the last things young Kenyan police recruits saw when they were gunned down in an ambush in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
The Sugutu valley is harsh on the living and even harsher on the dead, whose bodies have lain out in searing heat for days amid much public criticism.
The Kenyan military is now being deployed from the north to support the police’s rapid response unit which is already on the ground.
In the coming days, it is expected to push forward into the valley from the north, hunt down the herdsmen, disarm them and push them back. During this uncomfortable lull, nearly everyone you speak to fears revenge and entire villages have been abandoned.
Situated some 550km (340 miles) north-west of Nairobi near the town of Baragoi, this place has been dubbed “the Valley of Death” – inhospitable terrain, bandit country.
One of the world’s hottest places, it has long been the battleground for rival communities – marginalised herdsmen from the Turkana and Samburu communities, who steal each other’s livestock and fight for scarce resources.
But this time round it was the police who found themselves the target. Ambushed as they tried to intercept Turkana cattle “rustlers”, who were lying in wait.
It took two-and-a-half hours scrambling over rocks and across hills before reaching the bloodstained grass where the dead policemen lay.
In this exposed piece of land, it is clear they didn’t stand a chance as heavily armed Turkana herdsmen opened fire from positions higher up.
The police units, some villagers claim, had members of the Samburu community in their midst, raising questions about partisan policing.
As a police helicopter lands close to us, preparing to take the bodies away, Omar Moyo desperately searches the badly decomposed corpses and bloodstained uniforms for clues.
His 27-year-old cousin is among those feared dead – he was one of the policemen sent on this mission and has now been missing for almost a week.
Mr Moyo seethes at what he claims was a “badly planned operation” by lacklustre police bosses commanding a force which few Kenyans respect.
But he is even more angry at what this incident means for the months ahead as Kenya prepares for national elections under a new constitution.
“Security is a national issue. If the government can’t handle even one community like the Turkana, I think it is very hard to contain the all communities in Kenya,” he warns.
In the aftermath of elections in 2007, at least 1,200 people died after politicians whipped up ethnic tensions that triggered violence on an unprecedented scale.
Although what happened in the Sugutu Valley was a local dispute, other flashpoints in recent months further south in Mombasa and Tana River have raised concerns about security in East Africa’s economic hub at this critical time.
Questions are now being asked about the capacity of the Kenyan security services to protect civilians in the lead-up to the national elections.
Not least because historically the police have been used as a political force, vacillating between inaction in responding to insecurity on the one hand to heavy handedness and impunity on the other.
More frightening still is the fact that weapons proliferation has increased in this part of Kenya, according to the Small Arms Survey, with many illegal firearms smuggled in from Somalia and South Sudan.
Traditionally the pastoralist communities in northern Kenya have been armed by the state and left to provide their own security under a “home guard” system.
In light of this latest incident, the most senior administrator for Rift Valley Province, Osman Warfa, admits the authorities will have to review this security policy and, in time, the state may re-claim policing this community.
The stakes are getting higher for policing in these deprived parts of northern Kenya with the discovery of oil and more autonomy under the new constitution.
Without a professional police force here, this vast landscape risks becoming “rebel territory”.
“We have some extremely good police officers,” argues prominent human rights activist Maina Kiai, formerly the head of Amnesty International in Kenya.
“The problem is the political will does not exist.”
With the advent of multi-party politics in 1992, he recalls how insecurity was used to consolidate power in the centre:
“The government of [former President Daniel arap] Moi used violence and tensions to reduce the vote and intimidate the country. So much that so that many parts of the country said: ‘We are going to vote with Moi because at least we will get security.'” When governments crack down, it’s the incumbent who tends to win.
Mr Kiai’s analysis sounds conspiratorial – after all a referendum on the new constitution passed off without any trouble, and Kenya is now a very different place to what it was under Mr Moi.
The new basic law has ushered in reforms to the judiciary, devolution and emboldened the Kenyan public to demand more accountability.
Yet the promised shake-up of a corrupt and unpopular police force is still lagging behind, and that is what is worrying so many Kenyans.
Though no-one can say for sure why the police became the target of the recent attack, it points to a wider malaise across Kenya’s arid north.
A man who simply called himself Andrew, while not sympathising with violence against the state, explained the frustration felt by many people: “You can see the lack of development here, there are no roads. We pay our taxes and we don’t see anything in return.”
The Kenyan authorities are trying to play events down, extinguishing any whiff of talk of political manipulation and assuring the public that the military action in the coming days will not target a particular community.
But parallels are being drawn with violent elections last time around. Its epicentre was the Rift Valley province – where the recent ambush took place.
But Mr Warfa insists: “There will be no election violence.”
The county where the ambush took place has a population of less than 240,000, he says, whereas: “We are talking about a population in Rift Valley of 10 million.”
But it is a hard message to sell.
An entire manyatta, or village, on the edge of the Sugutu Valley has been swept clean.
A little over a week ago it was home to several thousand herdsmen and their livestock. Now the place is deserted.
Just the igloo-style huts made from tree branches and mud remain.
With the military now promising to “come down hard” following the audacious attack on the police, the community has fled fearing reprisals.
It comes just a week before voter registration begins in this part of the country.