In 2013, as Kenyans went to the polls in March, the people of Western Kenya were hit by a wave of attacks they had never experienced since those of the tribal clashes of 1992.
The attacks came hot on the heels of the hotly contested 2013 elections with residents being ambushed during the night by gangs of machete, axe and other crude weapon yielding gangs who had only one massage ‘ we were sent to kill you’.
Could the killings have been vendetta and grudge held since the bungled 2007 presidential elections?
The killings started from Busia County and spread all the way to Bungoma, Kakamega and parts of Trans Nzoia County sending shockwaves across the country spreading fear of a recurrence of the 2007 Post Election Violence.
This was not helped with the brutal killings that erupted in Tana River and its environs where innocent people were killed and scores maimed, injured and others sexually molested.
Over 52 people were killed during clashes between members of the Pokomo and Orma communities in Tana River when militiamen from both sides raided homes and slashed villagers to death before setting their houses ablaze.
The communities are said to have been fighting over land, pasture and water with the police saying tension had been building between the two communities for long but there was no immediate warning on the night attacks.
Over 130 people were killed in 2001 in a string of clashes in the same region.
However, in the case of the Western killings, the police are yet to say the reasons.
The Kenyan security organs “Police utterly failed to effectively investigate the violence in Busia and Bungoma counties, and the government has failed to expedite reforms in the police service, including bolstering its investigative capacity the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released last week on Wednesday.
“Police utterly failed to effectively investigate the violence in Busia and Bungoma counties” said Leslie Lefkow, Deputy Africa director. “The police didn’t collect critical evidence, and completely ignored evidence that gangs carried out these crimes during and after the 2013 elections with support from political figures.”
This is similar to calls made by the United Nations (UN) Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Modibo Toure in May 2013 on the government to scale up its efforts in stopping the attacks that rocked Busia and Bungoma Counties.
In a statement he had said, “Cognizant of the recent security incidents in Tana River County, I would like to urge the government to take appropriate action to promptly stem the insecurity in Busia and Bungoma in line with applicable international and domestic standards on protection of civilians and respect for human rights.”
“Tension in the area remains high and residents are apprehensive as the motive behind the indiscriminate attacks is unknown. Livelihoods and ordinary activities have been brought to a standstill.”
According to HRW, despite there being history of politically motivated rebel activity in some parts of Bungoma County, gang activity has been on the low only until the bungled 2007 presidential elections.
The human rights body says politicians and business persons from the region recruited criminal gangs that were likely behind the attacks on political rivals in the lead up to the 2007 elections according to The Waki Report.
The report by the HRW says Busia County, until 2013, had not experienced any attacks but on the election day of the 2013 elections, gangs struck nine villages through to Bungoma County.
The government, the police, the locals and the international community to date has no clue what motivated the gangs to unleash such violence against the people of the former western province commonly referred to as ‘people of mlembe’ (peaceful people).
Due to the timing, pattern and from the little conversations between the attackers and the victims, it has remained difficult for anybody to comprehend the motive of those attackers.
“They occurred after polling and attackers did not target supporters of one particular party. However, the account of former gang members and recruiters, as well as the opinions of the victims themselves, strongly suggest the attacks are linked to the elections,” says the report.
Human Rights Watch found indications that the attacks were organized and supported by proxies of politicians and businessmen who had supported PNU in the 2007 elections, and either Jubilee or CORD in the 2013 elections.
Ahead of the 2007 elections, businessmen in Bungoma had recruited young fighters between 20 and 30-years-old to defend the government and the property of businessmen says Human Right Watch report.
“They had offered to pay me Sh250, 000 if I helped to recruit the fighters,” one businessman told Human Rights Watch.
The recruiter told the human rights body he was paid Sh250,000 in batches of Sh50, after recruiting 60 young fighters, who were then taken to Naivasha for training in 2007.
This recruitment resumed in 2012 by businessmen and politicians where they were taken to camps for training that included use of knives combat training as well as physical combat.
On the other hand, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in its report, “Impacts on inter-communal Conflicts,” reported that, between January 2013 – June 2013, at least 181 people had been killed, 217 injured and over 52,000 people newly displaced from their homes as a result of inter-communal conflict in Kenya.
The report cited that competition over political representation, land and resources with the most affected areas being the former North Eastern, Rift Valley and Western Provinces.
In April 2013, over 50 Kikwechi village residents within Kibabii location in Kanduyi constituency were left nursing injuries after they were attacked by unknown gang.
In May, a 63 year old man and a former care taker in the Office of the President Linus Otolim and a watchman Patrick Ojulo were killed with 17 others sustaining injuries.
Mrs Ann Otolim, the widow to the deceased while on her hospital bed, said the gang killed her husband by chopping off his head before they proceeded to Benga Village in Bukhayo North.
The Human Rights report says a woman who survived an attack at the Makutano area in Bungoma town said: “As one of them was hitting me, two of the gang members went for my husband. They started hitting him. After some time, I saw my husband lying down. Our children later told me that they saw one of the gang members grab an axe from another gang member and hack their father to death.”
“In both Busia and Bungoma counties the attackers injured, maimed, and killed men, women, and children with machetes, clubs, and axes. Attackers also raped and sexually assaulted women and girls. In some incidents the attackers demanded money and mobile phones from victims, but theft did not appear to be the primary motive of the attacks,” reads the report.
The Group interviewed 87 people, including victims, government officials, police, politicians, witnesses, and activists.
From the 1992 tribal clashes to the 2007 Post Election Violence and now the 2013 gang attacks, political influence cannot be ruled out.
Human Rights Watch, in its report says: “The attacks were not carried out for solely criminal reasons, but also had a political motivation.”
It further says the gangs were organized and linked to political officials and parties.
Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo told Human Rights Watch that police were aware that the attackers were hired by politicians, says the report.
“That of you who have been down there and know what is happening in Busia and Bungoma also know that these attacks are political,” Kimaiyo is quoted as having said.
Mr Kimaiyo’s sentiments are corroborated by testimonies from people the HRW says were agents, members or recruiters of the gangs who all indicated it was the work of politicians drawn from all sides.
According to recruitment agents and gang members, recruitment of gang members was done by businessmen and politicians linked to the Party of National Unity in 2007 and Jubilee Alliance in 2013.
They told Human Rights Watch that some of the gang members recruited in earlier years worked alongside CORD when former local PNU candidates joined the CORD Alliance at the end of 2012.
In 2012 and 2013 some of the same men who recruited young men in 2007 again recruited young men to first increase their numbers and later replace those who had defected to CORD, according to information provided by former gang members.
One recruiter told Human Rights Watch that he was paid Sh50,000 in three batches in February 2013 for recruiting the gang members, some of whom he said were involved in the attacks in Bungoma.
Gang members who said they had defected from the gangs told Human Rights Watch that a group of businessmen in Bungoma, Busia, and Malaba, had financed the gangs, with support from influential individuals in Nairobi, Nakuru, and Eldoret.
A former gang member who participated in some attacks in Busia before withdrawing from the gangs in April 2013 told Human Rights Watch: “The reason was to use the boys because of the elections outcome. Kenyan politicians are behind it and they are working closely with some not very senior politicians in Uganda.”
Another former gang member told Human Rights Watch that in 2012 recruiters told him that their motivation was to generally punish the people in the region for having voted “badly”: “We were told that our mission was to revenge. There were areas that had not voted well even though a lot of resources were wasted there during campaigns. We were deployed in teams of three after combat training in Uganda. My team of three from the group was deployed to Busia to lead the attacks.”
This group was also directed to defend government property and attack any individual they would find protesting against the presidential results of 2007 while those recruited after March 2013 were ordered to protect property should violence break out and “terrorize” the region for not voting along expected lines.
According to residents who spoke to the Human Rights Watch, one suspect had in late 2012 and early 2013 been warning them of possible violence if they did not vote for the Jubilee Alliance.
The Human Rights Group says there is an urgent need for answers to the many outstanding questions about the attacks in western Kenya, including the police failure to properly investigate and respond to the violence.
They want the government to reopen investigations into the attacks and prosecute those responsible for carrying out and supporting the attacks by ensuring a full, impartial, and comprehensive investigation into the attacks on villages in Busia, Bungoma, Kakamega, and Trans Nzoia counties.
“Investigators should examine allegations of support for the gangs by politicians and business people in the region, and dismantle these gangs and prosecute gang members, their leaders, and those recruiting the gang members and financing them. The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions should prosecute those responsible,” the report states.
David is a Kenyan Journalist with a depth of experience in business, agriculture, technology, democracy and governance. He is passionate about health, youth engagement, women and girls’ empowerment issues that resonate with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).