Why Kapedo is a death trap for police officers

Tuesday, January 26th, 2021 00:00 |
Security officers keep vigil after a past attack. Photo/PD/file

Wycliff Kipsang @wsang08

Kapedo has long been a death trap for security officers, especially the police, who often fall victim to fatal ambushes by heavily armed bandits roaming the territory without fear.

Attempts by successive governments to rein in the terrorist-like gangs in the volatile area have borne no fruit.

Interestingly, the government has called off every mop up operation it launched in the area without success after costly deployments.

For years, Kapedo has remained a death trap for police officers. And it has never been a workstation for the faint-hearted.

But police spokesman Charles Owino says though the government has lost many officers in the Kapedo jungle, not all is lost.

“The Kapedo issue can be sorted within a short time if local leaders cooperated with government to restore security there.

But unfortunately, politicians are only looking at the interest of their people and not the bigger picture,” Owino told the People Daily by telephone.

With a ragged terrain, valleys and temperatures hitting nearly 40°C, Kapedo area at the border of Turkana and Baringo counties has remained one of the most dangerous places to work for a police officer.

“Those posted there only wait to say a prayer at the end of their tour of duty to thank God for keeping them alive,” one senior police officer said yesterday.

The area has hit headlines in the last two weeks following the killing of more than 10 people including two senior police officers, sparking fears of the resurgence of a deadly gang in the region.

Only the brave dare set foot in Kapedo, and those who happen to leave alive, never wish to return.

Dozens of officers have lost their lives in Kapedo, and their families’ search for justice has only ended with media reports.

Perhaps the worst case was the 2014 killing of 19 Administration Police (AP) officers by suspected Pokot raiders, an incident which shocked the country, prompting President Uhuru Kenyatta to tour the area under heavy security.

Unfamiliar to the rough terrain, the officers found themselves surrounded by hundreds of attackers who overpowered them, killing them, before taking off with their firearms.

The regular clashes between the rival cattle herding Turkana and Pokot pastoralists have led to members of the two communities carrying guns to protect themselves and their animals.

Diminishing water and grazing areas have helped to aggravate the conflict between the two communities.

Touring the area while accompanied by then Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku and almost all the rank and file in the security system, Uhuru warned of dire consequences for the attackers.

Slaughtering officers

Two days later, hundreds of officers were deployed in the area with express hunt down the attackers and recover the officers’ firearms as well as guns in the wrong hands.

Almost a month later, after hue and cry from local leaders, the operation was halted. Within a short time, the bandits were back, slaughtering security officers without fear.

“We must bring to an end this sort of impunity. For how shall we allow bandits to continue operating in Kapedo as if there is no government?”

Rift Valley Regional Coordinator George Natembeya, seemed to reiterate a question that has been on most people’s lips for eons.

A tour of the area by the People Daily last week revealed deep gullies occasioned by many years of erosion, which make it easy for security personnel to be ambushed by armed bandits ravaging the area that is commonly referred to as “the Valley of Death”.

The killings have sparked fears in various circles that police officers could be a target for execution from the daring bandits.

Apart from the killing of the AP officers, the boldness of the bandits was once again demonstrated two weeks ago after five people among them three General Service Unit (GSU) officers were killed.

Eric Mugendi, an AP officer who was among three officers who survived the 2014 massacre, recalled how they were ambushed while in a truck to Kapedo.

“We were not aware that the attackers had laid an ambush on us.  We suddenly heard gunshots from all directions prompting us to jump out of the lorry.

A number of my colleagues were not lucky as they were shot dead,” says Mugendi.

Mugendi and his fellow survivors were rushed to the Rift Valley General Hospital in Nakuru before being transferred to Nairobi for specialised treatment for gunshot wounds sustained in the attack. 

Many officers serving in the strife-prone region yesterday narrated how tough the area is. 

“Though the government has done a lot to address our welfare we sometimes run out of food supplies and water,” said an officer serving in the region.

Basic necessities

Skewed police transfers and posting by the Kenya Police Service have worsened the experience. Officers are mostly posted to the “valley of death” on retribution, while those with deep pockets to grease the hands of their seniors, and those with “correct connections” are left to enjoy life in urban centres and blue chip government institutions such as the Central Bank.

“Only the outcasts and those without godfathers are posted to areas like Kapedo and Mandera. Anybody with money to sweet talk the bosses can never find themselves there,” an officer claimed.

The National Police Service has also quietly abolished the previous rotational system where officers could only serve in a particular station for not more than five years.

Those in the hardship areas were supposed to be moved to friendlier areas after three years.

“If you don’t have someone to push your case, you are likely to retire from the hardship area that you have been posted.

There are thousands of officers who have never been posted outside Nairobi because of their deep pockets and their good connections,” said another officer.

The situation has been aggravated by the impassable Ameyan bridge where the bandits usually lie in wait for security vehicles plying the route.

The bridge connects Kapedo to Marigat town,  more than 90 kilometres away.  Officers usually source their food supplies and other basic necessities from Marigat.

The officers are sometimes forced to walk long distances on foot in the harsh terrain which is impassable by vehicles in some areas.

This in essence exposes them to the armed bandits who are conversant with the harsh terrain.

Police posted to the area, who are said to be under-equipped, have quite often found themselves outgunned by the bandits.

Stories are told of bandits who sometimes fight the officers while naked to blend with the environment.

“The bandits have very sophisticated weapons and we wonder where they get them from, “ said another officer.

Costly region

It also emerged that firearms belonging to officers killed in such attacks are rarely recovered.

The government has rolled out an operation to seize illegal firearms in the hands of civilians, amidst fears from security experts that the exercise would end without success like the previous ones.

Last week, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, said the ambush on the senior GSU officer seemed to have been well planned.

“That part of the country has become very costly to us in the security sector. We’ve lost many innocent lives including security personnel.

There is a culture in that part of the country which seems to glorify lawlessness,” said Matiang’i.

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