Torture in Mt Elgon confirmed by newspaper photo

As the Kenya Army denies torturing civilians in Mt Elgon, a photo published in the Standard daily is one of the first documents proving that the allegations are true.

An army officer stands guard as a group of people swim in the mud in Mt Elgon. They do not appear like they are doing it willingly though. Picture by the Standard newspaper.

An army officer stands guard as a group of people swim in the mud in Mt Elgon. They do not appear like they are doing it willingly though. Picture by the Standard newspaper.

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Mt Elgon MP got SLDF backing

A report on human rights abuses in Mt Elgon reveals that area Member of Parliament, Fred Kapondi, won the seat after rivals were threatened with death by the Sabaot Land Defence Force. However, Mr Kapondi’s electoral tactics were not unique. The report adds that in the past 15 years, all legislators from the constituency have used armed militias to get to parliament.

Mt Elgon. Its slopes have been witness to horrific torture and killings. Picture by BMS-Travellers

Mt Elgon. Its slopes have been witness to horrific torture and killings. Picture by BMS-Travellers

The report, released this week by Human Rights Watch graphically describes acts of torture committed by the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) and Kenya’s security forces. In a sense, the people of Mt Elgon are under attack from the two protagonists.

Virtually all males over the age of 10 have been targetted, either for recruitment by the SLDF or for interrogation by the Kenya Army and Police. “Mt. Elgon is a mountain of women, all the men have gone,” lamented a widow who found her husband’s body at the Webuye mortuary, two weeks after he was abducted by the army.

Here are excerpts of the report by Human Rights watch, with damning evidence against Mr Kapondi:

Wilberforce Kisiero, the MP for the former ruling party KANU between 1982 and 1997 was widely cited as one of the proponents of violence in the district. He was implicated in the state sponsored clashes of 1991-93, and named in the Akiwumi report, the parliamentary investigation into the political violence of the 1990s.

John Serut, the MP from 2002 to 2007, and Fred Kapondi, the current MP elected in 2007, were accused by local residents and human rights organizations of working to recruit, train, and finance militia who intimidated opponents in the 1997, 2002, and 2007 elections.

Having initially worked together (Kapondi was formerly KANU party chairman in the district), by the time of the 2007 General Elections, Serut and Kapondi had fallen out, according to residents. After that, the SLDF began to target supporters of Serut, including Serut himself. An area chief explained that because Serut supported the Chepyuk III settlement scheme against the wishes of most within the SLDF, Kapondi got a chance to run the boys, and this gave him the political powerbase he needed to win the election.

A neighbor of Kapondi told how he was repeatedly harassed by SLDF ‘boys’ who had a training camp on Kapondi’s land. Another chief described Kapondi leading a recruitment drive in his area for young men to join the SLDF in 2006. Kapondi was arrested in April 2007 and charged with robbery with violence in Webuye court, a non-bailable offense. He was nominated as the ODM candidate while in custody and acquitted on December 13, 2007, just days before the election.

Court officials told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution case collapsed when witnesses started disappearing and others changed their stories. Human rights activists described seeing the court packed with known SLDF militia during hearings.

Kapondi and others were also named in parliament by the then MP, John Serut, who accused them of fueling the clashes. But Serut himself, along with Kisiero and another former MP, Joseph Kimkung, were named by the government spokesman in a report seeking to identify the backers of the violence. Local residents say they have all been involved at various stages.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: It should be noted that former MP, John Serut, was implicated in a sexual harassment case at Parliament Buildings involving a female parliamentary staffer. This was just days after he was sworn into office early 2003.

More excerpts from Human Rights Watch:

Origins of the Mt Elgon land dispute:
Land disputes between two clans of the Sabaot tribe began in the 1920s. Colonial authorities forced these groups out of the Trans Nzoia area in order to pave way for white settlers. The Sabaot clans resettled in Mt Elgon forest at two locations: Chebyuk and Chepkitale.

In 1968, Chepkitale was declared a game reserve and its inhabitants forced out. Inhabitants evicted from Chepkitale complained, and in 1971 the government initiated a resettlement program for the displaced at the other location, Chepyuk. In effect, the government was trying to force the inhabitants of two villages into the area occupied by one. Moreover, the resettlement exercise was placed in the hands of area chiefs, local land officials, provincial administrators, councillors and members of parliament, many of whom were accused of corrupt practices in the allocation of land.

The Kenyan government evicted people originating from both areas from various locations that had been designated parts of the settlement scheme, and made a second attempt to allocate the land, known as Chepyuk II in 1989. This was equally controversial.

In 1993 the government of President Daniel arap Moi annulled the Chepyuk settlement scheme completely and ordered the creation of a third scheme, Chepyuk III. By now the population had increased even further. Because of controversy and complications, Phase three was never fully implemented and remained an apparently dormant issue throughout the 1990s.

After the 2005 referendum, the third phase was finally implemented but the exercise was marred by massive irregularities. This was a feature of the broader political conflict between the then sitting member of parliament for Mt. Elgon, John Serut, and his then protégé the future MP, Fred Kapondi.

What is the Sabaot Land Defence Force?

The SLDF is an armed group organized and funded by local politicians, although the actual politicians in control have changed over time. The SLDF is very similar in its activities to the majimboist groups that were armed by the state in 1991-92 and 1996-97 to drive out non-Kalenjin groups (mostly Luhya in Mt. Elgon) who were unlikely to vote for the ruling KANU party. This happened in Mt. Elgon, as well as across the Rift Valley and coastal provinces in the elections of 1992 and 1997.

The political objectives of the SLDF become clear when one looks at the pattern of attacks, the ethnicity and political affiliation of the victims, and the relationship between the timing of violence and the electoral cycle. Basically, the SLDF, as with many other armed groups in Kenya, has twin purposes, on the one hand land-related objectives, and on the other to further the political aims of certain local leaders.

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More of this report on the Human Rights Watch website.

Kenya government condemned over Mt Elgon violence

A report by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has blamed Kenyan security forces for escalating the violence in Mt Elgon, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

The MSF accuses Kenya’s military and police of “meeting violence with more violence.” The international organization fears that unless the root causes of the Mt Elgon conflict are addressed, “the situation is unlikely to improve substantially and the suffering will continue.”

On its part, the Kenyan government has denied using excessive force in its Operation Okoa Maisha (Operation Save Lives). Top Army commanders and police chiefs say local residents are happy with the security operation against the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The operation has succeeded in disabling the SLDF especially after the killing of its commander in a forest ambush.

In a Kenya Police video, released to counter the accusations of brutality, local residents in Mt Elgon can be seen narrating horrific experiences perpetrated by the SLDF. Women talk of rape, while men describe forceful conscription under the threat of death.

The video shows Kenya Army interrogators treating prisoners humanely contrary to allegations by relief agencies and local politicians. The Army colonel in charge of the operation explains in great length that his forces are operating within international humanitarian law. The video ends with shots of a return to normalcy in Mt Elgon, with schools and shops re-opening.

The conflict in Mt Elgon began in 2006, when a local clan protested over discrimination in the allocation of farm land. The SLDF was formed in reaction to these grievances, some of which date to the 1960s. At the time, government reaction was slow. During the worst of the ethnic and political clashes that erupted in Kenya after disputed elections, the SLDF expanded its recruitment and took over more territory

With the signing of a peace deal between Kenya’s government and the opposition in March, the Kenya Army was dispatched to Mt Elgon to resolve a problem that was out of control.

Details of the report on the MSF website.

Kenya government celebrates death of rebel commander

There was jubilation within Kenya’s security circles last Friday after the army killed the commander of a militia outfit after a three month campaign.

Killed SLDF leader, Wycliffe Kirui Matakwei. Picture by Nation Media Group.

Killed SLDF leader, Wycliffe Kirui Matakwei. Picture by Nation Media Group.

Wycliffe Kirui Matakwei, commander of the Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF), was ambushed and killed in the Mt Elgon forest on Friday morning. The killing of Matakwei was a major morale boost for the army just a day after the Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KNHCR) condemned the army’s counter insurgency tactics in Mt Elgon.

According to KNHCR, an estimated 600 people have died in Operation Okoa Maisha (Operation Save Lives) since it was launched in February. The army denies the claims, blaming the killings on the SLDF. Hundreds of men in Mt Elgon within the 13 – 50 age bracket say they have been tortured by Kenya Army officers trying to gain intelligence about the SLDF. A number of women have accused the army of sexual violence.

Mr Matakwei is a high school dropout who became the face of the SLDF. The militia outfit was founded in 2006 by a sub-clan of the Sabaot ethnic group. The Sabaot are in the same ethnic family as the Kalenjin. According to media interviews, Matakwei wanted to restore his clan to their former ancestral lands which, today, are occupied by other clans of the Sabaot community. Mr Matakwei claimed that his clan had been pushed to the higher reaches of Mt Elgon where it is too cold for agricultural activities.

The current problem in Mt Elgon was sparked off by allocation of land in the Chebyuk settlement scheme between 2004 and 2006. The land allocation was bungled by former Mt Elgon Member of Parliament, Mr John Serut. The various clans within the Sabaot community felt they cheated, sparking off tension that led to the formation of the SLDF.

Since then, other clans have formed their own militia outfits such as the Progressive Defense Forces, Moorland Defense Force, the Political Revenge Movement, among others. In its report on Thursday, the KNHRC accused the Kenya Army of fomenting conflict in Mt Elgon by arming militias to fight the SLDF.

The history of Mt Elgon land politics reveals that each time the Sabaot were allocated a chunk from the Mt Elgon forest, they would sell the land and request for more. By the turn of the millennium, the Sabaot found themselves so high on the mountain slopes that agriculture was impossible due to low temperatures. However, they could not return to the lowlands because they had already sold it, thus, the burning desire to regain “ancestral land.”

Meanwhile, as the Kenya Army celebrates its latest victory, disturbing accounts of torture continue to emerge from the Mt Elgon area. The KNCHR has written to the United Nations in New York advising the expulsion of Kenya’s military from international peace keeping operations.

The request is not likely to be granted but the Kenya Army will suffer major embarrassment in coming months as more evidence of excessive force comes into the limelight.