Curse of crime robs Mt Elgon of peace, sleep

Fear, helplessness, uncertainty and funeral atmosphere hang over the troubled Mt Elgon—a lush, green fertile and hilly region whose veneer of calmness beguiles the anguish of the wretched residents. Across the land are widows, widowers, orphans and scarred families who have never known peace in the past two decades.

They are victims of merchants of death roaming the land in the name of clan militia that kill, maim, rape and pillage in the so-called fight for land rights and ownership in the region.

The tension, occasioned by renewed killings and fear of the re-emergence of the dreaded Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), a ragtag militia led by slain Wycliffe Matakwei that terrorised residents between 2005 and 2008, is palpable. The forlorn “people of the mountain” as they call themselves, feel abandoned and their fate left to the killer gods. Here, residents are even suspicious of strangers. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in the region.

The militia’s bloodletting in Mt Elgon was ended in the Operation Okoa Maisha, a military clean-up exercise that saw Matakwei killed. Moses Masut, a resident of Kipsegon village, narrates how the region experienced some calm after the 2008 military operation. The calm was rudely cut short by the current turmoil that has left at least 35 people dead and hundreds displaced from their homes.

“When the military brought down Matakwei and his militia, we all rejoiced and came back to our homes. But the new killings have reawakened our fears. We do not sleep for fear of being attacked,” says Masut.

Cleophas Sichei and Alex Juma when they were arraigned in Bungoma court last week over Mt Elgon killings. Photo/YUSUF MASIBO

A new gang leader, Timothy Kiptanui, with a Sh1 million bounty on his head for murder and robbery, seems to have taken over from Matakwei.

Criminal record But security forces have, however, refuted claims that fresh killings indicate the resurgence of SLDF.

Bungoma police commandant Charles Munyoli told People Daily that they had done their homework, and attributed the current unrest to a criminal gang.

The 17-member gang is said to be led by Kiptanui alias Cheparkach, and his younger brother Ndiwa Kitai.

Cheparkach is being sought for a series of attacks that have led to the displacement of hundreds of residents in Mt Elgon. The man with a criminal record dating back to when he was a minor, is believed to have hacked his father to death before dumping his body in a pit latrine. When People Daily visited Cheparkach’s home in Banantega area, popularly known as Kona Maiti, we found a deserted home. Dilapidated houses are evidence of a trail of destruction.

Neigbours say the home was first destroyed by members of Nyumba Kumi initiative after Cheparkach was linked to robbery incidents. Destruction of houses is said to have angered the suspected criminal, who embarked on a revenge mission.

Several people were killed in a gruesome manner. It is claimed Cheparkach was never involved in SLDF activities in the tumultuous period between 2005 and 2008 because then he was serving a jail term for robbery with violence . The brother, Ndiwa, was, however, one of SLDF commanders.

A police officer who sought anonymity said the mention of Cheparkach’s name chills the blood of some officers. “He is a sharp shooter and has injured several officers during shoot-outs ,”he said. Farmers, shopowners and boda boda operators have fallen victim to Cheparkach’s robbery exploits over time.

The man is rumoured to have links with some powerful politicians from the region, who sponsor his criminal activities. Area MP Fred Kapondi has accused his rivals of funding Cheparkach for selfish political gains. Kapondi, who was charged in a Bungoma court over links with SLDF militia, however, refutes claims the current attacks are as a result of the resurgence of the militia. He points an accusing finger at former MP and rival John Serut.

“This is a criminal gang that is known and is being sponsored by some people,”he said. But Serut denied any involvement with the gang or Cheparkach, saying he was open to investigations. “When I lost elections, I was the first to conceded defeat. I went back to Nairobi and allowed Kapondi to work,” he said, adding that he has never met Cheparkach and only saw his picture after police published it in the dailies.

“Let government address what is really ailing this region, which is land and other historical injustices. Blame games will never solve anything ,”said Serut. Unlike the SLDF militia whose cause was primarily land-related issues, Cheparkach’s gang is purely a revenge mission characterised by murder, rape and defilement and robbery with violence cases. Land issue remains emotive in the region.

A directive by Lands Cabinet secretary Farida Karoney for residents to vacate government and land by last Friday seems to have opened a new can of worms. Residents regretted that former provincial administrators and politicians allocated themselves huge tracts of land while they (residents) missed out.

They have pleaded for justice, saying the region may never know peace if the issue is not addressed. It also emerged that illegal guns are still a menace in the region, with most residents acquiring them cheaply from dealers in the neigbouring Uganda. They are smuggled through routes unmanned by police.

Despite the heavy presence of security agents, including GSU, Rapid Deployment Unit, Regular police and military officers, tension is still high. For now, police continue the hunt for Cheparkach.

When Interior Cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i toured Kipsigon recently, he fired a warning to Chaparkach: “We want to tell him and his gang that the government will deal with them mercilessly.” Two suspects linked to Cheparkach’s gang—Alex Juma and Cleophas Sichei—have been arrested over the recent killings.

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