The cumulative consequence in Kenya of land theft, illegal or chaotic land allocation, forced evictions, corruption, impunity, and the manipulation of ethnicity for political purposes over decades is a culture of violence and widespread abuse of human rights. This was witnessed most recently and dramatically in the violence, much of it orchestrated, that followed the flawed presidential election of December 2007.

The roots of the current conflict in Mt. Elgon are no different. All of these factors have played a key role in the successive waves of violence and insecurity that have wracked the district since 1991, and that have led to the death, dispossession, torture, and repression of thousands of people, the vast majority of them civilians.

Land Disputes

Land is at the heart of the conflict in Mt. Elgon. While there are several other contributing factors to the insecurity and displacement seen in the area since 1991, disputes over land have been constant. As is the case in much of Kenya, these land disputes have their roots in the colonial era, but current grievances center on how those disputes have been managed and the politicization of the various attempts to resolve earlier displacements through resettlement schemes. Nevertheless, the history of land ownership is the key to understanding the current conflict, and indeed the recent and previous patterns of violence in other parts of Kenya.

Mt. Elgon district and neighboring Trans-Nzoia district lie close to the border with Uganda on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, Kenya’s second highest peak. The area is primarily inhabited by members of the Sabaot community, but other inhabitants include the Ogiek, Bukusu, Teso, Sebei, and various Kalenjin sub-groups.2


Many Sabaots were displaced from the arable areas of Trans-Nzoia district when the British colonial government appropriated their land for settler farms in the 1920s and 30s. They moved to two areas—Chepkitale and Chepyuk. In 1932 a group of Sabaot presented their grievances to the Kenya Land Commission, a body set up by the British to investigate land disputes. The British acknowledged their case and discussed a compensation package, but it was never implemented.3

In 1968 the recently independent Kenyan government compounded the problem and reduced the area available for the expanding population at Chepkitale by designating it as a game reserve, and forcing the inhabitants to leave. This was done without any consultation or compensation. The surrounding area was a forest reserve and was thus also unavailable for settlement and grazing.

Inhabitants complained, and in 1971 the government initiated a resettlement program for the displaced at the other location, Chepyuk. Unfortunately, some of the land that was supposed to come from redesignated parts of the forest reserve had already been illegally settled by families who had moved to Chepyuk in the original displacement, and who were themselves also facing land pressure. In effect, the government was trying to force the inhabitants of two villages into the area occupied by one.

Conflicts arose between the intended owners and the existing inhabitants, polarizing relations between the displaced who had originally moved to Chepyuk and those who originally had gone to Chepkitale, the ones who had gone ‘up’ the mountain and the others who had gone ‘down.’ 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 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. People from Chepkitale who did not receive their allocation tried twice, in 1979 and 1988, to return to Chepkitale, but were forcefully repulsed by the police since the area was now a game reserve.

Representatives of both groups made petitions to the government. 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 and people had been living for more than a generation on land whose status had not been formalized. Because of controversy and complications, phase three was never fully implemented and remained an apparently dormant issue throughout the 1990s. However the issue had not been resolved and anger was growing.

Corruption and Politics: The Origins and Objectives of the SLDF

Members of both groups (those who went to Chepyuk and those who went to Chepkitale) were the intended beneficiaries of Chepyuk III, and the implementation of the program was a major local issue in the 2002 general elections and the 2005 referendum on the constitution. Much of the constitution debate was about the structures of local government control and who would get to adjudicate on land disputes.

After the 2005 referendum, the third phase was finally implemented, but, as noted by the Kenya Land Alliance in 2007, the exercise was marred by “massive irregularities.”4 The Kenya Land Alliance report quotes a member of the vetting committee that decided on beneficiaries admitting that they were “under pressure from political leaders not to give land to people seen as sympathetic to those posing a political threat to leaders at that time.”5 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 (they later fell out and became political rivals).

According to the Kenyan NGO Western Kenya Human Rights Watch (WKHRW),6 which has investigated and reported on human rights abuses by all parties in Mt. Elgon, the Sabaot Land Defence Force emerged as an armed group immediately after the December 2002 general elections. WKHRW claims that recruitment of fighters began in March 2003 and training, at camps in the forest, began in July 2003.7 However, violent attacks did not begin in earnest until 2006, in the wake of the implementation of the phase III resettlement program when the SLDF resisted attempts to reallocate land, and then in the run-up to the 2007 elections when they targeted political opponents of Fred Kapondi, in particular supporters of his erstwhile colleague and now rival, John Serut.

The SLDF is an armed group organized and funded by local politicians, although the actual politicians in control have changed over time.8 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.9 This happened in Mt. Elgon, as well as across the Rift Valley and coastal provinces in the elections of 1992 and 1997.10 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.

Command Responsibility within the SLDF

To residents of Mt. Elgon, the members and leaders of the SLDF, including the founders, sponsors, and political beneficiaries, are well known. A wide range of human rights activists, journalists, chiefs, and assistant chiefs, retired civil servants and other civilians named the leaders of the SLDF as the late Wycliffe Matakwei, John Sichei Chemaimak, John Kanai, Cllr. Nathan Wasama, Jason Psongywo, Patrick Komon, and Cllr. Benson Chesikaki.

Of these, Wycliffe Matakwei admitted to being the deputy leader of the SLDF in a television interview.11 Accompanying Matakwei at the interview were Fred Kiptum, the SLDF’s alleged spiritual leader and local politician John Kanai.12 Residents claimed that Psongywo and Komon were among those who grabbed land illegally in phase one of the Chepyuk settlement scheme. Matakwei was allegedly killed by the police in May 2008. The police paraded his body and his wife positively identified the body.13 Kanai, Psongywo, and Komon are now in custody, awaiting trial. John Sichei Chemaimak recently appeared in an interview on Kenya Television News (KTN), claiming to be the true leader of the SLDF.  He is apparently on the run in Uganda.14

Benson Chesikaki was elected to the County Council of Mt. Elgon in December 2007, representing Emia ward. One chief described Chesikaki and Matakwei coming to his area in 2007 recruiting boys to join the SLDF: “They said all young men should go for training. Many of them did not. Those who didn’t had to flee.”15 Many other witnesses cited him as a known and feared leader of SLDF.16 Nathan Wasama was elected unopposed as a councilor in Sasuri ward. Wasama is widely implicated in SLDF activities by residents and local officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch17, but he was nonetheless secretly sworn in, in the council chamber at Kapsokwony, in January 2008. Chesikaki and Wasama are now in custody.

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.18 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.19

Kisiero and 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.20 

Having initially worked together (Kapondi was formerly KANU party chairman in the district), by the time of the most recent election of 2007 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.21

A neighbor of Kapondi told how he was repeatedly harassed by SLDF ‘boys’ who had a training camp on Kapondi’s land.22 Another chief described Kapondi leading a recruitment drive in his area for young men to join the SLDF in 2006.23 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.24 Human rights activists described seeing the court packed with known SLDF militia during hearings.25 

Kapondi and others were also named in parliament by the then MP, John Serut, accused of fueling the clashes.26 But Serut himself, along with Kisiero and another former MP, Joseph Kimukung, were named by the government spokesman in a report seeking to identify the backers of the violence.27 Local residents say they have all been involved at various stages.28

When Human Rights Watch asked the Mt. Elgon District Commissioner about the allegations against Kapondi and the other councilors whom it is claimed are among the leaders of the SLDF, he expressed surprise. He said he had a good working relationship with all of the people mentioned, especially Benson Chesikaki, who, as chairman of the County Council, is involved in the operation to combat the SLDF.29  When Human Rights Watch asked a senior policeman at the district headquarters in Kapsokwony why the councilors were not the subject of criminal investigations, he just laughed.30

Other Militia in the Area

In the absence of a concerted response by the government to the SLDF, and in the context of competitive displacement in the run-up to the elections, groups sought to displace supporters of their opponents so they could not vote, while other militia groups emerged on Mt. Elgon and in neighboring Trans-Nzoia district in the latter half of 2007 and early 2008 allied to different politicians and different ethnic groups. The two main groups were the Political Revenge Movement (PRF) and Mooreland Forces.

The PRF was associated with former Kitale MP Davis Nakitare, who was arrested along with 205 youths undergoing military training on his farm in the Rift Valley on February 25, 2008.31 Eventually the youth were released and Mr. Nakitare was released on bail.

The Mooreland Forces are associated with families that originally came from Chepkitale who are at odds with the SLDF over their fair share of the land at Chepyuk settlement scheme. The Mooreland Forces have defended residents against SLDF atrocities. In the worst bout of fighting, Mooreland and SLDF clashed in January 2008; four days of fighting reportedly left 32 dead.32

Following the December 2007 elections, displacement of families across Mt. Elgon and Trans-Nzoia districts increased further as the SLDF sought to exploit the insecurity to drive unwanted populations and political opponents from the mountain completely. In March 2008, after clashes elsewhere in the country had died down, the Kenyan government initiated a joint military-police operation to deal with the SLDF “once and for all.”33 That operation, marred by grave human rights abuses, is ongoing at the time of writing.

2 The issue of identity on the mountain is extremely complicated and linked to shifting political claims. The term Sabaot is a relatively recent construct and is often thought to include the Kony, Bok, Bongomek, and Sebei.

3 For a good overview of this history, see Kenya Land Alliance, Land Update, volume 5, number 1, April-June 2007. For more information see

4 Ibid, p.8.

5 Ibid, p.8.

6 Western Kenya Human Rights Watch is an independent Kenyan non-governmental organization based in Bungoma that has no affiliation of any form to Human Rights Watch.

7 Job Bwonya, “Extract Notes from a Study: On Chepyuk Conflict in Mt. Elgon District September 2006-March 2007,” April 24, 2007. On file with Human Rights Watch.

8 Human Rights Watch interview with human rights activists, Bungoma, March 28, 2008.

9 Majimboism is a term used to refer to support for a federal constitution that gives more powers to regions and thus encourages a more ethnically fragmented power structure in Kenya. Some politicians have manipulated the concept to incite ethnic hatred against traditionally non-native groups, especially in the Rift Valley, thus encouraging an understanding of majimboism as a blueprint for ethnic enclaves in Kenya.

10 See in particular, Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Africa), Kenya: Divide and Rule: State Sponsored Ethnic Violence in Kenya, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993).

11 Lucas Barasa and Peter Kimani, “Deadly militiamen: the untold story,” Daily Nation, April 9, 2007, see also Kenya Land Alliance, ‘Land Update’.

12 “Deadly militiamen: the untold story,” Daily Nation.

13 Ken Opala, “Felled SLDF boss a mere pawn in Elgon problem,” Daily Nation, May 20, 2008.

14 Robert Wanyonyi, “‘Slain’ SLDF leader emerges,” The Standard, July 4, 2008.

15 Human Rights Watch interview with chief from Mt. Elgon district, March 28, 2008.

16 Human Rights Watch interviews, Mt. Elgon district and Bungoma, March and April 2008.

17 Human Rights Watch interviews, Mt. Elgon district and Bungoma, March and April 2008.

18 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists, human rights activists, area chiefs, and local residents, Mt. Elgon district, March 2008.

19 The Report of the Judicial Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Tribal Clashes in Kenya (The Akiwumi report), 1999. Available at (accessed May 30, 2008).

20 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists, human rights activists, area chiefs, and local residents, Mt. Elgon district, March 2008.

21 Human Rights Watch interview with chief from Mt. Elgon district, March 28, 2008.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, Mt. Elgon district, March 29, 2008.

23 Human Rights Watch interview with chief, March 29, 2008.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with court officials, Webuye district court, March 31, 2008.

25 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bungoma and Webuye, March 26-31, 2008.

26 See Parliament team, “Tempers flare as parliament debates Mt. Elgon skirmishes,” The Standard, April 5, 2007.

27 See Mwangi Muiruri, “Report links minister to Mt. Elgon clashes,” The Kenya Times, April 5, 2007.

28 Human Rights Watch interviews, Mt. Elgon, March 26-31, 2008.

29 Human Rights Watch interview with Birik Mohammed, District Commissioner, Kapsokwony, March 31, 2008.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with police, Kapsokwony, March 31, 2008.

31 Jillo Kadida, “Ex-MP sought by court,” Daily Nation, March 14, 2008.

32 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists and human rights activists, Kitale and Bungoma, Kenya, March 26 and 27, 2008.

33 Human Rights Watch interview with police official (name withheld), Nairobi, April 3, 2008.