Following Kenya’s recently concluded elections, I took a walk on my Laikipia farm and lit up a cigar, stale because I had saved it for a day when I might hear a bit of good news that never seemed to come. I felt it was the end of a terrifying five-year ordeal when I frequently sensed my life was in extreme danger. A few weeks before at a rally on the plains near our farm boundary, our local MP, Mathew Lempurkel, had allegedly declared: ‘If we win this election we will take this land… We will make sure all wazungus (white people) go to their homes.’
This speech was recorded by witnesses, and Mathew was arrested and charged with incitement. But my MP was no stranger to criminal cases. In March he was arrested following the shooting of my friend and neighbour Tristan Voorspuy, though charges were dropped for lack of evidence linking him to this cold-blooded murder. In another pending criminal case he is accused of threatening to burn down my local police station if its commander did not release his cohorts from the cells. In yet another pending case, he is accused of assaulting Sarah Korere, his arch rival for the Laikipia North parliamentary seat. He allegedly beat her up in a government office last November, after which he sent her an SMS threatening: ‘Withdraw this case you prostitute or you die idiot.’
I have known Mathew since even before I bought my land 14 years ago. His people are the local cattle-keeping Samburu, but he was partly raised by an elderly Italian Catholic priest. He promoted himself as a militant Samburu leader during a bloody feud with the neighbouring Pokot tribe in which hundreds died. He seemed frequently to crash vehicles and he had a reputation for hard drinking. I sensed he loathed white people, but I always showed him respect, because he was prominent in his community.
Mathew had strong political ambitions but funding election campaigns in Kenya is an expensive business. Before the 2013 national polls, his Italian patrons claimed that he had run down a Catholic charity set up to organise operations for small children suffering severe heart problems.
In the years since I started building up my farm, life in Laikipia had always been very peaceful for us. The trouble kicked off the day Mathew won his election. For three nights running, extremely violent bandits hit the farm, rustling cattle. Shots flew every-where. A gunman emptied an entire clip of AK-47 bullets into my car — from such close range that sparks from the muzzle bounced off the windscreen — as I drove to help my neighbours, who suffered cattle raids every night for a week.
In the succeeding years, the violence escalated all around us. Hordes of Samburu armed with guns, spears, knobkerries (a form of club) and swords pushed multitudes of cattle into ranches owned by white farmers — but also into the maize patches and pastures of poor smallholders from rival tribes.
Mathew was always making headlines. In 2014 he was kicked off an Emirates flight, accused of drunkenly assaulting flight attendants and throwing glasses around while demanding to be served alcohol before takeoff. Dubbed a ‘rogue’ passenger by the airline, he later complained: ‘I just wanted a Tusker.’ When he returned to the Catholic charity and started loading up computers and other property to take away, locals tried to lynch him.
In 2015 a gang of warriors, known as morans, who were allegedly herders for some of Mathew’s large mobs of cattle, entered my land. Several men threw rocks at me while shouting: ‘Kill! Kill!’ I used my left hand to fend off one missile, the injuries festered and the doctors nearly had to amputate my fingers. I adore Kenya, where my family has been since the 1920s, but as I lay in hospital for a week I wondered whether farming in Laikipia was worth the risk.
Early last year, Mathew — who has repeatedly denied the numerous offences of which people have accused him — came to visit me on my farm. He is a short man with a falsetto voice and an otter-like sleekness. He is clearly intelligent but he has this disturbing habit of grinning when a nasty subject comes up in conversation. I implored him to be a leader for all ethnic communities in Laikipia rather than just the disgruntled, unemployed Samburu youths who followed him around. Our constituency is beset with some ghastly social problems: child marriage and the clitoridectomy of young brides.
All children should attend primary school by law in Kenya, but in Laikipia you see tiny boys herding cattle — a perilous task in the African bush. In 2015 I saw a photo of a small Samburu child herder half eaten by a lioness. Mathew had a budget of millions of pounds earmarked for social projects in education, health and so on — but in the shanty that was his powerbase, a few kilometres from the farm, he had built a single-roomed structure the size of a garden shed, which he called a ‘school’.
I told Mathew I had met men like him before — in Rwanda in 1994, Hutu warlords driven by hatred for the Tutsis. The young militias they incited to kill others eventually turned on them and practically ate their leaders. Mathew blinked and played with his phone. A few months later he told my farm workers that he would break down my gates and fences.
I survived another ambush with gunshots flying as I drove home one night. In late October, as Kenya heated up for this year’s elections, my Samburu neighbours came to tell me Mathew was inciting a mob of young moran warriors to invade my farm. I refused to believe this claim, because I was doing plenty of business with my Samburu neighbours. I had bought £30,000 worth of cattle from them that year and I was about to start giving them pasture for their cattle at the onset of the dry season.
A few days after this on 27 October, 300 warriors armed with bolt cutters smashed through our electric fences and poured 10,000 cattle into the farm. Within ten minutes of the alarms sounding, I phoned Mathew and implored him to withdraw his supporters. He denied that he was behind the invasion, jeered at me and said, ‘Bring the witnesses to testify in court’, before cutting the line.
During the two-month invasion, I lost £282,000, according to an assessment by the local government livestock production officer. After the mobs had destroyed all the fences and pastures, leaving empty cans of Red Bull and bottles of cheap hooch known as Trigger, I heard Mathew held a celebration on the plains. Here he slaughtered two bulls and allegedly said something along the lines of: ‘I gave you the grass — now give me the votes.’
Impunity brings any perpetrator to a point of no return. What the person has done wrong cannot be undone, and because after each criminal act the stakes are raised ever higher, in order to survive he must commit wrong after worse wrong.
During Laikipia’s invasions over the past ten months, dozens of people have been murdered — most of them poor black smallholders — and losses from vandalised property and lost business is estimated at around £30 million. A few weeks ago Mathew’s boss Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, told the Times that white-owned farms in Laikipia would be ‘rationalised’.
At press conferences Mathew seemed to be always at Raila’s side. In the nights before election day on 8 August, I could not sleep a wink. I felt the world was about to come to an end. A Samburu friend tells me that Mathew began vomiting at the tallying centre as the votes being counted showed that he was about to be trounced by Sarah -Korere, the woman he had allegedly beaten last November. Sarah is inclusive, a defender of the rule of law, pro-education, a promoter of opportunities for women, and famous for breastfeeding her baby in parliament where there were no facilities. The people had rejected everything Mathew represents — and in the presidential elections, Kenyans also rejected Raila’s crude populism and voted instead for Uhuru Kenyatta and his promises of economic development. Raila contests the result, claiming it was ‘rigged’.
For sure Kenya has a long way to go and corruption remains a giant problem. But I had been preparing for the very worst under another five years of Mathew. I now feel on top of the world about Sarah’s election and the chance for all of us to help her rebuild Laikipia from the ashes. This is what living in a young democracy is like. Despair one day, the next great hope.
On his release Mathew’s followers began building a boma, or livestock camp, up against my farm’s northern boundary.