Stop Police Brutality Against Samburu People
In January, 2010, a team from Cultural Survival's Global Response program went to Kenya to document a year-long pattern of brutal police assaults on the Samburu people of northern Kenya. These assaults, which include killing, raping, beating, and wholesale robbery, take place in an atmosphere of racial prejudice and discrimination against pastoralist tribes that resist assimilation and westernization in order to maintain their unique cultures. Kenyan police forces operate with impunity throughout the country, but in northern Kenya their brutality targets a specific ethnic community in violation of their rights as Indigenous Peoples.
Cultural Survival is applying many forms of pressure on the Kenyan government to withdraw police forces from the North, support the pastoralist communities' traditional means of resolving problems, and provide the assistance that Samburu and other tribes seek to assure their physical and cultural survival in a time of rapid environmental and social change.
"We are old elders and we have never seen anything like this before. It feels like our life is coming to an end. This is government discrimination against a minority tribe. Our own government is punishing us. That is why we are calling out for international help." -Samburu elder in Lerata, Kenya
The Samburu are one of Kenya’s seven main pastoralist tribes. For centuries, the pastoralists have depended on their herds of cattle to survive in the harsh semi-arid environment of Kenya’s northern plains. Their cows and goats provide their main foods: milk, blood, and meat, supplemented in recent years by commercial maize flour and rice. Samburu homes, called bomas, are rounded oval-shaped huts made of sticks, mud, and cowhides. Families group their bomas and cattle enclosures together within circles of thorn bush branches to keep out the wild animals. Unfortunately, they have not been able to keep out the police.
Since February 2009, Kenyan police forces have assaulted at least 10 different Samburu villages, ranging in size from 150 to 1,500 people. In each case, hundreds of armed police conducted well-coordinated, military-style attacks. They killed, raped, beat, and robbed Samburu villagers completely at random and set homes on fire. In one attack, they seized all of a community’s cattle—4,000 head—leaving the community with no source of food during a devastating drought.
For example, before dawn on November 21, 2009, police helicopters and ground forces approached the sleeping village of Loruko. Ground forces fired their guns and mortars into the village, killing a woman as she nursed her infant. Four villagers were hospitalized with serious gunshot wounds. Police forced hundreds of women, men, and children into an open area outside the village, where they kicked and beat them while other police looted their homes.
In Lerata, on January 10, 2010, some 200 police arrived in trucks and Land Cruisers and started beating women and young boys who were outside tending goats. The police then forced their way into the village where they stole the people’s cash, cell phones, watches, and school supplies. They emptied gourds of milk on the ground and mixed sand into the flour so people had no food at all. They attacked nine young warriors and two junior elders, beating five of them unconscious.
Afterwards, fearing another attack, some villagers took their children to hide in the bush every night, saying, “We would rather take our chances with the wild animals than face the police again.” Two days later, police conducted a similar attack on the village of Kiltamany, where they stole everything of value, beat elders, and raped three terrified women who now fear infection with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
The causes are complex, but they involve politics, guns, and global warming. Climate change is causing more frequent and more devastating droughts in northern Kenya, and pastoralists are fighting over scant water resources and pasture for their cattle. Civil wars in surrounding countries have led to weapons being introduced into the region, and the pastoralists’ traditional back-and-forth cattle raiding has become deadly. The police, who should be curbing this violence, are instead adding to it by committing crimes themselves. Politicians manipulate the volatile situation for their own political advantage.
The Samburu people and the other pastoralist tribes have confidence that their community elders, chiefs, and peace committees can carry out a successful disarmament process and resolve disputes over cattle ownership, if the police will stay out of the way. To achieve peace and security, the Kenyan government must uphold the human rights of the pastoralists tribes and work with them to develop solutions that honor their traditional cultures, support their pastoralist economies, and prepare them to meet the challenges of a changing climate.
Samburu Campaign: Sample Letter (click for more info, including addresses)
The Samburu people are calling for international help. Please send polite letters to Kenyan government officials by mail, fax, or email, and send a copy to the US ambassador in Kenya. Read more about the campaign.
• Tell them you are very alarmed by reports of brutal police attacks on entire Samburu villages during 2009 and early 2010. These police attacks serve to increase conflict and insecurity in northern Kenya, rather than resolving it.
• Urge them to immediately withdraw police forces and initiate a community-based process of universal disarmament under the direction of community elders, chiefs, district peace committees, and human rights organizations. Work with the communities to develop a process to curtail cattle raiding and resolve disputes about cattle ownership among pastoralist tribes.
• Demand that the government investigate and prosecute police officials for human rights violations against the Samburu people, and bring an end to police impunity.
• Insist that they recognize that pastoralist tribes have the right to self-determination and to participate in decisions about development and land use in their region.
Stop Police Brutality Against Samburu People (click to sign online)
As a human rights advocate, I am very alarmed by reports of a series of brutal police attacks on entire Samburu villages during 2009 and early 2010. Although police forces were sent to northern Kenya to quell violence and resolve conflict and insecurity there, in fact the police actions have increased the violence, intensified the conflict and terrorized thousands of innocent Samburu women, children, and men. Police officers have flaunted Kenyan law with impunity and violated international accords.
I urge you to immediately withdraw police forces and initiate a community-based process of universal and impartial disarmament under the direction of community elders, chiefs, district peace committees, and human rights organizations. Please work with the communities and with human rights organizations to develop collaborative processes to curtail cattle raiding and resolve disputes about cattle ownership among pastoralist tribes.
To develop a culture of accountability and end the era of police impunity, I urge you to investigate and prosecute police officials for committing human rights violations against the Samburu people.
As your government formulates plans for bringing much needed services and infrastructure to northern Kenya, please keep in mind that the pastoralist tribes have the right to self-determination and to participate in decisions about development and land use in their region.
I fervently hope that your government will distinguish itself by breaking away from past abuses of police power and repression of ethnic minorities.