KAMWENJE, Kenya (Reuters) - Mathew Lempurkel knew two issues would fire up voters in the drought-ravaged region of Laikipia ahead of Kenya’s elections: race and land.
Lempurkel’s promise, caught on tape last month, that “white people will go home” if Kenyans voted for the opposition on Aug. 8 electrified his supporters and showed how national elections are inflaming long-running local disputes.
The widespread protests and ethnic violence that followed elections a decade ago are unlikely to recur since the 2010 constitution gave counties more power and money and removed the winner-takes-all tradition of presidential patronage.
But on the plains of Laikipia, Lempurkel’s home, local politics can still be a spark for unrest as candidates’ efforts to win over voters can feed ethnic rivalries and a competition for ever-scarcer resources.
A growing population coupled by years of overgrazing and a regional drought devastated Laikipia’s grasslands last year.
After their communally managed land became bare earth studded with cactuses, herdsmen brought their cattle onto private land where grass still grew because the owners had built dams and prevented overgrazing.
Stephen Lengerded, a 22-year-old herdsman from the same Samburu community as Lempurkel, said 2,000 people came to his village and cut fences to let their cows graze on the neighboring Mugie conservancy, whose manager is a white Kenyan.
“We heard he (Lempurkel) has been saying the whites might go after the elections,” he said. “But we don’t think so. This is just politics.”
Lempurkel has been charged with incitement of racial hatred for his comments, which were recorded by a member of the audience at a rally with opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Odinga’s claims of vote rigging sparked the violence that killed about 1,200 people in 2007.
Lempurkel denies the charges and denies that it is him on the recording. His lawyer said he was a victim of “fake news”.
“This is a desperate attempt to discredit him by a sinking regime,” said lawyer Ben Sihaya. Reuters has spoken to three people who identified Lempurkel in the recording.
Complaints against big landowners include that they have too much land, continue to reap the benefits of colonial rule or care more about wildlife than people and their livelihoods.
The landowners, who include blacks and whites, retort that they purchased their land decades after independence in 1963 and that their ranches or wildlife parks provide jobs and tax revenue. They say overgrazing only exacerbates long-term environmental problems.
Hundreds of jobs were lost when herders began coming onto private land, forcing hotels and lodges to shutter - in one case, evacuating guests via helicopter - and cattle ranchers to sell off cattle before they were shot or stolen.
The government of President Uhuru Kenyatta was slow to react to the encroachments even when clashes turned deadly because it was fearful of alienating voters, said white Kenyan rancher Maria Dodds.
Dodds’ living room is stacked with bulletproof vests, walkie-talkies and flares after three police, an employee and a neighbor were shot on her ranch. She was shot at every day for nearly a month, she said, and has reduced her herd to 250 cows from 1,400 after repeatedly being hit by rustlers.
“The government didn’t take the political angle seriously. They thought people would go home after it rained,” she said.
The police’s lack of action to counter the attacks on big landowners also encouraged crime against local herdsmen and villagers, who might farm less than an acre, she said.
Some farmers suspect the attacks may be aimed at forcing rival ethnic groups, such as Kenyatta’s Kikuyu, to flee.
“Every time there is an election, there are attacks, but this year is the worst,” said John Kamau, a Kikuyu farmer on patrol with a machete.
His ethnically mixed village, on the rocky lip of the Rift Valley, adjoins the 100,000-acre (400-sq-km) Laikipia Nature Conservancy, a privately owned park where hundreds of armed herders have camped.
Gunmen shot landowner Kuki Gallman, a famous Italian-born conservationist, in the stomach earlier this year. They also killed six police in Kamau’s village, Kamwenje, last month and have launched so many raids many people now walk an hour to another village to sleep after a long day working on their farms.
Anne Njoki, 37, is a small farmer who lives down the hill from Kamau. She was attacked last month.
“They were slapping my little girl and saying ‘Where are the women?’ I felt so helpless. If they had tried to rape her I would have gone out to sacrifice myself,” she said.
Three naked raiders speaking the Pokot language - the same tribe as the herdsman camped on the conservancy next door - came into her adobe house as she and another grown daughter cowered under the bed.
Njoki’s neighbor, who was left destitute after two raids, demolished his home in despair, leaving a pile of rubble amid the cornfields.
Another neighbor, David Kiplomo, had his jaw smashed in an attack and was left for dead.
“It seems their intention is not pasture, but to make people flee,” he said.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall