When Gabriel Lengishili, 54, was paid Sh11 million compensation for an injury he sustained from explosives left by the British Army in the plains of Laikipia, he, like his fellow villagers, didn’t know what to do with his share of the Sh450 million windfall.
The swing from pauper to millionaire was swift. The goat herder was not only flabbergasted but lost, too, in the village celebrity status. The only town he knew was Nanyuki.
“I bought a new Land Cruiser, married three more wives, built a house and spent the rest on other things,” he now says.
He looks weather-beaten, nay, desolate. There is little to show that Lengishili had handled such an amount of money – and like the other overnight millionaires of Laikipia and Samburu the herders are back to their default settings: poverty.
Years after he resumed his life of daily struggle, he can’t explain how the money slipped through his fingers. “Life became difficult and I sold the car and the house,” is all he can say.
In the late 1990s reports emerged of pastoralists who had sustained injuries from mines and ordnances left behind by British troops who have been training on the stretch of land between Laikipia and Archer’s Post in Isiolo.
As reports started to emerge of evidence hidden in police Occurrence Books, a British lawyer, Martin Day, arrived to collect field evidence and help the claimants. He was to seek more than £10 million (Sh1.4 billion) as compensation for the dead and injured.
Mr Day was a veteran in such litigations. He had founded his firm in 1987, together with Sarah Leigh, based on strong ethos: To “ensure that the ordinary person has just as good quality legal advice as our state bodies, insurers, and multi-nationals.”
That is how he arrived in Nairobi and embarked on a task that, he hoped, would help the Samburu victims get justice. He harangued Westminster. He knocked on doors and met legal stumbling blocks. And finally, in July 2002, the UK Ministry of Defence announced that it had agreed to part with £4.5 million (Sh450 million, at the time) rather than go through a class action suit.
Mr Day felt the compensation was “fair” and would allow the victims to live “halfway-decent lives”.
Last week, the Nation caught up with a number of those who received the claims. Individually, there are those that received up to Sh23 million each, depending on the degree of injury. For the first batch that was paid in 2003, the lowest pay-out was Sh50, 000. Although they all admit having received the money, the millionaires of 2003 have nothing to show for it. Most of them are forlorn and live in squalor. In fact, they are some of the poorest people in Archer’s Post.
Mr Lengishili is one of them. He now lives in a manyatta in Kulamawe behind Exotica Sports Stadium with his 12 children. He spends the entire day looking for manual jobs to offload cabbages from lorries arriving from Meru. On the day we met, he was inebriated. He is always that way, we were told. He has also lost a number of teeth due to constant falls on his way home.
Like Mr Lengishili, most of the former millionaires we interviewed admitted that they cannot account for the millions they were paid by the British Government.
Twice, the British Government has been compelled to pay millions of shillings to residents. In total, 1,300 people who had been seriously injured or killed by the exploding bombs qualified. The payment was done in 2003 and 2004 after the MoD agreed to a negotiated settlement.
At first, the British Ministry of Defence had denied responsibility for the accidents, which killed at least 560 people – mostly children – over a period of 50 years.
Later, MoD officials in London agreed to settle the claims without admission of liability on the basis that it did leave unexploded weapons in the training areas, but for the mere fact that the land was unfenced. The Sh450 million was for either losing a relative, or sustaining serious injuries that resulted in disability due to loss of limbs.
But what happened to the millions is always a poser even to the local administration.
“When they received the money, a large percentage of them became spendthrift. They did not invest wisely. They bought expensive cars, spent the money on women, alcohol and travel. They bought houses which they later sold. Actually, most of them separated with their families and some later contracted HIV — and died,” Uaso East location Chief Henry Lenayasa told us.
Nanyuki is known as a hub for commercial sex workers, thanks to the Kenyan and British army barracks – and the carefree life associated with the military. Also, it is surrounded by large farms and is the commercial town of a thriving rural economy. It was here that the compensated Samburu herders found a new life – in restaurants, bars and hotels. Most were at best illiterate, and at worst, careless.
“We organised for advice on the use of the money by investing it in education, and in businesses. But obviously the decision as to what to do with the money was entirely upon each client,” Mr Day told the Nation via e-mail.
Mr Day had, perhaps, anticipated this and together with Osiligi, the NGO and the Standard Chartered bank, organised financial management seminars for all the beneficiaries. The seminars were conducted at Archer’s Post and in Nanyuki town.
Most of them lost the cash to people who took advantage of them.
“The problem was that these are members of the nomadic pastoralists and they had never in their lives owned some things. Due to their disability, some of them felt they were not appreciated by the society and so the millions came as a culture shock and suddenly, everyone liked them. Most of them lost the cash to people who took advantage of them.
They also wanted to own everything and they wanted to travel and enjoy life without planning for their futures,” Founder and Director of Impact (Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation), said Mr Johnson Ole Kaunga, who initiated the claims through the Osiligi organisation.
“When the seminars were over and Mr Day left, we tried getting hold of them so that we could organise them and have them initiate an investment group, but they were unavailable. They could not even pick calls and at some point, we left them alone,” he said, adding that most of them later went broke, became alcoholics and got depressed.
Mr Leonard Lenyakopiro, who now works at a local NGO, recalls how the beneficiaries would hire the taxi he used to drive before they bought fuel guzzlers.
“Prostitutes in Nanyuki were already aware that millions had been paid. They started flocking the Standard Chartered Bank where the accounts had been opened and it was easy to distinguish the beneficiaries because of the injuries and amputations. Some of these men disappeared for months,” says Mr Lenyakopiro.
The herders also became the target of conmen who had flocked Nanyuki town looking for them. One of those who lost money to conmen was Mzee Ngopi Learao, who had been paid Sh23million for losing his legs. Today, he works at the Lolng’erded Community Water Project, where he receives a salary of Sh5, 000 a month.
Asked whether the payout benefited the community, Mzee Lelenkeju Leparmarai, 76, said the money came with a lot of misfortunes, and that none of them invested in projects that could benefit the community.
“From when the money was paid, families broke up. Cases of HIV- related deaths increased and we still experience them to date; siblings became enemies, children were abandoned and these same millionaires took people’s wives and some of them committed suicide when the accounts were depleted,” Mr Leparmarai said.
A few managed to salvage their lives with the compensation.
Singida Kukuton had received Sh850,000 for losing his son, Lguris Lukuton who was aged 12, in 1986. He bought land in Merille and built a two-bedroom house and bought a flock of sheep and camels. He still maintains the same size of stock to date, which he uses to sustain his family.
The Nation established that explosions still rock the villages, from at the slopes of Lorubae to those on the hills of Losupulae and Lereta in Samburu East. When they do, morans at the nearest town, Archer’s Post, which is 18 kilometres away rush to find out what happens.
At times, they still find herders or their goats, camels and cows, dead or injured at Naichumunya hills in Laresoro.
These are the same hills whose names have been invoked in hospitals, court proceedings and in high ranking offices both in Kenya and in Britain because of explosives left on the practice ranges.
After the 2003 compensation, and on realising that the explosions were still being experienced, the British Army and their Kenyan counterparts started a campaign to sensitise the locals on the dangers of picking the explosives.
“But the fliers were in English and Kiswahili and this is a community with a high level of illiteracy. Furthermore, those who are injured are small boys who are always on the move to graze,” Mr Peter Saruni said, adding that the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) should mop up undetonated bombs on the 8,000-acre training grounds in Laresoro and Dol Dol.
The communities had initially before the compensation, refused to allow the military personnel to remove the hundreds of live bombs lying within the group ranches until victims in the second litigation were compensated. To date, some munitions still lie in the grazing fields.
The defence training pact has always been controversial. In 2015, Kenya ratified a 26-article agreement with the UK Government which, among others, states that the visiting forces shall avoid acts that impact on human health and safety.
It also contains details on the disposal of arms waste and the procedures to be taken prior to military training involving live firing in designated training areas.
“The parties shall conduct a joint annual unexploded ordnance clearance validation exercise in order to prevent injury, death or other damages to persons and property,” Article 10 (i) of the DCA signed five years ago states.
But the explosions have not stopped. Just last month, the Nation established, two brothers- aged 12 and seven from Lolng’erded, died in an ordnance explosion. Four of the goats they were herding also died.
No one knows what happened prior to the explosion, but police officer Idris Hamdule says most of the explosions occur when the locals attempt to pull the gadgets from the soil, oblivious of the dangers.
There are also those who got injured or lost kin after the compensation in 2003 and 2004, and are yet to receive any compensation. They include Tangasoni Lesidukule, who lost his 5-month pregnant wife Namarei Lesidukule. She died on the spot when a bomb exploded 8 years ago.
Gladys Leparleen, 27, too dislocated her hip bone, lost her left eye and broke her right leg at the same hills as she grazed cows with her cousins.
Each day the sun rises with new form of uncertainty among the nomadic communities living around the Laresoro training fields. They do not know when another explosion will occur and who will fall victim.