The Platform

Kenya Wildlife Service

Wildlife rangers throughout Kenya are under threat and are being murdered and abducted at an alarming rate.

Dear Director:

It has been some time since my last letter, almost two and a half years now since you have been at the helm of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Bearing in mind all the challenges of the pandemic, and the accelerating issues associated with human-wildlife conflict, I think the majority of Kenyans, and indeed your international stakeholders, would share the perspective, and using your old naval parlance, “Bravo Zulu!”

While our last correspondence was on the lighter side, today I write of an issue, the gravity of which far surpasses any KWS crisis you have had to face to date; your good Rangers are under attack. Specifically, I am referring to the August 28th abduction of Assistant Warden Francis Oyaro, while traveling home on leave from his station in Marsabit; the August 31st, very “public execution” of Warden II Banjila Obed Kofa, while driving in his private vehicle to his work station at Solio Ranch, having just dropped his 16-year-old daughter off at school; and the February plane crash in Nanyuki that killed KWS pilot Ian Lemaiyan and Commander John Plimo, the circumstances of which, surely now, needs to be called into question. Do you remember that the aircraft had just completed an air patrol of Solio Ranch?

While KWS does exemplary work in public relations and promoting its tourism-related activities, its transparency relating to enforcement activities or any incident where it may be cast in a negative light quickly moves from “warm and fuzzy” to “cold and prickly.” It is hardly surprising to see your organization under these circumstances doing the proverbial “ostrich.”

The deafening silence of the Kenya Wildlife Service surely provides the citizenry of Kenya the perspective that Warden II Kofa and Assistant Warden Oyaro are guilty of some type of egregious conduct. I fear, Sir, that KWS is gravely mistaken.

Let us first examine the gangland-style assassination of Warden II Kofa. As you are aware, he was your commander of security at Solio Ranch, a privately owned, 17,500-acre conservancy that is a sanctuary to about 20% of Kenya’s rhino population. He had been there for about seven years. His tenure at one of Kenya’s prime rhino conservancies would seem to be a testament to the trust that had been placed in him.

On the day of the attack, Commander Kofa was driving his personal vehicle to Solio Ranch, having just dropped his daughter off at Nkuene Girls High School. Approximately 40 minutes into his journey, and on the northern outskirts of Meru, two Subaru Outback vehicles pulled alongside his car and sprayed it with bullets. It was hit at least 30 times. Tires were punctured and he suffered a number of bullet wounds. Commander Kofa lost control of his small Toyota and it ran off the road, coming to a complete stop. He was critically injured and immobile in the front seat.

One of Kofa’s attackers exited his Subaru vehicle. He was hooded and holding a semi-automatic handgun that was wrapped in hessian fabric (cloth material often used in making military sandbags). He walked nonchalantly to Commander Kofa’s disabled vehicle, opened the door, and shot Commander Kofa in the head three times. The shooter then calmly picked up his spent casings and returned to his Subaru. The two vehicles drove off. This was all done in front of bystanders, many of whom were taking photos or videos. At the time, there was a police roadblock not a mile away.

A few hours later, Imenti North Police Commander Alexander Makau gave a press conference, describing, the yet unidentified Commander Kofa, as a hardened criminal who had been tracked for some weeks. It is of note that Commander Kofa was referred to as a “suspect.” Commander Makau provided no description or any other information on the attackers or their vehicles. He, in fact, referred to them as “shooters” when questioned by the media.

(Kenya Wildlife Service)

When one examines media footage depicting the police trampling the crime scene (breaking every basic tenet of crime scene management), and the way the body of Commander Kofa was taken out of his private car and dumped in the back of the police transport, taken in conjunction with the hastily convened police press briefing that was seriously weighted against Kofa, there is only one explanation. The police had been forewarned that an ambush on a serious criminal was going to be carried out in their area of operation.

The evidence is strong and compelling that this very public killing of Commander Bajila Kofa was either a government-sanctioned execution or an execution ordered by someone within the government at a very high level. The use of Subaru vehicles, the vehicle of choice for elite or special enforcement police units, was a clincher.

This puts Warden II Kofa in one of two categories. He was either engaged in high-level criminality, rhino horn trafficking as an example, or he was preventing poachers and high-level traffickers from easy access to the gold mine of rhinos within the Solio sanctuary. There is also a definite possibility that he had evidence as to the identity of the high-level traffickers within government circles.

The initial police press conference and the distancing of the Kenya Wildlife Service (or should I say the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife) clearly places him in the first category. His character and work record, however, in combination with his actions in the 24 hours prior to his murder, would place him firmly in the second.

I know that you did not attend Kofa’s funeral. Your KWS Twitter feed had you and Cabinet Secretary Balala at a stakeholder meeting in Lamu. There were many speakers, including colleagues, as well as your Deputy Director Security, Nancy Kabete, in attendance. They all spoke of the sterling and prayerful character of Bajila Obed Kofa. Dedicated, diligent, highly trusted, a man who loved his work; descriptors not normally associated with a hardened criminal.

Kofa had a church built at Solio, he sponsored orphans, had arrested an old school friend for poaching when he was once home on leave, and even quarreled with colleagues and family for killing snakes or spraying ‘Doom’ on ants. He did not own property. He did not own a Land Cruiser, a Mercedes, a BMW, or a Lexus. And yes, I know, at funerals even Attila the Hun can be made to sound like a saint, but there was a sincerity in the recounted stories that could not be mistaken. And the crispness of the farewell salutes a profound and genuine farewell to a trusted, respected, and loyal comrade.

I am sure that you have read the media coverage of his murder and how Commander Kofa clearly believed his days were numbered. It was reported that he wrote the following in one of his last WhatsApp posts: “When God is about to take you to a greater level, everything will go crazy. Friends will betray you. You will be left alone. In that very moment, God will be your only source and He alone will take the glory.”

Were you also aware that he wrote the following (verbatim) to his KWS colleagues, also on WhatsApp: “I just urge you colleagues, let’s pray to one another, people are going through [difficulties] at different level. In conservation, we are under attack especially Solio. It is better you understand that things are not as can [be] seen. The networking of the enemy is long, strong and its foundation from high levels. We should not fear at any circumstances. Better die while fighting rather than showing the back. We are weak compared to the enemy, but I believe this battle will take exactly the angle of [the] David and Goliath battle. Let us pray constantly, our God of Elijah wants to show his might, ours is just to believe in him.”

One word of particular note in that prayer is “Solio,” the conservancy that he was protecting for the seven previous years. You may recall that in early 2014, KTN aired an investigative report entitled “Poachers and Butchers,” that provided compelling evidence of a wildlife trafficking cartel involving KWS rangers, police, and government officials. This cartel even committed murders amongst themselves to reduce the likelihood of arrest and jail. Were you aware that this cartel was subsequently linked to Liberian ivory and rhino horn trafficker, Moazu Kromah, now sitting in a U.S. jail on wildlife trafficking, money laundering, and drug charges? This was not a small-time cartel.

Certainly germane to this whole conversation was the killing of a rhino (or rhinos?) at Solio in June. Your organization, not surprisingly, opted to remain tight-lipped on this (broaching that news publicly, when that time comes, could be a bit of a PR headache for you). Within days, people started disappearing in the Nyeri/Solio area, and we are not talking a few. The latest report has 15 persons abducted, essentially within the same area. These abductions were quite brazen, often committed in front of witnesses, by men driving Subaru Outbacks. Did I mention that Subaru’s were the preferred vehicle of police special units?

And to add to the story? One of those abducted, Gerald Guandaru Ndiritu, had been arrested and charged for rhino horn poaching (or ivory trafficking depending on your source) in May 2017. He was later acquitted when the KWS officers involved in the arrest became confused over the actual date of arrest and the type of rifle he was found with. His co-accused, prior to acquittal, managed to get himself shot and killed by KWS Rangers while in the act of poaching at Ol Pejeta, less than 50 km from Solio as the crow flies. To date, none of the 15 persons have been located.

This brings us to Assistant Warden Oyaro, an intelligence officer based in Marsabit (approximately 400 km north of Solio). He is actually one of the above 15, “abducted” in a similar manner as all others. A compilation of media reports indicates that on August 31st, three days before the Kofa murder, Oyaro left Marsabit to be on leave with his family for one week. He departed at approximately 07:00hrs in a KWS van with two other colleagues who were traveling to Nairobi. He alighted in Nanyuki around 13:00hr.

He then transferred to a matatu van (public transport) for the journey to Nakuru. About 20 kilometers south of Nanyuki, in the area of Naro Moru (also the area of other abductions), the matatu was flagged down by two men who were driving a black Subaru car. The men, dressed in civilian clothes, produced to the driver some type of identification purporting to be security agents.

The agents asked the driver to first remove the luggage of Oyaro from the rear of the vehicle and then asked Oyaro to alight, which he did. He apparently knew the two men and said something similar to “why are you following me, when I was with you yesterday?”

Oyaro attempted to make a phone call, but the phone was snatched away, and he was led, with baggage, to the black Subaru vehicle. The security agents ordered the matatu to continue with the journey which it did.

The reported area of this abduction is approximately 95 kilometers from where Bajila Kofa was ambushed and killed. It is also about 20 kilometers from the Solio Ranch. To date, the whereabouts of Assistant Warden Oyaro are still not known, and very regrettably, I am sure you would not find a Kenyan anywhere, who believes that he will be returned safe and sound. In the public realm, there is little to connect Assistant Warden Francis Oyaro to Solio Ranch or Warden II Banjila Kofa, except, of course, for the use of the preferred vehicle of special police units.

In light of this vortex of death that seems to have Solio at its epicenter, is it beyond the realm of possibility that the crash of a KWS aircraft this past February was an act of sabotage? It had just completed an air patrol of Solio Ranch, had apparently landed briefly at Nanyuki airfield before taking off and crashing almost immediately. There was no mention of untoward external factors that could have contributed to the crash from what should have been a routine take-off. KWS pilot Ian Lemayain and Commander John Plimo died in that crash.

My question to you, Sir, from an organizational and leadership perspective, is the traditional KWS management response to these types of situations, that being silence or general denial, the optimum response in this continuing trail of death and abductions?

Sadly, most Kenyans are both quietly accepting and hardened to this type of government activity. But surely, the assassination of Warden II Kofa and the abduction of Assistant Warden Oyaro have crossed a line somewhere. I can recognize that looking at this through the political lens of Cabinet Secretary Balala, there may be a short-term benefit to waiting this out, hoping it will blow over (it will not). From a KWS and leadership perspective, however, is standing pat really an option for you?

To the best of my knowledge, in the history of KWS, none of your personnel, ever, have been murdered, execution-style, as has Commander Kofa. Do you remember your introductory speech to KWS staff on March 22, 2019? You said that it was your intention to restore KWS to its former glory. Commander Bajila Kofa was one of those who was going to take you there. And to compound this tragedy, this man, who was killed for doing the job that you wanted him to do, has been denigrated by intentionally manipulated false accusations from the police and the distancing of your organization.

This killing, executed in such a public, and casually horrific manner, barely half an hour after he had taken his daughter to school, in the middle of the afternoon, in very close proximity to a college, in full view of countless members of the public, approximately 1 km from a police roadblock, was a resounding and crystal clear message. It was not a warning to other crime groups as part of a turf war, it was for your staff, and particularly to those protecting rhinos in guarded sanctuaries. And it came on the orders of those who consider themselves untouchable.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, at present, appears to be leaving this in the hands of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to investigate. While I am sure your own people are making inquiries, who can you trust when your own people may well be involved. I am recalling Dr. Richard Leakey’s words in a 2014 interview with Jeff Koinange: “Don’t ask the leopard to look after the sheep when he has already eaten some.” Justice will not be served in this assassination or abduction barring an act of divine intervention or witchcraft. Is it any wonder that your Deputy Director Security Kabete said at the funeral: “Let them eat grass.”

This is on your watch, Director. I know you will do the right thing. And as your selection for the KWS Director-General position was on personal appointment from the president, you may even have some leverage.

The Kiswahili expression “let them eat grass” is an appeal for witchcraft or divine intervention to intervene when it is believed that justice will not be served, and that the real offenders will be identified when they publicly eat grass.

Chris Morris has a background of 33 years in Canadian law enforcement and experience in uniform operations, major crime investigations, drug-related proceeds of crime, polygraph, court liaison, tactical operations, and training. His international experience includes a one-year secondment to the Special Court for Sierra Leone as an investigator to the Charles Taylor war crimes investigation and a one-year secondment with the EU Police Mission in Afghanistan as a mentor/advisor to the Afghan Police. Since 2015, Chris has turned his focus of study to international wildlife crime, primarily in Kenya, and more specifically to how it is affected by police corruption.