Words from Kenya


Storm approching Moyale at Sunset

It’s been two months since the fighting that left many dead in Moyale, there has been little news from the town since and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the problems had been solved and that people had moved on with their lives. Sadly that is not how things are. In my last visit there, a few weeks ago, the town was trouble free but the tension was all too obvious even to an outsider like me.

Moyale has a lot in common with Isiolo. A small pastoralist town (though Isiolo is not so small any more) inhabited by many different tribes. They are also both border towns, which adds a certain frisson as they are transit points and the location of businesses that connect different areas and people. Moyale is on the border of two countries, Isiolo is on the border of the arid pastoralist north of Kenya and the more developed agricultural Kenya to the south. These towns are often the places where pastoralists who have lost their livestock to drought or raids end up, without livestock they have no resources, no money and no social status in the community. Both towns have large numbers of unemployed disenfranchised young men as a result.

The centre of each town holds a mixed community; members of different local tribes and business people from other parts of Kenya. However just a few streets out from the centre and into the suburbs, locally termed the villages, the population quickly becomes segregated with each area home to predominantly one tribe or group.

Because of the current fear and tension in Moyale people are not free to move about town as they wish. The streets you can walk down or the shops you can visit depend on what tribe you belong too. To ignore these invisible boundaries is to risk being attacked, perhaps even killed.

Long years of fighting and loss between different tribes provide a fertile ground for the troubles here, but that is not the cause of them. The violence is instigated by people from within these groups who are jostling for power and influence and money, some are politicians, some are businessmen, some are just local thugs, all are out to further their own ends without regard for anybody else, whether from their own tribe or not.

Nobody in Moyale doubts that the current tensions and conflict are driven by anything other than what they generically term ‘local leaders’. Men (almost exclusively men) using the large numbers of unemployed youth to fight a proxy war for them.

Two years ago Isiolo was plunged into similar violence and conflict between tribes for similar reasons. After many deaths, including the shocking killing of 13 people who had been sheltering at a church, the government dispatched a large number of police reinforcements to the area. Just as they did in Moyale two months ago. In Isiolo the arrival of the extra police didn’t stop the violence. It continued to flare up every week or so for another three months. When it did eventually stop it was because the ‘local leaders’ had made some deals and not because of government intervention.

Though there is a large police presence now in Moyale, and they no doubt do a good job of ensuring that not every petty grievance turns to violence in this overly tense environment, nobody who lives there believes that they bring any genuine solutions or long term security to the town. I was repeatedly told that when the police go (as inevitably they will when needed elsewhere) the fighting will start again. Others suggested that, more relevantly, when the government’s eyes turn away (no more calls for local leaders to attend meetings in Nairobi where their wrists are slapped for bad behaviour) the fighting will continue regardless of how many police there are.

Over the last few days the houses in the villages abandoned during the intense fighting of two months ago have been looted and burnt. Their owners have been unable to return to them. I am hearing that the tensions are now at bursting point again. Whether the police manage to contain this latest outburst of violence or not the fact remains that their presence there is little more than a bandage under which the wound continues to fester unchecked.

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