Words from Kenya

Trouble in Northern Kenya

Northern Pastoralist with a G3

Northern Kenya was always regarded as being more trouble than it was worth but now that oil, water and logistics are making the north more valuable, will administrative attitudes change?

During the colonial period northern Kenya was closed off and mostly left to fend for itself. It seems that for the limited value the harsh arid land had to offer, it wasn’t worth the effort to subdue the natives. This attitude doesn’t appear to have changed all that much since independence, and consequently development in the north has lagged significantly behind the rest of the country.

However, despite the unpromising environment, the rate of population increase has been dramatic, both in northern Kenya and in the neighbouring and equally poor and abandoned pastoralist areas of Somalia, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia and northern Uganda. The big open lands are shrinking in the face of increasing numbers of people and animals. With so little investment in governance, infrastructure or security it is not surprising that the increased competition for limited resources should often result in violence.

Now the modern world is reaching deep into northern Kenya and not just in the guise of AK-47s. The new tarmac road from Isiolo to Merille is a good example. Land prices in the towns along this road have skyrocketed and new settlements are springing up almost daily; there is electricity, private plots are being carved out of community land, and shops are opening everywhere. The road is bringing all the ingredients for an alternative livelihood; a livelihood that doesn’t rely on livestock. The road is bringing business and money. Soon the road will connect all the way to Moyale, the main border crossing point between Kenya and Ethiopia. Once the tarmac actually connects it to the rest of Kenya this border point is set to become a lot more active and lucrative. Unfortunately though, there is little doubt that the potential for profit there has influenced the increasingly bitter political rivalries in the area.

Traditional tribal rivalries over the limited resources such as water, pasture and land have often been inflamed by unscrupulous people looking to increase their own power or finances. However, people don’t just go and kill their neighbour because you remind them that in the old days someone from their tribe killed someone from yours. Ordinary people who have experienced tribal violence are often those most determined to avoid it in the future. For the unscrupulous the solution to this problem is to bring in a few hired thugs from elsewhere and get them to steal some livestock, or kill a few people, in the name of one of the tribes. The fear and loss associated with such an attack, added to historical tensions between tribes, is often enough to set a new conflict in motion.

Even so, the normal tendency of most people is to find a solution that does not involve getting themselves killed. This kind of local conflict won’t last long if left untended. Money and incitement must be continually applied, usually to unemployed and socially disenfranchised young men, to keep the conflict going.

The area around Baragoi in Samburu County hosts another current, and long running, intercommunity conflict. This area, bordering the Suguta Valley, was made famous in 2012 when 42 policemen were ambushed and killed there. It has been an epicentre of livestock raiding for many years. It is also one of the first places where researchers identified a new and much more lethal kind of raiding.

Traditionally, raiding was undertaken by warriors to prove their bravery and to enlarge the herds of their family and community. The new style of raiding is undertaken to order, paid for and instigated by large criminal organisations. The stolen animals are loaded onto lorries and shipped south to lucrative cattle markets in the big cities. This kind of raiding doesn’t benefit any of the local communities’ herds.

The border areas of Kibish and Todonyang in the far north of Turkana are also areas of long term violence and insecurity. Here the trouble originates from Ethiopia and the new businesses that are being established in the traditional grazing areas of the Omo Valley. People are being moved off their land to make way for industrial scale agriculture. With nowhere left to graze their livestock the Nyangatom and Daasanach people of Ethiopia are pushing aggressively into the northern sections of Turkana. With the notoriously effective Ethiopian police and military at their backs these people feel they have little to lose. They have overrun Kenyan police posts and made large areas of grazing land in northern Kenya effectively theirs. The local Turkana people have lost lives, livestock and precious pasture as a result.

The border of West Pokot and Turkana is the location of the most recent high profile security situation in northern Kenya. Here armed men from one community laid siege to a village of several hundred people belonging to the neighbouring community for nearly a week. This was part of a long running dispute in the area about who controls resources, such as the Turkwel Dam and power generating plant, along the administrative border.

Of course Turkana is now also the location of oil. For the first time northern Kenya has something of serious value. The local dispute in the Turkwel Dam area may not be driven by oil but since the discovery of oil in the region every power and money grabbing instinct has been amplified. Waves of new unscrupulous people have flooded the area looking for opportunities to exploit the potential riches. Suspicious of abuse by government and outsiders, the locals fear being left out. It has become an area of palpable tension, hostility and suspicion.

Northern Kenya is not suffering because of its potential though, which is at last (though in most cases in a very small way) being opened up. Northern Kenya is suffering because there is nothing to stop unscrupulous people acting as they wish to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. There is little governance in northern Kenya and even less security.

Most hoped that devolution would address these issues of long neglect and, in time, it might. However, with the political and administrative confusion of moving to the new devolved system added to the mix, it seems things could get worse before they get better.

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