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Is a New Kind of Civil War Brewing Inside Kenya?

Politics, resources and ethnic conflict are creating a perfect storm for escalating violence

Photo Credit: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/IRIN


Pre-election politics and planned development schemes have fuelled an  upsurge in inter-communal killings and forced displacement in Kenya’s northern Isiolo area, which if left unaddressed, is likely to escalate, say analysts and civil society workers.

Several communities have been caught up in the unrest but the main protagonists are the Borana and Turkana ethnic groups. Recent events indicate the standard interpretation of the conflict being limited to tit-for-tat cattle rustling and drought-related resource conflict is superficial and outdated.

Isiolo features prominently in a major national development plan known as  Vision 2030, whereby the town is set to be elevated to a “resort city”, complete with up-market hotels and a new airport to boost its tourism potential, rooted in nearby game-parks.

A road linking Isiolo to Moyale, which lies on the Ethiopian border, is being built while oil and gas exploration is under way in the wider Isiolo region.

“Organized” attacks

Since mid-October, seemingly organized attacks have claimed about 20 lives, including those of seven children, and led to the displacement of some 2,900 households, according to humanitarian sources and local officials.

Livestock was not stolen in most of these incidents but dozens of dwellings were set ablaze. Most of the targeted settlements are inhabited by Turkana people. Continuing insecurity has greatly hampered humanitarian response to the displaced, who in many cases fled so quickly they had no time to take any possessions, and whose plight is worsened by the onset of heavy rains.

There is also a “desperate need” for shelter and non-food items such as mosquito nets, kitchen kits, jerry cans, soap, blankets and sleeping mats, according to the findings of a mission to Isiolo conducted by UNICEF, adding that the lack of latrines in displacement sites had resulted in sickness and worries about more cases.

“The Isiolo conflict is political: this is driven by the 2012 election,” said a researcher, who asked not to be named because of the tension. “Certain communities are being incited by sitting politicians who are eyeing the new county positions like governorship, senatorship and parliamentary seats.”

Kenya’s new constitution created 47 new counties to help devolve political and economic power. 

“These conflicts are to inflict fear and displace the so-called minority communities in Isiolo,” he said.

“In the absence of appropriate security measures and law-enforcement interventions aimed at preventing future clashes and inter-ethnic violence, there is a real risk that the situation could deteriorate significantly in the lead-up to the 2012 elections,” UNICEF said in its mission report.

Leaders of various communities – Somali, Samburu, Gabra and Rendille as well as Turkana and Borana – told IRIN they blamed the escalation of violence on the failure of local authorities to address the root causes of the unrest.

"The police and army have not and will never resolve disputes among the locals,” said Joseph Kalapata of the Forum for the Protection of Pastoralist Development.

“Our people should be informed that they all lose conflicts. They also need to understand that he current constitution guarantees equal sharing of resources," he added.

Some leaders also pointed to the failure of a disarmament operation in 2010 to rid some pastoralist communities of all of their weapons. There are plans to renew the exercise in December. 

Economic conflict

The Borana are the largest and politically dominant ethnic group in Isiolo. Drought in 2011 led to an influx of large numbers of pastoralists from various groups. Isiolo’s economic growth has also served as a magnet.

In the 2007 general election, the local parliamentary seat was won by a Borana, with a Turkana coming a close second.

“These conflicts are being used by the Borana to suppress their future political and economic competitors like the Turkana and Somalis,” said the researcher.

The conflict is about “political numbers, not resources, because civilians, including women and children are being killed and nothing stolen”, he said.

“How do you kill a small child and shoot a pregnant woman? Why should you kill people at two in the morning, shoot people while they are still sleeping? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves,” said an Isiolo-based civil society worker. 

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