The two northern counties of Isiolo and Marsabit are among the most conflict-prone in Kenya. The region is mainly semi-arid, and most residents are pastoralist nomads who often clash over access to scarce pasture and water. A new devolved system of government has intensified local political competition in the two counties, especially for the powerful elected governor positions. This means general elections in August could trigger intercommunal fighting. There is still time, however, to encourage a peaceful vote.
Devolution of power and resources was one of the centrepieces of the 2010 constitution, intended to reduce the previous all-or-nothing electoral battles for the presidency, and redress regional marginalisation and inequitable development. Forty-seven counties were created and their elected governors enjoy considerable power and control budgets worth millions of dollars. Although devolution brought services closer to the people, it has also deepened ethnic schisms in counties and galvanised communities to install one of their own into the many elected county-level seats. The governor’s position is especially coveted.
Border disputes and community claims over land – including attempts to extend borders and to “reclaim” territory they consider they wrongly have lost – also have escalated. Many candidates for governor and other positions such as senator are running on a platform of defending or advancing communal interests, a factor that is driving local tensions.
In Isiolo and Marsabit, longstanding tensions primarily pitting the dominant Boran against minority ethnic groups are exacerbated by the electoral contest for county leadership.
An additional grievance is the government’s virtual absence in most of Isiolo and Marsabit. The area is vast and there are not enough security officials or national government administrators to provide protection or other basic services. For a long time, the Catholic Church and non-governmental organisations have been the main service providers. “In this region the Catholic Church has been able to reach where the government has been unable to reach: building hospitals, schools, water points”, a member of the Catholic Church in Marsabit town told Crisis Group.
The availability of small arms has made communal warfare between and among communities more destructive. Many ethnic groups straddle the expansive and porous border with Ethiopia, which has made conflicts harder for security forces to contain and resolve. Parties in conflict can count on reinforcements from their ethnic kinsmen in Ethiopia and each community has its own youth militia that acts at the whim of its community leaders.
A Marsabit Ethnic Alliance Win Triggers 2013 Clashes
The results of the March 2013 elections changed the political landscape in Marsabit county. A coalition of minority tribes – the Rendille, Gabra, and Burji, commonly known as the Regabu – swept all major county seats, defeating the dominant Boran candidates who split their votes. The outcome fuelled Boran discontent and sense of marginalisation. This renewed tensions, especially between the two main rivals (the Boran and the Gabra), led to a series of bloody intercommunal clashes in August 2013 in Moyale, a mixed population town on the Ethiopian border. The Burji also were sucked into the conflict because of their political alliance. The conflict was overlain by competing claims on grazing land. Communities also got reinforcement from their kinsmen in southern Ethiopia.
The outcome was devastating. According to the Kenya Red Cross, dozens were killed and 38,000 people were forced to leave their homes, many fleeing to Ethiopia. At one point, Moyale was completely abandoned to armed ethnic militias, and the Kenya Defence Forces had to be deployed to contain the situation.
It took concerted efforts from several actors to end the conflict. The Garre – a local Somali clan that has traditionally played a conflict mediating role – were instrumental in forging a deal. The violence also died down when the Ethiopians and Kenyans agreed to improve cross-border security and curb ethnic militia infiltration.
When the conflict subsided, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed as mediators the former National Assembly Speaker Francis Ole Kaparo, now chairman of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a peacebuilding state agency, and Yusuf Haji, a Garissa county senator. The two brought together 35 elders representing all local communities in an ad hoc committee that negotiated the February 2014 peace agreement. The core element of the deal was to implement the fair distribution of county-level resources. Other than minor confrontations Marsabit has had no major conflict since then.
Yet the stakes once again are high ahead of the August 2017 vote. Different ethnic groups and individuals are jockeying for top county-level posts. Tensions are likely to rise in the final days of the campaign period and after results are announced. Minor incidents can escalate. For instance, in April 2017, after a twelve-year-old Gabra boy was killed in unclear circumstances, some from the Gabra tribe killed seven Boran in retaliation. As in the past, politicians will try to use ethnic violence – which displaces communities and prevents them from voting – to influence election results.
Once again the governor’s contest is between the Gabra and the Boran. The Boran, who historically had an upper hand in Marsabit politics, want to “reclaim” what they “lost” in 2013. Though there are two Boran gubernatorial candidates, the community broadly is united behind Mohamud Ali, popularly known as Abshiro. He is running against the incumbent governor, Ukur Yattani, and another Gabra contender, Adano Umuro. Local elders sought the intervention and guidance of the Aba Gadda (the traditional Boran leader based in southern Ethiopia) to emphasise the importance of not splitting their votes. Their chances are good, since this time it is likely that the popular Umuro will cost Governor Yattani significant Gabra votes.
The Isiolo County Gubernatorial Contest
When compared to Marsabit, Isiolo has experienced less violence but it has also seen instability. The contest for governorship revolves around two major Boran clans, the Karayu and the Warjida, and resident non-Boran minorities (Turkana, Meru, Samburu and Somali) are bargaining for positions to back Boran-led tickets and provide the swing vote. The Karayu (the largest clan) want to unseat Governor Godana Doyo, a Warjida, but has endorsed two candidates – former MP Abdul Bahari and former aid worker Aden Wario Kabelo. Mohamed Kuti, a Sakuye, former cabinet minister and current Isiolo senator, also is in the race. All sides are actively wooing minorities.
Political conflict overlays resource competition between agriculturalists and pastoralists, and between rival pastoralist communities, usually over land, water and pasture. Sporadic ethnic fighting typically escalates during the dry seasons when the few water sources dry up. Since early 2017, sixteen incidents killed around 40 people and injured at least nineteen others in the county and its environs. Some of these clashes involved as many as 300 armed communal militiamen.
On 7 June, over 70 heavily armed Samburu raiders attacked Turkana herders in Burat location and escaped with hundreds of cattle. Eight people were killed. In an earlier incident on 26 May, over 300 heavily armed Samburu and Rendille raiders attacked Boran herders in a grazing area along the Isiolo-Samburu-Marsabit counties border. Seven herders were killed, while five others were injured in a gun battle that lasted several hours.
Ethnic and Boundary Disputes Compounding Political Tensions
Another major source of communal friction is the protracted boundary dispute between Isiolo and its southern neighbour, Meru. The border tension plays out in the electoral contest within Isiolo county where the Meru tribe constitutes a significant minority. Resolving inter-county and intercommunal border disputes has proven difficult. According to a religious leader, the national government generally prefers not to engage in the tough work of seeking new solutions and uses colonial-era maps instead. The interior ministry finally intervened in November 2015, but its demarcation of the border has been contested in court by the Isiolo government.
Boundary disputes are exacerbated by the planned Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia (LAPSSET) infrastructure project that aims to develop a northern transport corridor to better integrate Kenya with Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, and in which Isiolo is a key node. Speculators from outside Isiolo have been buying land along the common border to profit from government compensation. Areas most affected include those around the proposed Isiolo resort city and international airport. Other affected areas along the proposed LAPSSET corridor are Ilat, Attan, Gambela, Yarre and Kisima, inhabited by major ethnic groups, including Meru, Turkana, Boran, Samburu and Somali.
What Should Be Done
- Non-state actors including Muslim and Catholic clerics who have great sway in the area as well as community elders should intensify peace meetings between and among all actors, both during the campaign period and after the elections.
- Election observers (EU Election Observation Mission and African Union Long-Term Observers) should consider deploying more personnel to the two counties to boost confidence and ensure the credibility of the vote.
- The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, whose mandate is to promote grassroots-based reconciliation, should take an active role in curbing conflict. It should monitor politicians engaging in hate speech or threatening communities with eviction and compile cases for prosecution, in cooperation with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Abdullahi Abdille, Researcher, Horn of Africa .