Marsabit's deadly mix of politics, land and pasture

Wednesday March 18 2020

Galano Jillo visits her husband's grave on May 31, 2019. He was killed in an attack at Garshaba Village in Marsabit County. The conflict has claimed more than 20 residents. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The two graves were still fresh. Lumps of soil and debris strewn on top of the rocks served as evidence that hyenas had tried to dig them up the night before.

Men from Gar Shaba village congregated again in the morning to secure the graves by adding more stones. Just like the burials the day before, it had to be a communal effort.

Several metres away, Ellema Galamo Jillo sat by herself, with both hands clasping her face, facing down.

In just two months, she had moved from living in her own homestead to being a refugee and was now a widow.

The events were simply too much for her to bear and the tears on her face showed it all.

Three days before the Nation arrived in this village, two gunmen had emerged from the dark at 2am and pumped bullets into Mr Jillo Sora and Abdul Jillo, killing them on the spot.


No animals or money were stolen. Mr Sora had Sh12,000 he had received the day before after selling some of his cows. His widow Ellema was still shocked.

“My husband was very young, energetic and productive. May whoever killed him never find peace,” she wailed.

“I don’t know how I will take care of the five children I'm left with.”

The deaths were an addition to the statistics of what has become an unending conflict between the Borana and Gabbra communities.

Since September 5 last year, 47 people have been killed in the county, which had enjoyed some relative peace after the 2017 General Election.

The killings were initially sporadic, but they reached a tipping point in December when a “new tribe” called Wayu was “launched” in Marsabit Town.


Labour Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani presided over the event on December 15, which the current governor, who is also his political nemesis, Mr Mahamud Mohamed, missed.

Until then, the Wayu were known as Watta and were a sub-tribe of the Borana. Critics saw this as a politically-motivated move to reduce the numerical strength of the Borana community.

That same day, violence broke out on the outskirts of the town, leading to the killing of two people.

Then George Biqa, the chief of Drib Gombo location, who attended the Wayu tribe “launch”, was attacked and burnt to death at the burial of one of the people murdered the previous day.

Since then, Marsabit has known no peace and the numbers of those ending up dead keeps increasing.

This is just the latest in a cycle of violence that has occurred for decades.


Those in the know say this is just the tip of the iceberg and the killings could increase unless something drastic is done before the 2022 elections.

What was for a long time isolated incidents due to disagreements over pasture has mutated into a full-blown conflict pitting the Borana and Gabbra whose effects and causes are complex and include neighbouring Ethiopia.

In the last one month alone, 17 people have been killed. The conflict hotspots include Dukana, Hurri Hills, Bubisa, Turbi, Gadamoji, Maikona, Darate, Kasa, Assuma, Boluk, Alia Bay, Foorole, Kargi, Sololo and around Marsabit town.

Additionally, lack of total control by the Ethiopian government on its southern border and ethnic affiliations of communities living on both sides creates a spillover effect whenever conflict breaks out complicating matters.

The Boranas and Gabbras, who are the main protagonists in the conflict, are found both countries.


On May 19, a man was shot and injured on Nyayo Road in Marsabit Town. On May 15, three people were killed in Oronder village in what seemed to be a retaliatory attack for three others killed two days before in Manyatta Konso.

And on May 6, 11 people were killed in North Horr following a dispute over a watering point.

Four were reported missing after insurgents from Ethiopia allegedly hoodwinked the residents of Ulan village into attending a peace meeting over a disputed pool of water only to open fire on them.

The government says that although the conflict has escalated in recent months, it is something that has gone on for years, which makes it difficult to solve.

“It boils down to three issues: water, pasture and boundary disputes,” says Gilbert Kitiyo, the County Commissioner.

“And this is something that has been going on for years. For example, if it rains the issue of pasture goes away. Then when it becomes dry the fighting starts again,” he says.


Marsabit is however a vast county spanning 66,923 kilometres square with a population of just 291,166, according to the last census.

It is three times the size of Rwanda and its farthest point from the county headquarters, Illeret, is 294km.

When calculated, the county has a population density of just three people per square km, which defeats the logic that its people are fighting over land.

The big question is why two communities that speak the same language, share the same culture and names have totally refused to live in harmony.

“The Boranas are very good people who love peace. The Gabbras are very good people too but there are people inciting these two communities against each other,” says Sheikh Mohamed Noor, the chairman of an Interfaith Council, which is one among the many committees that have been created over time in an effort to create peace.


There is however lack of political goodwill on the ground that can make this happen. .

Governor Mohamed and Cabinet Secretary Yattani — the inaugural county chief who lost in the last election — do not see eye-to-eye.

Mr Yattani is a Gabbra while the governor Borana. The two are the most influential leaders in the county and some say the battle for the next election three years away could be behind the fresh violence.

“If it is about prayers, all churches and mosques have done that. The President should sit down with the two leaders because that is the only way this will end,” says Sheikh Mohamed.

The current conflict can be traced back to 1999 when an influential Borana business man, Qall Waqo Bero, was murdered in Marsabit Town.

His killing was followed three months later with the assassination of a medical officer from the Gabbra community, Sora Qere.

It is suspected that Bero’s killing was carried out by the Gabbra and Qere’s killing was an act of revenge.

Politicians hijacked the murders and started spinning political theories about them.


One theory was that the Gabbra were interested in pushing the Borana out of the mountainous Marsabit Town region.

Apart from housing the county headquarters, the mountainous region consists of the most arable land in the whole county and has seen some of the worst violence for the last two decades.

At Qubi Qalo in Saku constituency, a whole area is currently a “ghost village” after armed men raided it in October last year killing five people and stealing 900 goats.

Qubi Qalo Primary School has remained closed for the better part of the year due to fear of repeat attacks.

The attackers even destroyed a pump for the sole water point in the area and the goats, which were stolen have never been recovered.

Diidu Guyo, a former National Police Reservist (NPR) officer who responded to the raid, was shot four times on his right leg which has never recovered.

He now lives in Gar Qasa and relies on crutches to walk because bullets are still lodged inside his leg.

“We can’t go back even if the village has the only water point which we badly need,” he says. “Even if the country is lawless and everyone is doing what they want we want to hear from the government that we can go back to the village. Then we will go back,” he adds.


At the crux of the matter is a dispute over who between the Borana and the Gabbra are the majority and deserve to control affairs in the county.

Marsabit receives Sh8 billion a year from Treasury. However, for a long time the Borana, who are the majority according to the last census, have dominated affairs in the county even when it was still a district.

But in 1999, a loose alliance of the Rendile, Gabbra and Burji that sought to neutralise the dominance of the Borana in local Kenya National Union of Teachers was formed.

During the 2000 Knut elections, candidates from the alliance that called itself Regabu scooped most of the seats.

At the onset of devolution, Regabu captured most of the seats including Governor, Woman representative and Senator.

At the County Assembly, Regabu still dominated with 22 seats, representing 67 per cent of the assembly. For the first time the Borana were not in control of the county but they bounced back in the last elections.

“Politicians want to make it look like it is between the two communities just because the violence is linked to two political groupings. It is not,” argues county commissioner Kitiyo.