“I can’t say exactly why we’re killing each other. The cause of the war is over petty issues,” a dejected Adan Mohammed said when asked why his Borana and Gabra communities are fighting in Moyale sub-county.
The 59-year-old was among hundreds of people loitering around Somare Mosque, a few kilometres from Moyale Town, last week looking for food from relatives.
They had fled their homes in Butiye village on the outskirts of the town after Kenya Defence Forces personnel launched several mortars to separate combatants from the two communities in a battle that had started in the early hours of August 30.
The soldiers were travelling from their camp in Oddah for patrol on the Kenya-Ethiopia border. They had to pass through Butiye.
“The soldiers were caught in the crossfire and there was no other way to disperse the combatants other than mortars,” said Marsabit County Commissioner Isaiah Nakoru.
The village is now deserted but it is not clear whether people died during the incident as none of the communities reported casualties, said Mr Nakoru.
Several buildings, including a classroom at Butiye Primary, were destroyed.
Residents of Manyatta Burji and Helliu on the outskirts of Moyale, as well as Oddah village, less than 10km away, have also fled after the clashes between Borana and Gabra militias left at least 10 dead.
The clashes had turned outlying areas of Moyale into battlefields and it is the intervention by the military that restored an uneasy calm in this border town.
Marsabit County has for years experienced tension between pastoralist communities that always ends in violence as they fight over pasture and other resources.
But as many experts observe, the war between the Borana and Gabra has gone beyond competition for resources in this desolate county.
“Under normal circumstances, the two communities don’t fight unless there is a political pronouncement or election campaigns,” Mr James Ndung’u, who has participated in peace meetings in Marsabit says.
As the majority community in the county, Boranas have since independence been at the helm of political leadership in Marsabit County and winning the Moyale parliamentary seat has always been guaranteed.
But in the March 4 election, the Gabra and their allies captured most of the seats, a situation the Boranas are finding difficult to come to terms with.
“The perception they have is that they’ve no representation in the leadership of Marsabit County,” Mr Ndung’u said.
And due to the suspicion and hatred between the two communities, any slight provocation, he said, resulted in hostilities.
The latest clashes started on July 15 when an elderly Gabra man was killed and two others injured by Boranas in at Antuta in Bori location.
Antuta is suitable for grazing and the Gabras had started putting up a new settlement in an area the Boranas perceive as their ancestral land.
The provincial administration called a peace meeting attended by elders from both communities and it was decided to adopt the Maikona-Walda Declaration of 2009 that has been used for years to manage conflict between the communities.
In the declaration, a community is supposed to pay 35 head of cattle for every death that occurs in an attack on their rivals and 15 for an injury.
Thus the Boranas were required to compensate the Gabras with 65 head of cattle.
The Gabras, in turn, would vacate the area. The Gabras, however, refused saying they had for years been using Antuta as grazing land.
And this is how tension started to mount. It intensified on August 4, when a lorry belonging to a Burji trader was attacked in Kate on the Marsabit-Moyale road and the goods it was transporting to Moyale Town stolen. Kate is near the disputed Antuta settlement.
On August 23 the situation got out of hand in Moyale when Gabras attacked a Borana settlement between Funanyata-Antuta area. Two people died.
Two days later, they clashed again at Funanyata where another two people were killed.
It was now a full-scale war that turned Moyale into a war zone with sounds of gunfire all day.
It was at that time that the KDF intervened after they were caught in the crossfire.
Already, the KDF has been deployed to patrol Moyale to prevent more violence.
Although relative calm has returned to Moyale in Marsabit County after days of fighting, the problem is far from over as the conflict between two protagonist communities is yet to be addressed.
The Borana-Gabra conflict can be traced from the late ‘90s even though it came into the limelight in 2004. This is the time that the two communities started attacking each other with fatal results.
But the strained relations between them started to build up in 1998 when North Horr MP, the late Dr Bonaya Godana, was appointed Foreign Affairs minister during the Kanu regime.
Dr Godana was appointed to the position when the country had launched a campaign to help the Ethiopian government get rid of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels who it claimed had their hideout in Kenya.
OLF had waged war against the Ethiopian Government since 1992 after the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown.
The rebels would launch an offensive in their country before crossing the border into Kenya where they had established hideouts among relatives.
OLF is an outfit that champions the interests of Oromo speakers who inhabit southern Ethiopia.
Both the Boranas and Gabras are also Oromo speakers. So, the Gabras were seen as betrayers of the greater Oromo community when their MP, Dr Godana, joined forces with the Kenyan Government to flush out the insurgents from the country.
The rebels had established their hideouts in Sololo area of Moyale sub-county and also moved freely in the upper former Eastern Province region that stretches from Isiolo to Moyale.
As the country continued with the campaign to flush out the OLF rebels from their dens, several Gabras were also uprooted from their homes in Ethiopia.
Some still live at a refugee camp in Dukana area of Chalbi sub-county in Marsabit.
The strained relations between the two communities intensified after Borana leaders started accusing Dr Godana of favouring his community in employment opportunities.
The Gabra, who are described by the late Fr Tablino is his book, The Gabra: Camel Nomads of Northern Kenya, as former slaves of the Boranas, are a very small community.
While Boranas are a majority community in southern Ethiopia, the Gabra population is considered insignificant.
Yet, as Borana leaders led by the late Saku MP Abdi Tari Sassura used to complain, the community had taken over most of the employment opportunities in Marsabit County.
Together with former MPs, Guracha Galgalo (Moyale) and Titus Ngoyoni (Laisamis), the lawmakers used to accuse their North Horr counterpart of tribalism and nepotism in allocations of both government and NGO jobs in Marsabit.
MARSABIT PLANE CRASH
Their differences were blamed for the skirmishes that rocked the region in 2005 and early 2006, but since they died in what came to be known as the Marsabit plane crash, the conflict came to an end.
The four MPs were flying to Marsabit for a peace mission aboard a Kenya Air Force aircraft that crashed at Kofia Mbaya near Marsabit Town on April 10, 2006.
Several other government officials including the late Internal Security assistant minister Mirugi Kariuki also perished in the crash.
However, the argument advanced by Gabras is, like Dr Godana, most of them had acquired education with the assistance of Catholic missionaries who since the ‘60s had been converting them into Christianity.
The missionaries established schools for the Gabras who mainly occupy Chalbi Desert.
That is how they managed to access education.