Treat North Kenya with understanding

Friday July 22 2005


In the last 10 years, I have been able to traverse the region commonly referred to as North of Kenya, in NGO-speak. That is the northern region bordered by Somalia to the east, Uganda bordering Pokot and Turkana districts, and Ethiopia to the north.

Due to the recent skirmishes in Marsabit, leaders and ordinary Kenyans alike have tended to stereotype northern Kenya as an area of permanent turmoil. Nothing can be further from the truth. One feel safer in that wilderness than I do in Nairobi.

Let us start with the North Rift – the conflict between the Turkana, Pokot and Samburu. Traditionally, the Samburu and Pokot have been allies against the Turkana. Within Samburu, the traditional dry season grazing grounds between Maralal and Rumuruti were grabbed by local leaders, which is why the common folks drive their livestock all the way to Mt Kenya during the dry season.

Assimilated with the Borana 

Cattle-rustling normally takes place only once a year, when livestock is being driven back from the Mt Kenya region at the end of the dry season.

The upper Eastern Province consists of the contiguous districts of Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale. The land is mainly occupied by the Borana, and the smaller tribes/clans of Gabbra, Sakkuyye and Rendille. 

The three smaller ethnic entities have been assimilated with the Borana linguistically, although some Rendille speak a Somaloid dialect and have land they can call their own in the southern part of Marsabit. 

The Ariaal Rendille of south-western Marsabit speak Samburu. In addition, the Gabbra have their spatial enclave in North Horr, while the Sakkuyye have their small spatial enclave in the north-eastern part of Marsabit.

Some ethnographers say that the Rendille, Gabbra, Sakkuyye, and Garre (of Mandera west) have a common origin. The Gabbra are heavily outnumbered by the Borana, and normally engage only in quick retaliatory attacks for fear of becoming extinct. 

The Gabbra have a tremendous knowledge of history, and any Gabbra of 20 years or older can recite the history of the community spanning at least two centuries.

The fear of assimilation of the smaller tribes by the Borana (and by extension the greater Oromo nation) and their quest for ethnic identity, are some of the causes of ethnic mistrust in the upper Eastern Province. 

But that mistrust need not breed bloodletting, as normally social conflict only becomes a problem when it becomes measurable (in number dead or injured). The quest for ethnic identity is, therefore, unlikely to be the sole source of the conflict in Marsabit.

Most of the tribal conflicts can be traced to problems of water and pasture. The occasional conflict between Somalis and Borana arises due to lack of livestock routes (which are supposed to have watering points), and the grabbing of land that was previously livestock-holding grounds.

The competition for resources is exacerbated by the Somali’s choice of a large camel which needs to traverse more distance for water and pasture.

 There are also minor internal feuds within communities. The Borana practice exogamy i.e. inter-marriage within a clan is outlawed. For this reason, different clans have to live together, and therefore inter-clan rivalry is almost non-existent, other than in competition for political posts once every five years. 

The Somali do not normally practice exogamy, and hence a specific spatial unit tends to be occupied by a specific clan. The identification of such a spatial unit with a particular clan tends to bring conflict when livestock belonging to a particular clan move over to land occupied by others. 

Just like the Gabbra of Marsabit, the smaller clans in North-astern Province (e.g. Murille) normally engage in quick retaliatory attacks because they are heavily outnumbered by neighbouring clans, which probably explains the recent clan conflicts in Mandera.

One of the historical problems is the inability of Government to contain warfare and stock theft within reasonable limits, due the low motivation of the Kenyan forces to risk their lives for other people’s livestock. This is why it was considered prudent to arm the responsible elements within the local populations (the so-called home guards).

Competition for resources

The conflicts can be confronted by the combined efforts of the Government, civil society and local leaders. Humanitarian reasons aside, the people of "down-country" (as the northerners normally refer to us) are heavily dependent on the north for red meat (and gout). 

Competition for resources would ease if the Government assisted by sinking boreholes, rehabilitating livestock routes and livestock holding grounds, and establishing other livestock marketing facilities. 

It is also important to recover, and stop further privation of, dry season grazing grounds, especially in North Rift.

The provision of infrastructure has profound influence on security. The road between Mwingi and Garissa used to be treacherous before it was tarmacked. Similarly, the road between Kapenguria and Lodwar has minimal insecurity ever since the Norwegians built a tarmack road in the 1980s. 

It would be advisable to provide a suitable road network in the upper Eastern Province, and Isolo-Wajir, Garissa-Wajir-Mandera and Rumuruti-Maralal-Baragoi roads.

Mr Mukui is a Nairobi-based researcher and development economist