Violence in Kenya: 5 main drivers of the decades-long conflict in the north and what to do about it

Conflict and insecurity are widespread in northern Kenya. In recent weeks, incidents of bandit attacks in the area have terrorized villages and resulted in several deaths. In October 2022, the government launched a multi-agency security operation aimed at containing further attacks.

Northern Kenya is characterized by extensive wilderness, a harsh climate and a low level of development. The region borders Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.

Instances of conflict and insecurity range from attacks by gunmen and cattle rustlers to community disputes over resources and terrorism. The region covers about 60% of Kenya’s geographic territory. It is occupied by about 18% of the country’s population.

Pastoralism is the main economic activity. Others include irrigated agriculture, small business, and tourism-related activities. The region is largely isolated from the rest of the country due to poor infrastructure, including roads.

According to National Police Service crime statistics, between January and December 2021, 73% of the country’s stock-theft robberies took place in the northern region. During the same period, 58% of weapons seized illegally and handed over to the government came from northern Kenya.

The government – past and present – has conducted numerous operations to address violence in the region, which threatens Kenya’s overall security. But it did not work.

As a political scientist and conflict researcher, I’ve had the region on my radar for a long time. In my estimation, violent conflicts in northern Kenya are driven by five key factors that need to be addressed by both governmental and non-governmental agencies.

1. Regional inequality, exclusion and marginalization
Inequality between Kenya’s regions is caused by decades of political, economic and social exclusion and marginalization. This is a product of colonial and post-colonial state policies that have led to historic injustices and human rights violations.

Colonial authorities neglected the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya, prioritizing the development of the country’s resource-endowed highlands. Successive governments after independence continued to pursue policies that further marginalized the North. This has damaged trust in state institutions and led to communal grievances that impede unity between groups.

Postcolonial state security actors have also disproportionately targeted Somali residents in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in the north. The main terrorist threat comes from the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group.

In 2010, Kenya decentralized power, allocating resources and responsibilities to its 47 county governments. The aim was to improve service delivery at the regional level. While this has begun to address the marginalization of northern Kenya, repressive security operations continue to fuel intergroup conflict and radicalization to violent extremism. The use of force in these operations is disproportionately directed against marginalized communities.

2. Resource and environmental factors
Land disputes, access to grazing land and conflicts between pastoralists and farmers continue to fuel violence in northern Kenya.

Competition for scarce resources such as pasture, water and now oil has exacerbated these disputes.

Kenya announced that it had discovered oil in Turkana County in 2012. Oil exploration has created new tensions between the local Turkana and Pokot ethnic groups and within the Turkana community. Some members of the Turkana believe that the community has not benefited significantly from resource exploitation.

These communal conflicts are credited with increasing crimes such as muggers.

3. Political power struggles
Power struggles between politicians have fueled conflict along ethnic lines in the north.

Elected political offices are perceived as access to economic resources. The devolution of power to the districts along with political alliances has helped decentralize political power and the provision of basic services. However, they have intensified political competition at the local level. Politicians fuel inter-clan rivalries, escalate tensions, and erode the benefits of decentralization.

4. Cultural practices
Cultural practices contribute to violence in northern Kenya. These practices are mainly manifested through cattle rustling.

Cattle rustling and cattle rustling are driven in part by economic motives. This includes a desire to replenish herds that are depleted by lack of pasture and water during droughts. Cattle theft also offers an opportunity to make money trading stolen animals.

Cultural practices such as marriage arrangements also drive cattle rustling.

This affects the livelihoods of the community and the use of automatic weapons in raids has resulted in a high number of fatalities. State disarmament efforts have had little effect.

5. Proliferation of small arms and weapons
A large part of the arms proliferation in the region is caused by cross-border activities.

Kenya’s porous borders with Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda have contributed to the rise of small arms, livestock trafficking, terrorism and other forms of organized crime.

State efforts to manage domestic and cross-border conflicts through repressive disarmament operations have instead increased tensions between border communities and the state.

The way forward

State security agencies have a constitutional mandate to use force to deter and suppress acts of violence that threaten national security. However, their methods are often formal and built on power.

Non-state actors, on the other hand, use informal methods that are widely accepted in local communities. They are based on mutual trust and are therefore considered more legitimate.

Both state and non-state actors have the resources, technical know-how and experience to address the root causes of conflict in Kenya’s northern region. A flexible approach that involves different actors can contribute to good governance on a broad basis and reduce conflicts and security incidents.

In this approach, all parties would work together to promote dialogue, education and peace-building. This includes ensuring inclusive political representation in traditional approaches to conflict resolution at the local level.

Written by Oscar Gakuo Mwangi, Associate Professor, Political Science, National University of Lesotho.

Republished with permission from The conversation. The original article can be found here.

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