Drivers of pastoralist violence in northwestern Kenya

Pastoralist violence in northwestern Kenya can be divided into three contexts – the traditional, the political and the business – each of which must be taken into account when prescribing a viable long-term peacebuilding strategy.

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By Willis Okumu

Pastoralist violence involving the Pokot, Samburu and Turkana has been well-documented by academia, development agencies and even the Kenyan government. In these reports, however, one finds different perspectives on – and diagnoses of – the root causes of violence in north-western Kenya. It can therefore be argued that pastoralist violence can be divided into three contexts – the traditional, the political and the business context.

The traditional context of pastoralist violence is evident when pastoralist communities compete over scarce and diminishing water and pastural resources. This has become more pronounced over the years owing to bi-annual recurrences of drought which end-up decimating livestock. Such droughts increase the possibility of ethnic violence among these three communities, who often raid cattle from one other to replenish their livestock. Once one community raids the other, it is only a matter of time before warriors from the rival community organize and execute a retaliatory raid in order to recover the previously stolen animals. This is achieved through the use of weapons which often times lead to the death of community members, including women and children. Lastly, the cultural need for cattle accumulation for payment of dowries makes cattle raids inevitable.

Pastoralist violence cannot, however, only be seen in the traditional sense; sometimes it is politically motivated. In northwestern Kenya, political leaders use cattle raids and inter-ethnic violence to influence the outcome of political contests, especially during a general election. Warriors from these three communities have been used by political leaders at one time or another to raid rival communities, especially in areas where two pastoralist communities share one constituency. For instance, the violence witnessed in Baragoi in Samburu County has been attributed to the intense rivalry between the Turkana and Samburu, whose population in that district is almost equal.

Cattle raids have also been motivated by a need to amass livestock that can then be sold by political aspirants to fundraise for political campaigns, with such cases well-documented in Turkana South, East Pokot and Samburu North. Political elites have been accused of using their high offices to influence the eviction of rival communities by advocating for their lands to be converted into conservation zones. This was, for instance, partly the cause of ethnic violence between the Samburu and Pokot over the establishment of the Ltungai Reserve, where the Pokot accused Samburu leaders of grabbing their land. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons among these three communities – plus the use of these weapons for political violence – is designed to evict or eliminate communities from shared resources, and to alter the political arithmetic of these areas.

The business context of violence in Pokot, Turkana and Sambur involves illicit business men and women from within and without the pastoral communities, who hire and arm warriors to raid rival communities solely in order to resell raided livestock in urban markets, such as Nakuru and Nairobi, where the demand for beef is very high. Further, these illicit businessmen and women often control the sale of small arms and light weapons to all communities, thereby increasing the possibility of armed violence during cases of commercialized cattle raids.

In conclusion, practitioners need to understand the interplay between these three contexts of pastoralist violence in order to rightly prescribe a viable long term peacebuilding strategy.

Willis Okumu, a Kenyan citizen, holds an MA in Anthropology from the Cologne African Studies Centre, University of Cologne. His MA thesis is entitled, “Trans-local Peacebuilding among Pastoralists Communities in Kenya-the Case of Laikipia Peace Caravan”.

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