Challenges to peace in Kenya’s Mandera County: a grassroots perspective

Challenges to peace in Kenya’s Mandera County – a grassroots perspective

A new report by the Mandera Peacebuilding Programme and Interpeace presents the first-hand opinions of grassroots communities across Mandera County, Kenya, exploring impediments to peace. 

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By Philip Emase

Mandera is a County located in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of north eastern Kenya, along the country’s conflict-prone tri-border with Ethiopia and Somalia. Despite having a near homogenous ethnic Somali population, Mandera has experienced intermittent clan-based clashes dating back to the precolonial period.

These conflicts, traditionally fuelled by competition over grazing areas and resources like water and pasture, have been exacerbated by contemporary trigger factors such as competition for political influence, disputes over land, and constant attacks by Al-Shabaab militants from Somalia.

Conflicts between the clans easily lead to internecine violence, many times with cross-border spill over. This is particularly problematic because much of the Horn of Africa has famously defied the confines of the colonially-imposed national borders. Several Somali clans straddle the sovereign borders of the three countries, making for easy cross-border mobilisation in times of conflict and elections in Mandera.

Devolution: hope in the face of latent political conflict

The devolution of government in Kenya has emerged as a new conflict factor in Mandera, intensifying competition for political positions. Devolution was one of the most important innovations of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution. Incidentally, the decision to decentralise governance to 47 counties came in the wake of political violence rooted in historical grievances. Prominent among these grievances was the skewed allocation of resources and the over-concentration of power in Nairobi, a situation that had long marginalised far-flung counties like Mandera and stymied their development.

Devolution was received with enthusiasm by the people of Mandera, who read in it an opportunity to alleviate the County’s historical marginalisation and underdevelopment. Their optimism is justified by the socio-economic indicators that characterise the generally poor quality of life in Mandera. Literacy levels stand at 9.9 percent and only 2.5 percent of the population has access to potable water.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Mandera is one of the least safe places for a woman to have a baby in the world. It is poignant that Mandera’s maternal mortality ratio of 3,795 deaths per 100,000 live births surpasses that of wartime Sierra Leone (2000 deaths per 100,000 live births), as well as Kenya’s national average of 448 deaths per 100,000 live births. Meanwhile, the insecurity occasioned by Al-Shabaab attacks has led to the flight of many teachers, doctors, and other civil servants from Mandera, depriving the local population of basic services such as education and healthcare.

These basic facts indicate just how far Mandera still needs to travel on the road to peace, security, and development. They also explain the immense hope that local communities have placed on devolution. Although devolution has brought national resources and services closer to the people, it has unfortunately emerged as yet another cleavage, as the control of elective seats is perceived as a guarantee for access to economic resources by the “winning” clans to the disadvantage of the “losing” clans. This contestation over political posts has emerged as a critical point of concern for local communities in Mandera because it turns each election cycle into a season of trepidation.

Grassroots perspectives on the impediments to peace

A new report by the Mandera Peacebuilding Programme, implemented by Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) and Interpeace, presents the impediments to peace in the County, as identified by the people of Mandera themselves.

The report, titled Voices of the People: Challenges to Peace in Mandera County, presents the first-hand opinions of grassroots communities across the County, captured in a yearlong Participatory Action Research (PAR) process that reached 730 community members through focus group discussions and 43 key informants.

Among the key informants interviewed were business and political elites that are based in Nairobi but hail from Mandera; influential figures from the neighbouring Wajir County; the leadership at both County and National levels; and communities living along the international borders with Somalia and Ethiopia. It was imperative to seek the views of such a diverse spectrum of stakeholders because issues of peace and security in Mandera often have a cross-border dimension, in addition to the tenuous clan relations.

Throughout these consultations, the following two fundamental questions were explored:

  1. What are the impediments to peace in Mandera County? The purpose of this first question was to determine the main challenges to peace in the County, from the perspective of the local populations and other stakeholders.
  2. What is preventing things from getting worse? This second question served to explore the resilience factors that hold the communities together, and can therefore provide useful foundations for conflict resolution and peacebuilding—based on the challenges identified and solutions proposed by the people of Mandera.

Four main challenges were identified and prioritised by the local population as the most pressing impediments to peace in Mandera. These were:

  1. The lack of effective local conflict social reconciliation processes.
  2. Low trust levels between the local population and the security agencies.
  3. Border disputes among the clans in Mandera.
  4. The lack of coordinated policies and mechanisms on cross-border security, movement, and trade.

The programme’s aim is ultimately to facilitate the development of an effective, locally owned peacebuilding architecture for sustainable peace among the communities of Mandera. It marks a departure from past interventions, which focused on ending conflicts that had already turned violent—often using the security agencies without subsequently addressing the underlying trigger factors for purposes of building long term peace.

In its current phase, the programme is focusing on finding solutions for peace in Mandera, informed by the four key impediments that were prioritised during the consultative phase in 2016. This second phase is similarly participatory in its approach, ensuring the continued involvement of all stakeholders.

The active role of the NCIC serves to upstream the voices of the people, providing a chance for the local communities to inform policy and decision-making processes at both the county and national levels. It is hoped that in the long term the people of Mandera will collectively develop a truly homegrown system of resolving disputes, right at the local level, before they degenerate into violence.

Download the full report (PDF)

Philip Emase is Interpeace’s Regional Communications Officer for Eastern and Central Africa.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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