Confronting the challenges of conflict in Kenya

Conflict transformation in Kenya is confronted by a number of challenges – including limited dialogue and communication within and between communities, plus a lack of effective models addressing the underlying drivers of conflict.

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By Kisuke Ndiku

There are a number of sources of conflict in Kenya, including, but not limited to:

  • a) Natural Resources – the predominant type of conflict among pastoral communities and along the international borders; although there are sporadic occurrences internally amongst the Turkana and Pokot, the Karamajong and Turkana, and Turkana and communities to the east (such as Rendile and Boran). Competition over commonly shared resources – mainly pastoral land and water – is, in part, fuelled by the cultural practice of livestock raiding and the associated desire for revenge. Furthermore, valued economic activities and resources – such as oil, coal, gypsum, metals, sand, stone, wood, water and other minerals – continued to drive conflict. The governance of these areas differs from community-to-community, leading to inherent contradictions, accusations of favouratism, and exploitation and discrimination against other communities.
  • b) Land – a dominant factor in the Coastal area, but more frequent in the Kwale County, Likoni, Bombolulu, Tana River County, the Rift Valley and the Mount Elgon Area. It is also emerging as a flashpoint in localities with valued resources, such as minerals (for example, oil in Turkana and Merti) and valued commercial hubs (such as Lamu). The management of land issues shows signs of vested political interests, with local communities rarely involved in the decision-making process about how land is allocated (for instance, for re-settling landless communities humanitarian emergencies, or resource exploitation. Local communities often see allocations as unjust and a means of depriving them of ancestral lands.
  • c) Political Activities – such as elections, political electioneering processes or any community/large group-oriented elections (such as large group farms like Mbo-I-Kamiti, savings and credit societies, labour unions) – are a key driver of conflict, primarily because of the involvement of un- and under-employed young people under the influence of the political classes. Political parties tend have vested interests (favouring a particular clique or ethnic group), with narrow perspectives and strong elements of rivalry.
  • d) Community Identities and Cultural Rivalry – more dominant among some of the major communities, but has recently also affected some minority communities. The core driver is Kenya’s political history, where force and not dialogue has been used on occasion to deal with certain issues. In addition, minority communities have often not been given space for expression, and where their voice has been expressed it has not been listened to. It is also important to point out that there are some minority communities with issues that have not been addressed, such as what is referred to as “the unresolved massacres” (for example, the Wagalla Massacre). The Shifta war and other examples of the use of government force, the assassination of certain luminary politicians, political expedience in sharing resources and opportunities, and the political loyalties and interests that drive the development of different localities are all signals of this type of rivalry; thereby breeding disgruntlement amongst certain communities.
  • e) Adversarial Contexts and Platforms – deriving from adversarial contexts and reports, whether related to the constitution making process or the allocation of land. For instance, a number of issues emerged during the constitution making process that continue to drive conflict, such as the creation of constituency and administrative borders. On the other hand, platforms relate to statements made or information shared, particularly by opinion leaders associated with community, religious and political organizations. For instance, the media – including social media – has often worked to demonstrate “who is to blame” or “who caused the problem”, thereby declaring a verdict that contributes to fuelling tension. A lack of leadership in managing information, meanwhile, whether by religious, political or community leaders, has also contributed to such situations, with verbal wrangles, cover-ups, denials and accusations fostering acrimony and uncertainty, to the detriment of ethnic relations.
  • f) Perceptions of Conflict and Access to Small Arms – In a recent study, it was reported that there are over 0.6m small arms in Kenya; the majority being automatic weapons. Localities with the most frequent occurrence of politically-related violence seem to have more individuals with access to small arms, whilst the use of explosive devices (such as ordinary grenades and improvised explosives) has become a feature in different locations.
  • g) Proximity to Training Grounds in Yemen and Somalia – Kenya’s geo-political position vis-a-vis Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab impacts regional and internal security. It is an open secret that Al Qaeda – and, to a lesser degree, Al Shabaab – use Yemen for training and recruitment. As a result – and due also to internal socio-economic factors – some elements from Kenya could be involved. Whilst there is no evidence that this is currently happening, the proximity and temptation for young people to join is clear, as the Sabaot case best suggests.
  • h) High Sea Crime and Terrorism – Kenya has a major port serving the Greater Horn and Great Lakes Region of Eastern Africa, with significant sea traffic into Mombasa through the Gulf of Eden, and from the Far East plying the Indian Ocean. Piracy is the focus of the region’s counter terrorism efforts – head-quartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – which Kenya actively supports, and for which it has been targeted. Should high sea crime reduce the frequency and level of dockings in Mombasa, many individuals will lose jobs; further compounding the unemployment problem among youth in Mombasa and Kenya as a whole, and depriving the Kenyan government of vital revenue.

This graffiti, found throughout the slum of Kibera, was put up during the post election violence in 2008. The artist, who calls himself solo7, while others were killing, looting, and rioting, risked his life to write these messages of peace. (Photograph by the Advocacy Project, published under a Creative Commons license).

Challenges facing conflict situations in Kenya

Conflict transconflict in Kenya is confronted with a number of challenges, including:

  • a) Community-centric perceptions of identity – even within one community, elements of clan or family lineage and “gates” arise, thereby creating challenges about how a community perceives itself. For the most part, perceptions drive the view a community holds about their identity, their issues and their leaders. A negative emphasis of the identities of others creates fundamental divisions, grounded upon mutual suspicion, which are often exploited by particular actors. One exampel concerns the emergence of businesses owned by Kenyans of North Eastern Origin, who were not perceived as Kenyans by others.
  • b) Limited positive dialogue and communication within and between communities – any aspect that raises suspicion quickly provokes tension, particularly where poor communication carries negative overtones that affect perceptions and dialogue between communities.
  • c) Poorly-defined Kenyan identity, including a low sense of being Kenyan – most people do not have a definitive conception of what Kenya and being Kenyan is. As a result, a majority of individuals – especially persons aged thirty and above – define themselves in terms of their ethnicity. This is often apparent during individual greetings and introductions, where one might be asked to state which District they are from. Since the administrative boundaries were originally installed along ethnic lines, this drives ethnic perceptions.
  • d) Ill-conceived role of outsiders in conflict situations – whenever and wherever conflict has occurred, outsiders are called upon to respond. Community perceptions about the police and administration, however, is that they resort to excessive force and are often partisan. Furthermore, civil society organizations – who are usually outsiders to the conflict – respond through a range of interventions, such as humanitarian emergency relief and peace building initiatives, which often aren’t suited to the local situation and lack sensitivity towards the factors driving conflict. However, because they have resources, communities accept their presence, if not the solutions they attempt to bring. Other outsiders include the political and administrative leaders who, by and large, bring their own biases; even if they are from the community themselves. In this case, it could either be a bias about the role of the government or about community identities.
  • e) Lack of effective models for conflict sensitivity and analysis, and for addressing the underlying drivers of conflict – at the national level, law enforcement agencies, government and the political classes lacks the necessary skills to address the types of conflict evident in Kenya. However, the models used by the Lorupe Peace Initiative, and other efforts in Mt. Elgon cannot be ignored; though it is important to note that these are efforts from within the communities affected by conflict.

Kisuke Ndiku is the executive director of Active Non-Violence Initiatives Kenya, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation.



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