Understanding Kenya’s conflict matrix

One of the key drivers of conflict in Kenya is the dimension of community identities – which is itself closely related to the issue of land, borders and associated historical grievances – plus a challenging regional environment and political transition.

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By Kisuke Ndiku

It could be argued that the state of “peace” in Kenya is complex. As far back as 1969, civil society, led by faith-based entities, headed calls for the government to address issues of peaceful co-existence among communities (1). This was after Tom Mboya, one of Kenya’s vibrant intellectual and political icons, was murdered in Moi Avenue Nairobi. It is perhaps understandable that social tension is inherent. However, when such tensions exceeds limits and embrace responses or actions by parts of a community using weapons – such as automatic weapons, explosive devises and improvised explosives – then this dimension changes. Furthermore, much tension has been the result of crime, including ransom demands following the abduction of both children and adults. Sadly, some of the tension fuelling violence has also come from political platforms, writing the political history of Kenya.

Based upon the estimated 600,000 small arms in circulation – as reported by the Small Arms Survey Special Report of June 2012 – violence in Kenya is rife. Access to small arms is made easy by the existence of the conspicuous informal business of buying, selling and even renting weapons. The advent of armed operations supported by the government in Somalia has led to increased violence involving the use of improvised explosive devices and automatic weapons. Such incidences have been impromptu and spread across different localities in Kenya. Six incidences since January 2012 are associated with Al-Shabaab, whose politics on – and approaches to – social and sectarian issues have implications for Kenya and other neighbouring states.

Kenya’s proximity to Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Eritrea – which have been known to empathize with Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab – has left the country vulnerable to violence related to high sea crime and terrorism. The seaway from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean has been rife with piracy – some linked to overall international terrorism – with ships headed for the port of Mombasa often invaded by pirates. The impact of this has been more direct on shipping lines plying the Eastern Africa coast, providing an international security threat and cause for serious humanitarian crises. Kenya has supported counter terrorism and the fight against piracy, and the potential consequences of this are obvious.

Furthermore, Yemen has been a traditional training ground for Al Qaida, whilst Somalia has also been linked to the training of terrorists. Sudan and Eritrea, meanwhile, have also provided safe havens for elements associated with these two terrorist entities. Obtaining recruits from Kenya – drawn from idle and disgruntled elements – is not proving very difficult, particularly given the inherently porous borders with Somalia. The factors fuelling recruitment include the social and economic conditions faced by young men, including deep levels of poverty, political disenfranchisement, youth unemployment and sectarian extremism, amongst others.

With respect to the internal context, there are a number of issues which influence and drive conflict. Key among them is what has now been identified as the dimension of community identities, which is closely reacted to the issue of land and borders. The transition to multi-party politics and, later, a constitutional transition has created new factors for conflict. Whilst Kenya’s new constitution defines the governance structures and devolution, it does not provide stipulations for attaining these new governance modalities; leading to various interpretations and counter-interpretations by different political and parliamentary platforms. These have often provoked confrontations regarding access to national power and resources among political personalities, leading to political rivalries which fuel conflict at the grassroots level.

In addition, historical injustices – including the Shifta war, the ten-mile Costal land strip, and the government’s handling of specific issues and communities – have led to community disaffection. The emergence of a powerful media, forming perceptions among communities and others related to specific communities, has further destabilized the situation. In summary, these factors constitute structure-systemic, social dynamics and interplay dynamics that provide potential causes of conflict in Kenya.

(Photograph by the Advocacy Project, published under a Creative Commons license)

Some key localities with conflict in Kenya

Conflict in Kenya is not new. The cross-border areas with Somalia, Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and Uganda have been characterized by conflict since time immemorial. Conflict in these cross-border localities is associated with cattle rustling, whose key drivers are water and pastoral land. A culture of cattle as the only form of wealth informs these conflicts, which usually occur between two or three communities across each border area. It has, however, also attained new dimensions due to political issues and the radicalization of certain sections of the Islamic communities. Internally, there are some key localities where conflict has regularly occurred – albeit on a low scale and concerning community identities – since the first election of parliamentary delegates in 1962.

Aspects of conflict have of late revolved around the question of community identities in relation to administrative and political constituency borders, whilst another type of conflict has been witnessed among non-pastoral communities concerning land. This is frequently at low levels – as has been the case along the Samburu-Isiolo, the Narok-Kisii border, the Kericho-Kisumu border, the Kericho-Kisii border, the Kajiado-Limuru border (Maai Mahiu), the Tana River and the Mount Elgon area. In these cases, conflict is around access to land for livelihoods and community identity, as defined by the land a community occupies.

From the outset, it is important to point out that the struggle for independence in Kenya was focused on the re-possession of land. Conflict in Kenya is therefore informed by a history where the original communities to these lands were forcefully removed to give way to large scale farming for white farmers. After independence, restitution was never pursued; hence communities continue to clamour for ancestral land as part of their identity and political rights.

The Rift Valley, as a whole, is a relatively peaceful place, though some localities experience different types and levels of conflict from time-to-time – particularly related to cattle rustling and conflict over commonly-shared natural resources (mainly water and grazing land) amongst the more pastoral communities, such as the Pokot, Marakwet, Turkana and others. Some conflicts associated with Kenya’s political history have occurred at different times (1982-2008), whilst the occurrence of conflict in the rest of the Rift Valley escalates during periods of electioneering. Narok, Burnt Forest, Molo and Kurosei are the most volatile locations, with conflict driven by questions of access to land and broken dialogue among communities, which has bred mutual suspicion and mistrust. There is also evidence that historical injustices associated with Kenya’s political history underpins conflict in these localities.

Mombasa, Tana Basin and other parts of the Coastal areas have also experienced conflict associated with land; large chunks of which is owned by absentee landlords. The coastal areas have had an interesting political history deriving from the colonial past, during which imperial government agreed with the Zanzibari Sultanate that a ten mile strip would be left under the Sultanate, without due consultation with the indigenous local communities. When Kenya attained its independence, this problem was once again not clearly addressed through the involvement of local communities.

The land of ancestry is a deep concept of identity that informs the politics of land in Kenya. It is a concept that economic theory cannot easily change. In this context, local communities view land as their own, and define their identity with land. As a result, communities continue to express dissatisfaction with the way the government manages allocations and certifications of land, particularly when they were not adequately informed, engaged and involved in decisions about land. Even though the Ministry of Land has land certification mechanisms, these are – from a community perspective – trumped by a community right to land. Consequently, there are a number of local community entities – some conspicuous and others not so conspicuous – that agitate for land issues in the Coastal areas. They expressly state, to quote one Imam, Sheik Mohammed, “when Kenya became independent in 1963, the coast never attained independence”.

There are three other areas in the context of the coast with unique types of conflict, including urban localities in Mombasa (i.e. Likoni and Bombolulu). These locations comprise large, informal human settlements with mixed communities from both the coast and other parts of Kenya. Access to resources, opportunities for livelihoods, as well as opportunities to participate adequately in dialogue on issues affecting local people, often results in conflict. A key example is that of Tiomin Resources Inc., a Canadian firm with a complex in Kwale County. A mining initiative in the coast area, communities have voiced their grievances about how the land under concession was allocated, the low levels of compensation awarded, environmental degradation and health risks deriving from toxic emissions. Unresolved grievances and a lack of local community engagement of the coastal areas has fuelled frequent conflict and a high loss of life, including the burning of a school and a police station.

There are two more aspects of conflict in Kenya, concerning Kisumu, Nairobi and Naivasha. In Kisumu, the aftermath of the 2007/2008 elections – which had witnessed stone throwing at candidates and supporters of opposing groups – involved local communities evicting non-local members of the community who had been in Kisumu on account of business or employment opportunities. Properties, particularly business premises and homes, were looted and burnt, with crimes perpetrated by both young and old, men and women, predominantly from one local community of Kisumu.

In Nairobi, Kibera and Huruma, election-related conflict has occurred since 1992. While in Huruma it was associated with Mungiki, a quasi-political group of young people, in Kibera it is unclear what the drivers of conflict are. Suffice to say, dialogue across communities is lacking and they perceive each other in adversarial terms. A clear characteristic of the conflict in the two localities in Nairobi is that it involves many un- or under-employed young people, with election-related violence fanned by issues concerning access to political and economic power at the community level.

Naivasha experienced serious conflict in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 elections, particularly in Maai Mahiu and Naivasha Town. Similar to the conflict in Kibera and Huruma, Naivasha saw hundreds of young people confront both law enforcement organs and others across the ethnic divide. As it coincided with an election, it signified the great need there is to address the role and place of young people in political and public leadership. There is also a need to provide political space and roles to young people within the democratic space.

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


1) See the Annals of NCCK and KEC Memoirs – John Kamau and Ndingi Mwana’ Nzeki



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