Conflict in Kenya

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.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

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 conflict localities 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.

Categorizing sources of conflict in Kenya

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.


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

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