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Lost in the darkness, at war with ourselves: Understanding the crisis in Northern Kenya

The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors
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On the 14th of February 2023, Kenya held a national prayer day in accordance with our government’s habit of holding ‘prayers’ when certain stressors reach an unbearable level on a national scale. Currently, there are many factors triggering national stressors, and one of them is a complex security issue loosely termed “banditry”, for which our government has no viable solution. So, we pray, declaring war on our people, instead of reflecting on and addressing the root causes of the crisis.

Over the years, these theatrics, which reflect the inadequacy of the government’s policies in dealing with our challenges, have occurred in different forms including ‘prayer breakfasts’, ‘national prayers’, ‘crusades’, and other forms of supplication. And while these functions are met with a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from approval to derision, depending on people’s spiritual or political leanings, it is crucial for us as citizens to realize that as much as these may be expressions of faith at our leaders’ personal level, at the political level they are basically ‘time-outs’ or pressure release valves. Where one has a strategy, time-outs create room for the implementation of plan ‘B’ or ‘C’. However, in the absence of a strategy, time-outs are called in the vain hope that the adversary or adversity at hand will somehow lose momentum.

There is more to the “banditry” phenomenon than meets the eye

There have been violent conflicts of many kinds in northern Kenya for many decades, some driven by terrorism, ethnic animosity, resource conflict, cattle rustling and other factors. Since 2017, however, many Kenyans have had greater awareness of the fact that the violence in northern Kenya isn’t just mere disorder; people have come to terms that there are definite geographical, economic and social patterns to, and causes of, the violence. The ongoing sporadic skirmishes of violence and cattle rustling in the North Rift area are exacerbating the difficulties that the communities there are already facing as a result of a debilitating drought. Most tragically, the violence in the region has led to the death of 16 security personnel and over 100 civilians in 6 months, a period largely overlapping with the first 5 months of H.E. President William Ruto’s time as the president. Sadly, over the years, Kenya had become largely inured to this slow-burning war due to its long duration and the boorish mentality that made the majority of us see certain parts of the country and pastoralists as somewhat ‘backward’ or ‘lesser’ beings. The most harmful effect of this attitude has been the inability or unwillingness of Kenyans to understand the root of this problem.

Things came to a head on the 11th of February 2023 when a group of security personnel on patrol were ambushed on the Lodwar-Kitale highway resulting in the death of 3 officers and the loss of guns, ammunition and patrol vehicles. This daylight highway attack was a huge affront to the authorities, resulting in instant opprobrium from citizens all over the country who wonder why our much-vaunted security agencies still couldn’t subdue these “bandits” after all these years.

Such attacks were turning into exasperating feelings of déjà vu because we see the same places, roughly the same seasonal conditions, the same kind of weapons, and even the same meaningless terminology and knee-jerk government reactions time and again. In every other part of Kenya, when laws are broken, they are investigated and addressed all along the chain from perpetrators, enablers, participants and beneficiaries. Most of the time, cases are brought to logical conclusions, but not in this case. Why?

Insights into the depth of this particular problem came from a very knowledgeable (if unexpected) source. The Governor of Trans-Nzoia County, Mr George Natembeya, came out at the National Prayer Day with a hard-hitting statement, asking the President not to let people around him “shield” him from the realities on the ground concerning the “banditry” in the North Rift areas. He went on to detail the woes of the security personnel working in the area, claiming that they were being sent into a veritable war zone without adequate allowances, equipment and even food supplies. I was personally taken aback because the previous operation took place when Mr Natembeya was the Rift Valley Regional Coordinator (RC), a position he held until last year when he resigned to run for a political office. Ironically, the office of RC is a very senior position in the executive arm of the Kenya Government that placed Mr Natembeya in direct charge of deploying the security personnel who suffered the same deplorable working conditions he was now lamenting about.  In a show of cognitive dissonance that is so typical of Kenyans, the Governor was widely praised for his ‘straight talk’ and honesty in ‘speaking truth to power’. Obviously buoyed by this newfound adulation, he went on to hold a press conference where he robustly advocated military involvement in the operation against bandits, firmly stating that the civilian security apparatus (where he spent the majority of his career before moving into politics) is inadequate to protect Kenyans. This advocacy was worrisome because the use of the loose term ‘banditry’ betrays a lack of knowledge of the identity or objectives of the adversaries.

The first major cause for alarm was the haughty ‘pre-devolution’ tone with which Mr Natembeya pronounced himself on the deployment of the military. He proceeded to even give recommendations on the orders that need to be issued, stating that they should be instructed to “decimate” the bandits. This is a startlingly cavalier term when used by a senior public servant in reference to citizens who haven’t been positively identified in any way. It is a term that could be useful in the primitive theatre of war, where opponents are positively identified by uniforms, positions or other means, but sustainable solutions to the security problems in the North Rift region invariably require more sophisticated approaches that would ensure that innocent citizens are protected and not “decimated” alongside. It would have been much easier for us ‘spectators’ to dismiss these statements as hot air emitted by someone who failed in his earlier responsibilities, but we lost that option when the government moved with speed to implement these external ‘instructions’.

The main cause of a complex issue

The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors. If it was simple, it would have been solved a long time ago through any of the heavy-handed responses deployed by successive governments against it. My work as a conservationist has given me unique insights into one aspect of it which seems to have been ignored by many.

Northern Kenya has a roughly 5-year drought cycle, and 2017 was a drought year. As a consequence, pastoralists moved south into Laikipia county in search of pasture. They invaded private ranches and provoked an inevitable state response, which resulted in the death of many ranchers, pastoralists, security personnel, and hundreds of livestock.

I headed a team of consultants tasked by an indigenous rights NGO to study Marsabit, Isiolo, Laikipia, and Samburu counties in a research project aimed at uncovering the dynamics and drivers of the southward transhumance and the resultant conflicts. We collected data from hundreds of respondents, including ranchers, pastoralists, government personnel and NGO practitioners. Three things stood out in our findings. The first was the sheer distances covered by the pastoralists with their animals, and the second was the fact that almost all the (government-designated) livestock movement routes have been blocked by private landowners. The most compelling finding, however, was that a vast majority of the pastoralists were from homelands that were now ‘wildlife conservancies’ controlled by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT),( -a conservation NGO. The pastoralists had lost access to their dry-season grazing areas.

After completing our fieldwork and analysis, we planned and held a validation workshop in Nanyuki on the 14th of June 2017. The findings of our report presented at the workshop resonated well with the community members who attended the workshop, some of whom provided us with further insights into the crisis. Our views on NRT were also ‘validated’ by a dramatic moment when my presentation was interrupted by their Laikipia county director, Mr Richard Kasoo, who literally screamed at me to stop vilifying NRT and had to be ejected from the room by the elders present. The top NRT management later called a more cordial meeting at a Nanyuki hotel, asking me as the team leader to expunge certain items from the report, which they felt portrayed them in a ‘negative light’. Much to their chagrin, I declined to do so, out of respect for my team and our respondents. This entire experience was a cameo of what ails us in this arena. Man-made stressors are routinely met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity until we invariably take ‘ruthless’ steps to ‘decimate’ the people we should have engaged before the fighting broke out. As such, those of us who observed the violent resource conflict in 2017 know that it wasn’t brought to an end by any human intervention. The drought ended, the rains came, and people who were fighting simply went back home.

These findings and my views have since been shared with several senior state officials and several non-state actors as well (including the protagonists), but have been invariably met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity. This is not to suggest that this is the only set of causes because the bloodletting certainly predates wildlife conservancies, which only started around 2004. Ethnic animosities that exist in this and other parts of Kenya are realities that we must factor in. The displacement and loss of access to resources also eliminated a lot of the geographical space that typically limited contact and conflict between some communities, resulting in more frequent flare-ups. However, the negative impact of conservation practices on the communities’ ways of life is definitely one of the easier drivers to deal with, so it is difficult to imagine that anyone is dealing with the more intractable and socio-politically fractious ones.

Most notably, the alacrity with which government authorities have embraced the advice of a former RC with a less-than-stellar record to handle a crisis is a worrying indication of not having a plan. One doesn’t need to be an expert to know that militaries aren’t trained to investigate, arrest or prosecute, so we could be courting numerous extrajudicial killings. The Interior Minister speaking in January, added his voice to the frightening miasma, saying that the Government will be ‘ruthless and brutal’ in this operation. We don’t seem to have had a plan for what we are doing now, so it cannot be easy to envision any plan for managing the inevitable fallout of such violence either. We are at war with ourselves in pitch darkness, struggling to finish ‘the other’ before dawn because the light of day might reveal who we really are.

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