Pastoralist violence in North-Kenya

By Caroline Six                            

With their stools, shepherd's crooks and AK47s in their hands, the tall men with anxious faces press on with their convoy through the locust trees. Hundreds of camels, and thousands of cows, goats and sheep, all slowly emerge from the cloud of dust. In this dry region in the north of Kenya, which has recently been struck by one of the worst droughts for sixty years, you might think that the Turkana nomadic people would be migrating to seek more fertile pastures. In reality they are fleeing the attack of a Sudanese tribe, followed by their women wearing multicoloured necklaces, and their children, nestled amid the goatskin gourds, pans and musical instruments all loaded onto donkeys.

A woman remonstrates with the Kenyan policemen with her stick, and as another stops a police Land Rover, one can see the panic in her eyes: "What are you going to do? I have lost everything: my donkeys, my lambs, even my pans … I have nothing any more."

In Nanam, a few kilometres from the border to South Sudan, a group of Toposas, a neighbouring pastoral tribe more used to leading their animals on the more clement pastures of Kenya, have carried out a raid. In the abandoned Turkanas camp, a young herd boy still tries to gather two or three lambs, lost amid the abandoned tents and donkey loads. “There were at least 300 of them. We fought all day long and eventually surrendered because we did not have any more bullets. A man died, and two were wounded, but they were not able to take the cows – only the goats, donkeys and lambs.” A shot is fired, then a second. The Toposas are 200 metres away, and it seems they are determined to take this land over. The Kenyan police simply flee. “We have no means to fight. We can only stand by and observe,” explains one of the Kenyan police reservists.

The drought which is ravaging the arid and semi-arid areas of the Horn of Africa has imposed a great deal of pressure on the already scarce resources in the region, and exacerbated the persistent conflicts between the opposing pastoral tribes in the northern Kenya, the south of the Republic of South-Sudan, eastern Uganda and southern Ethiopia. Squeezed one towards the other on increasingly pressurized pastures, the tribes, traditional enemies, multiply attacks to expand their herds and take control of the limited water sources. Every herd boy owns a rifle, even those as young as ten.

Beyond the deaths of livestock and men due to the drought, at least 113 people have been killed in the fighting between January and May of this year, compared with 68 in 2010. Half of them were women and children. Because, as in Nanam, when the number of aggressors is high, they tend to steal not only the cattle but the also try to seize the camp and the families’ belongings.

Sitting on his tiny T-shaped sculptured stool, Natoo Lore, a Turkana pastoralist elder, explains “This drought is very severe for everyone. Our herds are very small. I have lost 100 goats and sheep in the last two months.” Animals are dying from starvation now that the pastures have dried out, but also from a lack of regular access to water. Cattle die mostly because when they finally reach a water point they drink too much water too fast. “Only camels don't die,” Lore said. Pastoralists' nutrition is mostly based on milk and animal blood, supplemented with wild fruits. During the dry season, people can die from very minor diseases because they are so weak.

“We have lost a lot of people these last months, mainly children and elders,” regrets Lodoe, the chief of the pastoral community currently settled in Naporoto. “We don't count them because it is a shame for our community” he said. More than half of the population of Turkana was already dependent on food aid, according to Elizabeth Nabutola, representative of the World Food Program in Turkana. “But the number is increasing quickly because of the current drought. Malnutrition no longer only affects only the very young children, it now affects the whole family."

Poor rains last autumn caused depleted water sources and degraded pastures in a region already suffering from chronic drought. The failure of the 2011 rains made conditions even worse.

As drought parches more grazing land, the various pastoral communities are forced to move their cows farther over the Kenyan border, where water runoff from the hills creates better grazing land.

“We have to move further and further to the west to find pastures and water, closer to the Toposa. You have to be alert and armed all the time, just as they are,” explains Natoo Lore. The efforts of the different local non-governmental organizations aiming at establishing agreements to share resources have been unsuccessful, with the widespread availability of weapons consistently fuelling the conflicts. “The Dodoth chiefs say that they cannot control these young warriors, that they don’t even know who they are. On our side, we are forced to give back every cattle head we have taken!” complains Lodoe, a Turkana patriarch, pointing to the Ugandan mountains with his stick. The disarmament attempts led by the Kenyan government, the most recent of which was in 2009, have had no tangible impact on armed violence to date. “These tribes have been enemies since immemorial time! Before they were using spears and knives, and at least they could run. With rifles, it is more difficult. What can we do? As long as there are no regional disarmament programs, we can always clean as much as we want, weapons will continue to stream in every day from neighbouring countries,” comments Joseph Okisai, the officer in charge of the security in Lokichoggio.

For James Ndun'gu, of the organization Safer World, the problem is essentially political. “The Kenyan government does not put itself in a position to guarantee the safety of these communities. As long as the state does not demonstrate its capacity to deal with the problem, the disarmament will remain ineffective. The previous attempts have just created new demands for weapons. This is like collecting water with a bucket with a hole in it.”

One has to cross numerous dried up rivers to reach Lokiriama, a village perched on a hill in front of the Ugandan mountains. The chief of the region, Lucas Lokuruka Akeru, contemplates some huts in his village: “This zone was marginalized for a long time because of insecurity. Today it is almost completely deserted. Three thousand five hundred people were obliged to migrate last month because of the attacks by the Tepeths (coming in from Uganda). We have no networks, no road, and no means of communication. Even if I launch a warning signal before an attack, nobody would come. The police don’t even have a vehicle, and we are too far away.”

The Turkana nomads, armed as much by the Kenyan Police as by the business of illegal weapons coming in from Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia, are thus forced to ensure their own safety. The NGO Safer World recognizes that the supply of weapons by the Kenyan Police makes the distinction between legal and illegal weapons very difficult. “Institutions are very 'personalized' locally: they leave one big space for corruption,” explains James Ndund'gu. The reservists, volunteers, are often tempted to sell their weapons, 3O3 rifles, exchanging them for lighter, automatic rifles. Far from securing the community, most of the reservists then use them for their own means: carrying out raids, and even for criminal activities.

The Turkana, Toposas, Dodoth and Tepeth all share the same language, the same rites and the same cult of the warrior figure. Participation in a raid is a compulsory rite of passage for the young nomads, who then can then claim to have reached the status of a respected man. The numerous scarifications which score the men’s bodies, and sometimes those of their wives and sisters, are evidence of the multiple victims they killed during these attacks, during which they replenish their herds. It is also the unique means to obtain one of the girls covered with red pigment awaiting marriage, who are worth hundreds of cows, camels and goats. The more necklaces they wear, the higher the price. “If you want to have five women, it is necessary to steal a lot! I was not killing the men so I could come back and steal them!” stressed Loboyi Monoo, an old man who lost his two legs during an assault by the Toposas and later became a beggar in Lokichoggio.

During the dry season and even more so during such a drought, the Turkanas do not organize raids, as they are too occupied with looking for water and pastures. “But,” reveals a chief, “when the rain comes we shall take our revenge. We must take our cattle back.”