Kenya Violence Underscores Government’s Failure to Establish Rule of Law
In Kenya, clashes between rival tribal groups in the Tana Riva area continued this week, as tensions over access to land and water triggered revenge attacks between the seminomadic Orma pastoralist community and the Pokomo farming community.
On Monday and Tuesday, more houses were set on fire, forcing many to flee and driving the death toll higher.
Meanwhile, with the government so far unable to restore order to the region, deadly riots also raged on in the port city of Mombasa, following the killing of a radical Muslim preacher.
“What is going on between the Pokomo and the Orma is traditional competition over grazing grounds and water rights now reaching a new and heightened level of violence,” David W. Throup, senior associate in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Trend Lines.
The impact of the past two years of drought has only increased this historical competition for resources, deepening both groups’ desperation, Throup said. He added that the availability of small arms, many of them coming over the border from neighboring Somalia, is now making this historical rivalry more violent than ever.
“As the population grows and the effects of global warming intensify, there is growing competition for water rights and grazing grounds,” he said. “This has always been an area of confrontation, but until 30 years ago, the Kenyan state kept a pretty tight rein on access to guns.”
Now, Throup said, instead of fighting with spears and machetes, these groups are using AK-47s and other easily affordable and accessible weapons.
With next year’s national elections drawing nearer, some observers worry that the Mombasa Republican Council, a secessionist movement in the region, could capitalize on the current violence for its own aims.
Throup explained that over the past two decades, there has been a rebirth of calls for secession, or at least a greater degree of autonomy, throughout the coastal region, among a population that “resents the presence of migrants from upcountry” and feels “economically neglected and socially deprived.”
In an email interview, Joel Barkan, also a senior associate in the Africa Program at CSIS and currently in Kenya, wrote that the clashes are also being driven in part by local politics, “largely around the forthcoming devolution of some powers of the central government as mandated by the 2010 constitution.” Barkan explained that next year’s voting will include elections for the 47 county governments in addition to those for president and parliament. As a result, he wrote, “There is now a scramble for power at the second tier.” Some of these conflicts, he wrote, “have long historical roots, now exacerbated by politicians seeking to cleanse their areas of support for potential opponents.”
Robert Rotberg, founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, agreed that politics could exacerbate these “tit-for-tat battles.” But both he and Throup emphasized that the violence between these tribal groups, as well as the unrest in the coastal region, should not be confused with the separate issue of Kenya’s politically driven ethnic violence.
“Elections are about competition for power and thus for control of resources,” said Rotberg, “but this coastal battle is about more tangible grievances.”
Rotberg called it “tragic” that groups like the Orma and Pokomo still clash over resources like land and water and said that the fact that they do so “testifies to the very weak rule of law in Kenya and the perceived need for groups to resolve conflicts by force rather than by judicial or political action.”
He added that the continuing clashes prove the Kenyan government is weak and cannot “prevent local enmities from spinning out of control.”
In addition to the humanitarian implications, the government’s failure to put an end to the violence — as well as to address other security threats, including Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based insurgent group with links to al-Qaida — could also jeopardize the prospects for foreign investment, said Throup.
“Northern Kenya is ostensibly going to become a major center of economic development, but the Chinese and Japanese are not going to put in infrastructure to the port of Lamu if the oil pipelines and railroads are liable to be blown up on a regular basis,” he said. This, Throup said, “is one of the reasons why the Kenyan government is so eager to assert control.”