Drought, Violence and Politics: Inside Laikipia’s Cattle War


A historic drought in Kenya is coinciding with a hotly contested election. Nerves in central and northern Kenya are fraying, as climate stresses intensify intercommunal conflict and amplify electoral tensions.

Climate change, politics and resource competition are colliding again in a deadly combination on Kenya’s fertile Laikipia plateau. When previous rainy seasons failed, in 2011 and 2017, herders from Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions took their cattle to lush Laikipia, sometimes leading to violent clashes among rival herder communities or between herders, on one hand, and farmers and ranchers on the other. But the violence in 2022 has been particularly pitched, thanks in part to conditions that include a four-year dry spell (the longest string of failed rainy seasons in at least 40 years) and hotly contested national and local elections, scheduled for 9 August.

Some of the worst violence in recent years has centred around western Laikipia county, where the immediate trigger for fighting often involves cattle rustling by rival communities (mainly Pokot, Samburu and Turkana) or the movement by herders of their cattle onto private ranches, conservancies and cultivated land. The clashes have killed at least 35 people since September 2021 and the army has been deployed in the area.

The roots of this violence are multifaceted. Land in Laikipia has long been contested. Large conservancies and ranches, along with commercial farms, occupy thousands of acres of well-watered grassland. Local communities, whose forebears were displaced from those lands by British colonial authorities and post-independence elites, resent the capture of both land and water. Grievances over inequitable land ownership tend to escalate in election years, particularly when candidates encourage herders to send their cattle to graze on private ranches’, conservancies’ and farmers’ land in a bid to curry favour with the herders, even though this practice whips up local tensions. Kenyan police temporarily detained two local politicians for incitement in September 2021. While the charges were dropped for one of them, the other was charged again, for hate speech, in January 2022.

There is no relief in sight from the immense pressure on livelihoods created by the long drought. Forecasts predict a fifth season of poor rains later in the year. At the same time, food insecurity is rising, compounded by rising global food and fertiliser costs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

The Conference of the Parties, the main decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, will hold its 27th annual meeting in Egypt in November to discuss global efforts to combat climate change. The topic of climate security will not figure on the official agenda, but the situation in central Kenya highlights why it requires more political attention by illustrating how increasingly severe climate stresses and conflict risks feed off one another, magnifying the dangers of instability, climatic distress and violence.

We visited the Laikipia region in June. As shown in the following photographs, we talked with herders and farmers about the devastating drought, the loss of cattle, the violence in the area, intercommunal tensions and the forthcoming elections.