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Voices of the People: Impediments to Peace and Community Resilience in Kenya’s North Rift Region

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1.0 Introduction

The North Rift region is located in north-western Kenya, along the country’s national borders with Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda. The region forms part of the famous cross-continental Great Rift Valley system, a series of contiguous geographic trenches that runs for approximately 6,000 kilometres from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique in Southern Africa. In the context of this study, the North Rift Region refers to the five Kenyan counties of Turkana, West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet, Baringo and Samburu. These counties are among the least developed in Kenya, having faced marginalisation in both colonial and independent Kenya.

The British colonial administration did not see economic value in northern Kenya. Inhabited by nomadic pastoralist communities and characterised by rough terrain and a harsh climate, the north was only deemed significant in securing the colony’s territorial and administrative structures. A closed district policy was enacted and the entire northern region, stretching from the Ugandan border to the border with Somalia, was declared the Northern Frontier District (NFD). As a closed district, NFD was isolated from the rest of the colony and largely left underdeveloped (Aukot, 2008). Even colonial policing was limited to urban centres and the White Highlands. It was not until after World War II that state policing was extended to cover the ethnic homelands designated as ‘native reserves’. As for the NFD, indirect rule was adjudged to be the most effective way to govern. It was effected through local chiefs and a locally recruited force known as the Tribal Police. In reality, the NFD was largely unpoliced and military forces intervened only to crush violent conflicts or civil resistance (Mkutu, 2018). Contact between the government and the area’s communities was minimal throughout indirect rule and taxation was enforced through the local chiefs who reported to colonial officials (Aukot, 2008).

Independent Kenya marginalised the region in similar ways, mainly by retaining practices that designated the five counties as ‘closed districts’ and enacting policies such as Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965, which prioritised development in areas of high potential. Sessional Paper No. 10 ensured that the country’s economic wealth remained in productive areas such as the former White Highlands. Its rationale was that Kenya’s economy would grow rapidly if development funds were invested where they would produce the largest increase in net output. This approach favoured areas endowed with natural resources, fertile land, ample rainfall, effective transport, communications, and power facilities. Conversely, it condemned regions with less obvious potential to further economic marginalisation.

Nomadic pastoralist communities compose about 20% of Kenya’s population but occupy an estimated 70% of Kenya’s total land area in the vast arid and semi-arid rangelands of the former NFD (Ng’ang’a, 2019). The effects of past marginalisation and underdevelopment continue to be experienced in Kenya today. As Nderitu (2018) observed:

Competition for resources has aggravated conflicts in the region. The livelihoods of most inhabitants are built around their livestock. As a result, residents depend heavily on natural resources such as pasture, water, and vegetation. Reduced access to these resources and population growth have put the region’s pastoralist communities under increasingly intense pressure, resulting in a high incidence of violent clashes. Moreover, boundary conflicts pit ethnic communities against each other at different levels. Clashes occur between communities, within counties, across counties, and even cross Kenya’s national borders into Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. The resulting disruption of ‘normal’ migratory patterns leads to unsustainable use of natural resources that in turn causes environmental degradation.

Porous international borders—coupled with prolonged conflicts and the easy infiltration of small arms from neighbouring countries—make inter-community clashes particularly vicious and sophisticated. Other factors contributing to the severity of these clashes include the direct impact of the conflicts on livelihoods, the sometimes divisive role of ethnic elites and professionals, and incitement by political actors.

Conflicts further disrupt pastoral economies by restricting access to natural resources and marketing systems, thereby affecting development and the provision of essential services in the region. Social services and amenities are frequently paralysed. Education, for instance, is frequently interrupted by the flight of teachers from conflict-stricken areas and the relocation of communities from their settlements for fear of invasion. Localities so affected include Mukutani and Noosukuro in Baringo County, Suiyan and Kawap in Samburu County, and Kapedo. Conflict also discourages communities and development agencies from investing, both in the short and long term. At local level, a lot of effort, funds and other resources are used to contain conflicts and mitigate post-conflict situations rather than channelled into development work. Interventions to mitigate conflict have been made by various stakeholders, including the government.

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution provided for devolution and offered a legal framework for equitable distribution of resources in the North Rift. Nevertheless, it is reported that devolution has intensified supremacy wars in the region’s five counties. Various ethnic communities have actively instigated violence to displace and disenfranchise others to their advantage. Non-state actors, such as faith-based organisations (FBOs), have facilitated community-owned processes of reconciliation and conflict transformation in the region, but peace has remained elusive. The discovery of oil, minerals and other natural resources was seen as a blessing but it has aggravated pre-existing conflicts in the region.

In summary, the achievement of peace in the North Rift has been hindered by ethnicism, divisive politics, and insufficient devolved funds for progressive development. This complex state of affairs easily waters down any positive impact that peacebuilders and development agencies make in the region. Unless conflicts are properly managed, pastoral livelihoods will continue to deteriorate and development projects remain a pipedream. It is therefore imperative to develop a locally-owned peacebuilding infrastructure that empowers the communities to influence decisions and policies that affect them.