In-depth: Another Kenya - The humanitarian cost of under-development

KENYA: Resource battle kills 20 in north

A pastoralist's home on the outskirts of Isiolo town: Tensions over water and pasture during a drought in the area led to rioting in Isiolo town on 18 July (file photo)
ISIOLO, 23 July 2009 (IRIN) - Large numbers of security forces have been deployed to a town in northern Kenya after 20 people died in July alone during clashes.

Tensions over water and pasture during a drought in the surrounding arid rangelands unusually spilled over into extensive rioting in the town of Isiolo on 18 July.

Politically exploited ethnicity plays a part, observers say, as four ethnic groups have made two, possible temporary, rival alliances.

Local politicians have pointed a finger at an uneven distribution of arms to "reservists" by the government as inflaming the situation.

Samburu, Turkana and Borana leaders, including Samburu East Member of Parliament Raphael Letimalo, urged the government to seize some 300 guns issued to herders in Isiolo three months ago, saying the weapons were being used in raids against other communities.

An official of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) said hundreds of those displaced urgently needed food and medicine and were living in deplorable conditions in Isiolo town.

"Kenya Red Cross Society has provided first-aid services and distributed some blankets to children in the [temporary] camps; the affected families, however, need food and medical assistance," Titus Mung'ou, the KRCS communications manager, told IRIN.

Mung'ou said the temporary camps lacked water and adequate sanitation facilities, adding that local aid agencies and the government had initiated plans to assist and resettle the displaced.

At least 1,700 families were displaced in villages near Isiolo town following the fighting between the Borana and Somali communities on the one hand, and the Samburu and Turkana communities on the other.

The fighting was mainly at a grazing area in Gambella Location, 10km north of Isiolo. The field is trust land, stretching across Isiolo and Meru North district.

According to the KRCS, another 200 families – pastoralists and crop farmers - have been displaced in the neighbouring Meru region.

The displaced families have been camping at Isiolo police station and a livestock marketing centre nearby, known as LMD. Others have sought refuge at the Ngaremara Church and in the villages of Kambi ya Juu and Cecheles, all on the outskirts of Isiolo town. Others have moved in with relatives and friends in town.

Staying put

Despite the heavy presence of security personnel, a number of the displaced told IRIN they would not leave their temporary camps until the dispute was completely resolved.

Mohamed Noor, a livestock owner and trader, said the fighting had forced pastoralists to flee the area towards Isiolo town with at least 20,000 livestock. "We cannot get grass for our animals, those of us who were farming are now begging for food as we cannot access our farms,” he said.

Marius Tum, the Isiolo police commander, said on 21 July that hundreds of security personnel drawn from across the district and other parts of the country had been deployed to all the villages around Isiolo town. He said their presence defused tension and families had started returning to their farms.

However, Tum said the police had started investigating reports that some politicians were fuelling the fighting. "The fighting was first triggered by the current drought but it seems somebody or a certain group of people are inciting these communities to continue fighting; it will not be accepted," Tum said.