Pre-election politics and planned development schemes have fuelled an upsurge in inter-communal killings and forced displacement in Kenya’s northern Isiolo area, which if left unaddressed, is likely to escalate, say analysts and civil society workers.
Several communities have been caught up in the unrest but the main protagonists are the Borana and Turkana ethnic groups. Recent events indicate the standard interpretation of the conflict being limited to tit-for-tat cattle rustling and drought-related resource conflict is superficial and outdated.
Isiolo features prominently in a major national development plan known as Vision 2030, whereby the town is set to be elevated to a “resort city”, complete with up-market hotels and a new airport to boost its tourism potential, rooted in nearby game-parks.
A road linking Isiolo to Moyale, which lies on the Ethiopian border, is being built while oil and gas exploration is under way in the wider Isiolo region.
Since mid-October, seemingly organized attacks have claimed about 20 lives, including those of seven children, and led to the displacement of some 2,900 households, according to humanitarian sources and local officials.
Livestock was not stolen in most of these incidents but dozens of dwellings were set ablaze. Most of the targeted settlements are inhabited by Turkana people. Continuing insecurity has greatly hampered humanitarian response to the displaced, who in many cases fled so quickly they had no time to take any possessions, and whose plight is worsened by the onset of heavy rains.
There is also a “desperate need” for shelter and non-food items such as mosquito nets, kitchen kits, jerry cans, soap, blankets and sleeping mats, according to the findings of a mission to Isiolo conducted by UNICEF, adding that the lack of latrines in displacement sites had resulted in sickness and worries about more cases.
“The Isiolo conflict is political: this is driven by the 2012 election,” said a researcher, who asked not to be named because of the tension. “Certain communities are being incited by sitting politicians who are eyeing the new county positions like governorship, senatorship and parliamentary seats.”
Kenya’s new constitution created 47 new counties to help devolve political and economic power.
“These conflicts are to inflict fear and displace the so-called minority communities in Isiolo,” he said.
“In the absence of appropriate security measures and law-enforcement interventions aimed at preventing future clashes and inter-ethnic violence, there is a real risk that the situation could deteriorate significantly in the lead-up to the 2012 elections,” UNICEF said in its mission report.
Leaders of various communities – Somali, Samburu, Gabra and Rendille as well as Turkana and Borana – told IRIN they blamed the escalation of violence on the failure of local authorities to address the root causes of the unrest.
"The police and army have not and will never resolve disputes among the locals,” said Joseph Kalapata of the Forum for the Protection of Pastoralist Development.
“Our people should be informed that they all lose conflicts. They also need to understand that he current constitution guarantees equal sharing of resources," he added.
Some leaders also pointed to the failure of a disarmament operation in 2010 to rid some pastoralist communities of all of their weapons. There are plans to renew the exercise in December.
The Borana are the largest and politically dominant ethnic group in Isiolo. Drought in 2011 led to an influx of large numbers of pastoralists from various groups. Isiolo’s economic growth has also served as a magnet.
In the 2007 general election, the local parliamentary seat was won by a Borana, with a Turkana coming a close second.
“These conflicts are being used by the Borana to suppress their future political and economic competitors like the Turkana and Somalis,” said the researcher.
The conflict is about “political numbers, not resources, because civilians, including women and children are being killed and nothing stolen”, he said.
“How do you kill a small child and shoot a pregnant woman? Why should you kill people at two in the morning, shoot people while they are still sleeping? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves,” said an Isiolo-based civil society worker.
“As we are talking, many Turkana have run away from their homes, it is really a pity,” said the civil society worker. “The Turkana also happen to be in quite a number of places where these developments will be.”
“Let the truth be told, the Turkana are holding large swathes of land to the detriment of other communities,” a senior member of Isiolo county council was reported as telling a recent meeting convened to discuss deteriorating security.
The Turkana are mainly located in the outskirts of Isiolo town.
“There are five major communities in Isiolo which are all fighting for recognition. All of them think that they have a stake, leading to misunderstandings and the formation of alliances that have led to the loss of lives,” the civil society worker said.
“We want people to go back to normality with no more deaths. This kind of organized intimidation has to stop,” he said.
According to local sources who spoke to IRIN, a lack of clear land tenure policy has helped fuel conflict in the area as tracts earmarked for development are taken over, or “grabbed”, by people keen to cash in on Vision 2030.
Another source of tension is private game parks, known as “conservancies”, tourist destinations also designed to reduce poaching and promote community development. The Borana and Somali communities feel excluded from the economic benefits they deliver as well as their rich pastureland.
According to a priest in Isiolo, Jeremia Ndungu: “The great concern is how to broker peace among the communities who are unequal in matters of resources.”
Mama Kapua, a Turkana mother-of-12, fled her home in the Isiolo suburb of Kambi Garba after it was attacked on 22 October. Her husband, who stayed behind with one of their sons, died when the house was set on fire. The son escaped with burns.
“They [the attackers] are bringing in people from outside Isiolo who cannot speak Kiswahili. They are here to fight,” she told IRIN.
“My husband had nothing valuable worth being killed for. My son was preparing for exams,” she said, explaining that she managed to escape with the help of an ethnic Somali neighbour who lent her a niqab as a disguise.