The recent killing of 70 people in northern Kenya's Marsabit district demonstrates a frequent pattern of conflict between communities living in arid areas over scarce resources and inter-communal animosity exacerbated by political rivalry, an analyst said.
On 12 July, hundreds of armed raiders believed to have been members of the Borana ethnic group attacked villages inhabited by the Gabra community in the Turbi area of Marsabit, near the Kenya-Ethiopia border. Some 70 people were killed, including 22 children.
At least 6,000 people fled their homes following that raid.
In similar incidents, dozens of people were killed and thousands displaced around the Kenya-Somalia border between January and March 2005 in clashes between two ethnic Somali clans, the Murule and the Garre.
According to Abdul Ibrahim Haro, coordinator of the Conflict and Disaster Project in the Eastern Africa office of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), competition for resources among Somali clans around the Kenya-Somalia border had also caused recent feuds between the Garre and the Murule clans in Mandera.
The resources include pasture, water and business opportunities.
The demarcation of parliamentary constituencies in Kenya’s northeastern Mandera district has also had the effect of dividing the pastoral communities along clan lines, creating animosity among people who might have shared grazing land before the delineation of political boundaries.
During the fighting between the Garre and the Murule in Mandera early in 2005, Haro noted, the Garre had wanted to return to their pre-colonial grazing areas, but were driven back by the Murule, who believed that the Garre were encroaching on territory that had become their political constituency.
"There has also been political incitement, with politicians trying to prevent settlement in their constituencies by people of clans that might not vote for them," he said.
The creation of administrative locations in the drought-prone Northeastern Province had also led to inter-clan tensions, with different groups unwilling to be lumped together.
"Locations lead to settlements and become centres for relief distribution during drought," said Haro.
Following the clashes in Mandera between the Garre and Murule clans, the government supported the formation of an inter-clan arbitration committee led by religious leaders and other prominent personalities, including local Members of Parliament.
The committee came up with an agreement binding the two parties to pay blood money for the killings committed by members of their clans. Property lost during the fighting would not claimed, but damaged homes were to be repaired by the culpable group, according to the pact.
"If any community fails to honour or breaches the agreement in whole or in part, the government shall take stiff action," the agreement read in part. "All illegal arms/ammunitions must be surrendered to the government."
The arbitration committee identified causes of the conflict as disputes over pasture and water that had been allowed to fester without resolution, issues of peaceful co-existence that had not been addressed, disagreements over administrative locations and criminal acts such as murder and rape.
An estimated 23,000 people were displaced by the clashes between the Murule and Garre in Mandera, but the local administration said last week that the majority of them had returned to their villages following the signing of the peace agreement.
An estimated 4,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were, however, still living in small groups in northeastern towns and trading centres such as El Wak, Wargadud, Damasa and Lafey.
"They have been unable to go back mainly due to logistical problems, including transport," Paul Chemutut, a senior district officer in Mandera, said. The government was providing relief food to the IDPs, he added.
The humanitarian problem in Mandera, however, was further exacerbated by the arrival of some 17,000 refugees fleeing the Somali border town of Boru-Hache, also known as El Waaq-Somalia, and the surrounding villages in March and April due to violent clashes between the Marehan and the Garre clans there.
Some 15,000 of the refugees, who belong to the Garre clan, were living with the local community in the Kenyan town of El Wak, while another 2,000 had sought refuge with their relatives and friends in a place known as Bore Hole 11, about eight kilometres outside El Wak.
"Their presence is exacerbating the level of poverty around El Wak," said Waweru Kimani, Mandera district commissioner, who lamented that aid agencies had provided little help to the refugees. "Malnutrition is rising and in another month there may be deaths," Kimani said on 22 July.
Fighting between the Marehan and the Garre clans, which flared up again in Boru-Hache on 22 July, was over control of the town, an important transit point for goods coming into or out of Kenya and Ethiopia, Haro said.
The domination of trade in Boru-Hache by the Marehan, the dominant group in Somalia's southwestern Gedo region, had caused resentment among the Garre, who consider the town to be their stronghold.
"The Garre feel marginalised in their own territory and are trying to drive the Marehan out of Boru-Hache, while the Marehan want to drive the Garre out of Gedo," Haro noted.
He said the Garre, who speak both the Somali and Borana languages, had also claimed that the Marehan were the main beneficiaries of donor funding. According to Haro, the Marehan gained a foothold in the local administration in Boru-Hache during the rule of former Somali president Mohammad Siyad Barre – himself a Marehan - whose government was toppled in 1991.
"With the Marehan calling the shots, competition for resources is a serious matter in Boru-Hache," he added.
Meanwhile, Kenyan authorities on Friday announced the closure of the country's border with Somalia after Marehan militia crossed the frontier in two separate incidents during which they killed one person and stole 39 head of cattle from Mandera district, Waweru Kimani said.
"It is a temporary measure and the border will be opened as soon as they return the livestock," Kimani told IRIN, adding that the border violations had occurred on 22 and 25 July.
"Security has been beefed up along the border. There is no cause for alarm on our side of the border," Kimani said.
The conflict between the Borana and the Gabra communities in Marsabit should also be seen in the same light - rivalry over resources, accentuated by local politics.
The Borana, Burji, Gabra, Rendile, Samburu and Turkana communities inhabit Marsabit district.
In the highlands of Saku parliamentary constituency, the most fertile part of an otherwise barren district, the Borana resent the fact that the Gabra and other communities have settled and invested there, according to Mohammed Sheikh Adan, the team leader in charge of the vulnerability reduction under the ITFG's Conflict and Disaster Project.
"The Borana feel threatened and that feeling of insecurity is one of the drivers of conflict," Adan to IRIN.
The Borana and the Gabra ethnic groups reside on both sides of the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, a factor that complicates the conflict further.
"When the recent killings happened, it appears that the Kenyan Borana had asked for help from their kinsmen in Ethiopia," Adan said.
Ethiopian authorities have since handed over to their Kenyan counterparts nine suspects believed to have been part of the 12 July massacre before fleeing across the border, according to local media reports.
Adan attributed intermittent clashes between the Gabra and the Rendile or the Turkana and the Rendile in other parts of Marsabit to disputes over water and pasture and cattle rustling.