Recent deadly clashes in Kenya stem from widespread economic frustration, chronic impunity and the ambitions of politicians seeking office, according to analysts and activists.
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted, the timing of the latest clashes on the coast is alarming.
“In Kenya, the recent inter-communal violence in the Tana River District, during which dozens were killed, including a large number of children and women, is a grim reminder of the 2007-08 events,” she said earlier this week, referring to the killings and displacement that followed the country’s last presidential poll.
“I call on the government to create an independent and impartial investigation and to increase vigilance across the country in view of the March 2013 [presidential, parliamentary, gubernatorial, and senatorial] elections,” she said.
Hussein Khalid, executive director of MUHURI, a human rights organization based on the Kenyan coast, said: “The latest flare-up between the Pokomos, who are typically farmers, and Orma pastoralists has shattered the fragile peace-building campaigns [launched in 2008] and signalled more trouble ahead.”
“The fighting… also confirms the long-held fears that a cache of deadly weapons are in the wrong hands in the region,” he told IRIN.
For Hussein Dado, a retired diplomat and gubernatorial candidate who lives in Tana River District, "the guns are not the problem and seizing them will not end these conflicts. The key issues must be addressed. They can take the guns but these people will be left with machetes,” he said. Much of the killing in this area was done with non-firearms such as clubs, spears and machetes.
“These killings are planned and executed by people who are known but they have not been arrested. They are never intercepted when information is given to authorities that they are planning to attack, hence all these killings,” he said.
For the daily Star newspaper, the violence in Tana River and other parts of the country “is the result of government failure, pure and simple. The inertia and dithering by key security organs in responding to the situations lends credence to the charge that the government is complicit in the bloody chaos.”
In a 13 September statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Kenyan authorities to reverse their habitual inaction and to “investigate and prosecute those responsible for violence in the Coast Region”.
“Police and local administration in Tana River failed to respond to reports from residents over the past six months that violence could be imminent,” the statement said.
Politicians to blame?
HRW said it believed four politicians “who hoped to win seats in next year’s elections” and who, it said, incited violence in order to displace their supporters’ opponents’ were behind the clashes. One member of parliament (MP) has been arrested for incitement in relation to the killings.
“It can’t be ignored that some politicians fan violence so as to mess with voting patterns in some cases so that the outcome favours them in the long run,” said Josphat Mwatela, Principal Professor at Mombasa Polytechnic.
“Politicians come up with empty promises such as job provision and creation whenever an electioneering year is near, only for them to disappear or underperform, thus sowing a seed of hatred and hopelessness among the electorate, of whom a majority happen to be youths,” he explained.
“Many youths have become extremely desperate to an extent of even being brainwashed to join terror gangs, thus posing a major security threat to not only the coastal region but entire country at large,” said Mwatela.
According to Hussein Wario, a resident of the coastal town of Malindi, “youths are ready to join [the Somalia-based insurgency] Al-Shabab or any other militia group. Hundreds have already joined these groups and are available for hire to fight; their threat is serious.”
In late August, the assassination in Mombasa of a radical Muslim cleric with alleged links to Al-Qaeda sparked three days of riots, during which hand grenades were thrown at police vehicles on two occasions.
The perception by the Coast Province’s indigenous population that the government has sidelined them for decades, handing over their land to cronies and failing to deliver jobs or development, has led to the creation of a separatist movement, the recently unbanned Mombasa Revolutionary Council (MRC).
"Our people have declared a battle against further marginalization, we have resolved that the coast is not part of Kenya; no election will be held here. We must use the sword to get justice," declared a civil servant from the coastal Kwale County.
“A squatter in your own land”
Sheikh Juma Ngao, a renowned Islamic cleric and chairman of the Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council (KMNAC), told IRIN that “groups such as the MRC, who have more or less vowed to disrupt the election process in the coastal region have their ideologies deeply based on injustices surrounding land ownership and marginalization. Being called a squatter in your own land, for example, can be the worst thing to ever happen to anybody since that’s the beginning of oppression.”
Since independence, elites in Nairobi have doled out parcels of designated “government land” on the coast to cronies on the basis of loyalty or ethnicity, often illegally. Indigenous populations living on such land in the belief they had customary rights to it were regarded as squatters.
Independent researcher Paul Goldsmith said such injustices included the “disproportionate allocation of land there to non-indigenous people amidst high poverty levels in a region which earns the country the highest revenue from tourism.”
“The MRC is not armed but could easily become so in the future,” Goldsmith warned in a November 2011 report.
According to Abdirizak Arale, a lecturer at Moi University’s Department of Environment Studies, large tracts of coastal land are now in the hands of foreign companies for rice and sugarcane production.
"Communities in Tana Delta and Malindi have lost more than 600,000 hectares of land which have been seized without their consent; they have been displaced [and] not compensated just to pave way for [the] change of land use and ownership, to grow sugar, rice and for mining. This is a key factor to the bitterness and the conflicts in Tana Delta,” he said.
The Isiolo case
Projects launched in the name of economic development elsewhere in Kenya have also been blamed for generating instability. The transformation of Isiolo from a relative backwater into a “resort city” has worsened conflict between rival communities there.
“Pastoralists have been deprived of land, armed to fight each other and portrayed as violent. Title deeds have been issued to investors,” according to Cosmas Ekuam, who works with Voice of the Pastoralists, an NGO.
"The community in Isiolo is seeking to be involved in this resort city project, [but] their land has been taken without their consent. They have suffered mostly as a result of this projected resort city, dozens have been killed and displaced. Is this development? asked Godana Doyo, a lawyer with the Northern Legal Aid Resource Centre.
The discovery of oil in northern Kenya “is a divine intervention from God. We have been blessed with the most expensive resources after decades of being denied support by the state and perceived as a liability,” said Hussein Sasura, the MP for Saku constituency in Marsabit, north of Isiolo.
"Greed and corruption must be prevented to avoid [a resource] curse. The chances of an armed uprising from the communities in areas where these minerals have been discovered are high,” he added.
Suspicions over Lamu port project
Many in the coastal region are also suspicious about a multi-billion dollar project to build a regional transportation hub, tourist resort and east Africa’s largest free port in Lamu County, one of the poorest in Kenya.
The MRC-supporting civil servant said outsiders were “putting up Lamu Port for their own benefit, to import goods and employ their kin, nothing more”.
This perception is shared by a coalition of local organizations grouped under the banner of Save Lamu, which on its website expressed particular concern over the secrecy and lack of local consultation with regard to the development project.
“Individuals with access to the plans have been scurrying to obtain land at the proposed development sites while locals remain internally displaced without any title deeds,” it said, noting that only 10-20 percent of land in the county is owned by locals.
“The government has proved its disregard for the rights of the local communities by tearing through farms in Kililana area in January 2012 to prepare for the port launching site without informing, compensating, or relocating those affected,” it added.