Diverse communities including Kalenjin (a collective term encompassing diverse indigenous peoples including the Kipsigis, Endorois, Tugen, Pokot and Sabaot), Maasai, Somalis, Borana and other groups.

Kalenjin 4.97 million (13 per cent), Maasai 841,622 (2 per cent) and Borana (161,399), (Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) Kenya 2009). The Ilchamus and Endorois are also distinct pastoralist communities, but they are not recognised by the Kenyan state and are generally subsumed into the larger Kalenjin group. Minority and indigenous community representatives contest the accuracy of CBS statistics.

The two arid northern provinces of Kenya comprise half the land area of the country yet are home to less than 3 per cent of the population, mainly nomadic pastoralists of many ethnic identities and many more tribal and clan affiliations and rivalries. These groups include various Kalenjin peoples, the Borana, and the Somalis. The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists who live in the South, along the border with Tanzania. Some Kalenjin peoples, including the most numerous subgroup – the Kipsigis – also live in the South. The Kipsigis have largely abandoned their traditional pastoralist culture and become agriculturalists.

Historical context

From colonial times the government has treated the northern parts of Kenya mainly as a security problem. Other interventions have primarily been to try to persuade nomads to settle. Emergency powers have enabled the authorities to bypass the judicial system. Although a variety of colonial and post-colonial legislation has been alternately enforced or ignored, draconian measures are widely available and have often been used. These have included powers to arrest, move or detain people, confiscate or destroy livestock, prohibit gatherings, and impose a mandatory death penalty for illegal possession of firearms. The northern districts are Trust Lands with very limited defences against expropriation, an important factor in moves to privatize land, particularly for ranching.

Somali-speaking pastoralists attracted the greatest government hostility under the Moi regime. The eastern parts of northern Kenya are traditionally inhabited by Somalis of the Degodia, Ajuran and Ogaden clans. These areas have long been claimed by Somalia, with disavowals having limited impact on Kenyan suspicions. The inhabitants voted to secede from Kenya in a referendum held shortly before independence in 1963. The results were ignored by the incoming government, leading to a three-year secessionist war. A mixture of secessionist insurgency, inter-ethnic and clan warfare, and outright banditry has characterized the region ever since. The 1977-8 war between Ethiopia and Somalia, and the civil war in Somalia in the 1990s, which created over a quarter of a million refugees, have led to armed incursions from Somalia and exacerbated instability.

Hostility between Somalis and the authorities have led to continuous conflict over efforts to control movement, such as the impounding of cattle, resulting in extremely serious abuses, including massacres in Garissa in 1980 (300 people) and Wajir in 1984 (up to 2,000) and 1987 (300). The impact of such killings affects all Kenyan Somalis – including those long-resident in urban areas – who feel themselves treated as second-class citizens. A specific grievance was the requirement since 1989 for Kenyan Somalis to carry a separate pink identity card, in addition to the national identity card carried by all Kenyans. This was ostensibly to distinguish them from Somali refugees, numbering about 220,000, who also suffered abuse at the hands of the authorities, including alleged rape by soldiers.

Competition among nomadic groups over cattle and grazing combined with periods of drought have perpetuated a way of life close to subsistence and seldom far from conflict – though most efforts at economic improvement have failed by upsetting the precarious equilibrium between people and resources. Conflict in Somalia has caused further widespread disruption, and the great availability of firearms has exacerbated traditional and more recent enmities.

Other groups have also faced harassment and persecution. Boran and Sakuye nomads have been subjected to wholesale confiscation of stock, disrupting social relations as well as economy. The creation of the Sibiloi Nature Reserve excluded Gabbra nomads from traditional summer grazing.

In the South, the Maasai have faced similar pressures to northern pastoralists. Under colonial rule, great swathes of Maasai land were confiscated for use by Europeans, a practice that continued under Jomo Kenyatta, who dispersed Maasai lands to agriculturalist peoples and drove the Maasai further into poverty. The Maasai fared better under Daniel arap Moi, himself a pastoralist, and many Maasai became staunch supporters of Moi’s KANU party. A string of droughts have created intense pressure on the Maasai and led them into conflict with neighbouring peoples over water sources and grazing grounds, including clashes with the Akamba, Kipsigis, Kikuyu, and Kisii from 1999 to 2007. Straddling the border with Tanzania and featuring a distinctive culture, the Maasai have also come under pressure from a tourist industry that exploits Maasai culture and brings few proceeds to the local community. Maasai girls and women face the added threat of female genital mutilation (FGM). A survey by the Kenyan Ministry of Health in 1998 showed that around 90 per cent of Maasai girls and women are subjected to FGM, much higher than than the national average of 38 per cent. A Maasai-founded refuge in the town of Narok, Maasai Education Discovery, has provided refuge to girls fleeing FGM since its founding in 1999.

In 2008, the Endorois community on the shores of Lake Bogoria in the Rift Valley reported that 500 of their kinsmen and women had fled cattle raids by the Pokot. Advances made by the Pokot had also pushed the Ilchamus pastoralists onto territory usually occupied by the Endorois. There had been no government assistance to help with the internally displaced people. In 2006, the Kenyan government launched an operation aimed at collecting up to 30,000 illegally held weapons in Kenya’s west. Local Pokot and Samburu people claimed that the operation was undertaken without adequate consultation and had sparked the flight of thousands of pastoralists across the border. Pokot cattle raids in 2006 drove thousands of Samburu into camps, and have been marked by widespread murder and rape.

Attempts to re-claim ancestral lands have also continued. In October 2006 and again in May 2008, Samburu pastoralists pressed claims to ancestral rights to graze their cattle on private farms in Laikipia. The security services moved in to forcibly evict the herders.

Similarly, in the South in 2006, Maasai herdsmen drove cattle into the Maasai Mara game reserve to protest what they claimed was a corrupt allocation of 4,000 acres of park land to an elite Maasai developer. The Endorois pastoralist community has, however, opted to try to realise its rights to its territory around Lake Bogoria by taking the Kenyan government to court. MRG has been working closely with this community, who were displaced from their traditional territory when the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1973. Attempts to seek redress at a national level have failed, so the Endorois took their case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights.

In February 2010, the African Commission found that the Kenyan government had violated certain fundamental rights of the Endorois community. The decision created a major legal precedent by recognising, for the first time in Africa, indigenous peoples’ rights over traditionally owned land and their right to development.

The Commission recommended that the government restore Endorois ancestral land and ensure that the community has unrestricted access to Lake Bogoria and surrounding area. The Commission also recommended that the government pay compensation to the community and pay royalties to the Endorois from the profits of the reserve.

Current issues

In September 2014, the government established a Task Force to implement the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights regarding forced the eviction of Endorois from the Lake Bogoria National Reserve. This includes the recognition of Endorois ownership of the land, restitution of the land and compensation. However, the Task Force’s terms of reference limited its mandate purely to whether implementation was possible, rather than how to implement the decision; the Endorois were not part of the Task Force and its terms of reference did not require consultation with the community. The Task Force made no meaningful progress during its 12 months’ operation and to date, its mandate has not been extended. Only a small amount (2 million Kenyan shillings or approximately US$20,000) in compensation for bio-enzyme extraction royalties has been paid.

Maasai in Kenya have also suffered serious blows to their culture due to large-scale interventions and expropriation by the government. Hell’s Gate National Park, in the Rift Valley and near Lake Naivasha, is the traditional home of Maasai communities. The area has strong spiritual and cultural significance for the community; nearby Mt. Longonot is central to Maasai traditional religious practices. There has already been displacement of Maasai occurring in the area, but the government’s development of the US$1.39 billion Kenya Electricity Expansion Project (KEEP) led to the further resettlement of approximately 1,200 Maasai. Those affected criticize the fact that the land available for resettlement is much reduced and not suitable for grazing.

The joint financing of the project by the World Bank, European Investment Bank and other donors, totaling US$330 million in international development assistance, prompted Maasai representatives to lodge an inspection request to engage both the World Bank’s Inspection Panel and the European Investment Bank’s Complaint Mechanism in October 2014. In an unprecedented step, the accountability mechanisms of both organizations undertook a joint investigation into the negative impact of the energy project on Maasai livelihoods and way of life. In July 2015 the report was released, confirming that noncompliance with the World Bank’s Indigenous People’s Policy due to involuntary resettlement and inadequate supervision by the Bank had caused widespread harm. It also concluded that this damage could have been avoided had the project’s implementers engaged in a ‘culturally compatible consultation and decision-making mechanisms’, further involved the community elders in planning and possessed a greater capacity to engage in the Maa language. The World Bank approved an action plan in February 2017 following mediation, although the affected Maasai communities remain very critical about the lack of adequate consultation, compensation and livelihood opportunities in their new location.

A series of rapidly accelerating droughts have left pastoralist communities more and more vulnerable. Pastoralists have also been struggled with the risks associated with climate change. Many of these communities are already dealing with the consequences of global warming – but national governments, such as Kenya’s, have yet to identify long-term strategies to help them. Crucially, pastoralist communities need to to be consulted on adaptation processes, and for an end to development policies which pushes communities to settle in resource-poor areas.

Conflicts over natural resources have increased as communities – particularly pastoralists – compete for diminishing water, pasture and food resources. In 2011 the government declared a national disaster as Kenya suffered the most severe drought in decades, which affected over 5 million people. After three years of poor rains, severe drought returned to Kenya again in early 2017. Another national disaster was declared, with 23 out of 47 counties facing insufficient rainfall. By May 2017, UNICEF was reporting that 2.6 million Kenyans were food insecure. Facing the risk of famine, northern pastoralists were forced to move their livestock in search of grazing and water. During the first months of 2017, tensions and conflict arose, especially in Laikipia, as pastoralists encroached upon private lands. By April 2017, at least 14 people had been killed in incidents in Laikipia which drew attention to the underlying issue of land inequality whereby large tracts are owned by the expatriate community. Local politicians were accused of fomenting violence in the lead-up to forthcoming elections. The government was also criticized for adding to the tensions when it sent in the military in March. In neighbouring Baringo County, attacks by armed groups during spring 2017 targeted indigenous women and children. According to local indigenous community leaders, seven indigenous children and two indigenous women were killed in an incident at a school where they had taken shelter. At least two Endorois women were badly wounded in attacks, and many have been displaced. In March 2017, the Kenya National Human Rights Commission estimated that the conflict in Baringo County had led to at least 10,000 displaced.


Updated January 2018.

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