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A model for peace in northern Kenya

11 October 2022

By Billy Rwothungeyo, Africa Media Officer at Minority Rights Group

Nearly sixty years on from independence, northern Kenya is distinct from other parts of the country in many ways. Mainly inhabited by pastoralist communities, the region is prone to conflicts, in stark contrast to other parts of the East African country.

The two counties of Isiolo and Marsabit are often at the heart of conflicts underpinned by several political and socio-economic realities facing pastoralist communities in a rapidly changing world.

Isiolo, for example, has five large tribal communities; Borana, Turkana, Samburu, Somali and Meru. These communities are often competing for the same resources such as grazing lands and water. Factors including climate change are making these vital resources increasingly scarce. While competition for dwindling resources amongst rival communities appears to be the main driver of conflicts in this region, toxic politics adds fuel to the fires.

An over emphasis on ethnicity often adds toxicity to Kenya’s political contests. While such fallouts only receive national and international media scrutiny when they happen at national level, this is often ignored at grassroots levels. County assembly contests between two candidates from different tribal groups are often not about what agenda the parties have for the people, but instead are reduced to which tribe is better deserving of the opportunity. With tensions between communities heightened by politics, conflicts are all the more likely.

‘Many people are tired of never-ending conflicts. They are tired of moving from one place to another, to start afresh their lives after conflict,’ said Grace Lolim, a human rights activist and the chief executive officer of Isiolo Gender Watch.Under the ‘Networks for Peace programme, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), together with Isiolo Gender Watch, introduced a conflict prevention model in the two counties. The centrepiece of the intervention is an early warning mechanism which incorporates the use of online portals and a messaging service. Peace ambassadors feed information into the portal.

Lolim affirmed that the early warning mechanism has averted potential conflicts between communities at a recent multi-country peace conference held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, organized by MRG and Isiolo Gender Watch. She explained that aggressors in the region use coded language, which the peace ambassadors have been trained on how to recognise. The early warning mechanism also protects the identity of those who report cases so that they are not targeted by aggressors.

‘Bad elements use parables. We have illegal guns in northern Kenya, so people go around asking ‘Uko na maragwe?’ (Swahili for ‘Do you have beans?’). If you are new in the area and you do not understand that kind of language, you may wonder why you are being asked for beans, and yet in actual sense, they are asking you for bullets,’ said Lolim.

‘Without security, you cannot have development’, said Monicah Yator, Founder and Executive Director of the Indigenous Women and Girls’ Initiative. Impressed by how the early warning mechanism is working in Isiolo and Marsabit, she is keen to replicate a similar model in the counties of Baringo, West Pokot and Elgeyo-Marakwet, where her organisation carries out much-needed work. She emphasises how in Baringo county, for example, security forces only intervene after deadly clashes between warring communities – when severe harm has already been done. ‘[They] come when deaths have been reported.  Many people have been displaced because of conflicts and the impacts of climate change. Six schools are currently closed because they’re hosting displaced families,’ she said.

Take education for example: areas with persistent conflicts are synonymous with poor education outcomes.  Children stay away from school because they are either on the constant move with their parents to safer locations, or because school is too dangerous to attend. Teachers also abandon these schools, opting to work in safer parts of the country. It is therefore imperative that communities pursue dialogue to resolve their differences, and shun communities pursue dialogue to resolve their differences, and shun conflicts.

Photo: Grace Lolim, a human rights activist and the chief executive officer of Isiolo Gender Watch speaking at the recent peace conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Credits: Billy Rwothungeyo/MRG.