Clashes between pastoralists, farmers and conservationists in the central Kenyan county of Laikipia - triggered initially by drought but worsened by political tensions linked to local elections scheduled for August - could escalate into a wider, even more damaging conflict unless authorities act quickly to defuse tensions.
Laikipia has long been contested land. It sits at the foot of Mount Kenya, Africa's second highest mountain. In recent decades, its sweeping Savanna vistas have made it one of the country's most important tourist destinations while its ample fertile land has attracted commercial agriculture. For centuries before this, however, the region's permanent springs, basalt hills and open grassland supported the semi-nomadic lifestyles of local pastoralist communities.
Local communities have long fought for control of Laikipia's lush pasturelands. Now some local politicians have been accused of using these traditional grievances to incite communities and gain advantage ahead of the vote.
As the elections approach, observer missions should deploy in significant numbers in counties such as Laikipia to boost trust in the process and deter irresponsible political actors seeking to subvert the polling or displace voters.
A Troubled History
When British settlers arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, some of the land they coveted most in Kenya was occupied by the Maasai, a storied warrior community that had acquired the best real estate in the country through conquest. The British displaced the Maasai from the central Rift Valley, forcing them into two reserves set up in Laikipia and southern Kenya near the border with Tanzania. They promised clan elders that the community could hold the land "so long as the Maasai shall exist as a race".
The British broke their word in 1911, pushing the Maasai out of Laikipia to open the way for large ranches and farms. This betrayal still rankles the Maasai and others in the region. The lopsided land ownership that resulted from the expulsion of these pastoralists more than one hundred years ago helps explain local grievances today.
Laikipia borders the semi-arid counties of Isiolo, Baringo and Samburu. In recent years, regular droughts have battered these counties, adding to the stress already caused by rising populations and an increase in livestock herds. The latest drought, which has affected most of East Africa, forced pastoralists in search of well-watered pasture to move tens of thousands of cattle into the Laikipia farmlands and conservation areas.
Such migrations have occurred periodically during previous droughts. What makes this year different is the level of armed violence. About 25 people, including ten policemen, have been killed and dozens of civilians injured as the herders forcibly occupy farms, community-owned ranches and sprawling conservancies - many owned by third-generation Kenyans of British origin. The 23 April shooting of the prominent author and conservationist Kuki Gallmann attracted widespread attention.
Some media reports have portrayed the victims as mainly Kenyans of European extraction who own conservancies, but that is not wholly accurate. Herders from the Samburu and Pokot ethnic groups have also displaced many indigenous Kenyan farmers. Even several Maasai-owned ranches have been occupied in what appears to be an effort to stake a lasting claim to Laikipia land.
Many believe that politicians are deliberately inciting violence prior to the elections on 8 August.
Many believe that politicians are deliberately inciting violence prior to the elections on 8 August. Under Kenya's 2010 constitution, substantial resources are now managed at the local level by elected officials. Although this devolution of power is popular, it also has made local campaigns increasingly intense and violent, especially in ethnically-mixed areas.
"You have politicians whose whole platform revolves around whipping up ethnic emotions and inciting pastoralists to forcibly occupy land in an effort to win votes", Ndiritu Muriithi, a former government minister and candidate for the position of Laikipia county governor - the most powerful elected post in the county - told Crisis Group.
In repeated interviews, local farmers and ranchers pointed an accusing finger at Matthew Lempurkel, a firebrand local MP from the Samburu community. In November 2016, the Director of Public Prosecutions charged Lempurkel with incitement to violence. The case remains in court and no judgment has been issued yet.
Lempurkel strenuously denied claims he had stirred up the agitation in an interview with Crisis Group. "That is propaganda spread by my opponents. It is not true. Most of the pastoralists have no voters' cards or ID [national identification] cards. Their illiteracy levels are high. What would I stand to gain by inciting them? This problem was caused by the long, persistent drought".
Lempurkel, however, said it was unfair that "a few ranchers own tens of thousands of acres" while many locals were landless. Lempurkel was re-arrested on 22 July and charged with fresh counts of incitement. He was released after posting bail two days later.
Joseph Shuel, a Maasai community leader and human rights activist, accused Samburu leaders of harbouring an expansionist agenda and of engaging in "ill-informed incitement." He said the community with a legitimate historic claim to Laikipia was the Maasai but Samburu and Pokot warriors had forcibly taken over numerous Maasai-owned ranches. Shuel said the various parties should strike a middle ground that allows indigenes to co-exist with the large land owners but also offers help to pastoralists to cope with the tough conditions created by changing weather patterns and shrinking resources.
In many ways, Martin Evans typifies the ranchers and large-scale farmers whose holdings have been besieged by pastoralists. His great grandmother arrived in the central Kenya town of Nyeri from Britain in 1902 and was one of Kenya's pioneer coffee farmers.
Evans' father bought the Ol Maisor ranch in Laikipia, where the family has grown wheat and kept livestock since 1968. He speaks fluent Kiswahili, the Kenyan national language, and considers Laikipia home.
Evans told Crisis Group the latest confrontation with pastoralists was the worst he could remember. "This is totally the result of political instigation", he said. Two workers were killed on his ranch when Pokot herders drove tens of thousands of cattle into the farm. The herders remain on the ranch in a tense standoff with army troops brought in to protect the family and farm workers.
He noted that devolution had brought power closer to the people but also created "ethnic mini-nations", some of whose leaders were inciting their followers to take over land to advance their political ambitions.
Conservancies and Pastoralists
Laikipia could serve as a model for resolving tensions between agriculturalists and herders. Because of its stunning biodiversity, it has the resources to help pastoralists transition to more sustainable cattle keeping.
Over the last few years, many donors, most prominently the U.S. government, have poured tens of millions of dollars to support NGO-managed conservancies in the area. These help protect wildlife by sharing the income generated by tourism with communities that have surrendered large tracks of land for conservation.
However, as Modecai Ogada, a prominent environmentalist notes, "under the current system, pastoralists have been left on the periphery. Many traditional dry season grazing areas are out of bounds and fenced off as conservancies. If even a small percentage of the funds being sent to these NGOs went to helping the pastoralists, you wouldn't be witnessing a crisis of such severity".
It is a fair point. Donors that support conservation efforts in Laikipia and elsewhere should offer funding and technical support to regenerate the devastated grasslands in neighbouring counties. This would help remove the need for herders to leave their home ranges in large-scale migrations that inevitably trigger conflict.
The greater challenge falls to the Kenyan government, which needs to formulate a policy for helping pastoral communities adjust to changing conditions, especially climate stresses that undermine the traditional semi-nomadic pastoralism that has been practiced for centuries.
The Kenyan government has historically neglected the cattle-keeping sector, instead promoting commercial crops such as coffee and tea that are big foreign exchange earners.
The Kenyan government has historically neglected the cattle-keeping sector, instead promoting commercial crops such as coffee and tea that are big foreign exchange earners. This neglect helps explain the low levels of development and high rates of illiteracy among pastoral communities in Laikipia and much of northern Kenya.
The national and county governments should invest resources in helping pastoralists by improving extension services, establishing breeder farms and offering funding for research to help locals improve the quality of cattle, thus allowing them to raise smaller, more productive herds.
The government should lead the effort, working with donors and local grassroots organisations, to rehabilitate rangelands devastated by drought and overgrazing in Samburu, Isiolo, Baringo and elsewhere. Greater investment in education is also essential. Pastoralists should learn to engage in sustainable cattle keeping or empowered to pursue alternative means of earning a livelihood.
The county government should establish migratory corridors for cattle herds and restore access to dry season grazing lands appropriated, some locals say, by powerful government officials.
Many in Laikipia told Crisis Group that they expected the government to launch a major security operation after the election to push back the pastoralists from land they have occupied. Onesmus Musyoki, the County Commissioner in overall charge of security forces in Laikipia, told Crisis Group the government was determined to restore the rule of law.
But the government should act with restraint to avoid inflaming tensions again. Underlying these repeated and escalating cycles of violence is a long history of betrayal and economic neglect.