Kenya: Violence in Private Ranches Sends Worrying Signals

Renewed violence reported in the northern Kenya County of Laikipia in recent weeks is likely to intensify jitters in the region about possible widespread tension related to the country's upcoming elections in 2022.

President Uhuru Kenyatta's government has deployed security forces, including the military, in the area to drive out armed herders that have occupied private ranches, killed seven people, torched houses and displaced entire villages in the past weeks.

Two politicians, one of them a sitting Member of Parliament, were on Wednesday separately arrested and charged in court the next day with inciting the raids. But concerns remain that the audacious attacks targeting members of particular communities for displacement in Laikipia could embolden politicians in other multi-ethnic areas to incite election-related violence and once again test the country's political stability.

Recent reports indicated that some Kenya's landlocked neighbours, anxious about the polarised early campaigns to succeed President Kenyatta, were considering re-routing their trade logistics away from the port of Mombasa to Dar es Salaam. In 2009, Ugandan and Rwandan businessmen demanded compensation for the destruction of their trucks and goods along the Nairobi-Eldoret-Kampala highway during the violence arising from Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election.

The invasion of a number of ranches, including the Laikipia Nature Conservancy owned by world-renowned conservationist and author Kuki Gallman, is also an unwelcome publicity for the country's tourism and hospitality industry that is struggling to recover from the Covid-19 shutdowns and travel restrictions. Boasting the highest density of Kenya's wildlife and some of the most expensive safari luxury lodges where high-value visitors pay top dollar a night, it is one of the country's tourism jewels.

The drought-prone Laikipia, like other areas in Kenya's semi-arid north, has a history of conflicts involving expansive wildlife ranches, farming settlements and nomadic pastoralist communities over pasture and water.

In April 2017, armed herders shot and wounded Ms Gallman on her ranch, weeks after another ranch owner Tristan Voorspuy was shot dead.

But the escalation of invasions by herders close to elections and a pattern of attacks targeting particular ethnic communities for displacement in recent years have also raised concerns about politicians increasingly exploiting grievances over resources for voter suppression. An analyst report by the think tank Crisis Group linked similar violence in the area in the run-up to the 2017 elections to the higher stakes in local campaigns with the introduction of devolved governments in 2013.

"Under Kenya's 2010 Constitution, 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," says the report.

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