Pastoralist parts of Kenya are again back in the news because of the clan fights going on in Mandera County. Nomadic communities have been dogged by violence for decades, and, historically, they have been mostly over cattle, grazing lands and other similar issues.
Sadly, the causes are not that simple any more. Despite the frequent nature of these clashes, our government is unable to find lasting solutions. Why solutions have evaded us this long is worth considering. Is it because the real causes of the conflicts are unknown? Or is it that the causes are known but the right solutions are not being applied?
Naturally, the starting point when tackling problems of this nature should be to determine their root causes. Any attempt at solving them that does not include this core component will be futile. Contrary to common belief, these clashes, when they occur, especially in places like Mandera and the Tana Delta are not necessarily about the quest for cattle as the case may be in Turkana and Pokot areas.
Deep-seated grievances over land ownership or a quest by some communities to have exclusive right of residence in certain areas may be the main cause. Thus, the problem of ethnic-based violence in pastoral areas has diverse causes and, as such, the solutions need not be uniform across the board, but tailor-made to suit the specific grievances.
For many years now, the authorities have adopted a straitjacket approach in their attempt to address the issue. The reaction of the police and the government in general has become boringly predictable whenever such incidents arise.
It often starts, and ends, with deploying more troops to the area ostensibly to disarm the people of their “small arms and light weapons” and that is expected to make the problem go away somehow. Regrettably, this has been the standard response in all the incidents. But the problem persists because the response fails to take into account the real cause of the problem.
What sense does it make to blame the weapon rather than its user? If illicit small arms are to blame for the violence in Mandera as the Inspector-General of police claims, then who is to blame for the massacres in the Tana Delta?
There is clearly an urgent need for the government to unearth and understand the causes and be more innovative in their solutions. This is because the methods that have traditionally been employed to address conflict have failed. Disarming the communities is certainly not among the solutions. On the contrary, why not consider arming them so that each community can defend itself against aggression by other communities?
As it became evident recently in the Tana Delta, the police cannot defend every village or homestead even when their stations are located a few metres away. Thus the only logical thing to do may be to allow all pastoralists to carry arms so that they can defend themselves adequately. This is what they have always done anyway, albeit illegally.
Who knows this may even be a solution to the problem of policing our vast borders with volatile neighbors. Besides, it can be recalled that disarmament exercises by the government have always been lopsided, disarming one side while sparing the other. The disarmed group becomes vulnerable and dangerously exposed to massacres as was seen in the Bagalla massacre of Wajir in 1997.
The troops deployed to quell such violence have the tendency of resorting to brutal violence against innocent members of the community perceived to be guilty. The police need to find out whether the actions they are taking to curb the violence in Mandera have any history of yielding positive results anywhere. There is a need to come up with effective methods of solving the conflict problem once and for all.