The Politics of Pastoral Violence: A Case Study of Isiolo County, Northern Kenya

Future Agricultures Working Paper 95
Dr Roba D Sharamo
June 2014

Conflicts and violence taking the form of cattle rustling, ethnic violence, displacements and massacres have characterised inter-communal and clan relations among the various pastoralist communities of northern Kenya and the greater Horn of Africa region. In addition to stress factors such as environmental degradation, drought, famine and other natural catastrophes, pastoralists face complex challenges of land related conflicts (some of which are related to administrative and electoral boundaries); recurrent violent conflicts aggravated by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALWs); tensions with agricultural communities; and human-wildlife conflicts aggravated by competing uses of land for commercial ranching and wildlife conservation, amongst others.

However, while the nature of pastoral conflicts has changed over time, recent violence in northern Kenya suggests that there are worrying new dynamics at play. The nature of pastoral conflict seems to be changing yet again alongside northern Kenya’s new importance in the country’s wider development strategy and also in relation to the politics surrounding its new decentralised political system. Through a case study of Isiolo – historically the gateway to northern Kenya – this paper examines in detail the dynamics of new violence in the region’s pastoral areas and assesses their implications for conflict reduction and peacebuilding efforts. While many automatically link intensifying development with more secure livelihoods, well-being and a greater propensity for peace, a different picture emerges from recent violence in northern Kenya. Here, violence and militarism have accompanied and marked developmental transitions. Even with the advent of a new constitutional dispensation that heralded a devolved governance system, from Samburu to Isiolo to Marsabit violence has persisted and flared anew across northern Kenya. Fear of devolution and complex political and economic interests converge to fan violence among Isiolo’s communities.


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