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Tana Delta Blues: A deadly mix of land grabs, ethnic strife and politics

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-01-15

A potent mix of politics, economics, old ethnic scores and new alliances has turned this remote corner of eastern Kenya into a cauldron of violence that has cast a shadow over the upcoming March 4 elections.


From the banks of the Tana River, Osman Dube stares unseeing at Kenya’s longest river as it makes its slow, liquid caramel course to the Indian Ocean, sustaining life – and fuelling violent death - along the way.

Days after the December clashes between rival ethnic groups in his native Kipao village killed 45 people, Dube says he still can’t understand what led to the carnage.

Osman Dube, a primary school headmaster, was rudely woken up on December 21, 2012, when attackers stormed his native Kipao village. (Photo: Denis Bouclon)

A quiet, pensive primary school headmaster - respectfully called mwalimu, or teacher in his native Kiswahili - Dube has had many months to figure why the Pokomo community and his own Orma people have been ensnared in the brutal ethnic conflict.

Since July 2012, more than 140 people – including women, children and police officers on duty – have been killed in waves of attacks and counterattacks in more than a dozen swampy villages in the Tana Delta, a remote corner of eastern Kenya.

The December 21 attack on the Orma village of Kipao - the biggest and bloodiest to date - came after months of relative calm had instilled a false sense of security among Tana Delta residents.

“We had been living in peace for months,” explained Dube. “It happened so abruptly. I was sleeping - it was around 4am – when we heard a commotion. We thought it was a security patrol, we didn’t think it was an attack, it was so unexpected.”

By the time Dube realized what was going on - and managed to move his wife and eight children to a hiding spot in the family compound - the “unexpected” attack was proceeding along expected lines.

Crack of gunfire

As screams, shouts and the crack of gunfire rocked the sleepy village, armed youths tore through the hamlet, hacking victims with machetes, spearing some to death and firing indiscriminately until the Orma villagers managed to put up a defence. The fighting lasted hours, according to terrified witnesses, and the dead included Orma villagers and some of their Pokomo attackers.

Imam Abdullahi Haji Gudo fears his peace-building efforts are all in vain. (Photo: Denis Bouclon)

“Why? Why now? Why Kipao?” asked Imam Abdullahi Haji Gudo, regional chairman of The Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, a nationwide faith-based initiative working on peace-building efforts. “We don’t know the answers. But it has been understood clearly that this is political.”

Barely three weeks after the Kipao attack, the deadly pattern was repeated on Wednesday, when attackers launched a pre-dawn raid on the Orma village of Nduru, before villagers fought back. Eight people were killed, according to police officials, including two Pokomo attackers. It was promptly followed by a retaliatory attack the next day, which killed at least 10 people.

As Kenya prepares to go to the polls, politics, economics, old ethnic scores, and new alliances fed by murky agendas are combining to turn this remote corner of Kenya into a battlefield that many fear could presage the kind of violence that may characterise the March 4 general elections.

Five years ago, following the December 2007 elections, Kenya’s image as a beacon of African stability was shattered when at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 600,000 displaced in post-electoral ethnic violence.

The 2013 elections are for the presidency and parliament, as well as for regional gubernatorial posts and local councils, under a new constitution designed to devolve power from the centre to Kenya’s marginalised regions.

But while the devolutionary reforms of the 2010 constitution have been widely welcomed, it has also unleashed historical grievances over land and resources.

‘A recipe for trouble’

The roots of the Pokomo-Orma conflict date back centuries to one of history’s oldest clashes of civilization between nomads and sedentary peoples. Pokomo farmers and traditionally nomadic Orma herdsmen have long fought over access to pasture.

In the old days, local elders typically negotiated compromises, including a system of malkas – or corridors of access to water for cattle during the dry season.

But as in many parts of the developing world, market-driven modernisation with its system of private land ownership has seen the collapse of the old negotiated land-sharing agreements.

In the Tana Delta - a rich ecosystem of dry land, marches, fresh and salt water – the powder keg of an ethnic-based clash of livelihoods has been fuelled, in recent years, by the Kenyan administration’s controversial large scale land deals for rice, sugarcane and biofuels projects with national and multinational companies.

“The Tana Delta is a very delicate ecosystem where the population has been increasing over the past few years, putting tremendous ecological pressure on the inhabitants,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There have also been cases of multinational organisations being given land that was used for grazing and farming. All these factors coming together in an election season are a recipe for trouble.”

‘If they lose power, they lose land’

But while the scramble for natural resources - which is hardly unique to Kenya - provides a context for the troubles gripping the Tana Delta, the real problem is a political one, according to many Kenyans – including the country’s top police chief, Inspector-General David Kimaiyo.

A rich ecosystem of dry land, marches, fresh and salt water, the Tana Delta has seen some controversial land deals in recent years. (Photo: Denis Bouclon)

“We have to establish that the conflict is in no way related to land issues,” said Kimaiyo in an interview with the Kenyan newspaper, Daily Nation, last month. “It is not a fight for any other resources, it’s solely political.”

In the Tana Delta, county elections have seen new political alignments contest local seats.

“It looks like power is shifting to certain clans and the other clan feels that if it loses power, then it’s the end for them,” said Hassan Abdille, regional coordinator for the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). “The Pokomos feel they are going to lose power and if they lose power, they lose land. The politicians in turn are using this to instigate trouble since they want to gain the political advantage.”

The Pokomos currently have the political edge, holding all three Delta constituency seats.
But a new dynamic has been emerging in the multi-ethnic Delta in recent months, with pastoralists, such as the Orma, Waradei, Malakote and other groups banding together to form a bloc against the minority Pokomo.

As Abdille noted, “The Pokomos think the Waradei and other groups are going to join the Ormas and then they will lose power.”

That fear is not unfounded. According to The Africa Report, the pastoralist alliance tested their unity in the 2011 county council elections, when pastoralist-backed representatives won all the seats.

In September 2012, following a particularly bloody summer of attacks and counter-attacks, local lawmaker Dhadho Godhana was accused of stoking the tension. He was removed from office and charged with inciting violence. He denies the charges.

A commission to investigate the violence is expected to present its findings later this month.

Kenya has a track record of politicians inciting violence around election season. Four prominent Kenyans - including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and lawmaker William Ruto – have been charged with inciting the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence by the International Criminal Court. Kenyatta is contesting the March 4 presidential race with Ruto as his running mate.

Can village elders keep the peace?

Given the high propensity for electoral violence, analysts and ordinary Kenyans have been dismayed by the security forces’ inability to maintain order in volatile areas ahead of the 2013 elections.

The lack of security was highlighted on September 10, 2012, when attackers raided the Orma village of Kilelengwani, killing 38 people, including nine police officials.

The violence is undermining the authority of community elders such as Imam Abdullahi Haji Gudo (left) and Omar Shobes (right). (Photo: Denis Bouclon)
The deaths of the police officials shocked the nation and led to a heightened security presence across the Delta.

Days after the deadly December 21, 2012, attack in Kipao, the neighbouring village of Oda, a Pokomoko-dominated hamlet situated across the Tana River – was bristling with Kenyan security personnel, watched by sullen, glowering villagers.

But in the fields around the village, young men with machetes swaggered under the blazing midday sun, visibly spoiling for a fight.

Omar Shobes, an Orma elder from a neighbouring village sighed. “I’m trying to calm down the youth, but they want to retaliate,” he confessed.

For community and religious elders such as Shobes, Gudo and Dube, keeping the peace in the lead-up to the March 4 elections is going to be an uphill test of their placatory skills.

But Dube himself is not overly pessimistic about the future. “People will keep living together,” said the village headmaster. “But the trusting each other is going to take some time. These days, there’s hatred and mistrust being built, but it will calm down. We have always lived together and we will continue to do so.”

Date created : 2013-01-10

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