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Pastoralists, too, can be displaced

Turkana herdsmen with their cattle in northern Kenya
Turkana herdsmen with their cattle in northern Kenya (Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/IRIN)

Can pastoralists, who spend much of their lives itinerant, in search of pasture, become displaced? They can, and up to 400,000 pastoralists in northern Kenya are currently internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to a new report.

“Movements cease to be normal once factors that give rise to them are 'coercive' in nature,” Nuur Sheekh, one of the researchers of Kenya’s Neglected IDPs, a report released in October, told IRIN.

“In the case of pastoralists, these could range from violence and conflict over pasture and water resources, inter-ethnic conflict over these resources, and political-economic resources where politics is the underlying cause like in recent cases of Isiolo, Tana River, Moyale, Mandera, [and] Wajir counties.”

Movement is not necessarily forced in the case of drought, provided government ministries and humanitarian organizations are able to supply water, fodder and veterinary services for animals and water and food for people, added Sheekh.

“The displacement of pastoralists in northern Kenya must be considered in the context of many factors, which are often interlinked: the legacy of colonialism; violence and conflict; cattle raiding; natural and climatic disasters; human rights violations; border politics; small-arms proliferation; activities of militant groups, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF); and the on-going conflict in Somalia,” said the report, which was published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).


Though pastoralists are believed to occupy over 70 percent of Kenya’s landmass, census figures of their communities are largely considered unreliable. Their constant movement results in difficulty assessing not only their numbers and locations but their humanitarian needs as well.

“Whereas displacement in other parts of Kenya, such as the Rift Valley, has drawn international attention, in northern Kenya the problem has so far received little recognition and inadequate or no support and assistance,” the report states. “National and international reports on displacement in Kenya rarely mention displacement among pastoralist communities in northern Kenya despite their occupying a large part of Kenyan territory.”

Displacement is often treated as normal and part of the pastoralist communities’ lifestyle, Abdi Sheikh, an elder from the northeastern district of Wajir, told IRIN. But pastoralist movement is linked to much more than the search for pasture.

People are at times forced to move because of fear of attacks linked to rustling, whether from across the borders or internally.

Insecurity rife

Northern Kenya - an expansive area extending from central Kenya to the borders with Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda - has been marginalized by successive governments. Much of the area is characterized by acute poverty and recurrent resource-based conflicts that leave tens of thousands displaced annually.

“Because governments in [the Horn of Africa] have tended to neglect pastoralist areas, both in terms of development and provision of security, pastoralists have tended to arm themselves in order to protect their communities,” said Sheekh. “This can sometimes have negative consequences, especially when state security apparatuses use force to disarm pastoralist communities. This tends to lead to all sorts of violations where villages and people are attacked.”

Violent crackdowns date back to the 1960s, when part of the region then known as the Northern Frontier District wanted to secede from Kenya and become part of Somalia. "The government was determined show its force. The innocent suffered from the state’s anger, which was provoked [when] a few individuals declared they wanted the region to secede and join Somalia," said Omar Elmi, an elder from Wajir District.

“The chief’s police [administration police] and the military were all over. All young men - I was 18 years old - were rounded up, tortured and ordered to produce guns. Many were killed; some committed suicide after their livestock were shot dead. The situation was bad. Human and livestock bodies were strewn all over."


A young Turkana man armed with an AK-47 rifle, Kenya
Siegfried Modola/IRIN
A young Turkana man armed with an AK-47 rifle, Oropoi, northwestern Kenya, 18 February 2007. Conflicts involving pastoralists associated with resource competition, cattle rustling and arms are widespread and of increasing concern in the region
Friday, February 23, 2007
Une rafle de bétail fait des dizaines de déplacés dans le nord-ouest
A young Turkana man armed with an AK-47 rifle, Oropoi, northwestern Kenya, 18 February 2007. Conflicts involving pastoralists associated with resource competition, cattle rustling and arms are widespread and of increasing concern in the region

Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
Pastoralists have tended to arm themselves in order to protect their communities

Elmi fled after being separated from his family, eventually ending up in Laikipia, where he worked as a herder at a private ranch.

Recent government efforts at disarmament have been unsuccessful, with communities saying the process exposes them to enemy attacks. Human rights organizations have accused the government of being heavy handed in past security operations, urging it to address the underlying economic, social, cultural and political causes of gun prevalence in the region.

Long-term solutions needed

The ISS/IDMC report notes that responses to internal displacement in northern Kenya have been short-term and inadequate: “Agencies tend to respond with temporary solutions like food aid, and little effort is made to implement lasting solutions based on security and development, devised in consultation with pastoralist communities themselves. Where displacement is preventable, measures are rarely taken to prevent it.”

Thousands of people who fled violence late last year in the pastoralist border area of Moyale are still living in Ethiopia, said Wario Katelo, a human rights activist.

"They can't come back. Where will they stay? Their houses were burnt; nobody has offered to assist them. I am sorry this is one of the factors that results [in the] vicious cycle of clashes. Youths whose parents have been killed must [seek] revenge; they have to raid to recover lost livestock, hence [the] permanent pattern of fighting and displacement," he said.

Isaiah Nakoru, the commissioner of the Marsabit County, which neighbours Moyale said: "We have managed to mobilize NGOs to help those affected by clashes start life afresh, to help them with iron sheets to put up houses [and to] start income generating activities. Constituency development funds have also helped rebuild schools that were burnt."

According to researcher Sheekh, a draft IDP policy before the cabinet and the Internally Displaced Persons Bill, 2012, which is currently awaiting the president’s signature, contain important provisions that will provide much-needed protection and assistance to the displaced, and it will oblige the state to prevent displacement.

“The other important provision is that IDPs can actually seek legal recourse for compensation for life and property lost, given that the state has primary responsibility to prevent displacement,” he added, noting that it is not enough for the policies to be passed - it is also necessary to build capacity at the national and county levels so that these laws are fully implemented.

To prevent displacement, the ISS/IDMC report recommends the government: develops a strategy to respond to security threats in pastoralist areas; put in place an efficient data-collection and management system on IDPs in pastoralist areas; invest in and use early warning information on conflict and climate; and protect the existing assets of pastoralist communities.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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