Kenya: land and communal clashes increase as country gears up for elections – By Keith Somerville

Sheikh Aboud Rogo, whose killing last month caused rioting in the streets of Mombasa by coastal Muslim youth.

In the last six weeks there have been a number of violent clashes in areas of Kenya where the existing political, social and religious structures are contested or fail to meet the subsistence or security needs of the local populations.  Many derive from long-lasting grievances, which periodically reach the pitch of violence, but usually simmer just below the surface. As soon as elections approach, the actions of politicians (both local and national) are frequently the trigger for violence.

Violence is often misleadingly depicted as “˜ethnic’ or “˜tribal’ conflict derived from historic hatreds – the latter being a favourite of the international press and unscrupulous Kenyan politicians.  The most serious recent example – in the Tana River region of eastern Kenya – has led to at least 100 deaths since early August. Mombasa has also experienced growing tension between coastal Muslim communities, local political/religious groups and the state.

On 10th September, the Daily Nation reported 33 villagers killed in Kilelengwani village – the focus of recent violence in Tana River County between Pokomo and Orma communities.  The Nation’s correspondent said that eight police officers, including four paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) personnel, two Administration Police and two regular officers, were also killed in the skirmishes. The Red Cross reported that the deaths occurred when two groups of about 300 armed attackers raided the village.

This was the latest in a series of tit-for-tat attacks and cattle raids in the region, partly caused by drought and competition over water and grazing between the two communities.  Fighting had initially started in August, when more than 50 people, many women and children, were killed in attacks.  At least 40 were killed in a night attack by Pokoma on Orma villagers at Reketa village in Tana River County. At the time, the Coast Provincial Commissioner, Samuel Kilele, said the raid against Reketa was a revenge attack after earlier violence.

Most of those who have died during August and September were hacked or burned to death. The local MP, Danson Mungatana, described the killings as the latest in a series of cattle raids. Journalists and commentators in Kenya have however put the killings in a wider context of economic frustration, chronic impunity of local and national leaders accused of organizing or inciting violence and the ambitions of politicians seeking office in the 2013 elections. This analysis is more helpful than the simplistic ethnic explanation given by the police and provincial officials. It was also given more weight when the Assistant Livestock Minister and MP, Dhadho Godhana, was charged with inciting the violence.

Mungatana has now introduced a motion in the Kenyan parliament calling on the government to deploy the army to stop the fighting. He claimed that the police were doing little to quell the violence between the two communities.

Communal violence, land grievances and election-related violence

The involvement of senior politicians in localised violence is a regular occurrence in Kenya immediately prior to elections.  This was emphasized by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who said in September that “the recent inter-communal violence in the Tana River District, during which dozens were killed…is a grim reminder of the 2007-08 events”.  In 2007 there was some limited violence prior to the polls, but it did not escalate fully until after the results were released.

In 2007 opposition protests over electoral fraud were fiercely repressed by the police, leading to many deaths. Violence then spread through the slums around Nairobi and in to areas of the Rift Valley.  As many as 1500 were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.  On the surface, violence appeared ethnically motivated – between Luo and Kikuyu in Nairobi and Nyanza Province, and in the Rift Valley, between Kalenjin/Masai and Kikuyu. Reports by the Kriegler Commission (appointed by the government to suggest reforms to the Kenyan electoral process) and by Kenyan human rights groups made clear the organized nature of much of the violence and role of senior politicians and officials in the use of local grievances to fuel violence for political ends. This was also demonstrated by the subsequent indictment of Kenyan politicians (including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto) by the International Criminal Court for their alleged actions during this period.

In the wake of the Tana River violence, Navi Pillay has called on the government to set up an independent and impartial investigation and to increase vigilance across the country head of the March 2013 elections. Hussein Dado, a retired diplomat and gubernatorial candidate for the Coast Province, who lives in Tana River District, has said nothing serious was being done to stop the violence and that “these killings are planned and executed by people who are known but they have not been arrested.” Human Rights Watch blamed the outbreak of violence on four politicians “who hoped to win seats in next year’s elections” and who, HRW claims, incited violence in order to displace their opponents.

Local grievances in the region derive from periodic droughts and shortage of good grazing land – leading to conflict between pastoralists and arable farmers.  Over recent decades, tens of thousands of acres of grazing and subsistence farming land have been alienated from the original residents for use in large-scale agricultural schemes. Such schemes are promoted by government, and benefit politicians and businessmen linked to them, but not local people.  This has created ever greater pressure on the remaining land and grazing.  The Tana River Development Authority project took over 80,000 hectares from local farmers and used it for major sugar, rice and maize plantations.  In recent years, land has been leased to foreign agro-fuel companies growing jatropha for making biofuels creating more landless local farmers and reducing access to water and grazing for pastoralists.

Mombasa violence

In late August, a radical Muslim cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohammed, accused of links to al-Qaeda, was assassinated, leading to three days of rioting in the city. Hand grenades were thrown at police vehicles – three policemen and two civilians were killed, shops were burned and churches attacked and looted. The protestors, mainly young Muslims, accused the police and security forces of killing Rogo in a targeted assassination. This has been denied by the government.

After the violence subsided, a second radical Muslim cleric in Mombasa, Abubaker Ahmed, was charged with inciting the protests. He denied the charges after handing himself to a court in the city. Mr Ahmed told the Daily Nation that he had handed himself over because he feared for his life. He said that he was certain that “there is a hit squad targeting Muslim clerics and other Muslims perceived to be extremists”. The two clerics have both been fierce critics of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia. The killing and the protests have exacerbated the belief by many Muslim inhabitants of Coast Province that they have been marginalised by successive governments, with land taken from Coastal people and given to “˜Up-Country’ politicians and their cronies.

Muslim groups in Mombasa and Malindi claim that land has been taken and tourist facilities built to enrich businessmen and politicians and that the government has consistently failed to deliver jobs, investment and development.  The long-term grievances led to the formation of a separatist movement, the Mombasa Revolutionary Council (MRC) in 1999. It was banned in 2010, having been deemed an armed criminal group, but has recently been legalized and is becoming increasingly active as politics has become more vocal and heated ahead of the elections.

Sheikh Juma Ngao, a well-known Islamic cleric and chairman of the Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council (KMNAC), told IRIN recently that “groups such as the MRC, who have more or less vowed to disrupt the election process in the coastal region, have their ideologies deeply based on injustices surrounding land ownership and marginalization.”

Land and election violence

Land issues are a fundamental aspect of communal conflicts in Kenya which frequently degenerate into serious violence. Kenya has seen serious outbreaks of violence ever since the restoration of multiparty politics in 1992, when the incumbent government of Daniel arap Moi actively encouraged Kalenjin and Masaai violence against Kikuyu in the Rift Valley. The country also experienced serious violence in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007 (around elections) and also during the 2005 constitutional referendum campaign.  In 2010, there was some violence during another referendum. William Ruto was accused by Kenyan National Cohesion Committee Commission of inciting violence and using hate speech in his “No” campaign.

Much of the violence has centred on issues of ownership, access to and use of land.  Violence has often been focused on the Rift Valley but has also involved communities in the Coastal Province and around Mt Elgon where, prior to the 2008 violence, groups such as the Sabaot Lands Defence Force (SLDF) killed over 150 people and displaced tens of thousands in land-related disputes. Few of the hundreds of thousands displaced by the post-election violence in the Rift Valley have been able to return home or have been resettled. Their land has often been seized by local political grandees and power brokers. The national issue of landlessness has never been seriously addressed and remains a potent source of political unrest and violence.

In its reports on the 2007-8 violence, Human Rights Watch pointed out that the failure of successive Kenyan governments to address grievances had intensified community animosity leading to serious ethnic divisions. Politicians who had organised and funded political violence during previous elections have never been brought to book. It concluded that, “this violence is the outcome of decades of political manipulation of ethnic tensions, and of impunity intertwined with longstanding grievances over land, corruption, inequality and other issues”. Nothing of substance has changed since that report, despite the ICC indictments. The ICC trials don’t start until after the 2013 elections, allowing Ruto and Kenyatta to stand for election, exemplifying the impunity enjoyed by political leaders; even those accused of crimes against humanity.

Keith Somerville is lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent. He is editor of He writes regularly for African Arguments.

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2 thoughts on “Kenya: land and communal clashes increase as country gears up for elections – By Keith Somerville

  1. Pingback: Kenya – Tana River clashes a bad omen for election time | Africa – News and Analysis

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