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Pastoralists, politics and development projects. Unterstanding the layers of armed conflict in Isiolo county, Kenya

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Release date: 2019-09

Pastoral counties of northern Kenya are expected to undergo massive change in the  coming years due to the government’s ambitious infrastructural development agenda.  However, the area frequently experiences violence as a result of conflict between pastoralist communities, and also due to ethno-political contestations. Isiolo County is one  such place where planned development projects and conflict risks coincide, making it  an important case study for understanding how the future may unfold.

This Working Paper is written in the framework of a larger project called “Future Rural  Africa: Future-making and social-ecological transformation” by the Universities of  Bonn and Cologne and BICC (Bonn International Center for Conversion). BICC is interested in the kinds of claims that are being made on land and its resources and how  these may change the existing dynamics of organised violence. The author, Kennedy Mkutu, United States International University, Nairobi, explores the  complexity of existing conflict in Isiolo and the emerging effects of new plans and land  claims. At its most basic level, conflict between pastoral groups, or between pastoralists  and farmers is motivated both by survival (pastoral mobility and access to water and  pasture in a climatically challenging area) and the accumulation of livestock wealth.  Politics, which is generally extended along ethnic lines, adds another layer to the inter-communal conflict through the need for political survival and the accumulation of  personal wealth.

The devolution of many powers and budgets to county level since 2013  has then raised the stakes for political power. Since plans for infrastructure have been  made known, tensions have emerged, and fears of exclusion and dispossession of customary land users through speculative land-grabbing and uncompensated state acquisition. With Isiolo being a hub of the illicit small arms trade, guns have become a conflict  multiplier at every level.  

The county is highly securitised with several specialised police units. However, they lack  capacity and their actions have tended to be either inadequate or overly reactive and  their relationship with communities is poor. As a result, day to day security of pastoralist  communities and their livestock relies on the rather informal and unprofessional   National Police Reserve, who are armed by the state, and community members, who  purchase their own arms through illicit markets. Politicians on occasion have also sup- plied arms and ammunition to communities. The Paper concludes that there are various  layers of conflict which should be considered and addressed simultaneously, and that  development is a new and potent factor in conflict at both political and community   levels. A careful, inclusive conflict-sensitive approach to development is essential, but  this is unlikely to happen if leaders look for personal power and gain.