The protracted fighting between the two major ethnic groups in Marsabit County—the Borana and the Gabra—has attracted national and international attention over the years. The unending fighting in Marsabit County has claimed more lives than any communicable disease outbreak in the region. According to a petition tabled in parliament by the Saku Member of Parliament, Hon. Dido Ali Rasso, by 8 July 2020, 97 lives had been lost in Saku Constituency alone.
The situation has escalated from minor skirmishes to fighting using militia tactics where simultaneous attacks are carried out on the same day, or on consecutive days, along the Saku-North Horr constituency border and along the Kenya-Ethiopia border, to overpower the opponent community. The security apparatus and the political leadership take the largest share of responsibility for failing to ensure peaceful co-existence between the warring communities in the county. The former takes blame for failing to respond to distress calls adequately and promptly, which often leads to loss of lives and livelihoods. The latter takes the lion’s share of the blame for hiding behind the ethnic tag and is at times viewed as an active player in escalating the conflicts. Therefore, the many peacebuilding and conflict resolution missions have been futile.
The infamous Mlima Kofia Mbaya on Mt Marsabit is the repository of terrible statistics of the many leaders who have perished in plane crashes while on peacebuilding missions. Among some of the darkest memories is the 1996 helicopter crash that took the lives of the then Eastern Provincial Commissioner Ishmael Juma Chelang’a and ACK Assistant Bishop Andrew Adano Tuye following a peace mission to Marsabit.
The plane crash that occurred on the morning of 10 April 2006 is another painful scar on Marsabit’s landscape. It claimed the lives of vibrant young leaders, including North Horr Member of Parliament Hon. Dr Bonaya Godana, Saku Member of Parliament Hon. Abdi Tari Sasura, Moyale Member of Parliament Hon. Dr Guracha Galgallo and Laisamis Member of Parliament Hon. Titus Ngoyoni. The Assistant Minister of Internal Security, Hon. Mirugi Kariuki, and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, Hon. Adan Biru, also perished in the accident together with the crew and security officers.
An uneasy co-existence has prevailed between the warring Gabra and Borana communities following these calamities and little has been done by the government to reconcile the two communities for lasting peace. Since the aircraft carrying the peace delegates came down in 2006, there have been no efforts to find a lasting solution; mediators have adopted a crisis management approach which stops at brokering ceasefire deals when outbreaks of violence occur. The situation has worsened with the advent of devolution. Cattle rustling has now been commercialized, where the raiders organize to transport the stolen livestock to markets in neighbouring counties, making it difficult for the security apparatus to recover the stolen animals. The raiders have also resorted to the use of modern weaponry including bazookas that make it impossible for police officers to pursue the raiders.
Traditionally pastoralists value livestock even more than human life since their livelihoods revolve around and are dependent on domestic animals. Cattle rustling has a long history in the traditions of these communities but it must now be contained by means of a good security apparatus and a proper system of governance. There are no dividends in the ongoing blame game. Government efforts to disarm the communities in the north have been futile because of the poor containment measures in place. The Regional Centre for Small Arms has recommended heightened control of the proliferation of illicit arms, increased cross-border collaboration, investment in alternative livelihood programmes, promotion of cultural dialogue on conflict resolution mechanisms, strengthening of local governance structures, and development and harmonization of livestock identification and traceability systems (LITS).
The raiders have also resorted to the use of modern weaponry including bazookas that make it impossible for police officers to pursue the raiders.
It is against this backdrop that I strongly recommend that adequate measures be adopted to safeguard livestock rearing which is a valuable economic activity. These measures must, in my opinion, include licensing herders to carry guns to guard their livestock investments.
Moreover, the directive issued by the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i on 12 July 2019 to disarm the Kenya Police Reservists (KPR) and the National Police Reservists (NPR) was ill-advised and has exposed security officers and poor herders to frequent attacks by holders of illegal firearms.
I am not a security expert but it is common sense that the benefits of allowing licensed firearms within a community, which is then able to act as a support system to the police in responding to distress calls, far outweigh the perceived disadvantages.
The recent series of attack on the residents of Saku constituency, where several lives were lost around Marsabit forest and over two thousand head of cattle stolen from residents of Kukuto area, has exposed the laxity in the response of the security apparatus which has rendered the victims even more vulnerable to aggression.
The conflict in Marsabit County is complex—especially in the current Saku hotspot—as it revolves around the issue of land ownership. In particular, the utilization of the rangeland area, the only piece of arable land, requires a truth, justice and reconciliation process such as the one employed in South Africa. In my opinion therefore, Kenya’s Ministry of the Interior, under whose docket the protection of life and property is domiciled, requires a different strategy for the lives of the people of northern Kenya to become tenable.
The county leadership and legislators from the region have on many occasions implored CS Matiang’i to reverse the decision on KPR and NPR disarmament so that they can complement the response of the police service to distress calls from the affected community. In this regard, Saku Member of Parliament Hon. Dido Ali Rasso is on record as having petitioned the parliamentary committee on security on 8 July 2020. The minister needs to revisit the policy to avert the loss of more lives and property among pastoralists of northern Kenya.
The theft of livestock should be treated in the same way as a bank robbery due to the high economic costs incurred. In this regard, I call upon the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) to front the amendment of the Kenya Firearms Licensing Act to include the arming of pastoralists so that they can protect their lives and livelihoods. This approach will add value to security agencies’ efforts to trace criminals as all legally held arms will be audited, which is not the case for the arms illegally held by attackers.
In its current form, the “law does not define the number of firearms a person can own but, on the other hand, no one can be issued with more than one gun for their personal safety. Very few private applications for gun for self-protection are approved because the argument is the Kenya police is responsible for everyone’s safety. Applications for self-protection are mostly approved when the applicant’s status exposes them to danger.” This justification could apply to pastoralists whose means of livelihood is under constant threat of raids in a context where cattle rustling has been commercialised. This approach has worked in other parts of the world and Kenya must borrow a leaf from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Ethiopia to reduce the number of illicit firearms in the country.
Traditionally pastoralists value livestock even more than human life since their livelihoods revolve around and are dependent on domestic animals.
In effect, Ethiopia’s parliament passed legislation in 2020 aimed at curbing illegal gun ownership following a surge in regional ethnic violence that was blamed on the proliferation of small arms in private hands. The spread of small arms has been partly blamed for hundreds of killings in various ethnic conflicts over the past two years that have displaced more than 2.7 million people. This is the same situation prevailing in the pastoralist-dominated counties in Kenya, where more and more pastoralists are arming themselves to protect their lives and livestock during conflicts triggered by competition for pasture and water.
In my view, it is easy to track the use of legally held firearms and allowing herders to carry arms legally will make their life easier for they are left economically drained each time they suffer a raid. I challenge our legislature to be proactive in finding a lasting solution instead of participating in blame games and accusations and counter-accusations through the media.