This past week, the Kenya Red Cross Society resumed operations in northern Baringo County, after withdrawing its staff with immediate effect on February 25.
The decision to withdraw was taken after one of their convoys carrying food aid was stopped and looted by local youth, who harassed and hindered their staff from carrying out the vital work the Red Cross takes on.
The organisation often exposes itself to remarkably high risks, moving into dangerous areas while others move in the opposite direction, so their unprecedented decision to suspend operations in this case was a warning signal to many, highlighting the severity of the unrest affecting Kenya’s north.
The decision should be taken in the context of the discernible spike in violence across Kenya’s north over recent months, with ethnic violence also reported in the counties of Elgeyo Marakwet, Turkana, West Pokot, Isiolo, Meru and Wajir. Baringo has suffered from a series of attacks blamed on “bandits” and cattle rustlers, most incidents occurring in the Kerio Valley.
Just a week before the attack on the Red Cross convoy, on February 18, two politicians were shot dead in Marigat town. In neighbouring Laikipia County, over the past four months, ranches and farms have been invaded with up to 135,000 head of cattle illegally grazing on private land.
Some of these invasions have been violent; tourist lodges have been looted, and in some cases, razed to the ground. On January 2, a group of men, believed to be Pokot, attacked a vehicle carrying a family of Dutch tourists travelling through Laikipia Nature Conservancy.
Ethnic rivalries have become increasingly exacerbated by two additional factors this year: Widespread, regional drought and a sensitive political environment in the run-up to the elections in Kenya, Rwanda and, possibly, the DRC. The relationship between these conflict-drivers must be understood if one is to explain the increased risk of violence across the region’s arid and semi-arid lands.
With drought setting in across much of East Africa and the Horn, as many as 2.4 million people in Kenya are expected to be in need of immediate assistance by April. Famine has already been declared in South Sudan, where at least one million are said to be affected.
More than 360,000 children are already considered malnourished in Somalia, and the situation is quickly becoming an emergency, predicted to be the worst drought since the 2011 famine, and officially declared a national disaster today.
With increased pressure on grazing land and limited water resources, many seek to explain the rise in violence across Kenya’s north by the drought alone, but this is far too simplistic a view.
Uncertainty and ambitions surrounding the upcoming general election have been a key driver of the unrest in Kenya in particular. The devolution of the Kenyan government has increased pressure on local elections, with local landowners claiming politicians have incited land invasions, in the hope of buying votes with land.
The tension surrounding the elections and politicians’ desire to gain the support of the electorate has undoubtedly contributed to the unrest, but to use this explanation alone would again fail to acknowledge further socio-economic dynamics of Kenya’s semi-arid lands.
One must now take into account underlying ethnic and indigenous issues, given the above factors. Historically, land across Kenya’s north is claimed by a multitude of ethno-linguistic groups who regularly clash in a lengthy series of reprisal raids, and with the drought reducing resources and a tense election year ahead, existing rivalries will inevitably intensify over the coming months.
Information-led decision making
Several other factors are also contributing to the increased level of risk associated with travel to Baringo, Laikipia and much of the surrounding area at the moment. The area’s harsh climate and dispersed population make it difficult to police, adding to a feeling of marginalisation among many of Kenya’s northern peoples.
Not to mention the authorities’ struggle to deal with the proliferation of automatic firearms in recent decades, resulting in a general sense of insecurity.
Through access to timely information and a nuanced understanding of threats on the ground, businesses can continue to operate throughout the election period with minimal disruption. But businesses must be information-led in their decision making at these times of uncertainty.
It is critical that organisations operating in East Africa have an adequate understanding of the drivers of conflict and don’t miss potentially promising opportunities, due to an ill-conceived perception of threats to their operations, reputation and personnel.
Major (Retd) Tony Sugden is CEO and co-founder of WS Insight (formerly Warrior Security), a specialised risk management company.