Backgrounder: Ethnic clashes in Kenya

News surfaced today (22 August) of lethal ethnic clashes in the south-eastern parts of Kenya, more specifically in the Tana river district in Coast province. BBC News reports “at least 48 people” having been killed.

Clashes here reportedly stood between members of the Orma and Pokomo ethnic groups, killing mainly women and children, many of whom were apparently hacked to death with machetes. The clashes are reported to have been a consequence of earlier minor raids between the groups, caused by disputes over grazing rights. Some news outlets have reported these clashes to be the most violent since the large-scale ethnic and political clashes that followed on Kenya’s 2007 elections. As it stands today this is probably not correct, with clashes between Pokot, Samburu and Turkana groups have killed at least as many people sinec the election fighting. Still, the outbreak of fighting between the Orma and Pokomo may escalate into even worse fighting.

The Orma ethnic group practically only inhabits the desert regions around Tana River and is one of the smallest of Kenya’s circa 70 ethnic groups. It is generally said that this group is closely related to the Wardei, but their histories took separate paths when the Ormo people were conquered by Somalis in the early 19th century (with many Wardei being enslaved and brought to Somalia). Both the Orma and Wardei have essentially semi-nomadic cultures and despite their close ties cattle raiding between these groups is not uncommon.

Pokomo culture is, in contrast, relatively firmly entrenched around agriculture around the flood plains of the Tana river, as well as fishing. The Pokomo group is also a very small ethnic group in Kenya, with some estimates placing the group’s size at only 50 000 people.

The Orma and Pokomo groups have clashed before, most notably in 2001, when at least 66 people were killed in raids similar to the one reported today (other reports say at least 130 people were killed that year). This has been reported in several news outlets, although the 2001 clashes also included the Wardei group fighting on the side of the Orma.

An excerpt from the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia on the 2001 episodes provides some background to the frequent (but normally less intense) clashes in the Tana River district:

The Tana River district in south-eastern Kenya is generally dry with erratic rainfall and frequent droughts. It is only along the Tana River and its flood plain that water resources are stable and agriculture possible. This flood plain is inhabited by the agriculturalist Pokomo, while the Orma and the Wardei live as semi-nomadic pastoralists in the dry area outside the flood plain. The clearly defined homelands and the different livelihoods result in generally peaceful co-existence, interrupted by occasional cattle raids between the Orma and the Wardei. However, sporadically this co-existence is interrupted by disputes over water and grazing land.

Concerning the actual fighting in 2001 the Conflict Encyclopedia carries only a short entry:

The conflict between the Orma and the Wardei on one hand and the Pokomo on the other hand erupted the first time in March (2001), when Pokomo farmers refused Wardei herders access to watering points. The situation calmed down and remained peaceful until the end of November when Orma and Wardei attacked Pokomo villages over grazing rights. In the following weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of attacks and retaliation attacks. The situation only calmed down after state security forces were reinforced in the second week of December.

Since this attack appears to have been the first large-scale assault in the current dispute it would not be unexpected if more deaths will follow as retaliation is to be expected. An intervention by Kenyan security forces appears to be necessary to hinder such a scenario. But, for long term coexistence, other measures are also likely to be necessary.

//Ralph Sundberg

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About uppsalaconflictdataprogram
Published by UCDP (Uppsala Conflict Data Program), the world's leading resource on conflict data. Posts are not reflective of the official views of either the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the Department of Peace and Conflict Research or Uppsala university. Views posted reflect only the opinions and ideas of each respective signatory.

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