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


Backgrounder: Communal conflicts in Nigeria

(click image for a larger version!)

The map above shows the spatial patterns of communal conflicts across Nigeria between 1989-2010. Although clashes between communal groups classified as Christians and Muslims are the ones most often portrayed in the media there are also several other groups who have been in conflict over the years since 1989.

The major hotspots of violence between Christian and Muslim communities is circled on the map with a blue circle. The violence depicted here has been classified along these ‘Christian versus Muslims’ lines, but some specific communities can also be singled out. These contain, but are not limited to, the Hausa and the Fulani (mainly Muslim), Tarok (Christian), Yoruba (mixed religion), Igbo (Christian), Kataf (Christian) and Yugur (mixed, with Christian and traditional beliefs). Plateau, Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano and Taraba states are the heartlands of these conflicts, geographically speaking.

While it is not necessarily erroneous to label these conflicts as being religious ones (since such lines are often visible) the communal conflicts in Nigeria can be ascribed also ethno-linguistic as well as pastoralist-farmer and political characteristics. An excerpt from the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia reads:

The conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is part of a bigger context of ethnic and religious tensions that are present in the Nigeria society. These tensions have on certain occasions escalated into armed conflict. The conflicts often start with a seemingly trivial disagreement and then rapidly deteriorate into religious clashes. The fact that Christianity and Islam are the prominent religions in Nigeria and that the religions are represented in different parts of the country has on several occasions led to mobilisation along religious lines. Another fact that might explain the presence of religious conflicts in Nigeria is the fact that a majority of the 200 ethno-linguistic groups in Nigeria adhere to either Christianity or Islam; thereby it is possible to frame ethnic conflicts in Nigeria as being centred on religious issues. That might very well be the case, and in fact true in some cases, it should however be thoroughly investigated so that it is not a “meta identity” given to the group due to lacking information from news media. Nevertheless there are Christian – Muslim conflicts in Nigeria, the point is that a majority of the ethnic and communal clashes in Nigeria can be described using this overarching labelling.

As is visible from the map there are also other communal conflicts in Nigeria, beyond the Christian versus Muslim dichotomy. The southwest part of Nigeria stands out as a second hotspot, mainly in the states of the Nigerian delta. There is a very large number of groups who have fought each other since 1989 in these areas, and the conflicts here are not easily classified in terms of Christians versus Muslims or any other religions. A common theme here has instead been conflicts over land-owner rights, as these areas in Nigeria’s delta are sources of the country’s enormous oil wealth. But there are many other political and economic grievances stated by and between these groups.Many of the ethnic groups here have formed ethno-political interest groups, such as the Ogono group MOSOP and the Ijaw groups IYC and NDV. An excerpt from the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia reads:

The southern region of Nigeria, and especially the delta area, is where the crude oil that constitutes a substantial amount of the Nigerian revenues is located. The fact that the oil and the subsequent incomes that can be extracted from it are concentrated to this area, in which several ethnic groups have their homeland, has led to violent episodes between ethnic groups contesting the ownership of land in and around the oil rich delta area. Given these conditions, a number of groups mobilized and formed interest groups speaking on the behalf of the ethnicities. This polarized the already fragile relations in the southern parts of Nigeria, and led to a situation where contested ownership of land, taxation of land or even number of employees at the oil facilities were all potential conflict issues.

The most intense conflicts in this area have stood between the Adoni and Ogoni communities (around Port Harcourt, circled in green), the Ijaw and Itsekiri (mainly in the Warri area, circled in yellow), the Aguleri and Umuleri (around Onitsha, circled in purple) and the Ife and Modakeke (around Ibadan and Ondo, circled in white).

The last two hotspots show fighting between the Ukele and Izzi (south of Oturkpo on the map), and between Hausa and Yoruba around Lagos.

Want to read more about these conflicts and their varying characteristics? Visit the Nigeria page of the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia.