A Dying Breed of Peacemakers in Kenya’s North East
A Dying Breed of Peacemakers in Kenya’s North East
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
Kenya-19nov15
Al-Fatah Council of Elders Chairman Muhamud Hassan “Dukow” addressing members at a forum in November 2015. CRISIS GROUP/Rashid Abdi
Our Journeys / Africa

A Dying Breed of Peacemakers in Kenya’s North East

Wajir county, situated in the remote north-eastern region alongside Somalia, is one of the unlikely stars of Kenya’s newly devolved system of government. Despite ongoing challenges, Wajir’s legacy of community-driven peacebuilding has helped consolidate recent development gains. Ironically, new county elites risk jeopardising this fragile progress by sidelining the older generation of peace activists who contributed to improving security in the region over the past twenty years.

A 2014 World Bank study ranked Wajir first among 47 counties for devoting the greatest proportion of its annual budget toward development. Only ten counties in Kenya reached the 30 per cent development spending threshold; Wajir managed a whopping 58 per cent. This has meant visible improvements, such as tarmacking the town’s roads and introducing solar-powered street lighting.

Ganyure Road under construction in November 2015.

But there is still much work ahead. Wajir has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in Kenya. In 2014, primary school enrollment in the county was only 35 per cent, well below Kenya’s national average of 77 per cent. The vast majority of Wajir’s population live in absolute poverty.

Meanwhile, a growing population puts pressure on the county’s meager resources – including water and grazing land vital for the region’s pastoral communities. Across the North East, clashes between the resident Somali-speaking herding clans over wells and pastures are endemic, but over the last decades resource competition has become increasingly deadly.

Wajir has avoided the worst of the clashes and increasingly politicised competition between clans and sub-clans that have blighted its neighbouring, Somali-dominated counties of Mandera to the north and Garissa to the south. However, tit-for-tat attacks between rival militias in late October – especially between Degodia and Ajuran clans in the restive Eldas locality in Wajir North – have raised fears of an all-out war.

So far, Wajir has managed to contain and mediate disputes that elsewhere in the region have escalated into full-blown conflict. This exceptionalism is largely due to local peacebuilding initiatives, including the work of the Al-Fatah Council of Elders. One of their leaders, Mohamud Hassan Mu’mun “Dukow”, is a charming old man with a henna-dyed red beard. “They call me ‘Khamis Bongo’, you know, because I am an old man, always dressed in a simple white robe, who jokes a lot and is flippant even with weightier matters”, he presented himself to me in an interview, in a soft and slightly hoarse voice, and with a playful glint in his eyes.

Mohamud Hassan Mu’min “Dukow”, Chairman of the Al-Fatah Council of Elders, in November 2015.

In 1993, at the height of one of the deadliest bouts of inter-clan fighting in what was then the North Eastern Province, Dukow volunteered to chair a cross-clan council of elders to mediate peace. The council comprised 36 members drawn from all the clans in the county. They quickly secured a truce signed by the warring clans at a local madrasa called Al-Fatah in Wajir town. “Since that time, the name Al-Fatah has stuck with us”, Dukow recalled.

Their achievements and fame spread across the country and internationally. Over the past two decades, the Al-Fatah Council of Elders has been called to help mediate an end to similar conflicts in Mandera, Garissa and Isiolo counties.

“We succeeded because we remained steadfastly independent, truthful and honest brokers. We never took sides; we received no resources and depended on community support”, Dukow said.

The council’s ranks have diminished over time. “Sixteen of our members are now dead”, Dukow said, including former Cabinet Minister Ahmed Khalif and women’s rights activist Deqa Ibrahim Abdi. “We are a bunch of ageing men, and none is below 70 years of age. Our era is coming to an end”, Dukow noted sadly. “I would have liked to mentor the new generation of peacemakers, to pass on our skills. But we are no longer taken seriously”.

Al-Fatah’s role has been undercut, perhaps inadvertently, by the new local government’s creation of the County Peace Forum (CPF) – a 60-member council of elders. The CPF, which includes some Al-Fatah elders, is supposed to be a more representative body, to modernise and adapt traditional peacemaking to the changed circumstances of devolved government.

The Al-Fatah group has come in for criticism, including its dependence on Somali clan customary laws (heer) and the payment of blood money (diya) to resolve conflicts, which some said may incentivise and fuel armed hostilities. “Diya encourages repeat offending”, said one civil society activist. “People convicted of capital offences such as murder get off lightly after paying a fine of 500,000 shillings to the victim’s relatives”.

However, others note that the CPF mediators are inexperienced and lack credibility to act as honest brokers. Omar Jibril, a founding member of Al-Fatah, recalled an incident in early 2014, when a CPF team of elders was dispatched to a remote locality in Wajir North to stop a serious bout of inter-clan fighting. The delegation was met by hostile villagers who barricaded the road, chanting: “We want Al-Fatah”.

“Following this aborted peace mission, the county asked Al-Fatah members to intervene”, Jibril recalled. “We mobilised and quickly went to the scene of the skirmish, separated the warring sides, brokered a truce and buried the four uncollected and badly-decomposed bodies”.

Some complain that women are underrepresented in the new county-based structures. “Women remain invisible”, said Fatuma Abdullahi, a nominated female Member of the County Assembly (MCA). She is one of fifteen female members nominated to the County Assembly, a number that is itself unprecedented. Fatuma recalled that women in Wajir were pioneers in the peacebuilding effort. “From the late 1990’s and up until 2007, shortly before her death, Deqa Ibrahim played a big role in reconciling communities. She went from house to house imploring women to use their influence to end hostilities”, Fatuma said. “If you do not involve women in the peace process, you might as well forget any chance of real peace”.

However, the conflicts in Wajir and across the North East are arguably different from the ones the Al-Fatah group dealt with two decades ago. The new violence is more politically driven, say local observers, with some clans engaged in a subtle “expansionist” drive to gain electoral advantage ahead of the 2017 polls, especially at the county level. During the first “devolved” elections in 2013, constituency and county boundary changes were a flash point in the resurgence of a longstanding feud between the Garre and Degodia clans in neighbouring Mandera county. The 2017 elections promise to be even more competitive, and recent hints by the both county and national governments of a possible review of constituency boundaries may provoke tensions.

More ominously, there are indications that clans are stockpiling weapons and recruiting militias. One militia, affiliated with the Degodia and said to be 500-strong, was reported to be conducting stop-and-search operations on roads near Eldas to intimidate clan rivals.

“The number of weapons in civilian hands exceeds that of the security forces”, said Al-Fatah member Jibril, an assessment echoed by a senior officer of the Administration Police’s Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), deployed to contain armed violence in Eldas and other restive parts of the county.

Wajir county leaders have been critical of what they perceive as the “poor coordination and under-resourcing” of the national government’s security structures. The appointment of regional coordinator Mohamud Saleh, a native of the area, and the presence of the RDU have provided some reassurance. However, local people in Wajir and across the North East remain distrustful and suspicious of the Nairobi government.

Mukhtar Ogle, the secretary of strategic initiatives for marginalised regions (SIDMAR) in the Office of the president, happens to hail from Wajir. Ogle admitted there was a level of mistrust of the national government that was proving an impediment to cooperation, but said he was confident this was not insurmountable.

“There is no doubt Wajir has great potential to become a role model”, Ogle said. “The national government and the Office of the president, in particular, commend the progress the county has made, and are keen to tap that experience and enhance engagement and cooperation”.

Mukhtar Ogle, Secretary for Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the President with members of the original Al-Fatah Council of Elders in November 2015.

Official praise for Wajir county is contested by a number of local leaders and civil society activists who argue that devolution’s potential is being undermined by the county’s drive to bring everything under its hand. Though Wajir’s political leadership has been far more inclusive than in Mandera and Garissa, there are doubts about the county’s capacity. The county government has not yet proved its competence and credibility among the wider population, and allegations of graft are circulating. “Many of the ills of the centre are being replicated in the counties”, said one National Assembly member.

Hashim El Mooge, who heads the Wajir Good Governance Initiative, claims that the county government is “thin-skinned” to criticism. “Those who raise concerns over unethical procurement procedures and questionable deals are dismissed as ‘enemies of development’ or worse”, El Mooge said. He thinks that devolution has brought considerable gains, but “unless we accept the principles of good governance, we risk losing everything”.

Some of his concerns are shared by members of the County Assembly. Abdishakur Adan – an MCA from Dela ward, in the troubled Eldas district, and a member of Budget Committee ­– is a critic of the county’s peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives. He argued that the county had little to show for the 150 million shillings ($1,468,000) set aside to fund peace efforts. He said the decision to “sideline” Al-Fatah and set up a new forum of peace elders made up of what he termed “political retirees” was ill-advised.

The Al-Fatah elders are, by their own admission, a dying breed. However, the role they played in Wajir and the North East in general, was unique and is still much needed. Their experience should not be let go, especially when sustaining peace is vital to fulfil the early promise of devolution in Wajir.

All pictures CRISIS GROUP/Rashid Abdi

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

Banners of Kenya's opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, also presidential candidate, are seen in Kericho, Kenya, July 30, 2022. REUTERS / Baz Ratner
Q&A / Africa

Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election

Kenya’s highly anticipated vote featuring two political heavyweights, Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, is likely to be closely fought. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias outlines what is at stake.

What is happening?

Kenyans are due to vote on 9 August in a high-stakes election that has polarised the country’s political elite. The election pits Deputy President William Ruto, who will be trying for the top office for the first time, against Raila Odinga, the veteran head of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement. As deputy president, Ruto once seemed to be the heir apparent, but he has fallen out bitterly with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is serving his second and last term. Instead, Kenyatta backs the candidacy of his own long-time rival Odinga, who has made four previous attempts to win the presidency.

Polls show a mixed picture in the contest between Ruto and Odinga. One closely watched polling firm, TIFA Research, found that Odinga has carved out a lead in recent weeks, with 49 per cent to Ruto’s 41 per cent. Another survey, by the Radio Africa Group, concluded that the race is a dead heat, placing Ruto at 45 per cent, one point ahead of Odinga.

Kenyan elections are almost invariably hard-fought, but the Odinga-Ruto showdown has been unusually unpredictable in part because deal-making among Kenyan elites has upended old alliances. Kenyatta, who clinched the presidency in 2013 and won re-election in 2017, was expected to endorse his deputy Ruto, who backed him in both those campaigns. Instead, Kenyatta forged a partnership with Odinga soon after the 2017 vote.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases. Ruto is strongly ahead in his Rift Valley backyard, while Odinga enjoys an unassailable lead in Nyanza, where he traces his roots. The picture is more complex in the vote-rich Mt. Kenya region, north of Nairobi, which has produced three of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents. There is no major candidate from the populous central highlands this time around. Ruto has shown surprising strength in this region, where Kenyatta has traditionally been dominant. The deputy president remains well ahead in polls, though without anything like the huge majority that Kenyatta won in 2017. Odinga, while trailing Ruto in the region, has raised his poll numbers to between 25 and 30 per cent, up from the single-digit figure he recorded in 2017. Odinga hopes that improvement in this region will make up for his losses to Ruto in his long-time strongholds in western Kenya and the coast. Ruto’s chances, meanwhile, rest on him scoring a convincing win in Mt. Kenya while eating into Odinga’s support in the western, coastal and northern parts of the country. Another key issue to watch will be whether two less prominent contenders, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, can peel enough votes away from the two main candidates to force a run-off.

What is at stake? 

Although the campaign has been largely peaceful, its tone has sharpened in the final weeks. Not just the two main candidates but also the outgoing president view the race in existential terms: they see winning as a matter of political and economic survival. Ruto, though now vastly wealthy, has parlayed his humble background into a campaign image as a “hustler”, an everyman who understands the needs of ordinary Kenyans, unlike Kenyatta and Odinga, the dynastic successors of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively. Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua have promised to tackle the “state capture” they say has occurred during the Kenyatta presidency, an implicit threat to investigate the Kenyatta family business empire’s ties with the state. But Ruto could face investigation himself, should Odinga prevail, into the source of his wealth (the political stakes, given his relative youth at 55, are arguably lower for him). Odinga, 77, will be making his fifth and likely final bid for the presidency. Portraying himself as a safe pair of hands who will unite the country, he has also vowed to root out corruption. He chose the respected anti-graft crusader Martha Karua, the first woman to run for deputy president on a major ticket in Kenyan history, as his running mate. In the eyes of his supporters, winning would reward him for his great personal sacrifices, including a long spell in detention in the 1980s, in the quest for a more democratic Kenya.

The two sides have traded ever more pointed barbs over the past few weeks. Attack billboards have sprung up and concocted accusations have flown on social media. Kenyatta and Ruto in particular have launched tirades against each other. On 31 July, government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna condemned politicians for stoking tensions and urged the two front-runners’ teams to dial down their rhetoric.

The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas.

Aside from the presidential election, Kenyans will also choose among thousands of candidates for national and county assembly member seats, representatives to the senate and county governorships. Contests for the latter post tend to be particularly pitched, considering the devolved powers and control of resources governors enjoy under Kenya’s constitution. In some places, the contests have already turned violent: in the northern county of Marsabit, the national government imposed a curfew following deadly clashes between local communities. The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas, as Crisis Group reporting recently found. There have also been reports of attacks on women candidates on the campaign trail, despite the progress for gender representation indicated by Odinga’s nomination of Karua.

Although tensions may flare in some localities, the principal threat to stability lies in a disputed presidential outcome. Should the winner clinch the presidency by only a narrow margin, the declared loser may reject the result. Ideally, the aggrieved loser would turn to the courts, but if instead he calls supporters out into the streets they could clash with police. Communal violence might also ensue.

Are institutions prepared for the exercise?

The main questions about preparedness concern the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). This body, which runs the balloting and tabulates the votes, suffered a blow to its credibility after the 2017 presidential election when the Supreme Court annulled the results, citing the commission’s failure to conduct the vote in conformity with the constitution and electoral law. The IEBC has promised to learn from its mistakes, with Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it will ensure the election is transparent by offering agents of all parties’ access to vote tallies at polling stations.

Surveys show high public trust in the IEBC (TIFA’s poll found 74 per cent of respondents have either “a lot of” or “some” confidence), but a combination of state pressure and its own missteps has hobbled its preparations. First, parliament failed to approve the funding the commission requested to run the elections in time, delaying preparations including staff recruitment. Secondly, state-aligned media and senior officials have launched attacks on its credibility, casting doubt on its capacity to conduct the vote. Authorities on 21 July arrested foreign contractors who had come to Kenya at the commission’s invitation for supposed immigration violations. Critics view these moves as attempts by the state apparatus to intimidate the IEBC. For its part, the commission has a clumsy communications strategy, rarely informing the public about its internal workings in a proactive manner, drawing accusations from both major candidates’ camps that it is not acting with the requisite transparency.

Police have committed a number of electoral code violations.

Security forces are another key player. For most of the campaign, they have behaved with restraint. In the final weeks, however, police have committed a number of electoral code violations, including blocking Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance members from reaching a number of campaign venues.

On the plus side, Kenya’s judiciary has built on the public trust it earned with its unexpected annulment of the 2017 vote, alongside a number of subsequent decisions barring an attempt by Kenyatta and Odinga to change the constitution. Defeated candidates may well turn to the Supreme Court again this time.

What should be done?

Kenyan elections matter well beyond Kenya. The country is East Africa’s main transport and commercial hub and a violent breakdown following polling could have reverberations in the neighbourhood. As Kenya is a democratic bellwether in the region, a smooth election could be a powerful example to fellow governments that peaceful politics has more to offer than the personalist authoritarianism that has become common in the region. It has also positioned itself as the site of potential peace talks to end the war in northern Ethiopia and already hosted talks among parties to the conflicts in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Both initiatives could run aground in case of a prolonged crisis. 

The 2022 election cycle has had many encouraging features, notably that social tensions have been strikingly low. Yet intense elite polarisation – and the likelihood that the losing candidate will reject the outcome, especially if the election is close – means that all actors need to take steps to prevent the election from veering into violence. In particular, authorities should permit public institutions, notably the IEBC, the space to administer the election without interference. They should stick by their pledge not to shut down or slow the internet, as doing so would impair the commission’s capacity to transmit results electronically to tallying centres. Security forces should maintain strict neutrality.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity. Its chairman should hold press briefings to apprise the public of developments on election day and every subsequent day until it announces the final tallies. It should open its systems to scrutiny by political parties to reduce mutual suspicion. Electoral officials and other authorities should also ensure that party agents have full access to polling stations including – as the chairman pledged – during the vote count. Foreign and Kenyan observers should also be granted access. Odinga and Ruto should commit to turn to the judiciary rather than the streets if they are dissatisfied with the vote’s conduct or the outcome. Even at this late stage, a commitment by both not to act vengefully against each other – or against the outgoing president – upon taking the reins of power would help ratchet down tensions.

The Horn of Africa can scarcely afford another crisis with so much of the region in ferment. Kenyan authorities, the IEBC and other institutional leadership, the judiciary and the major candidates should all do their part to ensure a peaceful vote by acting with restraint – and fairness – as Kenyans go to the polls.