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Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Drought, Violence and Politics: Inside Laikipia’s Cattle War
Drought, Violence and Politics: Inside Laikipia’s Cattle War
A Turkana woman walks past a road construction project near Isiolo town, about 320 km (200 miles) north from the capital Nairobi, on 7 July 2008. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna
Commentary / Africa

Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence

ISIOLO, Kenya. Until a decade ago, few ventured beyond Isiolo without armed police escort. A dusty frontier garrison town in central Kenya, it was the gateway into the badlands of Kenya’s former Northern Frontier District.

In the last two decades, as Kenya’s economy and politics have liberalised, Isiolo has transformed into a vibrant commercial hub owing much to its strategic location. It straddles the recently upgraded (paved) Pan-Africa highway that links the Horn (especially Ethiopia’s huge and relatively untapped markets) to central Kenya and beyond to Central and Southern Africa.

Isiolo is also an important node of Kenya’s LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia) planned infrastructure project. This seeks to develop a new “northern” transport corridor between Kenya and Uganda and to better integrate Ethiopia and South Sudan into East Africa, and will include a new port being built near Lamu, oil pipelines and a refinery.

LAPSETT’s prospects have declined with the global price of oil, the rising terrorist threat in the North East, South Sudan’s civil war, and with Uganda now looking at an alternative pipeline route via Tanzania. Isiolo, however, will continue to play a central role in Kenya’s ambition to exploit its vast northern rangelands. 6,500 acres have been set aside for a new “Isiolo Resort City”, construction for a large dam on the Ewaso Nyiro River to serve it is already underway; a new airport, and a modern abattoir to process 400 cattle daily from the region’s large livestock population are also planned.

Yet Isiolo is one of a number of 47 new counties that face risks of conflict ahead of and during the 2017 polls. Not only has the national problem of an ethnic winner-takes-all politics devolved to the counties’ internal electoral competition, but local actors are making exclusive claims over potentially lucrative resources and infrastructure that fall in their boundaries, increasing conflict over internal administrative borders – which are often badly demarcated and therefore disputed. While these conflicts are found throughout Kenya, they have particularly affected counties in the pastoral areas of northern and southern Kenya, including the Rift Valley.

Devolving authority to county government in 2013 was one of the principal innovations of the 2010 constitution.

Devolving authority to county government in 2013 was one of the principal innovations of the 2010 constitution, and a response to the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The goal was to enhance local communities’ participation in development with the expectation that it would reduce competition over national resources, which had often taken on ethnic overtones and fuelled violence, especially at election time. It was also hoped county government would enable marginalised regions to catch up with the more developed areas, again addressing and reducing historic regional grievances.

Undoubtedly there has been a surge in county-based development especially in infrastructure, but these gains (and devolved funds that finance them) are connected to a rise in localised conflicts and insecurity in three aspects:

  • The heightened stakes of county power, controlled by the governor and other elected officers, have often reproduced national ethnic competition at county level.
  • The creation of new minorities within counties including in urban settings is generating new tensions, particularly where their economic activities are now seen as outsider competition by the new county elites.
  • Inter-county competition is growing over the ownership and control of big national or regional development projects where they traverse county boundaries, making these borders prone to violent dispute and rendering residents belonging to minorities from rival counties vulnerable to reprisals.

While Isiolo’s potential should bring development dividends – 63 per cent of its population live below the poverty line – its prospects are already blighted by a sharp rise in communal conflict. This is partly because control of national-regional development projects is contested by the new county elite as exclusively “theirs”.

The Isiolo county population (estimated at over 150,000) is diverse. Most are herders from tribes like the Boran, Somali, Samburu and Turkana in the northern “rangelands” (desert in the eyes of many), but a minority are farmers, because the county straddles the line of “sown” lands of the central highlands, settled by Meru agriculturalists and traders.

While this crossroads of livelihoods brings exchange and a dynamic local economy, it has also driven conflict: in the 1990s most of the ethnic violence was between the Boran and Somali, but since then ethnic conflict has diversified and evolved. In late October 2015 deadly clashes pitted Somali, Boran and Samburu herders against Meru farmers along the disputed county border resulting in six deaths. A few days later, riots erupted in Isiolo town following the death of a Meru boda boda (motorbike-taxi) operator; Boran, Somali and Turkana then looted Meru shops and blocked the Isiolo-Nanyuki highway; the situation was only brought under control by the deployment of soldiers from the 78th Tank Battalion, based in the town’s outskirts.

The Isiolo-Meru tension is just one example of inter-county disputes that now affect more than half the counties.

Because of the way Kenya’s new counties were often hastily drawn up (some see deliberate ethnic “gerrymandering”), formerly cosmopolitan regional capitals have become administrative centres for smaller counties dominated by one or two ethnic groups, and smaller communities neighbouring counties or further afield living in these cities have become “minorities”. In Isiolo’s case, Meru communities are now a minority, dominant in trade and in some urban wards, but frozen out of the big county executive seats, like those for the governor, senators and members of the national assembly. They are caught up in the increasingly bitter and violent conflict over the poorly-defined border between Isiolo and Meru counties.

The Isiolo-Meru tension is just one example of inter-county disputes that now affect more than half the counties, with growing calls for a new county border demarcation exercise. The Commission on Administrative Justice (a statutory body to address administrative and governance disputes) has called for the creation of a County Boundaries Commission, with a mandate to conduct a new survey and clearly mark out borders with visible markers. However, any new commissions or actions are unlikely to have an impact on contested boundaries before the 2017 elections.

Inaction is not an option since contested boundaries and the ethnic interests competing over them will aggravate hotly disputed county elections in 2017. The counties and the national government need to consider a sequence of high-impact policy interventions to mitigate the risk of county-based conflict, now and in the run-up to 2017. These could include:

  • a moratorium on all land sales in disputed country border areas, pending the outcome of a credible adjudication of contested lands and county border demarcation (properly marked with high-visibility markers);
  • a clear national government policy statement that borders will be reviewed after the 2017 polls by an independent technical commission and its decisions will be final and binding;
  • the creation of a new “County Inclusion Index” by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to identify counties that are failing to meet the constitutional requirements of inclusive government (the commission is already doing this but on an ad hoc basis);
  • new high-level inter-county talks, involving elected officials and a broad cross-section of credible civil society leaders, to ease tensions and create sustained peacebuilding and reconciliation.


Former Researcher, Horn of Africa
Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Two herders from the Samburu community at the cattle market in Ol Moran. Laikipia County, Kenya, in June 2022. CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay
Photo Essay / Africa

Drought, Violence and Politics: Inside Laikipia’s Cattle War

A historic drought in Kenya is coinciding with a hotly contested election. Nerves in central and northern Kenya are fraying, as climate stresses intensify intercommunal conflict and amplify electoral tensions.

Climate change, politics and resource competition are colliding again in a deadly combination on Kenya’s fertile Laikipia plateau. When previous rainy seasons failed, in 2011 and 2017, herders from Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions took their cattle to lush Laikipia, sometimes leading to violent clashes among rival herder communities or between herders, on one hand, and farmers and ranchers on the other. But the violence in 2022 has been particularly pitched, thanks in part to conditions that include a two-year dry spell (or four consecutive failed rainy seasons, the longest string in at least 40 years) and hotly contested national and local elections, scheduled for 9 August.

Some of the worst violence in recent years has centred around western Laikipia county, where the immediate trigger for fighting often involves cattle rustling by rival communities (mainly Pokot, Samburu and Turkana) or the movement by herders of their cattle onto private ranches, conservancies and cultivated land. The clashes have killed at least 35 people since September 2021 and the army has been deployed in the area.

The roots of this violence are multifaceted. Land in Laikipia has long been contested. Large conservancies and ranches, along with commercial farms, occupy thousands of acres of well-watered grassland. Local communities, whose forebears were displaced from those lands by British colonial authorities and post-independence elites, resent the capture of both land and water. Grievances over inequitable land ownership tend to escalate in election years, particularly when candidates encourage herders to send their cattle to graze on private ranches’, conservancies’ and farmers’ land in a bid to curry favour with the herders, even though this practice whips up local tensions. Kenyan police temporarily detained two local politicians for incitement in September 2021. While the charges were dropped for one of them, the other was charged again, for hate speech, in January 2022.

There is no relief in sight from the immense pressure on livelihoods created by the long drought. Forecasts predict a fifth season of poor rains later in the year. At the same time, food insecurity is rising, compounded by rising global food and fertiliser costs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

The Conference of the Parties, the main decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, will hold its 27th annual meeting in Egypt in November to discuss global efforts to combat climate change. The topic of climate security will not figure on the official agenda, but the situation in central Kenya highlights why it requires more political attention by illustrating how increasingly severe climate stresses and conflict risks feed off one another, magnifying the dangers of instability, climatic distress and violence.

We visited the Laikipia region in June. As shown in the following photographs, we talked with herders and farmers about the devastating drought, the loss of cattle, the violence in the area, intercommunal tensions and the forthcoming elections.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

A pastoralist walks with a herd of goats near Ol Moran, where many recent attacks have occurred. The area hosts the headquarters of the Kirima sub-county, a new administrative area created in November 2021 by Kenya’s interior ministry to better tackle insecurity in the region.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

Two young Pokot men in Laikipia county. The Pokots are one of the many herder communities in Laikipia, along with the Samburu, Turkana and Maasai. With 1.5 million cattle having died in Kenya as a result of the latest drought, some communities resort to stealing cattle to replenish their herds.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

A dead cow lies near the Sosian conservation area, in Laikipia. A drought compounded by the fourth consecutive failed rainy season has killed at least 7 million animals in the Horn of Africa (including the 1.5 million cattle in Kenya), according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

Nazanine Moshiri, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Climate and Security in Africa, talks to farmers from the Kisii community in Ol Moran.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

A Pokot herder takes his sheep to graze in the area of Posta, Laikipia county. The encroachment of large herds onto farms, private ranches and conservancies, sometimes encouraged by local politicians ahead of elections, has led to violence in some parts of the county.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

An assistant chief from the Deputy County Commissioner’s Office, David Ndung’u Wachira, explains to Pokot herders how they can register for a government program which offers temporary low-paid employment – in this case, rebuilding a local primary school in a violence-affected area.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

A young Pokot herder watches as his cow, starved and weakened, unsuccessfully tries to stand on her feet, in Rumuruti.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

Crisis Group’s Nazanine Moshiri talks to Wilson Remoi, a Peace Elder from the Turkana community, in Ol Moran. As a Peace Elder, Wilson engages with the different communities in the region, focusing on the youth, to promote dialogue and peace rather than violence. He also helps negotiate the return of stolen cattle after raids as part of these discussions.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

Two young Samburu herders sit on a fence at the cattle market in Ol Moran.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

Cattle cluster together at a market in Ol Moran. With herders struggling to find pasture for their cattle, many goats, sheep and cows have lost weight and value. Herders at the market told Crisis Group that cows which previously sold for $200-300 are now fetching $40-60.

CRISIS GROUP/ Nicolas Delaunay

Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) personnel drive on a dirt road outside of Ol Moran. The KDF were deployed to the region after a flare-up of violence in September 2021.


Senior Analyst, Climate & Security, Africa
Senior Communications Officer for Africa