Violence, Land, and the Upcoming Vote in Kenya’s Laikipia Region
Violence, Land, and the Upcoming Vote in Kenya’s Laikipia Region
Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis
Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis
A Samburu tribesman and cattle herder looks on as cows walk through a fence destroyed by other Samburu tribesmen in Mugui conservancy, Kenya, on 11 February 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa

Violence, Land, and the Upcoming Vote in Kenya’s Laikipia Region

Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst Murithi Mutiga has just returned from a weeklong tour of the troubled central Kenyan county of Laikipia, where violence between indigenous nomadic pastoralists and ranchers is escalating in the run-up to elections scheduled for 8 August.

Clashes between pastoralists, farmers and conservationists in the central Kenyan county of Laikipia – triggered initially by drought but worsened by political tensions linked to local elections scheduled for August – could escalate into a wider, even more damaging conflict unless authorities act quickly to defuse tensions.

Laikipia has long been contested land. It sits at the foot of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain. In recent decades, its sweeping Savanna vistas have made it one of the country’s most important tourist destinations while its ample fertile land has attracted commercial agriculture. For centuries before this, however, the region’s permanent springs, basalt hills and open grassland supported the semi-nomadic lifestyles of local pastoralist communities.

Local communities have long fought for control of Laikipia’s lush pasturelands. Now some local politicians have been accused of using these traditional grievances to incite communities and gain advantage ahead of the vote.

As the elections approach, observer missions should deploy in significant numbers in counties such as Laikipia to boost trust in the process and deter irresponsible political actors seeking to subvert the polling or displace voters.

A Troubled History

When British settlers arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, some of the land they coveted most in Kenya was occupied by the Maasai, a storied warrior community that had acquired the best real estate in the country through conquest. The British displaced the Maasai from the central Rift Valley, forcing them into two reserves set up in Laikipia and southern Kenya near the border with Tanzania. They promised clan elders that the community could hold the land “so long as the Maasai shall exist as a race”.

The British broke their word in 1911, pushing the Maasai out of Laikipia to open the way for large ranches and farms. This betrayal still rankles the Maasai and others in the region. The lopsided land ownership that resulted from the expulsion of these pastoralists more than one hundred years ago helps explain local grievances today.

Laikipia borders the semi-arid counties of Isiolo, Baringo and Samburu. In recent years, regular droughts have battered these counties, adding to the stress already caused by rising populations and an increase in livestock herds. The latest drought, which has affected most of East Africa, forced pastoralists in search of well-watered pasture to move tens of thousands of cattle into the Laikipia farmlands and conservation areas.

Political Incitement

Such migrations have occurred periodically during previous droughts. What makes this year different is the level of armed violence. About 25 people, including ten policemen, have been killed and dozens of civilians injured as the herders forcibly occupy farms, community-owned ranches and sprawling conservancies – many owned by third-generation Kenyans of British origin. The 23 April shooting of the prominent author and conservationist Kuki Gallmann attracted widespread attention.

Some media reports have portrayed the victims as mainly Kenyans of European extraction who own conservancies, but that is not wholly accurate. Herders from the Samburu and Pokot ethnic groups have also displaced many indigenous Kenyan farmers. Even several Maasai-owned ranches have been occupied in what appears to be an effort to stake a lasting claim to Laikipia land.

Many believe that politicians are deliberately inciting violence prior to the elections on 8 August.

Many believe that politicians are deliberately inciting violence prior to the elections on 8 August. Under Kenya’s 2010 constitution, substantial resources are now managed at the local level by elected officials. Although this devolution of power is popular, it also has made local campaigns increasingly intense and violent, especially in ethnically-mixed areas.

“You have politicians whose whole platform revolves around whipping up ethnic emotions and inciting pastoralists to forcibly occupy land in an effort to win votes”, Ndiritu Muriithi, a former government minister and candidate for the position of Laikipia county governor – the most powerful elected post in the county – told Crisis Group.

In repeated interviews, local farmers and ranchers pointed an accusing finger at Matthew Lempurkel, a firebrand local MP from the Samburu community. In November 2016, the Director of Public Prosecutions charged Lempurkel with incitement to violence. The case remains in court and no judgment has been issued yet.

Lempurkel strenuously denied claims he had stirred up the agitation in an interview with Crisis Group. “That is propaganda spread by my opponents. It is not true. Most of the pastoralists have no voters’ cards or ID [national identification] cards. Their illiteracy levels are high. What would I stand to gain by inciting them? This problem was caused by the long, persistent drought”.

Lempurkel, however, said it was unfair that “a few ranchers own tens of thousands of acres” while many locals were landless. Lempurkel was re-arrested on 22 July and charged with fresh counts of incitement. He was released after posting bail two days later.

Joseph Shuel, a Maasai community leader and human rights activist, accused Samburu leaders of harbouring an expansionist agenda and of engaging in “ill-informed incitement.” He said the community with a legitimate historic claim to Laikipia was the Maasai but Samburu and Pokot warriors had forcibly taken over numerous Maasai-owned ranches. Shuel said the various parties should strike a middle ground that allows indigenes to co-exist with the large land owners but also offers help to pastoralists to cope with the tough conditions created by changing weather patterns and shrinking resources.


In many ways, Martin Evans typifies the ranchers and large-scale farmers whose holdings have been besieged by pastoralists. His great grandmother arrived in the central Kenya town of Nyeri from Britain in 1902 and was one of Kenya’s pioneer coffee farmers.

Evans’ father bought the Ol Maisor ranch in Laikipia, where the family has grown wheat and kept livestock since 1968. He speaks fluent Kiswahili, the Kenyan national language, and considers Laikipia home.

Evans told Crisis Group the latest confrontation with pastoralists was the worst he could remember. “This is totally the result of political instigation”, he said. Two workers were killed on his ranch when Pokot herders drove tens of thousands of cattle into the farm. The herders remain on the ranch in a tense standoff with army troops brought in to protect the family and farm workers.

He noted that devolution had brought power closer to the people but also created “ethnic mini-nations”, some of whose leaders were inciting their followers to take over land to advance their political ambitions.

Conservancies and Pastoralists

Laikipia could serve as a model for resolving tensions between agriculturalists and herders. Because of its stunning biodiversity, it has the resources to help pastoralists transition to more sustainable cattle keeping.

Over the last few years, many donors, most prominently the U.S. government, have poured tens of millions of dollars to support NGO-managed conservancies in the area. These help protect wildlife by sharing the income generated by tourism with communities that have surrendered large tracks of land for conservation.

However, as Modecai Ogada, a prominent environmentalist notes, “under the current system, pastoralists have been left on the periphery. Many traditional dry season grazing areas are out of bounds and fenced off as conservancies. If even a small percentage of the funds being sent to these NGOs went to helping the pastoralists, you wouldn’t be witnessing a crisis of such severity”.

It is a fair point. Donors that support conservation efforts in Laikipia and elsewhere should offer funding and technical support to regenerate the devastated grasslands in neighbouring counties. This would help remove the need for herders to leave their home ranges in large-scale migrations that inevitably trigger conflict.

The greater challenge falls to the Kenyan government, which needs to formulate a policy for helping pastoral communities adjust to changing conditions, especially climate stresses that undermine the traditional semi-nomadic pastoralism that has been practiced for centuries.

The Kenyan government has historically neglected the cattle-keeping sector, instead promoting commercial crops such as coffee and tea that are big foreign exchange earners.

The Kenyan government has historically neglected the cattle-keeping sector, instead promoting commercial crops such as coffee and tea that are big foreign exchange earners. This neglect helps explain the low levels of development and high rates of illiteracy among pastoral communities in Laikipia and much of northern Kenya.

The national and county governments should invest resources in helping pastoralists by improving extension services, establishing breeder farms and offering funding for research to help locals improve the quality of cattle, thus allowing them to raise smaller, more productive herds.

The government should lead the effort, working with donors and local grassroots organisations, to rehabilitate rangelands devastated by drought and overgrazing in Samburu, Isiolo, Baringo and elsewhere. Greater investment in education is also essential. Pastoralists should learn to engage in sustainable cattle keeping or empowered to pursue alternative means of earning a livelihood.

The county government should establish migratory corridors for cattle herds and restore access to dry season grazing lands appropriated, some locals say, by powerful government officials.

Many in Laikipia told Crisis Group that they expected the government to launch a major security operation after the election to push back the pastoralists from land they have occupied. Onesmus Musyoki, the County Commissioner in overall charge of security forces in Laikipia, told Crisis Group the government was determined to restore the rule of law.

But the government should act with restraint to avoid inflaming tensions again. Underlying these repeated and escalating cycles of violence is a long history of betrayal and economic neglect.

Officials from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) record the finger prints of a man during the launch of the 2017 general elections voter registration exercise within the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, on 16 January 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Commentary / Africa

Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis

Political tensions are rising in Kenya ahead of elections in August for the presidency and other senior posts. Measures taken now can avert the risk of a repeat of electoral violence that killed hundreds of people in 2007-2008.

Kenyans go to the polls in August, and fierce contests are likely in the race for the presidency and other elections the same day to county governorships and other senior posts. Electoral commission preparations are dangerously behind schedule amid political polarisation, growing distrust and lack of communication between parties. Given the country’s troubled electoral history, it is essential that politicians and other key stakeholders discuss and agree on the measures necessary for credible polls and a way forward on the electoral timeline.

The elections matter well beyond Kenya’s borders. The country is the transport and commercial hub of East Africa, so a protracted crisis would result in significant disruptions further afield. The 2007-2008 post-election violence, which left 1,000 dead after a brutal police response to protests and ethnic killings, shut down international road links and slowed cargo shipments at Mombasa port to a trickle. Fuel prices more than doubled in neighbouring, landlocked Uganda and Rwanda, and humanitarian assistance further afield in the eastern Congo (DRC) was disrupted for weeks. It took a mediation effort led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and supported by international partners to get the main players to agree to a truce and form a power-sharing government.

In the August 2017 poll, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto face an energised opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (NASA), that brings together all major opposition figures. It is led by Raila Odinga, whose campaign is all the more determined because this may be his last contest.

A Level Playing Field?

Neither side has made the job of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) easy. In December, Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party used its majority in parliament to push through controversial amendments to the electoral laws with little consultation. They provided for a manual backup to the electronic electoral system in case of equipment failure. This is arguably necessary since no electronic system is perfect, and no technology is foolproof against bad behaviour by politicians.

The government’s unilateral measure sowed mistrust in the electoral process. But opposition leaders have not helped matters by claiming the voting will be rigged by the ruling party and threatening to challenge any outcome to the election that does not favour them outside legal channels. After the opposition claimed that the 2013 elections were fixed, the courts ruled against it.

What has not changed is the behaviour of politicians and the zero-sum nature of political competition.

Following the 2007-2008 crisis, the Independent Review Commission (IREC), headed by retired South African judge Johann Kriegler, concluded that the 2007 polls had been marked by large-scale vote-tampering and issued far-reaching recommendations on the conduct of future elections, including that election commissioners take office at least two years before a general election. The review commission concluded that the technical system for tallying, recording and transmitting results was defective and called for an overhaul. It noted that the vast powers vested in the presidency set the stage for a high-stakes contest that increased the likelihood of violence.

Only some of the proposals to improve the electoral process have been implemented. Most significantly, a progressive constitution was adopted in 2010. A two-round presidential election system now requires the ultimate winner to garner more than 50 per cent of the vote nationally and more than a quarter of those cast in more than half the 47 counties. The process for selecting election commissioners was made more inclusive, and power was devolved to counties whose elected governors and local representatives enjoy a fair degree of autonomy over the deployment of resources disbursed from the centre. The 2013 elections were reasonably peaceful, though the opposition challenged the credibility of the tallying process. Parliament has new responsibilities, including the power to vet most presidential appointees. Members also enjoy oversight of the cabinet through departmental committees.

What has not changed is the behaviour of politicians and the zero-sum nature of political competition. Though the 2010 constitution sought to change the division of power between the presidency and parliament, the head of state remains immensely powerful, able to dole out patronage to supportive elites. When the president’s party commands a majority in parliament, that institution can be reduced to a rubber-stamp assembly. By the same token, devolution in the new constitution has raised the stakes in sub-national contests, with heated competition expected for governorships.

Frequent leadership turnover at the IEBC means there will be a different set of inexperienced commissioners going into an election for the third vote in a row. Some who ran the last two votes left under a cloud, accused either of fiddling results (in 2007) or major corruption and political bias (2013).

While the Kriegler report recommended that commissioners be in office at least two years before an election to enable them prepare adequately, the new team took office on 20 January, a mere seven months before the vote. Delays in parliament, dithering by the executive and confusion within a team picked to interview the new commissioners were blamed for the holdup.

This has left the IEBC, now headed by Wafula Chebukati, a lawyer little-known outside legal circles, facing tall odds to deliver a credible election. Overcoming formidable logistical, technical and legal obstacles within existing timelines and in a febrile, divisive environment will be a major challenge.

Hi-tech Ambitions, Legal Challenges

Kenya’s electoral commission, like many in Africa, hopes to deploy a system with biometric voter identification and electronic results transmission so as to avoid the ballot-stuffing and dubious turnout figures that plagued past elections, particularly in 2007. The IEBC estimates that the vendor that wins the contract will need 60 days to deliver the custom-made integrated electoral management system. It is well behind schedule in finding such a supplier.

Legislative timelines initially called for the system to be in place eight months before the polls, which would have required installation by 8 December 2016. IEBC executives asked for more time, citing stringent procurement requirements. In November, Chief Executive Ezra Chiloba said it hoped to have the new system in place by the end of February. In fact, legal appeals by several of the companies that submitted tenders to supply the system meant that bid papers were only submitted in the first week of February. Now, another vendor’s legal challenge has blocked any decision on the tender.

The installation of a transparent, efficient electoral management system would go a long way to assuaging public concerns.

On 28 February, the IEBC admitted it was out of time to procure the new system on schedule. At a press briefing, its commissioners said, without elaboration, that they would explore using “an alternative voter verification” method. A day later, commission officials said they might procure the equipment directly from a vendor by “single sourcing” or issue a restricted tender that might be less open to legal challenge.

The equipment for transmitting results from polling places to the tallying centre is as important as the voter kits. Past elections were compromised by lack of transparency in tallying and transmitting. The installation of a transparent, efficient electoral management system would go a long way to assuaging public concerns. Unfortunately, rushed procurement, with little lead-time for testing, may set the IEBC up for failure. That would also deepen suspicions in a situation already marked by significant tension between parties. Government steps to limit the role of external partners, such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, that can offer valuable technical assistance, have not helped.

On 22 December, the High Court granted an order halting the IEBC’s award of a tender to financial services firm KPMG for verification of the voter register, upholding an opposition petition that accused the IEBC of making the appointment without sufficient consultation. On 13 February, the High Court nullified a tender to a Dubai-based firm for printing ballot papers, citing violations of procurement regulations and electoral laws.

A separate 13 February High Court decision that all IEBC executive decisions made before the January appointment of commissioners were null and void had particularly serious implications for preparations. The commission has appealed, but further court challenges to its decisions, particularly on tendering, remain possible and could create additional election complications.

Racing Against the Clock

The greatest operational challenge the IEBC faces is not lack of internal capacity but that there is little time to put in place all the elements required to make the vote transparent and credible. It needs to be clear-sighted and open about this. It should communicate to the public and international partners what extra help it needs to implement the various technical steps, including fast-tracked procurement of technology.

If it becomes clear, however, that the remaining time, particularly in light of possible legal challenges, is insufficient, it should ask for an extension. The opposition may be angling for a postponement for its own reasons. Nonetheless, from a technical perspective the IEBC could well run out of time to deliver credible polls.

If it becomes clear the commission needs more time, it may be possible to achieve consensus on a delay including by turning to the courts, because all parties have an interest in a smooth election. There is a precedent for this. Although the constitution provides that elections should be on the second Tuesday of August every fifth year, the High Court gave the IEBC more time to prepare for the last election. 

With little time left in which to build public confidence, the IEBC needs a communications strategy to update voters regularly. More importantly, it needs a mechanism to discuss progress with politicians and consult on key decisions it makes on preparations to assure them the vote will be credible, free and fair. 

The commission should expand its Election Preparedness Task Force, currently composed of IEBC officials, representatives of the interior ministry, judiciary and director of public prosecutions. Giving civil society and the opposition greater access to all aspects of preparations would boost trust in the process. 

How Outsiders Can Help

International partners should extend technical and financial help to the IEBC to help it better tackle the challenges. This should, however, be done with nuance, flexibility and complete transparency, in light of unfounded claims by the ruling party that external parties are seeking to influence the electoral outcome. International observers should be deployed in time to monitor crucial stages of the electoral process, such as verification of the vote register and procurement of electoral materials.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) should expand its technical aid initiatives, including deploying staff with experience handling fraught balloting around Africa to support the commission.

The greatest operational challenge the IEBC faces is not lack of internal capacity but that there is little time to put in place all the elements required to make the vote transparent and credible.

Kenya’s raucous politics shows the relative openness of its democracy. That politicians explicitly mobilise along ethnic lines, however, means elections are marked by high communal tension. Since their words carry extraordinary resonance in a still ethnically fractured country, politicians should weigh them carefully during the campaign. The ruling party should not use state resources to gain an unfair advantage. Opposition leaders should play a constructive role in monitoring and supporting the electoral process and commit to using legal channels to air any grievances.

The main presidential contenders could help by publicly signing a code of conduct ahead of the official start of the campaign, including a pledge to seek legal recourse in the event of disputes and a call to supporters to refrain from violence. A similar step during the heated 2015 Nigerian presidential election campaign helped calm tensions before the vote.

Similar codes of conducts should be organised in counties, including pledges not to use violence and to respect results. Establishing peace committees comprising different community leaders in especially contentious areas would help to bring groups together and limit the risk of communal violence once results are announced. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission should also closely monitor hate speech by politicians on the campaign trail and prosecute offenders.

Disputed polls can carry a major human and financial cost, and three of five elections since a multi-party system was re-introduced in 1992 have been marked by violence. Kenya needs to ensure that the 2017 vote goes smoothly. Faced with the extremely tight timelines, all stakeholders should make their contribution to this.

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