Land scarcity drives a bout of ethnic violence in Kenya, Ethiopia

The Turkana of northwest Kenya and Daasanach of southern Ethiopia have been at odds for years, but food scarcity, drought, and changing lifestyles are exacerbating tensions.

By , Guest blogger

This week has seen fighting between the Turkana people, who live in northwest Kenya, and the Daasanach or Merille* people, who live in southern Ethiopia (map of Lake Turkana). The fighting stems from local conflicts, but it also reflects a broader pattern of inter-ethnic conflict resulting from food scarcity, persistent drought, and the lifestyle alterations that borders have forced upon nomadic groups. The frequency of such conflicts in turn puts pressure on states, and creates tensions between states, in this case Kenya and Ethiopia.

Both the Turkana (who number around 100,000) and the Merille (who number around 50,000) are traditionally nomadic. But while the Turkana remain nomadic pastoralists, the Merille

in recent years have become primarily agropastoral. Having lost the majority of their lands over the past fifty years or so, primarily as a result from being excluded from their traditional Kenyan lands, including on both sides of Lake Turkana, and the ‘Ilemi Triangle‘ of Sudan, they have suffered a massive decrease in the numbers of cattle, goats and sheep. As a result, large numbers of them have moved to areas closer to the Omo River, where they attempt to grow enough crops to survive.

Despite these changes for the Merille, the two groups compete for food, such as cattle and the fish found in and around Lake Turkana. This sets the stage for violence.

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I am having trouble piecing together exactly what happened this week, but several Merille were apparently killed on Monday near Lake Turkana. Separately, according to the Nairobi Star, a group of Turkana crossed into Ethiopia and made purchases at a market. Following their return to Kenya (possibly after a fishing expedition to Lake Turkana), the Turkana were attacked on Tuesday by Merille and some 20-40 Turkana, or more, were killed. A reprisal by Turkana fighters claimed five Merille lives shortly thereafter. Further attacks reportedly claimed more Turkana lives.

According to the above-mentioned Nairobi Star account, this violence is part of a pattern that reaches back years:

The massacre is the latest in attacks that have pitted communities within the Elemi Triangle – the once disputed triangular border area between Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia – and the area has known no peace.

The region has been home to protracted and intermittent cattle rustling with many killed, maimed and much property lost. The Elemi Triangle has until recently been ‘unwanted’ and not economically developed by any regional government. Differences of perception and significance of the area between the authorities and the local herders has persisted for decades.

Apart from being the gateway to an area of Sudan rich in unexplored oil reserves, Elemi is only significant for its dry season pastures that support the Turkana, Didinga, Toposa, Inyangatom (Dong’iro) and Dassanech (Merille) communities, largely known as the Karamoja cluster groups of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Armed cattle rustling conflicts between the Turkana of Kenya and Ethiopia’s Merille have dominated headlines of the Elemi Triangle news. Between January 2002 and November 2004, at least 100 people were killed and unspecified number of livestock taken away.

The article goes on to detail attacks that occurred in 2010 and earlier this year.

Fighting between Turkana and Merille has displaced dozens of people and has stirred up local resentment against the Kenyan government. The Kenyan government, meanwhile, has complained to the Ethiopian government. Without a long-term solution to the tensions that pit the Turkana and Merille against each other, a deadly cycle will continue: government authority will corrode, local groups will turn to violence to solve conflicts, and the problem will persist.

I am including a video report from NTV Kenya below.

*I have used the name Merille because this is what Kenyan newspapers use, but I have tried to avoid a pro-Turkana bias – especially since many of the sources I used are Kenyan.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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