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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 Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / May 10, 2011



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.

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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.

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.

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