On a normal morning in March 2001, hundreds of young men from the Pokot ethnic group in Kenya, armed with small arms, violently attacked neighboring Marakwet villages. The raiders left 47 people dead, stole livestock, and burned an estimated 300 homes. Officials minimized the raid as part of traditional practice.
The story was much the same in 1999, when up to 1000 men, also presumably Pokot, killed dozens, including 28 women and 15 children under 12, at a Kenyan market. The raiders fled with cattle, goats, and donkeys.
When rural groups in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia stage such raids to steal livestock, the usual explanation is that it’s just traditional behavior. However, experts are challenging this logic, alerting stakeholders that the problem includes environmental, small arms, and gender factors.
Armaments, Environments, Small Arms and the Control of Natural Resources, a study by the Nairobi-based African Center for Technology Studies (ACTS), says that such raids are fueled by a need to control resources, and catalyzed by the possession of small arms. It recommends government reform of land tenure regimes. Creating broader, clearer rights to access and use of natural resources, reform may also reduce the demand for small arms and light weapons. Safe access to natural resources, the report notes, can "reduce the need for vulnerable individuals and groups to gain access to resources using light weapons."
Another report, issued by the Eminent Persons Group, an international commission working on small arms control, makes similar connections. It concludes that small arms are an important factor in control of natural resources within environmentally-challenged rural areas. "When small arms and light-weapons are eradicated from the conflict areas, revival of traditional natural resource sharing mechanisms could best serve to prevent further conflicts," it notes.
Between 500 and 600 million people live in arid and semi-arid areas. Of these, 30 to 40 million depend entirely on animals. And of these, almost two thirds are in Africa. Sudan has the highest percentage in the world; Somalia and Ethiopia rank third and fifth respectively. In Djibouti, 33 percent of the population is pastoralist.
Semi-arid areas in the Horn of Africa make up 70 percent of the total land area, and provide 20 to 30 percent of the gross domestic product. In Kenya, 80 percent of the total land area is semi-arid, and supports a quarter of the country’s population and half its livestock.
Historically, farmers in South Turkana formed reciprocal arrangements to share natural resources with their Pokot neighbors as a way to manage environmental risks. But this arrangement was destabilized by colonial authorities.
Similarly, in the conflict areas of Kenya’s Northeastern Province, competition to control grazing areas wasn’t intense in the past. Conflicts over key grazing areas were mediated through reciprocal arrangements between communities. Somali and Boran tribes had such an agreement. Communities would be invited to use each other’s lands for grazing, allowing for the growth of pasture. But small weapons changed the dynamic, enabling communities to take grazing lands and even livestock by force.
In northern Kenya, the Boran have formed alliances with rebel factions from neighboring areas in southern Ethiopia to increase their influence. In recent years, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a faction opposing the government in Ethiopia, has supported Boran claims to key grazing areas.
A major consequence has been under-utilization of the resources in dispute, says Anne Kairu, an environmental rights activist based in Nairobi. Research in Kenya and Uganda shows that livestock theft leads to resource scarcity. "Grazing areas that are insecure due to violent livestock theft through the use of small arms and light weapons are avoided," she explains, "and more secure key resource areas are badly overgrazed."
ACTS recommends initiatives and systems to monitor and control the exploitation and export of valuable natural resources, which often underlie illegal transfers and circulations of small arms and light weapons. In arid and semi arid areas, where the economy revolves around livestock, it is important to create income generating opportunities that don’t depend on exploiting the land and natural resources. "These may include education opportunities, such as vocational training, or the creation of jobs in urban centers," says ACTS. "It is critical, therefore, that policies recognize the economic value of natural resources and actively seek to create new ways of generating income and improving livelihoods."
Environmental experts also agree that another major way to decrease and avoid environmental conflict would be government reform of the police force and civil guards to enhance security.
Eradicating small arms and suppressing environmental-fueled conflicts is a daunting challenge for governments in Eastern Africa’s Karamojong Cluster. But help has come from unlikely quarters – veterinary officers. In semi-arid areas of northeastern Uganda, southeastern Sudan, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, they are changing the conflict equation, using their long-term relationship with livestock owners and local communities to facilitate peace talks.
It all started with the Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources, which worked to control and eradicate livestock diseases through a community-based animal health approach. Due to instability in the Karamojong Cluster, however, a vaccination and livestock disease control program could not proceed. Field veterinary officers became victims of inter-community hatred and found themselves at the mercy of heavily armed raiders. "At a point, we decided that the disease could only be controlled if the AK47s kept quiet," said Darlington Akabwai, a veterinary officer. "We needed a secure environment to carry out our duties."
In 1999, livestock owners approached the vets to help arrange peace talk. With the help of international donors and non-governmental organizations, they "facilitated the meeting of elders from the warring communities from Kenya and Sudan." Building respect and trust with the various pastoralist groups, they were able to define community problems and set the stage for peace-making.
"We have made the youth, the elders and the women peace crusaders," Akabwai explained. "Women no longer demand large quantity of livestock to marry off their daughters, a fact that discourages livestock raids."
While this program has been relatively successful in reducing inter-community raids, the support of other development-conscious stakeholders is still needed. "Our intercommunal relations with the Pokot have improved since the first and subsequent meetings of our community representatives," said Ekerno Loirabok, an elder from Turkana, which has a grazing rights conflict with the Pokots. "We have accepted to buy milk from them and we sell to them what we have."
Fourteen Karamojong Cluster communities have benefited from development projects like the construction of water dams and the return to an environment in which other economic activities can take place. "Vaccination against rinderpest has stopped," noted Akabwai. "We are at the surveillance stage whereby if the disease does not reoccur within three years, we will consider it eradicated within the area."
Still, elders are disturbed that governments in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia don’t prioritize the needs of pastoral communities. For example, inadequate policing has undermined security and led to conflicts, according to Kennedy Mkutu of the University of Bradford’s Institute for Peace Studies. As a result, citizens feel compelled to heavily arm themselves for protection, and criminal gangs find it easier to attack those who don’t enjoy police protection.