What’s Going on in the Tana River Delta? [updated]

You know things are getting more on edge politically in Kenya as the media becomes more prone to euphemism and indirect language in writing about the stakes and the players in pre-election conflict.

The VOA today offers more clarity on the political interests in the most conspicuous current fight and “calls out” the presence of uniformed ethnic militia:

Though people on both sides have been killed, the majority of victims during the most recent violence have been Orma pastoralists. Survivors describe an organized Pokomo militia, wearing red and black uniforms and having a clear command structure.

“They are after this delta, it is the only good delta in Kenya, the only big delta in Kenya,” said Omar Bacha, an Orma health worker. “That is why our tribe are being killed, and their cows are being destroyed.”

The Tana River region contains some of the nation’s most arable, but least developed land. Through the process of devolution outlined in Kenya’s new constitution, local administrators soon will have more control over regional resources.

A Human Rights Watch report released last week implicates Tana River politicians in the attacks. Last week the government arrested parliament-member Dhadho Godhana in connection with the violence. Godhana is running for governor of Tana River Country in the elections scheduled for next March.

The Daily Maverick ties the Tana River violence into an especially bleak outlook for election violence in “Kenya: the cauldron of violence is hotting up again:

After the brazen attacks continued in September it was clear there was more to it than access to land and water. Kenya is six months out from a national election and political violence has marred the run-up to votes in 1992, 1997 and 2001. The Kenyan Red Cross warned the same might occur as communities arm themselves in preparation, voters come to terms with new demarcations pitting ethnic rivals against each other, and politicians cope with a new system of devolved power.

“It is 100% political,” said National Cohesion and Integration Commission Chairman Mzalendo Kibunjia, who was tasked with investigating the causes of violence. “One community wants to destabilise the area and block the community from registering as voters so that it does not influence voting in the coming election.”

Kibaki, whose response to the disaster made Jacob Zuma’s reaction to the Marikana killings look statesmanlike, acknowledged it was politically motivated this week by sacking an MP who had been charged with inciting violence. He blocked parliament’s move to send the army into the area, instead opting to deploy 2,000 General Service Unit police (think Tactical Response Team).

So far, security forces have shown a complete inability to deal with the threat. Despite warnings of violence, police have continually been outnumbered, outgunned, arrived late to the battles, or have been forced to simply watch on in horror. Inquiries into the post-election violence found they failed to act on warnings, and it seems they’re doomed to repeat their mistakes.

Update: AFP reports that Kenyan police Monday found a mass grave in the Garsen area where recent killings have taken place, suggesting the real death toll may be higher than reported so far.

“Peacebuilding Update” amid tensions in Kenya

I previously highlighted the work of the Quakers, through the Friends Church Peace Teams, in running a successful grassroots election monitoring effort in Western Kenya during the 2010 constitutional referendum.  Here is the latest information from the U.S. Friends Committee on National Legislation on the ongoing work in Kenya:

The Friends Church Peace Team reported on its continuing work toward a grassroots election monitoring system, which will allow Alternatives to Violence facilitators and others in Kenyan Friends’ peacebuilding networks to send text message updates on any incidences of violence in their communities.

Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI), based in Nairobi, is responding to rising tension between Christians and Muslims in the city’s informal settlements. July’s attacks on churches in a town near Kenya’s border with Somalia have heightened divisions, and CAPI has worked to facilitate interfaith dialogue since.

Updates from Kenya

Last week, at least 48 Kenyans were killed in an attack on Reketa village in Tana River, southeastern Kenya. The violence was part of ethnic clashes between two tribes, and local residents have cited the approaching elections as a source of rising aggression. The deadly conflict underscores the immediate need for community-based violence prevention and peacebuilding, which will only increase as the polls draw nearer.

Unfortunately, Reketa is not the only area experiencing growing tension. Another is Kenya’s coast, where the recent death of a Muslim cleric has led to protests and conflicts with police. Tensions have also risen arounda growing secessionist movement, known as the Mombasa Republican Council, which seeks to address the decades of marginalization and inequity experienced by those living on the coast. The Kenyan government recently decided to lift its ban on the group, and some feel this will allow more space for non-violent paths forward. In the meantime, however, others are increasingly concerned about the impact the divide may have during the next polls.

While in Kenya earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted U.S. support for a peaceful, fair election. The visit was an important one, particularly as Kenyan experts have emphasized the need for vocal diplomatic engagement from the international community. The visit was also an important follow-up tothe resignation of U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Gen. Scott Gration, in late June. While the appointment of a new ambassador will likely be slow going, FCNL has joined others in advocating that the position be filled by someone with deep conflict prevention.


Having spent my time in Kenya on leave from a job in the U.S. defense industry and having retired from that role to be an independent lawyer only very recently, I have been pleased to get acquainted with the FCNL work and the Quaker perspective in Kenya, having been aware of the Quakers as a significant presence in the towns and villages of Western Province from my work there.

Growing up in the United States during the Cold War and the post-Vietnam period, I think we had a better ability then to express an appreciation for the value of peace as a goal and ideal than we have now after almost eleven years during which we have been continuously at war.  Partly it was the gravity of the nuclear standoff and “mutual assured destruction”; partly the proximity of the draft in a more egalitarian era in which we did not compartmentalize overseas “warfighting” in the way that we do now in this century, and in part just the tremendous cost in lives in Vietnam in recent memory.  I very much believe that the more recent reticence to speak of “peace” has had a lot to do with the success of people who were promoting the Iraq war in domestic American politics to mobilize key Christian spokespeople and constituencies to support, ironically, a war of choice–that was a distorting misadventure and I hope that we can put it behind us now that that war is finally over.

Regardless, we shouldn’t be squeamish about being explicitly for peace even if we don’t know or agree on the details of how to get it or keep it.  I do have to note that even the Romney campaign of late has revived the Ronald Reagan “peace through strength” slogan.  While the jury is probably very much out on how much similarity there is to what that would mean to a Romney Secretary of State or Defense next year versus what it would have meant to George Schultz in 1984, at least the word itself is being dusted off.