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Kenyan Tribes Are Fighting Over Cows with Kalashnikovs

The recent discovery of a load of crude oil is causing a bloody battle for land and resources.

av Will Crisp, Photos: Celeste Hibbert
2014 06 16, 10:11am

Two Turkana herdsmen, one carrying a Kalashnikov, the other carrying a traditional staff and ekicholong stool.

As we bump down the unpaved road, our Maasai taxi driver wears a look of a grim determination as he navigates the potholes. “This part of the road is perfect for an ambush," he warns. "There could be 50 people standing in the bush within a foot of the car and you wouldn't see a thing."

At this point, I can't work out whether there is a genuine threat of ambush, or if he's just trying to add a sense of danger so he can get away with inflating the price of the taxi ride. “There is another part of the road later on that is even more popular for ambushes. Don't worry, though – we should be safe, we don't have any cattle,” he adds.

Our destination is a small village called Kainuk, which has a bad reputation when it comes to cow-related violence. It lies on the border of territories occupied by two tribes that have been engaged in a centuries-old conflict over cattle, and has become increasingly violent in recent months, the aggression fuelled by a severe drought and a recent flurry of large oil discoveries.

In January of this year, the UK oil company Tullow Oil announced a seventh successful well in the Turkana region. The latest finds bring the quantity of crude discovered by Tullow to an estimated 600 million barrels, and analysts say there is potential for one billion barrels more. Oil industry professionals say the boom is going to be “transformational” for the region, but it remains to be seen whether the region will be transformed into a prosperous, wealthy and peaceful community, or into an ugly battleground where tribes and government troops are locked in a bloody fight over resources.

Even though commercial production hasn't yet started, the oil boom is already increasing tensions in the region, causing a surge in property prices, increasing economic migration and exacerbating ancient boundary disputes.

A Turkana woman in the village of Kainuk talks about the conflict with rivals, the Pokot people.

On the way to Kainuk, a Turkana woman in the town of Lokichar tells me that she thinks the Turkana's rivals, the Pokot, are stepping up their attacks on Turkana villages to try to push them out and gain access to the tribe's newfound oil wealth. “The Pokot have always wanted our cattle and our land – now they want our oil as well,” she says.

The woman isn't alone in worrying that the oil discoveries might lead to increased violence. David Ekwee – Kenya's Speaker for the Senate and a former Turkana member of parliament – has voiced concerns that the conflict could escalate rapidly. He warns that if issues concerning revenue sharing and community land ownership aren't dealt with quickly and fairly, the situation may morph into a Nigeria-style oil insurgency.

Speaking over the telephone ahead of my trip, he said, “If the tribes feel hard done by or cheated out of their land, there will be a bloodbath. In regions like Turkana, issues can simmer under the surface for a long time, then a single event can spark a riot, like a small match lighting a large fire.”

Two Turkana herdsmen herding their camels.

At the moment, the ongoing conflict consists mainly of cattle-rustling raids that can mobilise hundreds of combatants armed with automatic weaponry, and can see as many as two thousand animals changing hands.

The two tribes also occasionally lay siege to each other's villages in an attempt to take control of territory. One incident in November saw a whole village and a police camp besieged by armed men for nearly a week, forcing authorities to use helicopters to deliver food and rescue a trapped local journalist.

“In the old days, it wasn't so bad,” explains a tall, powerful-looking woman when we eventually arrive in Kainuk. “It was in the eighties when the Kalashnikov arrived that it started to become serious.”

A Turkana man rests at the side of the village's main road.

Sarah Lochodo is the village's government-appointed leader, with the official title “area chief” and a billboard at the village entrance that shows her helping a small child with his school work. Sarah tells me that she has been working to promote non-violent resolution to tribal problems since she was appointed Assistant Area Chief in 2002, and often has to carry a gun herself for self-protection.

For now, though, children are playing in Kainuk's dusty streets and an old man is sleeping on the side of the road. The place seems relatively calm. When I say this to Sarah she shakes her head and tells me that a Turkana truck was held up by Pokot gunmen that morning, and that there was a raid on some of the village's herdsmen the previous day. “I was with the men grazing cattle yesterday when we came under attack," she says. "The village is getting very hot these days.” 

Sarah tells me that because of the heightened tensions, the village's men are having to bring the cattle in early and the women are too afraid to work in the fields to the village's west.

Children walking to collect water in the town of Kainuk.

Sarah calls over a boy who leads us through the village and introduces us to John Kalimon, one of the herdsmen who came under attack from Pokot raiders the previous day. “We were confronted by our neighbours three kilometres south of the village,” he says, smiling as he says the word “neighbours”.

“They shot at us from their hiding places, hitting one of my colleagues in the chest. We dropped to the floor and fought for our livelihoods.”

As well as being a herdsman, John Kalimon is also one of Kainuk's five Kenya Police Reservists (KPR), a casual fighting force made up of rural villagers who are armed by the government and trained to defend their home communities from cattle rustlers. Over the past few years, a number of Kenyan politicians have voiced concerns that training up villagers in combat techniques and arming them with automatic weaponry may actually be perpetuating the Turkana region's relentless bloodshed instead of reducing it. Despite these concerns, all attempts to disband or disarm the KPR have failed – mainly because any politician that opposes the KPR system rapidly becomes unpopular with rural communities, who are keen to keep hold of as many guns as they can.

"Villages like Kainuk need reservists like me to protect them," says John Kalimon. "Formal security forces do nothing to protect normal village people."

Even as the violence continues to escalate amid the oil boom, Kalimon is optimistic about the long term. He says the region's newfound oil wealth will eventually help to provide a better education for its children, which will – in turn – help the area to move on from its tribal disputes.

“The oil is a gift from God," he says. "In 20 years all the children you see around here will have been educated by oil money. They'll know about just how much damage this fighting is doing to us and won't be interested in killing men for cattle.”

@bilgribs

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