Cross-border armed conflict over resources among Turkana pastoralists in northeastern Kenya has increased following the severe drought ravaging parts of the Horn of Africa. Besides rampant malnutrition, the desperate competition has led to increased livestock theft, shootings and forced migration.
With greater pressure on fewer resources, the consequences have been particularly dire for pastoralists, who make up 60 percent of the population in Turkana district.
Natoo Lore, an elder, said: “This drought is very severe for everyone. We have very small herds. I lost 100 goats and sheep in the past two months.”
Animals are dying from starvation now that the pastures are dried out, but also from a lack of regular access to water. Cattle die mostly because when they finally reach a water point, they drink too much, too fast. “Only camels don’t die,” Lore said.
“We lost a lot of people these last months, mainly children and elders,” said Lodoe, the chief of the pastoral community now in Naporoto, who declined to give his last name. “We don’t count them because it is a shame for our community,” he said.
Pastoralists’ nutrition is mostly based on milk and animal blood, supplemented with wild fruits. During the dry season, people can die from very minor diseases because they are so weak, according to James Lokai, a nurse at the Lokichoggio hospital.
Most Turkana depend solely on livestock, and do not trade goods or save money.
More than half the population was already dependent on food aid before the drought, and the number is now increasing with the crisis, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
“The droughts are now coming more frequently and they are coming for longer periods than they used to,” said Elizabeth Nabutola, head of WFP in Lodwar. She said the agency was scaling up its activities by providing supplementary feeding for 15,000 mothers and children under five.
With malnutrition now affecting most household members, “WFP decided to put the whole family under the feeding programme,” Nabutola said.
As drought parches more grazing land, the Toposa and Dodoth from South Sudan and Uganda are forced to move their cows farther over the Kenyan border, where water run-off from the Mogilla hills creates better grazing land. The Turkana must also travel greater distances with their livestock.
“We have to move further and further to the west to find pastures and water, closer to the Toposa,” Lore told IRIN. “Last time, we went 100km farther because the Toposa attacked us,” he said. “You have to be alert and armed all the time.”
Groups were also moving more frequently, making themselves more vulnerable to attack. “We have to move more often, every week instead of every three or four weeks,” said Akamu Engolan, a Turkana kraal member.
Some families have lost everything in the raids. Najie Lokalei, 37, was attacked in Nakukait a month ago when she went to a water point. The Toposa took 300 cows, the family’s entire stock. Its 13 members are now idle in Lokichoggio, waiting for the food delivered by Oxfam and WFP at the hospital.
“This is a chronic cross-border issue, exacerbated by the current drought,” said Joseph Okisai, the officer in charge of security in Lokichoggio.
Turkana settlers from four kraals had to leave on 12 July after Toposa raiders seized their animals and land. Donkeys loaded with utensils were abandoned along the road, and the Toposa looted the tents and iron boxes left behind.
“We fought from 9am to 6pm but we finally surrendered when we had no more bullets in our rifles,” a young herder said as he tried to gather his few abandoned calves in Nanam. “Two men were injured, one is dead. But they couldn’t take the cows, only donkeys, calves and goats.”
The Kenyan police could not confirm the death because they were shot at by Toposa as they investigated the incident in Nanam.
Turkana men have to amass large numbers of animals because dowry payments of at least 50 cows, hundreds of goats and a few camels are the norm, according to local men.
“The only way to get them is to steal. The more you get, the more women you can marry,” said Loboyi Monoo, who lost his legs in a raid conducted by the Toposa in 2008.
“I used to steal from the Toposa but I never killed anyone,” he said. “Before, when we used spears and arrows, we could run at least.”
Although cattle rustling is deeply rooted in pastoral culture, raids have turned deadly since the herding communities became heavily armed, mostly with weapons inherited from the Sudanese and Ugandan wars, but also with rifles procured and misused by reservists in the Kenyan police.
A government disarmament operation collected 56 weapons last year, but A.H. Hassan, a police officer in Lokichoggio who took part, said the effort was futile. “In Sudan, there are ammunitions around every corner. If the Dodoth in Uganda, the Toposa in Sudan and the Merille in Ethiopia still have guns, it will never be peaceful.”
“Disarmament is useless as long as the government can’t provide security to these communities,” said James Ndun’gu of the NGO Safer World. “The impact of the previous attempts of disarmament is very minimal. Without efficient security provided by the state, it is like chasing water with a broken bucket.”
“This area has been marginalized for a long time because of insecurity,” said Lucas Lokuruka Akeru, chief of the Lokiriama, who added that 1,300 people were forced to move from the area last month due to raids. “The problem now is that we have no network, no roads, no means of communication. Even if you send an alert signal, nobody comes.”
Communities create agreements with each other, supported by peace-building programmes run by local NGOS. “But they never last for a long time,” said Alex Flemming of Apedi, an NGO engaged in peace-building, human security and development issues. “As soon as it rains the different communities don’t feel dependent. They don’t see the necessity of peace any more.”
Kraal leaders and some men were given G3 rifles by the government to defend their herds, making them police reservists, according to Hassan. Weapons were supposed to be used in defence only.
Akeru said those who received guns were supposed to report monthly on any bullet use.
But Safer World said a large number of these weapons were traded or used for personal security instead of communal protection. It was hard to determine where all the weapons originated from.
At the border of South Sudan, rains could actually make insecurity worse, as the pastures improve and the Turkana can turn their attention away from finding grass and water and toward reclaiming their property. “We wait for the rainy season,” said one Turkana. “It is compulsory to take your cattle back.”