by Alexander Matheou, Regional Representative for East Africa
Over forty thousand people have fled their homes in Moyale, northern Kenya. They have fled from raids that are part of a deadly tussle between two of Kenya’s northern tribes, the Borana and the Gabra, who speak the same language, live side by side, intermarry; but whose historic tensions have been aggravated by a wrestle for decentralised power and resources under Kenya's new constitution.
The rivalry was always there, and delving into it has been part of a man's rite of passage for centuries, through daring cattle rustling or killing a member of the other tribe. Murders and theft would trigger a cycle of revenge attacks, until villages elders would negotiate a temporary peace, based on fair compensation for harm done.
The Borana were traditionally more dominant and numerous, and the Gabra the minority. But over recent decades the Gabra have compensated for their lower numbers by investing more in education, thereby achieving a disproportionate advantage in business and political leadership. Under Kenya's new constitution - which places far more policy and budgetary power in the hands of the regions - control of local authorities is more important than ever, and the Borana are concerned that they might find themselves as a majority under a minority rule.
So the tensions have risen, the stakes of local influence increased, and the tit for tat raids, that killed over 100 people in the last ten years, have reached a new intensity in the first weeks of 2012. Entire villages have been burned to the ground, schools destroyed and whole herds stolen. Thousands of both Borana and Gabra have lost livelihoods and become dependent on the charity of others.
For both tribes, greater safety is found across the border in Ethiopia, where security is enforced more rigorously. The border is locally perceived as an artificial line, cutting through tribal lands, but doing little to divide the solidarity and relations that exist between peoples either side. The constitution may be a national affair, but tribal influence is transnational, and the raids are often cross-border.
Movement across the border is about more than attack and retreat, it is an essential part of pastoralist survival in the region. Both the Borana and the Gabra follow migration routes throughout the drought cycle, seeking grazing and water sources. Competition for - and the protection of - the scarce resources has historically heightened tensions between the clans, but political decentralisation could mean that it shifts decisively in one tribe’s favour. Communities on both sides of the border have a vested interest in the outcome.
So the people of Moyale, who walk precariously back home during daylight hours to rummage through their ransacked homes and collect Red Cross aid, see no quick end in sight, and a protracted crisis poses a number of challenges to humanitarian agencies.
Firstly, despite the numbers involved, this is a remote and little known part of the world and, for now at least, the crisis is likely to remain low profile. So the challenge is to make sure there is enough interest and awareness to fund the provision of any emergency survival needs, and security permitting, the restoration of shelter, livelihoods, schools and water points.
Secondly, the deteriorating security situation has made humanitarian access precarious. Locally staffed NGOs are easily perceived as being partisan. Most have now closed down due to insecurity. Only agencies accepted as being impartial by both sides will be able to operate.
Thirdly, this crisis cannot be addressed on one side of the border. There will need to be transnational deliberations for any sustainable peace.
And finally, humanitarian assistance is needed but is not an answer in itself. Communities will only return home when they feel it is safe to do so. This is partly a matter of government providing formal security, but also about community confidence that ‘the other side’ is interested in peace. NGOs have been involved in conflict resolution in the region for years, with mixed success. Now more than ever, there is a need for intermediaries who can bring both sides to the table and negotiate a peaceful way forward.
For now this crisis is likely to unfold far from international headlines, but it marks what may be just the first humanitarian fall out of clans vying for influence under Kenya's second constitution. It is important to rise to the challenge of the conflict in Moyale, not just in the provision of aid, but in showing how neutral, humanitarian agencies can contribute to peace.