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Peacebuilding in Northern Kenya Needs Spare Thinking and New Approaches

The frontier region that lies to the northern part of Kenya is well known for its history of violent conflicts. Most literature concludes that these conflicts are ethnic in nature. A position that is contestable. I think that historical exclusion and a history of marginalization coupled with absence of the state in those parts of the world have more to do with the conflicts there than ethnicity. The various ethnicities to be found in the north are only locked in a poverty trap that is a consequent of economic hardships in the region whose roots are to be found on the pages of Kenya’s sessional paper No. 10 of 1965. Having cut off the mainstream development agenda of the independent Kenya led the region to lag behind in terms of all known development indicators. Characterized by scarcity of the most basic of the needs, inter-group rivalry emerged since groups had to scramble for scarce resources.  

As groups compete for scarce resources (survival needs) they are bound to strengthen the inner group (ethnic communities) and aggressively face the outer groups (other ethnicities) but also to forge alliances (ethnic alliances) as cases may be in the pursuit of such needs. As the process goes, groups (ethnic) will tend to strive together as they struggle to survive together (self-preservation). The outsider (other ethnic group) will become an enemy, not necessarily because the said outsider is from the ethnic other but largely, if not entirely, because this other is a competitor in the scramble for scarce resources. In this struggle the groups in question will tend to use all tactics at their disposal including violence and when such happens outsiders often conclude that the conflict is ethnic because that is what is manifest; that is what they see, people divided along ethnic lines and engaged in active violence.

We need to look into how the state of the economy and a historical grievance are acting as pushes and pulls in the conflicts of Kenya’s north. Plus, there are new issues that are now coming in and exacerbating local tensions and providing challenges for traditional peacebuilding structures. These new challenges will complicate the conflict dynamics and most likely escalate the conflict in the near future. What does this mean to us? That we need to get our conflict analysis right and we need to devise new strategies to address the ongoing conflicts within fast changing conflict contexts. The traditional approaches to peacebuilding in the north of Kenya, that we are stuck with, have not been as successful as some people argue. If they were, then the straightest indicator should be significant reduction in or complete stop of violence. To the extent that such has not happened, we are safe concluding that the real issues are far from being addressed.

The question that then arises is: why so many people would be involved for so long a time in trying to resolve the same conflicts which they claim to understand yet achieve so little in transforming those conflicts even with so much investment? The answer, in my view, is simple and twofold. One, we are treating symptoms. Two, peacebuilding has become and enterprise. We are now witnessing the emergence of peace mercenaries; conflict entrepreneurs only doing as much to maintain their jobs and the cash flow in terms of donor funding. Of course, a huge chunk of that money goes back to citizens of western countries, which are the chief donors, through hefty salaries of so called expat staff and consultancies. The impact on the ground is negligible.

Today, we should be looking into nuances in the real issues that are altering the conflict dynamics in northern Kenya and re-examine the conflict contexts. We need, for instance, to look into how the existing community structures (e.g. clan systems among the Somali community), for addressing conflict in this part of Kenya are being challenged by issues arising from devolution, terrorism and violent extremism, as well as resource extraction. No doubt, these issues are exacerbating local tensions and raising new challenges for traditional peacebuilding structures.

Annoyingly, the existing “peacebuilding entities and peacebuilders” exude neither the willingness nor the capacity to move in the direction of the conflict process and trends in Kenya’s north. This should be worrying, but of course, no to the current peace mercenaries and conflict entrepreneurs who are in merely for payday. They are in business. It can only worry a genuine lover of peace and a community member who, fatigued by decades of violent conflict yearns for stability so that his/her life can acquire new and true meaning and their children can grow, at least in a calm and predicable if not peaceful environment; an environment where they, like children of other parts of Kenya, stand an equal chance to have a fair shot at life.  

Peacebuilding in Northern Kenya Needs Spare Thinking and New Approaches Peacebuilding in Northern Kenya Needs Spare Thinking and New Approaches  Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on April 27, 2017 Rating: 5

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