Skip to main content

Expert Opinion

3 key trends that lie beneath a silent displacement crisis in Kenya’s north-east

Displacement due to violence between communities is not a new phenomenon in Kenya’s north-east. In these mostly arid regions, clashes between various ethnic groups over natural resources and livestock date back to colonial times. In 2014, over 210,000 people were newly displaced in the north-eastern counties of Mandera and Wajir - a much higher number compared to previous years. IDMC has analysed three key trends linked to the escalation in displacement numbers in Kenya’s north-east region. 

1. Rising pressure on scarce resources

The Horn of Africa is home to one of the world’s largest groups of pastoralists. In Kenya, several different pastoralist communities (including Burji, Rendille, Boran, Gabra, Somali, Pokot, Turkana and Samburu) inhabit large parts of the north of the country, where other livelihoods are barely viable.

Pastoralists’ living space is shrinking due to frequent droughts, floods, exploitation of natural resources, population growth and the privatisation of land. This has led to increased competition over already scarce resources, which has resulted in more violence in the area, all resulting in a loss of livestock and subsequent displacement.

2. Deteriorating security situation

Kenya has been subjected to a growing number of attacks in recent years. The threat posed by terrorist groups combined with the proliferation of small arms and light weapons has also contributed to a deteriorating security situation.

In places such as the north-east, these factors have overwhelmed the small police presence in these areas, spreading fear and mistrust among communities and triggering displacement. In 2014, the Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab committed more than 80 attacks in Kenya, twice the number as the year before.  Many assaults took place in the border counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa, such as the brutal attack on Garissa University on 2 April 2015, where over 147 people were killed.

3.  Historical grievances and the effects of a new power structure

A long history of neglect and marginalisation of the north-eastern region and a failed struggle for secession after Kenya gained independence in 1963 have resulted in grievances of the local population against Kenyan authorities, particularly as the area remains significantly underdeveloped. The region is characterised by poor infrastructure and many people have extremely limited access to basic services such as water, healthcare, education and markets.  In Mandera county almost 3,800 women in every 100,000 die during childbirth each year, compared with the national average of 360, and 860 in Somalia.

In an effort to counter political marginalisation and promote a more equitable country, the  2010 Constitution enabled the devolution of political power from central to local authorities; a process that provided some opportunities. For example, the Constitution acknowledges a communities’ right to manage their own affairs and advance their development through self-governance and increased participation in decision-making. Despite this, the process also carries risks as power struggles that may flare up at election times become devolved as well. This could result in an overall increase in localised violence and tensions.

What are the consequences of the renewed violence?

In 2014, the combination of these three trends resulted in significant displacement. The north-east region accounted for over 95% of the overall 220,000 IDPs in Kenya. Although by May 2015 inter-clan clashes had stopped and many IDPs, particularly those displaced within Mandera county, were able to return, the overall security situation has remained tense.

Those who remain in displacement continue to live in dire conditions, and many were further affected by flash floods in April 2015.  Moreover, decreased funding in the region and heightened security threats have diminished the level of assistance received by internally displaced people, as several humanitarian organisations have had to downscale their activities.

What needs to be done?

In the short term, addressing the immediate needs of internally displaced people and host communities must remain a priority. At the same time, supporting sustainable solutions for IDPs and preventing further displacement in north-east Kenya also requires addressing the underlying causes of violence, including historical grievances and the region’s economic and political marginalisation, as recommended by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

Local peacebuilding and conflict management capacities need to be strengthened and adapted to the new power structure. Existing local conflict management tools and structures, such as the district peace committees, must be further expanded in order to bring relevant local stakeholders together in an enabling environment. This would better enable dialogue between factious communities while exploring common interests across different groups in a non-violent way, including through better regulation of important resources such as land and water. 

For more information visit IDMC’s page on Kenya.