Situation Update | November 2023
Kenya: Competition Over Politics and Resources Affect Recent County Border Disputes
14 November 2023
- From 16 September to 10 November, ACLED records 185 political violence events and nearly 120 reported fatalities in Kenya. Most events took place in Nairobi county, where at least nine incidents of mob violence and almost 40 peaceful protests were recorded.
- Garissa and Samburu had the highest number of reported fatalities, with 22 and 15 recorded each, respectively. The fatalities in Garissa were attributed to suspected al-Shabaab militants, while in Samburu, the deaths were linked to attacks by pastoral militias.
- The most common event type was protests, with approximately 200 recorded events, followed by riots, at just over 100. The protests focused on various issues, including support for Palestine in response to the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Pro-Palestine protests were held in major towns and cities like Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu.
Competition Over Politics and Resources Affect Recent County Border Disputes
Between September and October 2023, several inter-county border disputes turned violent, resulting in loss of life, destruction of property, and forced displacement. Inter-county border conflicts are not a new occurrence in Kenya. The counties are a product of the “new constitution,” adopted in 2010 and implemented in 2013, which devolved power to 47 new county governments, replacing the old provincial administrations.1Constitution of Kenya, ‘Article 174: Objects of devolution,’ 2010 Although some cross-county areas have a long history of unresolved conflicts, the creation of counties seems to have played a role in contemporary cross-border tensions. This is in stark contrast to the pre-devolution era, where few border conflict incidents were reported at the centralized provincial and district administrative units that were converted into present-day county boundaries.2International Crisis Group, ‘Kenya’s Rift Valley: Old Wounds, Devolution’s New Anxieties’, 30 May 2017
In recent years, border disputes have raised concerns across the political spectrum, with lawmakers from 15 affected counties appealing to the Senate to help resolve the disputes in July 2023.3The Senate Weekly, ‘Peace mission: Senators Step up efforts to curb border conflicts among counties.’ Issue no. 006, 2023; Julius Otieno, ‘Political incitements fuel intercounty border clashes, Matiang’i tells senators’, The Star 17 November 2021 A September report by the Daily Nation estimates that there are at least 40 unresolved border disputes involving communities in Kenya’s devolved units.4Wafula Okumu and Paul Kibiwott Kurgat, ‘ County boundary disputes: Existential threat to Kenya’s national cohesion and peace’, Daily Nation 12 September 2023 In 2023 so far, ACLED records 57 political violence and nine demonstration events in the counties and inter-county border areas identified in the report and indicated by the Senate. This report analyzes recent political violence due to border disputes between counties by mapping out major flashpoints, highlighting the key issues affecting these disputes, and, lastly, looking at interventions meant to address the disputes.
The Geography of Inter-county Border Conflicts
In 2023, ACLED records rising tensions linked to county borders. Among the disputes that have turned violent so far this year are those reported in the border areas of Kisii-Nyamira; Turkana-Baringo; Turkana-West Pokot; Turkana-Samburu; Isiolo-Garissa; Isiolo-Meru; Kitui-Tana River; Garissa-Tana River; Makueni-Taita Taveta; and Kisumu-Kericho, among others (see map below).5Wafula Okumu and Paul Kibiwott Kurgat, ‘County boundary disputes: Existential threat to Kenya’s national cohesion and peace,’ Daily Nation 12 September 2023 These conflicts typically involve different forms of violence, including armed ethnic clashes, riots, fighting over territorial claims, and cattle raiding.
Civilians living along the disputed borders at times bore the brunt of the fighting, targeted for looting, arson attacks, and other physical violence. ACLED records almost 20 fatalities from riots and clashes between ethnic militias. On 4 October, men believed to be members of the Kalenjin community attacked and killed seven members of the Luo community living in Sondu and its environs along the Kisumu-Kericho border. Several others were injured, including a teacher and a student, heads of cattle were stolen, and houses were set ablaze. The men, armed with bows, arrows, and other crude weapons, attacked the community allegedly in response to a retaliatory attack in which a Kalenjin man was killed in a mob vigilante event in Sondu on 2 October. The attack on 4 October also elicited retaliation when a suspected Luo ethnic militia invaded and set ablaze the Kericho county revenue office in Sondu town.
Just a few weeks before, on 14 September, communities living on the Kitui-Tana River boundary clashed with each other over a border dispute near Kalalani. Some demolished a primary school, while others invaded a construction site of a police station and set ablaze building materials. More than 500 families were affected, over 300 children missed school, and at least 12 people were killed as a result of the unrest in the area. From these and other similar incidents across the country, it is clear that the country’s relatively nascent devolution has been marked by growing security challenges presented by inter-county border disputes.
Key Issues Affecting Inter-County Border Disputes
Political Incentive to Stoke Divisions
Political leaders have been accused of igniting emotive border debates to garner support, at times resulting in conflicts, particularly in the run-up to and during election periods.6Julius Otieno, ‘Political incitements fuel intercounty border clashes, Matiang’i tells senators’, The Star 17 November 2021 Politicians seeking to rally voters often advocate for the creation of new political units or the revision of borders for those that already exist. The Independent Election and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is meant to review the boundaries of wards and constituencies by March 2024, potentially altering the electorate in each county.7Koki Muli Grignon, ‘Reconstitute the IEBC to allow constituency boundaries review,’ Standard, October 2023 However, changing the number of counties requires a referendum. Following the recent bipartisan talks between Azimio la Umoja – One Kenya Coalition Party and Kenya Kwanza, a proposal has been mooted to increase the number of counties by at least 10.8Ndubi Moturi,’ MPs propose creation of 10 new counties,’ Daily Nation, 8 September 2023
Political parties have traded accusations over the reported incitement of inter-communal violence, perpetrated by party supporters, vigilante groups, and mobs, to force communities into displacement and therefore alter the population in neighboring counties.9Loise Macharia, ‘Two Turkana MPs questioned over insecurity in North Rift,’ The Star, 7 November 2023; KNA, ‘Turkana MPs questioned for inciting public,’ KBC 7 November 2023 According to the opposition Azimio la Umoja party, the recent violence in Sondu and its environs on 4 October was politically instigated. While pinpointing the Kericho governor and other politicians, Azimio stated that influential elites from the neighboring county were responsible for being “sponsors of this violence.”10Elizabeth Ojina and Vitalis Kimutai, ‘Azimio fault Kericho Governor for Sondu clashes,’ Daily Nation, 5 October 2023 They further asserted that the most recent conflicts were part of a plot by Kericho County politicians to sway the results of the upcoming boundary revision process.11Noven Owiti, ‘Death toll from Sondu clashes rises to seven,’ People Daily, 6 October 2023 The Turkana-Baringo conflicts at Kapendo mirror the same dynamics.12Loise Macharia, ‘Two Turkana MPs questioned over insecurity in North Rift,’ The Star, 7 November 2023
Taxation and Dysfunctional Governance
Each county has a right to set taxes as revenue within its territory. However, revenue collection meant to boost county coffers is a bone of contention, as each county lays claim to the generated revenue. Traders operating along border towns are faced with the problem of double taxation – being taxed by two counties – due to a lack of clear guidance on who has the right to collect taxes in these areas. As a result, officials’ attempts to collect taxes sometimes lead to violence. For example, on 16 August, county revenue officers from Kericho and Kisumu counties clashed in Sondu town following the alleged attempt by Kericho county revenue officers to collect taxes from traders operating within the Kisumu county side. Last month, suspected Luo ethnic militia also invaded and set ablaze the Kericho county revenue office in Sondu on 4 October. A similar incident occurred on 27 April in Keroka town, which sits at the border of Kisii and Nyamira counties, when law enforcement and revenue collection officers of both counties clashed over collecting taxes. At least four revenue officers sustained injuries due to this incident.
There are also cases of non-taxation following the county disputes, leading to confusion and derailing service delivery.13Solomon Muningi, ‘Taita Taveta seeks taxes in disputed Mackinnon Road town,’ The Star, 17 January 2023 For example, traders in both Mtito Andei and Mackinnon towns had not paid revenue since 2020. As different counties stake their claims on the towns, Kwale and Makueni counties, are claiming ownership over Mackinnon Road Town along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway to gain more revenues, while Makueni and Taita Taveta counties are disputing over the jurisdiction of Mtito Andei town.14Colins Omulo, ‘Senate in new push to end persistent border disputes’, Daily Nation, 26 May 2023
Competition Over Natural Resources
In some areas, reports indicate that the cross-county border fights have been spurred by the discovery of natural resources.15Jessica Hatcher, ‘Kenya Oil Deposits Fuel Inter-Communal Conflicts,’ Voice of America, 2 February 2015 Whether real or perceived, the presence of natural resources inevitably increases the value of land in areas that were hitherto neglected and traditionally marginalized. For instance, although Turkana county has had longstanding conflicts with its neighboring counties, the discovery of oil and large aquifers seems to have exacerbated the conflict, as the communities from neighboring counties such as West Pokot, Baringo, Samburu among others, strive for a stake in the water and oil wealth, precipitating reciprocal violence.16Jessica Hatcher, ‘Kenya Oil Deposits Fuel Inter-Communal Conflicts,’ Voice of America, 2 February 2015
It has also been observed that herders from pastoral communities, especially from counties in the arid and semi-arid lands, migrating into neighboring counties in search of water and pasture after a series of failed rainfalls have recently been associated with violent theft and banditry.17Kenya News Agency, ‘Water pan to end conflict on Turkana-West Pokot border,’ 6 October 2023 The recent drought has pushed camel herders, especially those from Garissa and Tana River counties, into neighboring Kitui, where communities practice crop farming, leading to clashes.18Stephen Astariko, ‘Garissa leaders call on NCIC to probe Raila’s Kitui remarks,’ The Star 16 October 2023 Similar incidents have been reported on the Meru-Isiolo border; for example, on 5 October 2023, a suspected Meru ethnic militia abducted and killed a Somali herder in Ndumuru area of Igembe North, Meru county. The militia made away with 250 goats before they were intercepted by the police and national police reservists, who managed to recover 114 of the goats.
Threats Continue as Authorities Seek Solutions
Amid spates of cross-county disruptive violence, the government — through the cabinet secretary for the interior — relocated police chiefs and other security and public officials stationed in Sondu town and its environs along the Kisumu-Kericho border point. These officials were accused of being ineffective and partial in handling the conflict.19Justus Ochieng, ‘Sondu clashes: Kisumu, Kericho local security chiefs transferred days before Ruto visits region,’ Daily Nation, 6 October 2023 The government also deployed specialized security forces and arrested 10 suspects linked to the 4 October Sondu clashes.20James Mbaka,’State deploys specialised forces to quell Sondu clashes,’ 6 October 2023; Irene Mwangi,’CS Kindiki Says 10 Suspects Arrested In Connection With Sondu Clashes’, Capital FM 12 October 2023 Nevertheless, in November, “leaflets containing attack threats” were disseminated in Sondu town.21Ojwang Joe, ‘Security Beefed Up In Sondu After Leaflets Warn Of Attack,’ Capital FM, 8 November 2023
Meanwhile, other local administrators have enlisted the support of community elders to resolve the conflicts.22Kenya News Agency, ‘Security Agencies Enlist Elders To Resolve Border Dispute,’14 September 2023; Sam Wanyoike,’Meru, Tharaka Nithi elders on peace-keeping mission on disputed border areas,’ 28 July 2023; Lindwe Danflow, ‘Makueni-Taita-Kwale boundary dispute to be resolved traditionally – CoG,’ The Star, 5 January 2023 Others reached out to the Ministry of Lands, the National Land Commission, and the IEBC to help address the border disputes.23Wafula Okumu and Paul Kibiwott Kurgat, ‘County boundary disputes: Existential threat to Kenya’s national cohesion and peace,’ Daily Nation, 12 September 2023 However, most of the interventions appear to be narrowly defined, which leads to counterproductive efforts and poses a wider threat to the devolution agenda and stability of the country. As such, achieving lasting impact remains elusive as clashes still erupt along disputed county borderlines. Conversely, addressing the cross-county border disputes needs to go beyond unilateral measures and consider the diverse and complex set of political, social, and economic factors at play.