Originally Publsihed: September 22, 2013
A year ago, the uneasy, often misleading and superficial calm over the vast Tana River County was shattered.
A long history of small scale attacks and counter attacks between the Ormas and Pokomos that had gone unreported for decades exploded into an orgy of violence that left more than 170 people dead; their lives cut short buy bullets, machetes or spear heads.
After the dead were buried and the charred structures of homesteads reduced to ashes, a commission was set up to get to the bottom of the violence.
A recently released report by this group points an accusing finger at the authorities for failing to act on intelligence that in their opinion would have saved many, if not all of the lives lost over the 29 days of the bloodletting.
In the months of May and April 2012, various security reports from the National Security Intelligence Service alluded to the presence of militia within the region.
An April 5 2012 security report to the district security board mentioned a prominent leader who “held night meetings with members of his community in different areas and distributed firearms to different individuals and was planning to unleash violence against the Pokomo.”
Another communiqué by the same agency, barely a month later mentioned “unknown numbers of Pokomo youth who were undergoing training at Foro Forest” and that an “Ex-Kenya Army major was training them”.
None of this intelligence was acted upon and three months after the intelligence briefs were given, the attacks and counter attacks began.
Despite the existence of challenges arising from the vastness of the region, age-old traditions held on to by the various communities, it is however clear that had proper measures been taken, the bloodletting that was witnessed could have been prevented and more amicable solutions reached.
For the commission, the buck stops with the security agencies operating within the region.
“Government agencies were well aware of every possible threat brought about by the rising tension. The agencies had ample time to take control over it before it escalated beyond control,” the commission concludes. This statement by the commission is a pointer to the inefficiency of the police, when a population under threat looked up to them for protection, but was let down.
Even more disturbing, is that a majority of the underlying causes of the violence remain unaddressed, providing a launch pad in the future for more acts of violence in the region.
The report of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Ethnic Violence in Tana River, Tana North and Tana Delta Districts shows that age-old rivalries, deep marginalisation, inexplicable government absence, high illiteracy rates, unfair resource allocation and politics of divide and rule all played a part in the violence that plagued the Delta. “The Pokomo claim Tana Delta region is their ancestral land and that all land historically and traditionally belongs to them. They have been utilising it according to their culture from as far back as the 12th century. In these circumstances no one has a right to trespass into this land without their consent,” the report says. On August 13, 2012, cattle belonging to an Orma herdsman wandered into a farm belonging to a Pokomo.
Angry Pokomo youth held the cattle and it took the intervention of armed General Service Unit officers to have the cattle released. However, the youth later on followed the herd and killed 183 heads.
The next day, August 14, 2012, Kau, a Pokomo village was attacked. One person died in the attacks. On the same day, in what is believed to be revenge attacks, Kilelengwani village, belonging to Ormas, was attacked leaving two people dead.
“At the time we thought that was it. That there would be no further attacks since we had spilled blood and they had done the same,” Mrs Khadija Bakhressa, who lost her husband in a subsequent violent attack, told The Standard on Sunday.
Two weeks later on August 22, 2012, a Pokomo gang attacked Riketta village, an Orma settlement. When they left, 53 people lay dead. According to the report, witnesses claimed the attackers numbered between 400 and 500 people.
Six more attacks, spreading to January 2013 killed dozens more. It became apparent that the issues fuelling the violence were greater than land, water and pasture disputes.
Speaking to the commission, former Ijara MP who is now the Garissa Senator Mohamed Yusuf Haji said: “My honest opinion is that it is more than pastoralists and farmers fighting either for pasture or farm, or water because from time immemorial these people have lived along together and they always resolve their issues. It has never reached this magnitude and therefore I very strongly feel that there is a lot of politics playing in this matter and I am asking the honourable court to find the root cause of the matter.”
The commission agrees with this assessment. In the run up to the 2013 general elections, a majority of county council seats in the volatile region were occupied by the Orma community, leaving the Pokomos, who believe to be the rightful heirs of land in the region, feeling marginalised and locked out of decision making organs.
“The Tana Delta District Council was predominantly under the Orma and Wardei. Almost all elected officials in various capacities in the council came from the two communities,” the report says.
Held in trust
The council holds all land in trust for the communities ordinarily resident in the county. The pastoralist Orma became trustees to the very land that the farming Pokomos believed they were traditionally, culturally exclusive owners of. As a result, all decisions relating to grazing rights and allocation of land lay at the feet of one cluster of tribes.
“But these were elected officials with every right to hold office. This argument is not constructive in peace building between the two communities,” Abdulahi Haji Gudo, member of a local peace group told The Standard on Sunday.
The commission believes it is these imbalances that ruthless politicians exploited to whip up emotions of the Tana residents and that “politicians remain a distrusted group that continues to be accused of failing to unite the county’s inhabitants…”
The violence has also been attributed to an absence of government in vast areas of the region, which played a role in the failure of prevention of revenge attacks between the warring communities.
For instance Tana Delta, the largest of the three districts and the epicentre of the attacks only had 126 Administration Police officers as at January 2013.
At the time of the attacks, 75 of the officers had been at their various stations for less than four months and almost all of them were fresh from college, with little knowledge of the animosities between the two communities that dated back to 2009 and before.
Three of these officers died in a September 10, 2012 attack as they tried to prevent a gang from accessing a classroom in which women and children were hiding. Eventually eight children and five women were murdered in the attack. At the hearings, a district commissioner could not tell the number of Administration Police officers under his watch or the number of police posts under his jurisdiction. High illiteracy levels have also been seen as a cause for the Tana violence.
“The population in Tana County is largely considered challenged in matters of education…secondary school enrollment is at 5.5 per cent for the entire county and it is ranked last countrywide,” the commission says. Witnesses told the commission that majority of those involved in the chaos were youths, mostly in their teens, with basic or no formal education.
“In this current world, little can be achieved without education. An uneducated young man is more prone to violence when he thinks his rights have been infringed upon. He will base his actions on emotion and instinct for survival. This is perhaps what happened to the young men in not only Tana River, but generally in the coastal region during that period,” psychologist Irene Mrenga, who deals with disenfranchised youths said.
She argues that a resort to violence promises the only recourse for such a group since they feel at a disadvantage whenever they approach a negotiating table. “We had received reports that teenagers were being trained in some forest. We could not be sure but that is what we heard,” Guyo said.