Violence in private ranches sends alarming signals in northern Kenya

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Recent reports of renewed violence in the northern Kenyan county of Laikipia are likely to heighten fears in the region about possible widespread conflict ahead of the country’s 2022 elections.

The government of President Uhuru Kenyatta has sent security forces, including the military, to the area to evict armed herders who have taken private ranches, killed seven people, set fire to buildings, and evicted entire villages in recent weeks.

Two lawmakers, one of whom is a sitting Member of Parliament, were arrested on Wednesday and accused with encouraging the raids the next day in court.

However, there are concerns that the brazen attacks in Laikipia that targeted members of certain communities for eviction will embolden politicians in other multi-ethnic areas to stir election-related violence, putting the country’s political stability to the test once more.

According to recent reports, some of Kenya’s landlocked neighbors were considering re-routing their trade operations away from the port of Mombasa to Dar es Salaam, fearful of the polarized early campaigning to succeed President Kenyatta.

Ugandan and Rwandan businesspeople requested compensation in 2009 for the destruction of their vehicles and merchandise along the Nairobi-Eldoret-Kampala highway during Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election violence.

The invasion of a number of ranches, including the Laikipia Nature Conservancy, which is owned by Kuki Gallman, a world-renowned naturalist and author, is also bad news for Kenya’s tourism and hospitality business, which is still reeling from the Covid-19 shutdowns and travel restrictions.

It is one of Kenya’s tourism jewels, with the highest density of wildlife and some of the most expensive safari luxury lodges, where high-value visitors spend top dollar every night.

Drought-prone Laikipia, like other semi-arid northern Kenyan regions, has a history of disputes between vast game ranches, farming towns, and nomadic pastoralist tribes.

Armed herders shot and wounded Ms Gallman on her ranch in April 2017, only weeks after another ranch owner, Tristan Voorspuy, was killed.

However, the recent rise of herder invasions near elections, as well as a pattern of attacks targeting specific ethnic communities for displacement, have aroused worries that politicians are increasingly leveraging resource complaints for voter suppression.

Similar violence in the area in the run-up to the 2017 elections was connected in an analyst analysis by the think tank Crisis Group to the larger stakes in local campaigns after the introduction of devolved governments in 2013.

“Under Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, resources are now managed at the local level by elected officials. Although this devolution of power is popular, it also has made local campaigns increasingly intense and violent, especially in ethnically-mixed areas,” says the report.

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