Along a dry riverbed in Kenya’s northern desert, about a hundred Samburu pastoralists are spread out in the shade of a grove of acacia trees, watching their herds of cattle graze around them. Some carry spears, others automatic weapons, illustrating the reality of life in these arid rangelands where conflict over land and water occasionally erupts along ethnic lines. Today, however, the afternoon is calm, and the herders mill about as they wait for a buyer for their livestock. Unlike recent years where drought decimated herds and livelihoods across the northern pastoral region of Kenya and caused widespread humanitarian crises, the rains last season were good. The cattle look healthy, and the herders anticipate a fair price.
With Kenya’s elections only a few days away, these arid landscapes that form seventy percent of the country feels worlds away from the campaign rallies and streets of the larger towns. Indeed, for much of Kenya—and the wider world at large—this region is seen as a poor, desolate place. “Poverty, misery, and fear,” is the way that one prominent journalist recently described it.
Part of the reason for this perception is that this region has, as one Borana elder and community organizer explains, “not only been ignored, but also misunderstood.” For the Samburu, the Borana, and other ethnic groups that inhabit this part of Kenya, their culture and livelihood is deeply tied to their land and livestock, and they respond to the seasons by migrating as they have done for centuries. With Kenya’s development priorities historically focused on the more productive, arable areas of the country, the dry northern areas have born the brunt of inequalities in the distribution of growing national wealth, and many communities have become tied to donor funding and humanitarian assistance.
As the candidates for local and national governments make their last campaign pushes before elections, they seem to take more notice of the pastoralists dispersed across the region. Many of the Samburu herders gathered along the river bed wear hats and cloths of different political parties, the faces of candidates contrasting with their beaded necklaces and braided hair colored with ochre. Some of them dismiss this election as just another case of political rhetoric, where after the elections the candidates will recede to the cities and towns and forget their promises. Others are more hopeful, and see this election not only as a big step for Kenya, but also one in which they will be able to become more respected participants.
Under the shadow of the post-election violence five years ago where contested results left over a thousand dead, displaced 600,000 from their homes, and forced the two leading presidential candidates into a power sharing agreement in order to avoid spiraling into further ethnic violence, in this election Kenyans will not only choose new leaders, but will also usher in a new form of government.
Passed in 2010, Kenya’s new constitution focuses on the devolution of power to the people by forming stronger local governments and limiting the power of the presidency. Within this framework, on March 4th voters will fill a host of new positions, many of them at the local level, meant to strengthen accountability and participation.
How this will be realized over the next few years remains to be seen, but for the pastoralists of northern Kenya it will have deep ramifications. With 80 percent of Kenya’s population living in the fertile, productive land that covers 20 percent of the country, new pressures are being placed on the north and it is being hailed as a panacea for the future of development in Kenya. Oil has been discovered in the Turkana region in the northwest, an economic corridor—including a highway, railway, and an oil pipeline—is planned to cross the northern part of the country linking South Sudan and Ethiopia to the Kenyan coast, and a new airport has been opened in Isiolo, the epicenter of development activities in the north that is planned to become a Las Vegas-type resort city meant to attract international visitors and investors.
This land is the same that pastoral communities depend on for their livelihoods, many of them holding traditional tenure rights that are not recognized formally by government, and those who understand the implications of what is happening are raising a pertinent question: how are people in the poorest constituencies of Kenya, in some of which upwards of 90 percent of the people live below the poverty line, meant to assert themselves amidst this steam roller of development?
“What is important,” one pastoral community leader explains, “is not who we choose for president, but to choose a new government that respects our traditions and ideas.” The wider region, too, is aware that something vital is happening in Kenya, and in a recent letter to Kenyans Dr. Richard Sezebera, the Secretary General of the East African Community, writes that the elections is a “time for new beginnings.”
In the final days before voters go to the polls, the country is full of anticipation and hope. Messages of peace dominate the radio waves and newspapers. Peace concerts are being held and candidates are appealing to their supporters for calm. But there is also an underlying uncertainty, a memory of what happened last time fueled by the fact that one of the leading presidential candidates is being charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for sponsoring ethnic violence in the aftermath of the elections five years ago.
For Kenya, this election is a step in the shaping of a new future. Whether this future is prosperous or not depends on how it will impact the members of society who have most often been ignored.
This article was published in The National.