Don’t militarise Marsabit drought

Marsabit drought

A herder dumps a dead goat onto a pile of carcasses in Illeret, Marsabit County. The devastating drought in Northern Kenya has left pastoralist communities without pasture leading to death of hundreds of thousands of livestock.

Photo credit: Nicholas Komu | Nation Media Group

Marsabit is in the throes of drought.  The current drought has not only affected Kenya, but also Ethiopia and Somali where it is estimated that 20 million people are affected by the failure of rains in recent years.  A majority of the inhabitants in these parts of Africa are largely nomadic with livestock as their mainstay. 

Cases of cattle rustling over pasture and watering points tend to spike during drought. I should know, I’m from there. Marsabit, given the number of nomadic communities inhabiting the area, is prone to cattle rustling and perennial fights over scarce pasture and water. 

Politicians in the area, however, have also been blamed for fanning the embers of inter-ethnic feuds during election periods.  Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i alluded to this in his press briefing on May 2.

The CS also announced a curfew in Marsabit on the same day (insensitively at the end of Idd-ul-Fitr) to contain insecurity in the area. This is well and good, but it is an ill-timed move. Even though insecurity is getting out of hand, drought and famine challenges for the people of Marsabit far outweigh those of sporadic attacks right now.

Curfew during drought

 Sending in armed personnel and ordering curfew during drought is disproportionate and bound to make a bad situation worse.  The government ought to distinguish insecurity traditionally caused by drought and that which is politically instigated.

Large swathes of Marsabit are in dire need of humanitarian aid, not further anxiety from the large presence of security forces in the area.

Insecurity in Marsabit has been going on for decades. It’s only recently that some of it has been influenced by heightened political and inter-ethnic tension.  There was sufficient time from 2017 to send in troops to quell the tribal tension borne out of the bitter governorship elections and pacify the area. The horse has bolted for now on election-related ethnic feuding; it’s too little too late to send in troops. The focus should be on addressing the drought.

Sending in security forces now will mean drought is being militarised. Kenya should learn from the invasion of Somalia by US troops as Somalia suffered its worst famine in 1997; it escalated insecurity.

The move is insensitive to the 3.5 million people facing starvation in the north. They are paying the price of a few politicians inciting the public and allegedly being behind the influx of illegal arms in the area. If the government has intelligence, as it alleges, that politicians are behind some of the insecurity, then the focus should be on politicians and not the residents of Marsabit who deserve sympathy and humanitarian assistance from their government.

War in Ukraine

The World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have both painted a grim picture of the food situation in the Horn of Africa.  The UN has done its bit by raising $1.4 billion (Sh162,4 billion) during the recent donor conference towards relief efforts. 

Focus on the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine has meant that problems in Africa and other developing countries are not getting the attention they deserve. Therefore, countries affected by drought, including Kenya, need to step up now and avert humanitarian catastrophes within their territories.  Therefore, the only boots Kenya should put in Marsabit should be for humanitarian purposes.

Some of the businesses in Marsabit operate at night, such as women miraa sellers, and their livelihoods will be affected by the curfew. A large number of traders in the town centre have dependants they support in the rural parts affected by drought the most. Trade is the only lifeline in the county for now.

The security measures are also going to disproportionately affect nomads passing through the town in search of pasture for their remaining livestock. It may also hamper relief efforts. 

The security forces should, for now, be used to provide humanitarian assistance such as distribution of relief food and establishment of water points. 

Curfew has its time, but not in the middle of a biting drought.

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Kenya is stone deaf to suggest that billions are needed to establish guest houses for visiting Presidents, and expensive cars to match, as hotels remain empty. This is a waste of public funds.  It’s an unjustifiable expense when key services such as policing, health and education are still under-funded. Presidents have stayed at many of our hotels for years and should be encouraged to continue to do so.  The tourism industry will take some time to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The last thing Kenya needs is to build expensive guest houses for visiting Presidents to compete with hotels in desperate need of business.

The billions to be set aside for this and many other million-dollar projects coming up at the tail end of the current government have a whiff of corruption and should be treated with suspicion.   

Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. [email protected]; @kdiguyo

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