Ethnic Violence in Northern Kenya

This study is motivated by the rising concern about security issues in Northern Kenya, a region where also other problems converge. Northern Kenya is characterized by aridity, and very scarce natural resources like arable land and water. In addition, it is remote from a central government, it suffers from violence and ethnic strife close to a permeable international border, and poverty levels are among the highest in the world. Within this context, this study questions the relationship between ecological and political marginality and violence in rural Kenya on the one hand, and the process of ethnic identification on the other. In addition, this project analyses trends in violence, and the reasons for possible changes.

An abandoned borehole in the desert after the ´Turbi Massacre’ in 2005, next to a waterhole in Marsabit Forest.

An abandoned borehole in the desert after the ´Turbi Massacre’ in 2005, next to a waterhole in Marsabit Forest. Many modern explanations of violent trends partly result from a context analysis where explanatory power is rendered to context variables like scarcity of natural resources, the presence of different ethnic groups, general poverty, remoteness to state administration, lack of ingenuity and institutional failure. This study does not intent to exclude such explanations, but concurrently wants to explore the idea that violent actors do have a choice, and may individually or in groups decide when to engage in a violent act, and whether to revenge or reconcile. Past research has found that pastoral groups are not homogenous in wealth and ethnic identity, and situations of peace and war are not equally desired within one ethnic group. Insecurity in a region may be exploited by some, while others do not benefit from this. This study therefore intents to contribute to an opening up of perspectives by combining a contextual analysis with the notion that individuals or groups may have their own strategies and decisions that are not determined by the acclaimed status of poverty and scarcity of resources.

Turbi town, the place where the massacre took place, next to a view from Marsabit Mountain.

Turbi town, the place where the massacre took place, next to a view from Marsabit Mountain. Through interviews with key informants, and the analysis of historical manuscripts from the Kenyan National Archives, as well as by studying police records and material from peace committees in Northern Kenya possible trends in ethnic violence are observed. Preliminary results show that ethnic violence in Northern Kenya seems to follow a seasonal pattern. During extremely wet years, and wet seasons the number of violent deaths is higher than during dry years and dry seasons. In addition, there seems to be an increase in murder rates since 2000. Additional findings suggest that violence is not directly related to increasing scarcity of water or land. Contested or disputed territorial boundaries, differentiating socio-economic opportunities and a change in state governance seem to be responsible for an increase of violent deaths. The role of space in the genesis of insecurity, and the position of people with multiple ethnic affiliations is a special point of current research interest.


Adano Wario Roba, Karen Witsenburg and Ton Dietz. Scarcity of natural resources and pastoral conflict in Northern Kenya: an inquiry. Horn of Africa bulletin. Life and Peace Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. January 2009.

Adano, W. Roba & Witsenburg, Karen. Pastoral Sedentarisation, natural resource management, and livelihood diversification in Marsabit District, Northern Kenya. In 2 volumes. Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press.

Witsenburg, Karen and Adano W.Roba. “The Use and Management of Water Sources in Kenya’s Drylands: Is there a Link Between Scarcity and Violent Conflicts?” In: Bill Derman, Rie Odgaard and Espen Sjaastad eds. Conflicts over Land and Water in Africa. Pp. 215-238). Oxford, James Currey.

Witsenburg, Karen. De Turbi Massacre; gevecht om schaarse hulpbronnen? In Nieuwskrant nr 12 Conflict., Najaar 2007. Een uitgave van het Onderwijsinstituut GPIO en de afdeling Geografie, Planologie en Internationale Ontwikkelingsstudies, Universiteit van Amsterdam. Pp. 5.

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