Kenya’s Tana Delta burning

By Parselelo Kantai in Malindi

Posted on Tuesday, 11 December 2012 12:02

Didewaride, a pastoralist hamlet of about 100 makuti thatched huts overlooking a swampy mud-caked grassland in the heart of the Tana Delta, is on the frontline of Kenya’s latest political and resource conflict.

And the fear is that, with just five months before Kenya’s next general election, the violence could spread. At dawn on 22 August, armed raiders attacked Riketa, a village surrounded by rivers. In less than an hour, they killed 53 people.

The attackers razed every hut to the ground. The raiders stole hundreds of cows and slashed the hamstrings of those they left. The dead were mostly women, children and elderly men. By mid-morning, the survivors were limping across the swamp into Didewaride. In a dusty clearing beyond the village dispensary, there are rows and rows of make- shift tents set up by the International Red Cross.

Brutal killings

In one of the tents, five elderly survivors are trying to make sense of it all. “Even if it is war, you don’t target women and children. My mother had her throat slit with a machete. She was 90 years old. We are still trying to find out what could have caused these clashes,” says 63-year-old Jilo Shora, who escaped with minor wounds.

“The raiders were mixed. They were not people we know. They were not people from here.”

These survivors’ accounts are eerily familiar. Every election since 1992, save for 2002, has been preceded by ethnic violence, usually organised and financed by leading factions within the political elite.

The coming elections are the first to be contested under the new constitution, passed in 2010, which set up 47 new county governments that will enjoy considerable powers and resources transferred from the central government.

The constitutional framers hoped that this devolution would defuse the tensions leading to communal clashes. There are now signs that some national politicians have simply taken their fight for resources and power down to the county level.

The cause of all these recent problems is land

“Since February, we have been warning about this violence. There has been widespread low-intensity violence in many areas around the country including the North and South Rift regions, along the Luo-Nandi border, in several areas in northern Kenya and in the Tana Delta,” says Abbas Gullet, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross.

The attackers who raided Riketa targeted the Orma ethnic group. In the aftermath, many blamed the Pokomo, a farming community with whom the Orma had long been at odds over water and grazing land.

Days later, a group of raiders attacked Chamwanamuma, a Pokomo village, killing 24 with brutal efficiency. It was only after a third raid, this time on Kilelengwani village – killing 38 including nine policemen – that the government finally reacted. The government imposed a dawn- to-dusk curfew. The security forces dispatched 2,000 new recruits of the paramilitary General Service Unit to the Tana Delta.

As the government scrambled for answers, on 12 September the police arrested Galole MP Dhadho Godhana, a Pokomo, for incitement to violence. They claimed he had threatened to turn Galole into “Kosovo” to defend the minority Pokomo.

Another Pokomo, Danson Mungatana, MP for neighbouring Garsen, questions the role of the police: “For the last eight months there’s been a complete breakdown of law and order because the government has either under-equipped the provincial administration and the police or withdrawn them altogether.

There has been no arbiter to mediate over petty local disputes, which have escalated into tribal hatred,” he explains.

Mungatana agrees with those eye-witness survivors who insist that the raiders were highly trained killers and mostly foreign to the Delta.

“There was a Pokomo militia and there was an Orma militia. But these were not the normal tribal attacks. On both sides of the divide, there appears to have been training.” Some argue that the militias that were never demobilised after the 2007 post-election crisis carried out the raids.


Political alignments and rivalries have become more complex still in the Tana Delta since the new constitution was introduced.

Pokomo representatives hold all three Delta constituency seats, although they are easily outnumbered by their pastoralist counterparts. The Orma, Wardei, Malakote and other pastoralist communities had resolved to vote en bloc against the Pokomo in response. They tested their unity in last year’s county council elections, and pastoralist-backed representatives won all the the seats.

Despite these local political struggles, many say that outside interests are stirring up the violence: “It was not Pokomo who organised this violence. They are being used as scapegoats. These are not traditional clashes,” says Zeinab Shambaro, a Didewaride activist who lost relatives in Riketa and Kilelengwani.

She simply asks: “Why are the Orma vacating the Delta? Why are the Pokomo vacating? In a way, the killings of police saved us because the raids would have continued without state intervention.”

Alongside the fight for political turf there are valuable commercial interests at stake. The Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA), a state corporation that oversees government-sanctioned projects in the delta, knows its agricultural potential.

For us pastoralists, the Delta is like our belly button. You only notice it when it’s not there

“The Tana River Delta is the only remaining area left in the country for serious agricultural development,” says Eric Oloo, a project director at TARDA, noting that it is the agricultural centrepiece of the Kenyan government’s economic roadmap ‘Vision 2030’.

At stake are 400,000ha of prime farm-land on the banks of Kenya’s longest river. Researchers say that local and foreign companies have taken over much of the land without the consent or knowledge of the local communities.

“The Tana Delta is Kenya’s and one of Africa’s largest and most biodiverse wetland ecosystems. Now it is under pressure from government projects, private investors and international land-grab entrepreneurs,” says Abdirizak Arale Nunow, a fellow of Moi University who has spent the past four years studying the pastoralist economy in the Delta.

“The cause of all these recent problems is land. The government decided to impose the big sugar projects without consulting the local community,” says Delta activist and politician Ali Wario (known as ‘Hashaqa’, the Orma word for delta).

Land deals

Hashaqa recalls a visit by President Mwai Kibaki just before Christmas 2006. He arrived in the area to open a new road and declared that the Delta would be used to develop sugar projects. That infuriated the pastoralists and an angry mob gathered around Kibaki.

Since then there has been a succession of land deals in the Delta. These include: the Mumias Sugar Company-TARDA sugar project (31,000ha); the Australian Bedford Biofuels deal (93,000ha) and the UK’s G4 Industries (24,000ha); single private investors such as Galole Horticulture and Mat International (70,000ha); Australian titanium mining company Base Resources (who bought Tiomin out of its Kwale project); and rice and other projects fronted by the Qatari government.

Hashaqa links these deals to the violence: “The government actually created this animosity. The animosity then degenerated into violence. When you displace us pastoralists from the Delta, where will we go? This is our home.”

The Mumias/TARDA sugar project is set to launch within the next few months. After a struggle that set the project’s managers against both Orma and Pokomo, a court has endorsed Mumias’ disputed environmental impact assessment. Now the sugar company is searching for $180m in start-up funds.

On the Delta’s fertile soils, Mumias, which has its headquarters in western Kenya, will be able to cultivate a fast-growing cane variety with much higher sugar content than its west Kenya crop. Although the company squeezes out a single harvest annually in western Kenya, in the Delta it will produce two harvests every 18 months.

Pokomo farmers initially supported the Mumias project, but they turned against it when they learned that the company wanted to run a plantation system, not the outgrower system set up in western Kenya. Company sources say that the plantation system is far more profitable.

Local MP Danson Mungatana sees things differently: “We need investors in the Delta. For every economic development there must be sacrifices, especially if the benefits outweigh the negatives. People didn’t go to school because they wanted to; they were forced to. They may resist now, but they will see the benefits in future.”

The Orma say the sugar project will block their access to the Tana’s waters, disrupting grazing in the dry season. “Between 18 and 28 villages will be affected. People will have to be dis- placed,” Nunow explains.

Conservation tactics

Desperate to fend off companies try- ing to exploit the rich opportunities in the Delta, some are adopting unorthodox tactics: running a conservation campaign. Yusuf Hassan, a sometime political activist and a conservationist in the Delta, launched the Aishak Nyongoro Conservancy a few years ago. With Flora and Fauna International, Hassan’s team has mapped the Delta’s biodiversity.

“For us pastoralists, the Delta is like our belly button. You only notice it when it’s not there,” says Hassan.

Now they have won their first major victory. On 7 September, they succeeded in getting the Tana River Delta registered on the Ramsar list of wet-lands of international importance. Kenya is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention that protects five other wetlands in the country. The Ramsar listing should force the government to strictly regulate economic activit- ies in the Delta, including sugar and biofuel projects.

“These monoculture projects are being fought from many sides,” says Francis Kagema, an expert with local conservation group Nature Kenya. He adds: “The pastoralists are naturally more sensitive to ecological changes. But this contest is about ownership rather than conservation. The conflicts we are seeing now would have eventually come after the various projects were initiated because of how disruptive they will be.”

One argument that convinced Ramsar of the need to protect the Delta was a biodiversity study in 2008 conducted by environmental groups. The findings valued existing livelihoods in the Delta at KSh3.7bn ($40m). It then gave a valuation of KSh1.2bn to the sugar project.

“What we see is that Delta residents currently earn three times more than what would be earned from the sugar projects,” says Kagema.

Such findings may not sway the big companies, but the prospect of tougher regulation and robust local opposition may force them to rethink. For the residents of Didewaride, the concerns are more fundamental: who is behind the violence and is the government serious about protecting them from it? ●

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options