Kenyan Energy Bonanza Fans Violence in Arid Northern Region

Jan 28, 2014 9:48 am ET

(Updates with oil resources in eighth paragraph.)

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Boru Sora stood in front of a pile of tree trunks and rocks in the middle of the road as he explained why he and other residents of his village in northern Kenya are blocking a key trade route to neighboring Ethiopia.

Sora, the 25-year-old leader of a group of Borana youths, says he’s determined to ensure his kinsmen derive some benefit from the development of infrastructure in the area, such as Africa’s biggest wind-power plant, even if it means breaking the law. Clashes between Borana herders and the crop-growing Burji community killed at least 56 people last year, more than double the number in 2012, according to Marsabit County Police Commissioner Erastus Muthamia.

The fighting, rooted in historic clan rivalries as well as competition for water and pasture in the arid region, escalated since the creation last year of a system of county governments, stoking competition for political power. Oil exploration in the north by companies including Tullow Oil Plc and renewable energy developments have also fueled the violence.

“The county governments have taken power from us and now with their economic muscles they want to control the lucrative transport business to Ethiopia, control oil exploration and the wind energy project in Marsabit county,” Sora said in an interview last month in Walda near Moyale on the Ethiopian border, about 600 kilometers (372 miles) north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “We will not allow only them to own everything.”

Chinese Project

Fighting in the region last month forced China Wuyi Co. to halt construction of a road linking the border town of Moyale to Isiolo in central Kenya. The insecurity also threatens to delay implementation of a road- and rail-transport corridor linking the Kenyan town of Lamu to neighboring South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Marsabit is Kenya’s largest county by landmass, covering almost 71,000 square kilometers (27,413 square miles), about the size of Ireland, where 83 percent of its 291,000 people live in poverty, almost double the national average, according to statistics published by the state-run Commission on Revenue Allocation.

“One of the key causes of conflict is the lack of development in Marsabit,” said Baleisa Hambule, a civil rights activist based in Marsabit town, the county capital. “In addition to the lack of education and poor roads, we also have climate change, with rainfall patterns being so poor that people have to move into other peoples’ areas.”

Wind Power

The African Development Bank and the European Union are helping fund the 620 million-euro ($843 million), 300-megawatt Lake Turkana Wind Power project under development in western Marsabit, while London-based Tullow and Africa Oil Corp. of Canada are among companies searching for oil in the county. Tullow estimates Kenya has oil resources of more than 600 million barrels.

In September, the United Nations announced that a reservoir containing as much as 200 billion cubic meters of water (7.06 trillion cubic feet) had been discovered in a semi-barren area west of Lake Turkana that may alleviate drought in the region.

Clashes between the two communities date back to the 1960s, when the Burji and related Rendile and Gabra clans backed a non- Borana senatorial candidate in the region. The Borana accused the three groups of using the political power they gained to take control of water and fertile land.

“For decades, Moyale has been the center of inter-communal fighting over rangeland resources,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Increasing human and livestock population has put immense pressure on scarce resources.”

‘Sophisticated Weapons’

Fighting intensified last year as the two warring groups gained wider access to weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles and militias from neighboring countries became involved, according to Ukur Kanacho Yattani, the governor of Marsabit. The Borana are related to the Oromo people of Ethiopia, where the Oromo Liberation Front began a separatist campaign in 1973.

“Conflict patterns changed in August last year when one clan in the conflict used the support of a militia for hire from a neighboring country and used sophisticated weapons in attacking Moyale,” Yattani said.

At least 22 people died in clashes in Moyale on Aug. 26 and Aug. 28, according to the police. In another incident, “the militias attacked a hotel accommodating my county government delegation on a peace-searching mission forcing my team to hide under the bed, tables and in the toilets as a hail of bullets was fired toward the hotel.”

‘Tense Situation’

Renewed fighting in the county last month forced 72,000 people to flee their homes, according to the UN. Forecasts for a drought in the region in the first quarter risk aggravating the “tense situation” in the county, OCHA said on Jan. 23.

Opposition leaders including former Prime Minister Raila Odinga have criticized the government for failing to stem the violence, and accused Vice President William Ruto of threatening to dissolve the county government.

“If insecurity overwhelms the county, the government can take over,” Ruto’s spokesman David Mugonyi said by phone from Nairobi on Jan. 15.

Yattani, a member of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, said he’s had no response to his requests for the government to assist in dealing with the violence.

“We have petitioned the government to deploy more security forces to the affected villages in Moyale and patrolling of Marsabit-Moyale road in vain,” he said.

Kenya’s government has deployed troops in the region to quell the violence and is in talks with the Ethiopian army to flush out militants contributing to the conflict, according to OCHA. Yattani has also established a body, known as the Directorate for Cohesion and Non-State Coordination, to promote peace and help reconcile the warring sides.

For Sora, reconciliation will require more than talking.

“Unless they agree to share leadership and other opportunities available in the county with us then there will be no peace,” Sora said.

--Editors: Paul Richardson, Karl Maier