The meat wars

The meat wars

Sunday afternoon, for many middle-class Kenyans, means music, Tusker beer and nyama choma: roast meat (nyama), usually beef or goat, ordered by the half-pound, and served with ugali (maize meal). But usually with more meat (nyama), in often epic quantities. Nyama choma is both national dish and recreational ritual. At the moment (the end of the dry season) meat is fairly cheap, grain at record prices. And while people in the north-east of the country are actually starving, throughout the Rift, choma joints in every town and village are still filled with boozy men gnawing on hunks of burnt cow.

Each choma joint has a glass cabinet at the front to keep the flies out, hung with bloodied carcasses, from which your bit of cow is carved as you order it.



If that doesn’t put you off your Sunday barbecue, maybe this should: this carcass may well be a conflict good. It’s not as seductive as a blood diamond destined for Amsterdam. And unlike West Africa’s diamond wars, it’s a conflict driven not so much by the consumption of the resource itself, as by climate, property and livelihood. But Kenya’s cattle wars are brutal, transnational and remarkably under-discussed outside East Africa. Perhaps this is because they lack the cinematic international villains of other ‘low-level’ African insurgencies: Russian arms dealers, multinational mining companies, Islamic dictators. Or perhaps it’s simply because they’re not conducive to a dramatic political fix – a regime change or a glamorous peace deal. Instead, ending the meat wars probably means systematic changes to Kenya’s internal security strategies, and more fundamentally to the political economy of Kenya’s land.

Last week I was back in Samburu and East Pokot, travelling with two colleagues to see more of the areas where they work, and to trial the conflict monitoring tool we’ve been designing over the last few weeks. These two districts couldn’t be more different to the rich soils of Kuresoi where I’ve also been working, and where in early 2008 thousands were forced from their burning farms following Kenya’s disputed presidential election. Instead these are empty, semi-arid regions roamed by Samburu, Pokot and Turkana pastoralists who travel hundreds of miles with their cows and goats, through grazing lands blurring into northern Uganda and southern Sudan. This is where much of Kenya’s nyama comes from.

Each year as the dry season progresses, reports trickle into regional centres about ‘cattle rustling’ incidents: a Deputy-Dan epithet which romanticises the real nature of a cattle raid in northern Kenya. Organised groups of dozens of men with guns attack homesteads and herders to take hundreds of cows, sheep and goats, leading them for days to strongholds like the impenetrable Suguta Valley, a furnace-hot region where temperatures can reach 60˚C and pursuing government helicopters, according to the District Commissioner, have been brought down by small arms fire from the raiders.

These raids – undeniably communal – have in the past been regarded as a symptom of tribal traditions and life-patterns. Young unmarried ‘warriors’ (morans) can’t own cattle inherited from their families or that of their wives until they are married. Since systems of rigged endogamy amongst Samburu or Pokot give the best young wives to older men, this may not be until their thirties. Cattle they steal, however, is regarded as theirs. As a result morans, previously organised by groups of wazee (elders), pit themselves against their Pokot, Samburu or Turkana counterparts, simply to build up property denied by their own social structures.

Like all anthropological Just-So stories, this account doesn’t really explain the dynamics of the current violence. For a start, it seems that unmarried young men can, in effect, own cattle. J lives in Suguta Marmar. He isn’t married, but he tells me he has a herd of forty cows, effectively held in trust for him by his family and herded by them. It also can’t explain why wazees are reporting to local peace committees that morans are now raiding in smaller groups outside their control, and beginning to raid cattle from their own communities as well as from other tribes; nor why the frequency and lethality of cattle raiding appears to be increasing, particularly in Pokot and Turkana in Kenya, and in Equatoria in Sudan. James Bevan, who has undertaken several years of research in this region, claims that “[i]f you add up death and injury tolls, a lot of research institutions would call this a war.”

The lethality is at least partly the product of this region having being flooded with small arms since the 1990s. Assault rifles have overflowed into Kenya from warring governments and rebel groups blithely arming communities in southern Sudan, northern Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia: a halo of civil wars and counter-insurgencies that has surrounded this region for nearly 20 years. Even the smallest raid now typically involves gunshot fatalities which might not have occurred with pangas and clubs in the past.

Guns, of course, last a long time, but are useless without fresh bullets. And with a calibre mix of AK-47s, M-16s and G-3s you need – as Tom Waits perceptively sang – just the right bullets. B, from Churo in East Pokot, names a man who visits the nearby village of Amaiya every so often. In a quiet corner on market day he takes orders for bullets for different calibre weapons; B says he then travels several hundred miles westwards into Uganda to obtain them.

This small arms epidemic may also help explain the new pattern of ‘freelancing’ raiders. Guns dramatically increase the ability of small groups to project power – and of small, armed communities to respond in kind. The Divisional Officer in Churo ascribes this privatisation of raiding, though, more to a kind of ‘teenage angst’ phenomenon, a fundamental collapse of authority structures. There may be something in this. J is high-school educated, with a briefcase and hushpuppies.* In Maralal he introduced me to his younger brother A, dressed in Samburu beads and skirt, with his hair dyed with red dust, carrying a Samburu sword, and incongruously wearing an old North Face anorak over the top. A is a softly-spoken teenager who, to his brother’s despair, has decided to leave school and rejoin the carefree morans, a decision which seems to be as much about rebellion as economic choice (although that too is undoubtedly limited).

But this isn’t just youthful rebellion. The Divisional Officer in Maralal says that the ability of communities to regulate morans’ activities has been dramatically diminished by a string of recent drought years, which have compelled morans to travel much further and longer to find pasture. They often leave their homes for over a year, he says, forming their own young-male solidarity groups away from the social constraints of family and village, and may not come back. And as the well-armed herders travel further, they rub up more and more against the diminished grazing grounds of other groups. This is in many ways an archetypal climate change conflict, with well-armed, hungry communities caught in the shrivelling grasslands of northern Kenya.

Oddly, though, as we drove we did see grass here in East Pokot and west Samburu. Quite a lot of it. People just can’t get at it any more.



On the left of this photo, behind the fence, you can see long, plentiful grass stretching into the distance.mugie2


The land on the right – used in common by the communities here – has been stripped bare.



The fence marks the boundary of a private cattle ranch and game reserve fencing off a 49,000 acre stretch of land straddling Pokot, Laikipia and Samburu districts.Most of the land is used for the ranch’s enormous private cattle herd. Another 20,000 acres of grassland is fenced off with electric fences for black rhinos, to be viewed by the wealthy tourists flown into the ranch by private plane.

In this vast landscape, land access doesn’t seem as immediate an issue as in the cramped, lush highlands of central Kenya. But there are still haves and have-nots, and the economic consequences for local communities of enclosing this great grassy tract on their doorsteps is fairly obvious. Herders intruding into the ranch with their cows and sheep are met, B tells us, with armed police (not private security), alerted by the ranch’s own patrols and scrambled there in their police Land Rovers. Yet when villagers in nearby Amaiya, just 10km from the Divisional Officer’s station, were caught in-between an outbreak of fighting last week between over three hundred armed Pokot and Samburu herders, police and administration officials said they couldn’t go to intervene because they didn’t have any fuel for their vehicles.

The ranch has an enlightening website which explains their economic model more clearly. It explains that they also engage in development work: a (primary) school, for the children of the ranch’s employees, and helping local communities by buying up their livestock:

Through buying livestock from the communities, Mugie contributes to the local micro economy. Since the communities no longer have large herds of cattle they have increased their numbers of small stock, sheep and goats, which contribute to over stocking and erosion.

Each family is able to sell one or two sheep a month which contributes to their household budget

Humanitarian destocking is not always a bad idea, particularly in a food crisis. But in development terms it seems like this is seeking to impose ‘alternative livelihoods’ without much alternative. In other circumstances privatising a previously common resource, thereby making it impossible for your competitors to continue operating, and then buying out their remaining stock, would surely be called something else. Certainly not ‘development work’.

And where does the raided nyama go? Communities mark their livestock with distinctive notches specific to their tribe. If Pokots decide to sell animals they’ve raided from a Samburu community, cattle brokers in regional markets will likely know that they’re buying stolen livestock. It seems, then, that there’s a certain amount of blind-eye-turning amongst larger economic players further down the supply chain, although provenance is likely to be blurred, B explains, because stolen cows will be sold in small local markets, possibly to traders from a different community; and then taken to (slightly) larger markets further south in places like Sipili or Nyaharuru, to which major brokers and big Nairobi butcheries will bring their trucks to buy in bulk. In some cases they may even be taken over the border to Uganda, cows flowing back in the opposite direction to the bullets used to raid them.

The government’s principal response is a series of police and/or army operations, moving periodically, and with considerable violence, through different districts to forcibly disarm communities and to recover cattle they believe have been stolen. We were in Samburu as one was sweeping through Samburu East. In Suguta Marmar we met regular police officers coming from Samburu East, drinking soda at a roadside shop. Although they are policemen, they are dressed in combat fatigues with M-16s and G-3s slung across their shoulders, and Eastern European rifle grenades tucked under their epaulettes.

These operations are periodic, and Sisyphean. Their result tends to be that one community is disarmed; and tension is ratcheted up as that community feels the government’s picking on them over the others, and in many cases that the police are confiscating their own cows (and thus their entire livelihood) rather than finding ones that have actually been stolen. Then, feeling vulnerable against their still-armed neighbours, communities scramble to acquire more guns.

This rotating pattern seems to have taken on a wider political resonance following recent international indictments of the Kenyan government and its law enforcement. We arrived in the district capital, Maralal town, about an hour after a large demonstration protesting against the ongoing Samburu operation had been broken up by administration police.


As well as calling on the police to return their cows and to “Stop Applying Double Standards” to the Samburu community, the demonstrators carried new banners demanding that “[Major General Hussein] Ali [the head of the Kenyan police] and Hassan Noor [the Provincial Commissioner of the whole Rift Valley] should be prosecuted at the ICC”. This is powerful testimony to the desperate appeal of international justice in a community where local judicial mechanisms are completely broken. Last week the report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston on extra-judicial killings by the police in western Kenya, several hundred miles away, demanded that Police Chief Ali be prosecuted; and the Kenyan media is full of debates about whether the ‘secret envelope’ of the Waki Report, listing the suspected high-level organisers of political violence following Kenya’s disputed 2007-8 election, should be passed to the ICC. These processes are addressing political violence which has nothing to do with the fighting in Samburu – whose conflicts and human rights abuses generally fall far outside the competence of international courts. Yet we heard people demanding “To the Hague!” in every soda shop and bar-room conversation in Samburu District.

There seems little prospect of repairing trust between government forces and these communities any time soon. We spent the afternoon in Maralal town interviewing witnesses after the demonstration. The police denied using force at all, and alleged that the crowd itself turned violent, though video of the demonstration taken by a bystander showed no evidence of any violence from the protestors. At Maralal District Hospital we were shown admission records for people admitted following the demonstration: all women, all Samburu – the community against which the current operation is proceeding – although the demonstrators were predominantly men, and a mixture of Samburu, Kisii and Kikuyu residents. A journalist for the Daily Standard, who covered a second demonstration in Maralal several days later, confirmed this apparent pattern of Samburu women being targets of police violence. One girl we interviewed, badly bruised all over and with a fractured arm, said she was beaten by the riot police while walking down a side-street several streets away from the demonstration itself. Her clothing was visibly identifiable as Samburu. She told us she was just 14 years old.



Conversely, suspicion of the police arguably generates spiralling accusations from community members too. We were told by several witnesses, for instance, that the police had fired live ammunition directly into the crowd: not at all implausible given the Kenyan police’s past form. But no gunshot wounds had been admitted to the district hospital that day. Video footage we obtained showed the police only firing into the air, and close-up footage of cartridge cases left at the scene showed only blank cartridges, not live rounds.

And so we’re back at the earlier question: who has just the right bullets? At the moment everyone in Samburu seems to have just the right bullets: the Kenyan police, with everything from blanks to military rifle grenades; the Amaiya bullet-peddler with his good friends in Uganda; cattle-raiding morans who can get the right calibre ammunition for their weapons, whether they’re SPLA Kalashnikovs, ex-Kenyan police G-3s, or ancient M-16s from Somalia.

We can try to disrupt this halo of conflicts, local and transnational; its ingrained practices of violence and its spider-web of weapons flows. But those guns and bullets will probably keep flowing until they’re not wanted any more. Until police and local administration can provide genuine security for rural Kenyan communities as well as white ranchers; until they can stop humiliating ethnic communities by beating their women; until those communities can find a grassy place for their cattle or an irrigated place to farm; and until those places themselves stop shrinking as the temperature rises. Until then, everyone’s next door neighbours are looking increasingly, hungrily dangerous; and their lands and cows looking more and more attractive.

And sitting eating my beef chops on a Sunday afternoon, who am I to argue?

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