The latest round of conflict in the Tana River Delta between the Pokomo farmers and the Orma herders has left at least 100 people dead and 6,000 displaced. The lack of political will to reform the police created a huge handicap in addressing the situation. Since the appointment of the new Inspector General of the Police little has changed.
Agro-pastoralist conflict in the area between these two communities has been on-going since the 1970’s, but the casualties have never reached this magnitude. The two hardest hit villages are Riketa and Killegwani, where 52 and 38 people were killed respectively.
While in the past the principal cause of violence between these two communities was access to the Tana River water and pasture; this time the politics of who gets elected to the new constitutional offices of the governors, senators, and country representative, as well as the leasing of land to investors outside the county, has played a role.
As well as the leasing of land to investors outside the county, has played a role. For instance, Mumias Sugar, a Kenyan sugar company was given a huge tract of land for sugar cane. Another sugar company, Mat International, has also expressed interest in the acquisition of over 30,000ha in Tana Delta and another 90,000 ha in adjacent districts. A Canadian-based Multinational, Bedford Biofuels Inc, is seeking a 45-year lease agreement for 65,000 ha owned by five group ranches in Tana River District to grow Jatropha. This new land “grab” has narrowed the farming and herding options of the two communities.
But another reason the violence flared out of control is the lack of police reform. When the fighting started the police refused to intervene. According to them, they did not intervene because their officers lacked clear administrative guidance from the executive on the limits of their engagement. Even more remarkable, instead of dealing with the lack of guidance administratively, the police took their frustration to the media.
The Deputy Police Spokesperson addressing the media
Instead of addressing the concerns raised by the police, the government deployed the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary unit that is normally only deployed in situations where the police are overwhelmed. The GSU has a dreadful reputation with most Kenyans because when deployed, they typically employ maximum and indiscriminate force. Further, there are not enough GSU officers to sufficiently fill in for the police. With the election imminent, none of this engenders confidence.
With few weeks left to the elections, the wrangles between President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga hindering any meaningful police reform. The police are the face of an entrenched culture of impunity. The Waki Commission documented 405 gunshot deaths during 2007-2008 post-election violence, and concluded that majority of the gunshots were attributable to the police, as most civilians are not allowed to own guns. With the death toll at 1,133, the police were thus responsible for roughly 40 per cent of the deaths during that period.
Maintenance of law and order falls under the purview of the police. If they are hamstrung by executive paralysis, there is the danger that law and order will break down. Equally, non-police units that are ill-suited to fill the role of the police are not a solution. This does not bode well for a peaceful vote in March 2013.
Both the president and the prime minister lack the political will to reform the police. The appointment of the Inspector General of the Police was mired in incessant partisan wrangles between the two. While, all appointments require consultation between the president and prime minister, the president has demonstrated that he is willing to ignore this in his unilateral nomination of Ms Amina Masoud as the chairperson of the Commission National Police Service Commission, a move the prime minister disagreed with publicly.
The lack of police reform exacerbated the violence in Tana River. President Kibaki’s appointment of a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the Tana ethnic violence – to establish the origin and the probable, immediate, and underlying causes of violence, is the wrong solution. First, the one month period that the commission was given is not sufficient to produce anything substantive. No wonder the commission asked for extension of their term. Second, even if it establishes the causes of the violence, investigation of the suspects can only be carried out by the police; unreformed police can do a shoddy job. Third, there is a commission of inquiry fatigue in Kenya presently- the number of commissions has multiplied, costing a lot of money and producing little. In most cases the commissions are launched with fanfare only for their recommendations to be conveniently ignored.