NAIROBI (HAN) November 19, 2015. Public Diplomacy & regional Security. Despite ongoing challenges, Wajir’s legacy of community-driven peacebuilding has helped consolidate recent development gains. Ironically, new county elites risk jeopardising this fragile progress by sidelining the older generation of peace activists who contributed to improving security in the region over the past twenty years.
A 2014 World Bank study ranked Wajir first among 47 counties for devoting the greatest proportion of its annual budget toward development. Only ten counties in Kenya reached the 30 per cent development spending threshold; Wajir managed a whopping 58 per cent. This has meant visible improvements, such as tarmacking the town’s roads and introducing solar-powered street lighting.
But there is still much work ahead. Wajir has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in Kenya. In 2014, primary school enrollment in the county was only 35 per cent, well below Kenya’s national average of 77 per cent. The vast majority of Wajir’s population live in absolute poverty.
Meanwhile, a growing population puts pressure on the county’s meager resources – including water and grazing land vital for the region’s pastoral communities. Across the North East, clashes between the resident Somali-speaking herding clans over wells and pastures are endemic, but over the last decades resource competition has become increasingly deadly.
Wajir has avoided the worst of the clashes and increasingly politicised competition between clans and sub-clans that have blighted its neighbouring, Somali-dominated counties of Mandera to the north and Garissa to the south. However, tit-for-tat attacks between rival militias in late October – especially between Degodia and Ajuran clans in the restive Eldas locality in Wajir North – have raised fears of an all-out war.
So far, Wajir has managed to contain and mediate disputes that elsewhere in the region have escalated into full-blown conflict.
This exceptionalism is largely due to local peacebuilding initiatives, including the work of the Al-Fatah Council of Elders. One of their leaders, Mohamud Hassan Mu’mun “Dukow”, is a charming old man with a henna-dyed red beard. “They call me ‘Khamis Bongo’, you know, because I am an old man, always dressed in a simple white robe, who jokes a lot and is flippant even with weightier matters”, he presented himself to me in an interview, in a soft and slightly hoarse voice, and with a playful glint in his eyes.
In 1993, at the height of one of the deadliest bouts of inter-clan fighting in what was then the North Eastern Province, Dukow volunteered to chair a cross-clan council of elders to mediate peace. The council comprised 36 members drawn from all the clans in the county. They quickly secured a truce signed by the warring clans at a local madrasa called Al-Fatah in Wajir town. “Since that time, the name Al-Fatah has stuck with us”, Dukow recalled.
Their achievements and fame spread across the country and internationally. Over the past two decades, the Al-Fatah Council of Elders has been called to help mediate an end to similar conflicts in Mandera, Garissa and Isiolo counties.
“We succeeded because we remained steadfastly independent, truthful and honest brokers. We never took sides; we received no resources and depended on community support”, Dukow said.
The council’s ranks have diminished over time. “Sixteen of our members are now dead”, Dukow said, including former Cabinet Minister Ahmed Khalif and women’s rights activist Deqa Ibrahim Abdi. “We are a bunch of ageing men, and none is below 70 years of age. Our era is coming to an end”, Dukow noted sadly. “I would have liked to mentor the new generation of peacemakers, to pass on our skills. But we are no longer taken seriously”.
Al-Fatah’s role has been undercut, perhaps inadvertently, by the new local government’s creation of the County Peace Forum (CPF) – a 60-member council of elders. The CPF, which includes some Al-Fatah elders, is supposed to be a more representative body, to modernise and adapt traditional peacemaking to the changed circumstances of devolved government.
The Al-Fatah group has come in for criticism, including its dependence on Somali clan customary laws (heer) and the payment of blood money (diya) to resolve conflicts, which some said may incentivise and fuel armed hostilities. “Diya encourages repeat offending”, said one civil society activist. “People convicted of capital offences such as murder get off lightly after paying a fine of 500,000 shillings to the victim’s relatives”.
However, others note that the CPF mediators are inexperienced and lack credibility to act as honest brokers. Omar Jibril, a founding member of Al-Fatah, recalled an incident in early 2014, when a CPF team of elders was dispatched to a remote locality in Wajir North to stop a serious bout of inter-clan fighting. The delegation was met by hostile villagers who barricaded the road, chanting: “We want Al-Fatah”.
“Following this aborted peace mission, the county asked Al-Fatah members to intervene”, Jibril recalled. “We mobilised and quickly went to the scene of the skirmish, separated the warring sides, brokered a truce and buried the four uncollected and badly-decomposed bodies”.
Some complain that women are underrepresented in the new county-based structures. “Women remain invisible”, said Fatuma Abdullahi, a nominated female Member of the County Assembly (MCA). She is one of fifteen female members nominated to the County Assembly, a number that is itself unprecedented. Fatuma recalled that women in Wajir were pioneers in the peacebuilding effort.
“From the late 1990’s and up until 2007, shortly before her death, Deqa Ibrahim played a big role in reconciling communities. She went from house to house imploring women to use their influence to end hostilities”, Fatuma said. “If you do not involve women in the peace process, you might as well forget any chance of real peace”.
However, the conflicts in Wajir and across the North East are arguably different from the ones the Al-Fatah group dealt with two decades ago.
The new violence is more politically driven, say local observers, with some clans engaged in a subtle “expansionist” drive to gain electoral advantage ahead of the 2017 polls, especially at the county level. During the first “devolved” elections in 2013, constituency and county boundary changes were a flash point in the resurgence of a longstanding feud between the Garre and Degodia clans in neighbouring Mandera county. The 2017 elections promise to be even more competitive, and recent hints by the both county and national governments of a possible review of constituency boundaries may provoke tensions.
More ominously, there are indications that clans are stockpiling weapons and recruiting militias. One militia, affiliated with the Degodia and said to be 500-strong, was reported to be conducting stop-and-search operations on roads near Eldas to intimidate clan rivals.
“The number of weapons in civilian hands exceeds that of the security forces”, said Al-Fatah member Jibril, an assessment echoed by a senior officer of the Administration Police’s Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), deployed to contain armed violence in Eldas and other restive parts of the county.
Wajir county leaders have been critical of what they perceive as the “poor coordination and under-resourcing” of the national government’s security structures. The appointment of regional coordinator Mohamud Saleh, a native of the area, and the presence of the RDU have provided some reassurance. However, local people in Wajir and across the North East remain distrustful and suspicious of the Nairobi government.
Mukhtar Ogle, the secretary of strategic initiatives for marginalised regions (SIDMAR) in the Office of the president, happens to hail from Wajir. Ogle admitted there was a level of mistrust of the national government that was proving an impediment to cooperation, but said he was confident this was not insurmountable.
“There is no doubt Wajir has great potential to become a role model”, Ogle said. “The national government and the Office of the president, in particular, commend the progress the county has made, and are keen to tap that experience and enhance engagement and cooperation”.
Official praise for Wajir county is contested by a number of local leaders and civil society activists who argue that devolution’s potential is being undermined by the county’s drive to bring everything under its hand. Though Wajir’s political leadership has been far more inclusive than in Mandera and Garissa, there are doubts about the county’s capacity. The county government has not yet proved its competence and credibility among the wider population, and allegations of graft are circulating. “Many of the ills of the centre are being replicated in the counties”, said one National Assembly member.
Hashim El Mooge, who heads the Wajir Good Governance Initiative, claims that the county government is “thin-skinned” to criticism. “Those who raise concerns over unethical procurement procedures and questionable deals are dismissed as ‘enemies of development’ or worse”, El Mooge said. He thinks that devolution has brought considerable gains, but “unless we accept the principles of good governance, we risk losing everything”.
Some of his concerns are shared by members of the County Assembly. Abdishakur Adan – an MCA from Dela ward, in the troubled Eldas district, and a member of Budget Committee – is a critic of the county’s peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives.
He argued that the county had little to show for the 150 million shillings ($1,468,000) set aside to fund peace efforts. He said the decision to “sideline” Al-Fatah and set up a new forum of peace elders made up of what he termed “political retirees” was ill-advised.
The Al-Fatah elders are, by their own admission, a dying breed. However, the role they played in Wajir and the North East in general, was unique and is still much needed. Their experience should not be let go, especially when sustaining peace is vital to fulfil the early promise of devolution in Wajir.