Peace, conflict & and living with complexity: A story of conflict in pastoralist areas

In this blog we look at complexity – not in theory, not in books, but in messy, live, reality. Hamish Wilson interviewed Jarso Guyo Mokku, a pastoralist leader from Northern Kenya, about his perspectives on the changing dynamics of peace and conflict in the region and the increasing complexity he finds himself living in.

Ultimately, Jarso’s experiences vividly show how complex systems are not static; rather they respond to changing demands and pressures, the rise of new interest groups and the way power shifts and flows. And so, as Jarso shows us, resolving conflict is not about getting to the historical ‘root’ of the problem –which has often become lost in time– or of trying to tease out some sort of fundamental logic of the cause and effect of conflict, but rather about recognizing and engaging with the flows of power as they are now.

Hamish: Conflict has been a part of pastoralist life for many generations. Are things really any different now?”

Jarso: For me, peace is central to our way of life. Peace, or the lack of it, is fundamental to our way of life for pastoralists. It affects our development, our education, our livelihoods, our children’s futures.

Yet, today, peace is politicised, in a way that it never was before. There are those who want to get votes and will do whatever it takes to get between people and divide them. These are the people who don’t want peace, who will force others to take sides.

I went to school by accident – because there was no peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to say this. But I grew up in Merti, north of Isiolo. It’s now a big pastoralist town, but back then it was a village in the bush of a few hundred people. And it was the time of Kenya’s undeclared civil war – the Shifta wars with Somalia in the ‘60s.

I’ll never forget one moment as a 7 year old boy, looking after our family’s cattle herd, watching one afternoon as the Kenyan soldiers came and shot every single one of them in a field. 200 cattle. Nearly all our family’s wealth. They told me they were just cutting off the food supply to the Shiftas. But they didn’t realise that it made things so much worse at the time – caused so much resentment. And that many of the problems we have today go back to the way people were treated then. After that, my family didn’t know what to do with me, so I was given to the local chief who put me into school. So it was a complete accident that I even got an education – many of my friends never did.

Let me tell you a story of killing and vested interests. I want to show you how complex it is to maintain peace in pastoralist areas today.

This past weekend, a cattle herder shot and killed a water keeper – an Aba eregaha – and three people were slaughtered in revenge. Such a problem is one we have had for generations. The water is getting scarcer. This puts pressure on cattle herders. And so the community has always appointed the water keepers to manage the water fairly. There was a fight and he was killed. This is not unusual. However the blood price is not cheap. The negotiations between the families broke down and this led to more killing.

But this is where it gets difficult; each family is associated with different political leaders. And in the negotiations, somehow the original issue [the killing] was forgotten about, and it all became much more about the interests of these politicians. And now there is a risk that the fighting will spread across the county. 50 years ago, the families would have either settled things or fought it out. Either way it would have been resolved and life would move on. But now things are much more complex and we don’t know what will come of it.

Conflict is complex, in a way that it never was. We can never really know why those two men fought each other. There is so much anger within communities now, so much mistrust, so many unresolved issues that go back generations. So many others that lost their herds so many years ago like I did. These create narratives that become part of the way people see the world, and they break down the customary structures that have been in place for hundreds of years and have kept the balance. And there are so many people who now have an interest in such things [such as the killing of the water keeper]. They might live in Nairobi, they might live in London, you can never really know. It is very hard to know who has influence, who has control in such an event.

And as I said, because of all this, it is so much harder to know what will happen – whether this will be resolved peacefully tomorrow, or manipulated and exploited and spill over into fighting in other parts of the county.

Hamish: So how do you even try and resolve such conflicts when it is not even clear what the causes are, who the actors are, or what underlying interests are driving such conflict?”

Jarso: This is about power. A problem about power created the problem in the first place, and good use of power will find a solution. Everyone knows that a solution must be found. Yet we also know that if you get it wrong, approach it in the wrong way, then it will make things much worse.

The first thing I have to ask myself is – who am I to be involved? In pastoralist communities, this is so important – what is my clan, how strong are my relations, am I respected, do I have influence? Where does my power come from?

Then I have to consider – who do I bring into this problem? The religious leaders, the politicians, the customary leaders. They have to be the right people. We know them, we know if they say they will work for peace they mean it or not. We know how they will use their power.

And the solution will ultimately lie in having the leaders within those families take responsibility. They have the power, yet they don’t see it. Their perception that the power lies elsewhere is part of the problem. So our job is to help them realise their power and use it in the right way. If they want it, peace will come back to their family.

But the risks stay with us. It’s a risk – you cannot really know the outcome from such a process. You are not in charge – you have to know your limits before you get involved. It can go wrong and you can be blamed, and that problem can be part of your baggage.

Knowing this stops good people from becoming involved and trying to help.