The Business of Peace Along the Kenya-Uganda Border
February 20, 2008
During 2005-2006, I spent 12 months in northern Kenya, a region of endemic violence based on cattle raids among rival communities. Here I was able to observe the peace-building efforts undertaken by various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the support of international aid donors. A popular approach among NGOs today is to create affiliated peace groups, usually a handful of local operatives led by an individual within the organization. They are tasked with organizing meetings between opposed communities and encouraging combatants to turn over their weapons to the government. These projects are seen as an essential not only because of their expected contributions to peace, but also because NGOs cannot carry out their other relief and development missions in an environment of conflict and risk. It is believed that these programs, once properly implemented, will also contribute to reducing violence.
However, I found that at least along the Kenya-Uganda border, NGO efforts at peace-building through these groups have not achieved anything of note. Two factors are principally responsible. First, the NGOs are relying on superficial, short-term research to guide their actions. Most of this research argues that small arms proliferation and deepening resource scarcity are the main causes of violence. Yet there is growing scepticism within the academic community about whether poverty and arms proliferation are the root causes of conflict, and hence it is uncertain that addressing them successfully will reduce violence in the region. The second issue is that peace groups are hindered by their limited areas of operation, mismanagement, and widespread corruption. Peace-building is a lucrative business along the Kenya-Uganda border, but its accomplishments have thus far been extremely limited.
Small arms proliferation is currently a "hot issue" in development circles. Proliferation can obviously have an impact on cattle raiding, particularly when a group in possession of automatic weapons discovers its opponents have been stripped of their arms. Raids can reach a peak after disarmament campaigns which confiscate weapons from one community while leaving other neighboring peoples fully armed. But in areas where firearms markets are entrenched, as is the case along the Kenya-Uganda border, dangerous imbalances are unlikely. A surprising number of informants articulated this point to me during interviews, and suggested that this was the reason why there are fewer casualties in cattle raids today than in years past. This remarkable information is supported by Gulu Oba's statistical analysis of raiding casualties in Turkana District, as well as by Wario Adano and Karen Witsenburg's recently completed thesis at the University of Amsterdam entitled Surviving Pastoral Decline. Adano and Witsenburg also statistically reinforce another key observation made by many herders along the Kenya-Uganda border, namely that scarcity does not lead to violence. In an examination of conflict in Kenya's Marsabit District, they note that population density in 1999 was eighteen times greater than it was in 1959 and livestock holdings had declined to below subsistence level for the majority of people, yet cattle raiding had shown no appreciable increase. After analyzing violent deaths from the 1930s to the present, they found that raiding violence reached an absolute and relative peak in the 1940s. Despite the arrival of automatic weapons and deepening poverty, cattle raiding actually seems to have declined during the 1980s and 1990s. This seems highly significant, and they rightly call on other scholars to make an effort to quantify common assumptions about scarcity-driven violence.
The focus on the supposed root causes of violence is the reason why peace groups have not enjoyed much success. Efforts to explain raiding through small arms proliferation and resource scarcity are incomplete and possibly misguided, and therefore peace work specifically targeting those factors is unlikely to succeed. As a consequence the whole peace industry is viewed with deep cynicism among people locally. When asked about peace meetings, one resident told us "we haven't seen them help anything here, they make things even worse. This is because when they write their reports that people are fighting and we are going for a peace meeting...they get a lot of money."
The meetings themselves are often extremely dangerous for the participants. In 2003, for example, a Pokot, Karimajong, Turkana, and Sabiny (POKATUSA) meeting was disrupted by a Pokot raid which was alleged to have caused twenty-seven deaths. Earlier that year, West Pokot and Marakwet District Commissioners (DCs), as well as police and army officials, found themselves under fire at a peace meeting in Chesegon. A handful of peace workers die each year while performing their duties, a depressing reminder of the continuing violence.
It is now popular for major NGOs to download responsibility for peace work onto community-based organizations (CBOs). Small, innovative CBOs may seem ideally suited to respond to the situation, but they also face crippling limitations. In one recent example, the Community-based Animal Health and Participatory Epidemiology Unit (CAPE) project, after coming to the conclusion that it could not effectively treat livestock while raids were taking place, started an affiliated peace group with the support of SNV, the Netherlands development organization. However, communication problems led to a near disaster in 2002/2003. After a string of successful meetings in areas where CAPE had previously operated, the peace group arrived at Kataruk, a settlement where CAPE had not been active before. The peace workers were unaware that Kataruk had recently been raided and they soon found themselves and their collaborators under attack. Peace in the North Rift is a highly local phenomenon, and CBOs are often familiar with only a small part of region. Within this base area they can work quite effectively, but beyond it they are likely to encounter problems. SNV seems to have expected CAPE to create peace throughout the region, a task for which this small veterinary group was unsuited. SNV was trying to build capacity where there was none, and as a consequence lives were put at risk.
The ability of small groups to work across ethnic boundaries is also suspect. The Karamoja Elders' Initiative for Sustainable Peace (KISP), which enjoyed some success working with the southern Karimojong territorial sub-groups, is a good example. KISP appealed to Bokora, Matheniko and Pian elders to resolve their differences by claiming that they needed to unite in order to stave off the neighbouring Jie and Pokot peoples. It is hardly surprising, consequently, that efforts by KISP among the Jie and Pokot were greeted with suspicion. Unable to limit cross-border conflict or operate outside a narrow area, KISP had little impact on the ground before collapsing owing to financial mismanagement and embezzlement of funds.
Many local peace workers have political ambitions, and this leads to two problems. The first is that a great deal of money sent to fund peace work is actually used by these individuals to fund their election campaigns - a tendency that probably accounts for the disappearance of several million dollars from the coffers of POKATUSA. The second is that in view of the ethnically-defined politics of the region, politicians are under enormous pressure to support their people in conflicts. This makes it difficult for others to take them seriously as mediators of disputes between ethnic groups, and they will rarely attempt to restrain the more hard-line elements within their own communities.
It is troubling that these failures have not generated more debate about the value of peace work. But the North Rift is not an ideal research environment. One conflict resolution specialist told me that if he showed up for a meeting with locals in a large vehicle, the participants would essentially follow a script. In exchange for saying what they felt the visitors wanted them to say, they expected their community to benefit, usually in the form of food, money, or t-shirts. Almost every researcher who visits the North Rift affiliates of necessity with a prominent local peace group, but this results in a phenomenon very much like that of an "embedded" reporter in Iraq. In exchange for what seems like unique access to a dangerous area, one is expected to write with considerable discretion. Since arriving in an NGO vehicle understandably leads people to assume you are working for that NGO, you are very likely to be told what the NGO wants you to hear.
Independent researchers are viewed with wariness among the larger organizations, making their staff cautious in what they say. NGOs also tend to look out for each other. Two affiliated researchers were told by SNV to tone down their criticism of the Karimojong Religious Leader's Initiative for Peace (KARLIP) when they accused it of failing to account for $33 million in missing funds. Despite agreeing to change the manuscript, they found themselves blacklisted from future employment by regional NGOs. The peace industry is a large one, and it depends on positive coverage in the media as well as in research publications to continue functioning unimpaired. The practice of assisting those they feel are doing appropriate work while punishing those who dig too deeply has prevented the worst problems of the peace NGOs from becoming widely known.
Peace groups form and disappear with extraordinary rapidity, and millions of dollars vanish in the process. Peace groups are not really expected to achieve any particular objectives but rather are kept in being largely because NGOs need to justify their continuing operations in violent areas. This has created a lack of accountability within the business of peace, and is no doubt responsible for the widespread corruption and mismanagement of peace group operations. Few would want to oppose peace work in principle, but the potential benefits of peace work must be balanced against the ongoing risks to both employees and local participants. Eight peace workers have died since 2000, several others have been seriously injured, and a number of peace meetings have been marked by violent clashes. Without a complete overhaul, there is no reason to continue supporting peace groups in areas like the Kenya-Uganda border.
Dave Eaton is a Ph.D. student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. This op-ed is based on two articles which explore these ideas in greater depth. They can be found in the January and April 2008 issues of the journal African Affairs.
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