The headlines since violence in Kenya’s Tana River region left at least 116 people dead and some 12,000 displaced last month have been wearyingly familiar: “Mass graves found after tribal fighting,” said Reuters, “clash between tribes” declared the Washington Post, “tribal vendetta” reported AFP. But the hoary trope of endemic ethnic rivalry across sub-Saharan Africa, handy as it is for those seeking easy answers, is not very helpful in explaining the bloodshed.

The violence reportedly began in late August when men from the Orma community attacked a Pokomo settlement in the Tana delta, killing three people and stealing cattle. A week later heavily armed Pokomo men attacked Reketa village, killing 52 people before setting their houses ablaze. The dead included at least 31 women and 11 children, most killed with machetes, spears and bows and arrows, the others burnt alive as the Pokomo torched their huts. It was the worst single attack since Kenya was consumed by violence after the disputed elections in 2007 when more than 1,200 people were killed. The violence continued despite police imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew. In early September there was a revenge attack by Orma on Pokomo in Tarassa village, in which 13 were killed. Three days later 38 people, including five children and nine police officers, were killed in a raid by Pokomo on Orma in Kilelengwani village, where two mass graves have since been discovered and “suspects were found hiding in a forest in possession of crude weapons, military uniform and binoculars“. The next day the Orma attacked four villages—Semikaro, Laini, Nduru and Shirikisho—in the delta.

This cycle of revenge attacks had not come out of the blue. There were warnings as far back as May that changes to provincial boundaries were storing up problems when residents of Tana River district petitioned the government through the speaker of the national assembly to address the issue of boundaries between Coast and North-Eastern provinces. Local leaders said no consultations had been made before the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission had made the Tana river the boundary of Ijar and Tana River districts. The old colonial-era boundary had previously been three miles away from the river. The petition said: “We want to tell our neighbours of Ijara and Garissa, who have never been respecting this boundary, in no uncertain terms that people of Tana River know their boundary and they are fed up with their acts of aggression, provocation and intimidation to conflict.” There was a dark warning to the government to revoke the changes within three months or there would be violence. “We will not allow our land to be taken even an inch our people will protect it by all means if the government fails to address the issue in time,” said one resident.

The Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency suggested water scarcity was behind the violence. Drought periodically affects the delta’s wetlands, alternating with floods. North-Eastern provincial officer Ernest Munyi, who is also the region’s assistant police commissioner, said attacks had become more frequent: “Clan attacks are common in the region, which has now been witnessing clashes every month since February. The attacks were often sporadic, targeting members of other clans but usually arise from resource competition.” The Star in Nairobi reported that the Pokomo accused the Orma of letting their cattle into their farms and ruining their crops. The Orma, on the other hand, accused the Pokomo of preventing the herders from using the river to water their cattle, especially during drought.

There is certainly a long history of tensions between the Orma and Pokomo communities over access to land and water in this fertile area. The Orma are semi-nomadic pastoralists, while the Pokomo are farmers. Although the 70,000 or so Orma originated in northern Kenya and Ethiopia (part of the 25 million-strong Oromo ethnic group), they began migrating south with their cattle, sheep and goats several centuries ago and a number of them had moved into the Tana area by the 19th century. In 2001, more than 130 people from the same two communities in the same district were killed in a string of clashes over agricultural resources. So the violence was not sparked by the recent arrival of competitors for resources. Another distinction is that the Orma are Muslim and the Pokomo mostly Christian. However, this does not seem to have played any part in the violence.

So far, so predictable. However, Phyllis Muema, director of the Kenya Community Support Centre, told the Guardian that this time was different. “This is actually a massacre,” she said. “The level of killing shows very clearly that this is not just a resource-based conflict. The sophistication of the arms they are using indicates that they have acquired them, we suspect, from neighbouring Somalia.” The caustic spillover since Kenya sent troops into Somalia last October to battle the Islamist group al-Shabab has seen grenade attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa and the rising threat of suicide bombings. Without doubt, it has led to large numbers of guns entering the country. The 1,800 paramilitary police belatedly sent into the Tana delta declared they would disarm the warring communities of an estimated 4,000 firearms and crude weapons. Some 300 of these are believed to belong to police reservists. Nevertheless, there are many arguing against seeking a military clampdown. Writing in the Star, David Makali, director of the Media Institute in Nairobi, warned against deploying the army in Tana. “We must hesitate to employ the military in domestic disputes, which are festering because of government failure,” he said. “It will set a dangerous precedent to begin deploying the military against its citizens.”

Claims that the violence had spread beyond essentially local concerns were supported by Kadze Kazungu, a Pokomo quoted by AFP, who said militias were involved. “We have fought over land and water before. But whenever that occurs, elders from both tribes always find a way of resolving the issue,” Kazungu added. “This time it is not about land. It is politics. Bad politics.” This was supported by an Orma woman in one of the villages targeted by Pokomo. “Amongst the attackers were Pokomo boys I’ve known since they were small,” Hadija Guyo told AFP. “But the majority of the attackers were people we had never seen.  Most of them did not even look like Pokomos. They attacked us with so much precision and in so little time. These were trained people.”

The BBC reported that a local politician had been charged with inciting violence in the Tana river area. Dhadho Godhana, the MP for Galole in the Tana River delta, denied the charge during a court appearance and was bailed. However, he was sacked from his cabinet position as assistant livestock minister. He had been accused of fuelling the conflict by Mohamed Yusuf Haji, the acting internal security minister. Ben Rawlence, who works for Human Rights Watch, said: “These are long-standing intra-community grievances, which are being politicised as the elections come closer. Politicians wish to gain their spoils, so they are mobilising their communities and cleansing their districts to ensure they bolster their own votes.” 

There is yet another thread in this tangled skein: behind this essentially subsistence struggle for resources looms a latter-day “scramble for Africa”. Rich but unfertile countries, such as the Gulf states, and industrialised nations such as South Korea are looking to guarantee food supplies for their burgeoning populations, while multinationals are looking for vast swaths of land across the continent to grow food for export or commodities such as sugar cane or jatropha beans for biofuel. In 2008 the Round Table (issue 397) reported on a plan to grow sugar cane for biofuel in the Tana wetlands that was described as “an ecological and social disaster” by Nature Kenya, a Nairobi-based conservation group. Apart from the threat to the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and fishermen, it noted that the delta was home to rare sharks and 345 bird species. The $370m project was later halted by a lawsuit, which claimed that at least five laws and the constitution would be broken if the scheme went ahead.

Two years later, a Friends of the Earth study of the landgrab going on in Africa cited an Abu Dhabi newspaper, the National, reporting that tucked away in the small print of a deal the Kenyan government had struck with Qatar to build a new deep-water port was a request for 40,000 hectares of land in the Tana delta to grow food. Even here, though, one finds a local divide: one British company’s plans for large-scale jatropha production were backed by the Pokomo, who wanted jobs, but opposed by the Orma pastoralists, who saw it as a threat to their livestock economy.

To many people along the coast, this high-handed approach to development in an ecologically sensitive region stems from the political marginalisation of communities that have never had the privileges within Kenya assumed by Jomo Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group or Daniel arap Moi’s Kalenjin. Summed up by the slogan “Pwani si Kenya” (the Coast is not Kenya), the Mombasa Republican Council was formed in 1999 to fight against the marginalisation of the Coast by the central government. In 2008 the MRC began to call for secession of the region. Many along the Swahili-speaking coast had backed the federalist campaign known as majimbo in the run-up to independence in 1963 rather than the more centralist model pursued by Kenyatta.

Today the grievances of the MRC include the lack of job and business opportunities, loss of land due to illegal title deeds, deeds being given to wabara (outsiders), and the harassment and arbitrary arrest of MRC members. Many Orma believe the Pokomo attacks were assisted by the secessionists but the MRC denied this, saying: The MRC has denied any involvement. “Those are rumours, we are not militants,” MRC secretary general Randu Nzai told AFP. Writing last year, a researcher, Paul Goldsmith, found widespread support for the movement and concluded that “the MRC is not armed but could easily become so in the future” if the demands of the indigenous population were not addressed.

In 2008, after the nationwide paroxysm of violence that followed the disputed elections, the tourism industry, largely based along the coast, was devastated. It made up 15% of Kenya’s national income but after the blood-letting legions of holidaymakers cancelled their trips, with only the luckiest hotels recording 30-40% bed occupancy. In Coast province alone, 20 hotels closed, with about 20,000 workers losing their jobs. Any repeat of that violence could deliver a fatal blow to a lucrative industry.

Meanwhile, the death in a busy street in August of the radical Islamist cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed marked another step in the militarisation of politics—it is widely assumed that Kenya’s intelligence services had a hand in the assassination of a man wanted by the US for allegedly helping recruit and raise funding for al-Shabab. 

Even more worryingly, two of next year’s presidential hopefuls are wanted for trial at the International Criminal Court accused of orchestrating violence after the 2007 elections. Uhuru Kenyatta, deputy prime minister, son of Kenya’s founding president and the country’s richest citizen (with a fortune estimated at $500m), and the former higher education minister William Ruto are alleged to have directed a militia to murder and rape after the disputed polls (Round Table, 419).

All these tensions are feeding into a growing apprehension about how national political rivalries will manifest themselves at a local level as the general elections due in March draw near. In 2007-08, it seemed that Kenya was on the brink of consuming itself as politicians who appeared to be little more than warlords exploited long-simmering economic and ethnic rivalries. The murder of about 30 people, many of them children, who were burned to death in a church in Eldoret revealed the depth of the horrors that could many fear could erupt again.

John Githongo told the BBC that gerrymandering ahead of the elections ultimately lay behind the violence. “Government is where people go to get rich,” he said. Sadly, it seems the only entity capable of ending this bloodshed might be the very cause of it.