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Ethnic Cleansing and the Environment in Kenya




1. Abstract

During the week of October 15, 1993 violence erupted in the Narok district of Kenya's Rift Valley province. Maasai morans, or warriors, attacked immigrant Kikuyu settlers and massacred at least 17 of them in the first three days of the conflict. (Dietz 7) As the casualties mounted (16 more Kikuyus were killed in other parts of Narok), the rest of the Kikuyu population was forced out of the area and into refugee camps. This was, however, not just a typical case of ethnic cleansing, which had become almost routine since Kenya's transformation to a multi-party political system began six years ago. Environmental concerns also played a central role. Only months before, the Narok County Council had declared Enoosopukia, the site of the conflict, a water catchment area and decreed that all inhabitants, mostly transplanted Kikuyus, had to leave. The local Maasai elites, supported by the central government, reacted harshly, expelling the Kikuyus.

2. Description

Background Ethnic violence has plagued Kenya since gaining independence from the British in 1963. Clashes between different ethnic groups, in this case the Nilotic Maasai and Bantu Kikuyus, have not been uncommon, but they have taken on additional significance since President arap Moi gave into pressure and adopted a democratic, multi-party system in 1991.

The British-influenced Kenyan Constitution of the immediate post-colonialist period provided for self-government along ethnic lines. (Dietz 7) Regional rivalries between ethnic groups resulted and subsequently formed the foundation for ethnically based political parties. This factionalism led President Moi to introduce in 1982 a new constitution which made all opposition parties illegal. Kenya became a one-party state governed solely by KANU, the Kenya African National Union. (Amnesty International 3)

At the end of the 1980s a pro-democracy movement gained strength, even though the government arrested activists by the hundreds. Members of the KANU elite, especially the ethnically Nilote Kalenjin and Maasai nations, strongly opposed any movement toward a multi-party state. They preferred the practice of majimboism, or regionalism, by which each nation practices self-government in its "ancestral homeland." However, Moi finally surrendered in 1991 under pressure from the West, which threatened to withhold aid if Kenya refused to follow the path to democracy. KANU subsequently legalized the opposition, and Kenya became, at least in theory, a multi-party democracy. Surprisingly, Moi was returned to power in 1992 as a result of semi-fair elections, but the opposition gained strong representation in parliament. (See Amnesty International Report) Recent developments have given the opposition cause for optimism. The government registered two opposition parties, Safina (Noah's Ark), and the Islamic Party of Kenya, in November, 1997.

The Enoosopukia Clashes

The violence in Enoosopukia was preceded by years of distrust between the indigenous Maasai and the immigrant Kikuyus. In 1990 the Maasai, a pastoral people, were replaced as the majority in the area by the Kikuyus, who tended to be better educated and skilled. Kikuyu culture stresses economic productivity, and Kikuyus are well known in Kenya for their success in commerce.(For more on the Kikuyu nation, click here.) The Maasai had traditionally been their partners in trade. Perhaps because of this tradition of cooperation, both sides avoided open conflict, and the Kikuyus continued to obtain permission to settle in Enoosopukia from the local authorities, including Maasai hardliner and government minister William ole Ntimama. Tempers soon began to flare between the Maasai elites, who tended to support KANU, and the Kikuyus, many of whom favored the opposition. With the advent of the new political system in 1991, both sides realized that multi-party elections would require ethnic-based parties. Leaders such as Ntimama, ethnic Maasai and Narok MP, took advantage of the new politics of ethnicity to unflinchingly defend the perceived interests of their nations against all others. Ntimama demanded that Kikuyus residing in his district support him at the polls. According to Ntimama, the Kikuyus had acquired their land by dubious means, cheating the illiterate Maasai out of their ancestral property. (Dietz 8) Ntimama fanned the flames of ethnic hatred by making "blatantly inciting utterances at a public meeting, by saying that the non-Maasai living in Maasai land should respect the Maasai, and further warned that the title deeds owned and cherished by such non-Maasai were mere papers that could be disregarded at any time." (Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee 60)

Kenya's Rift Valley Province

Ntimama believes that the Maasai have historically been the victims of oppression, most recently by the British colonialists, and now by the Kikuyus, who have allegedly marginalized his people by encroaching on their ancestral homeland. At a conference in Vienna, he claimed that the Maasai were becoming an "endangered species" and would have to fight to protect themselves. Ironically, it was Ntimama, the Chairman of the local council, who allowed the Kikuyus access to the land around Enoosopukia in the first place. For this he expected political support. According to Ntimama, settlers must vote with the local Maasai or move out of his district, even though the Kenyan constitution guarantees the right of members of each ethnic group to move and own property wherever they choose. The Minister of Local Government was vehemently opposed to multi-party democracy up to 1991. He even threatened to evict settlers who supported the pro-democracy movement before being elected. ("In the Interest of the Maasai," 8-9)

The Enoosopukia clashes began after Kikuyu settlers allegedly mutilated Maasai cattle. The Maasai accord great respect to cattle, the source of their livelihood and a gift from god. (Click here for more on the Maasai nation.) As a result of this insult, five hundred Maasai warriors killed up to 33 Kikuyu as the clashes spread throughout the Narok district and forced 30,000 more out of the area. ("Man on the Spot" 7) None of those driven from their homes was made aware of their destination. The displaced were forced to gather at the Maela refugee camp, about 10 km from Enoosopukia, while the Maasai took over their farms. Senior government officials called for the complete expulsion of certain ethnic groups from the Rift Valley Province. (See Carver )

Parliament's Reaction

Parliament became involved in the Enoosopukia clashes after the violence had spread to other parts of the Narok district. The opposition held Ntimama, who was rumored to have personally killed a Kikuyu businessman during the melee, responsible for inciting the clashes. Opposition leader Odinga also charged that the government had trained the attackers, who were not merely local warriors, but in fact military personnel. Unless Ntimama either stepped down or was removed from his ministerial position, the opposition threatened to paralyze parliament. In spite of the criticism, Ntimama held firm. He could not be arrested or prosecuted due to parliamentary immunity. He refused to condemn the clashes, even though many KANU members felt compelled to do so. Ntimama had "no regrets" about the attacks, since he "had to lead the Maasai in protecting our rights." Other KANU politicians stood behind Ntimama as well, espousing the belief that the Maasai had "been oppressed too long by the Kikuyus in Enoosopukia." Even President Moi tended to blame any problems on the opposition and denied any ill will toward the victims of the attacks. "I have done more for the Kikuyus than anybody else, yet they have been told I am the enemy." Neither side was willing to back down and tensions escalated as Nairobi increasingly showed its pro-Maasai bias. Even the Minister for Home Affairs supported dealing with the Kikuyus "mercilessly." (See "Man on the Spot" and "The Parliamentary Debate" in The Weekly Review 10/29/1993.)


Government attempts to address the plight of the refugees largely failed. At the end of 1994, as many as 8,000 refugees were still living at the Maela camp when it was razed by government troops. (Dietz 8) Government forces transferred two thousand displaced persons to Central Province, the "traditional" home of the Kikuyus, according to KANU. Families, unaware of where they were being sent, became separated. By the end of 1995 the situation had still not been satisfactorily resolved. ( See Carver)

3. Duration

The clashes lasted from the middle to the end of October, 1993, but the refugee problem continued much longer. The degradation of the environment has been a concern for decades.

4. Location

a. Continent: Africa

b. Region : East Africa

c. State : Kenya

5. Actors: MAASAI and KIKUYU (KENYA)

II. Environment

6. Type of Environmental Problem: HABITAT LOSS

All observers agree that the Narok County Council had every right to declare Enoosopukia a water catchment area. The area is truly a catchment zone for streams flowing toward the Maasai drylands, and it had been devastated in recent years. However, the government, which ordered everyone out, and local belligerents, who massacred innocent people, enforced the local governing body's decision badly. Economics partly explain Nairobi's decision. A German team that had built a dam in the area insisted that the catchment had to be protected if the construction was to be successful. (Dietz 10) The Kenyan government also assumes that attention to environmental concerns makes Western NGOs and donors more likely to offer economic assistance.

The Enoosopukia area has suffered the consequences of bad agricultural policy for decades. As a relatively wet and fertile oasis in an extremely arid region, Enoosopukia naturally attracts farmers and their livestock. However, constant use of the soil without replenishment has nearly transformed the area into a wasteland. "Only blackened tree stumps, the legacy of unbridled charcoal burning and slash-and-burn agriculture, interspersed with scattered trees and other sparse vegetation, testify to the fact that the area was formerly a lush forest." ( See "The Environmental Factor" in The Weekly Review.) The Maasai and KANU found a convenient scapegoat in the Kikuyus, but local Maasai elites have also been guilty of farming the area beyond its means.

In the end government planners failed to com up with a viable solution to the problem of resource management. Relatively fertile land is a scarce commodity in many parts of Kenya, so similar conflicts may very well occur again.

7. Type of Habitat : DRY

The Enoosopukia area of the Narok district owes its agricultural potential to the existence of the water catchment area, which the central government is keen to preserve. Narok is generally a rather arid district, more suitable for livestock than farming.

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Site of Act Site of Harm Example
(1)Kenya Kenya Environmental excuse for ethnic cleansing in Narok

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: INTRASTATE

10. Level of Conflict: LOW

11. Fatality Level: 30

After fighting spread throughout Narok district, the death toll exceeded thirty civilians. No military casualties were reported.

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: INDIRECT

13. Level of Strategic Interest: SUBSTATE

14. Outcome of Dispute: VICTORY

The KANU government and the Maasai nation can claim victory in this conflict. They succeeded in driving the Kikuyus out of the Enoosopukia area.

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases


16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Amnesty International

Weekly Review-Nairobi

Information on Kenya

Amnesty International. Women in Kenya: Repression and Resistance. New York: Amnesty International, 1995.

Carver, Richard. Kenya: Update to End of July 1995. Writenet Country Papers, 1995.

Dietz, Ton. Entitlements to Natural Resources. Utrecht: Antenna Books, 1997.

"The Environmental Factor." The Weekly Review. 29 October 1993, 15-17.

"In the Interest of the Maasai." The Weekly Review. 29 October 1993, 8-9.

Kenyan National Assembly. Parliamentary Select Committee to Investigate Ethnic Clashes in Western and Other Parts of Kenya. Nairobi: The Assembly, 1992.

"Man on the Spot."The Weekly Review. 29 October 1993, 4-7.

"The Parliamentary Debate." The Weekly Review. 29 October 1993, 10-14.