North Rift leaders must embrace new thinking to stamp out chaos

It is this mini-reflection that brings me to the enduring conflict and violence in Kenya's North Rift, which our media has pejoratively referred to as the 'Wild North' or 'Wild Wild North'. We seem to struggle with the idea that our North by North West and North-East are in Kenya, and cover 80 per cent of our land area across 13 of our 47 counties. That's the view you get from media.

So I spent a good part of this week following print and electronic media coverage on the most recent official measures to tackle what I will term the current 'North Rift issues' - banditry, cattle rustling, loss of lives (100 civilians and 16 police officers in the past six months) and general social and societal disruption. The backdrop was a ministerial announcement declaring a national emergency, as well as the Gazette notice which basically brings military input into a policing operation.

We heard about three days window for weapons surrender and a generalised 30-day curfew within what we read as a joint strategy to build enduring peace and security in the North Rift. The guiding theme of this strategy "Operation Komesha Uhalifu (stop crime/banditry) is more terse.

However, it is not like our 1984 'Operation Nyundo' (Operation Hammer) whose zenith was the 'Lotiriri Massacre' recorded in our Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report. Neither is it the mid-2000s 'Dumisha Amani' (maintain peace) 'development bombing' idea.

But these are just words, not results. So it was interesting to follow the thoughts of area MPs, other local leaders and sundry security experts to the nation on these 'North Rift issues'. We saw lots of primordial instinct in community blame games ('we are the good guys; those are the bad guys'). But we also heard good ideas to create 'buffer zones' or increase local security presence.

We also heard a general acceptance that 'North Rift issues' have mutated from framings around culture to the more modern notion of the criminal enterprise (supported by youthful adventurism).

Historical marginalisation was offered as a proximate cause by a couple of leaders as well, although it is difficult to tell whether the current state of play is because, or in spite, of the state. Territorial borders were identified as a barrier to pastoralist practices. Yet, overall, while some offered 'development' as a solution, others thought this was the 'modernity' being rejected.

We also had a mixed consensus to take guns away (from ordinary people) and give some more guns (to the right people - police reservists, for example). Mostly, there was little confidence that the current effort will bear fruit. Every leader blames all the other leaders except themselves.

In context, these 'North Rift issues' didn't start yesterday, but are the culmination of at least a century of conflict, including 60 years of post-independence marginalisation and neglect.

On the other hand, the 'expert/ practitioner' opinion generally spoke to the need for a forceful and sustained effort 'until it ends'. An interesting unanswered question was what the public response would be if this effort was applied to our southern citadels such as Nairobi, Kisumu or Kiambu.

Overall, despite the media's largely supportive cheerleading, there is a sense in which the holistic North Rift pathway to peace and stability in a society free of fear and danger is sadly missing. Especially when, as a colleague suggested, the North Rift's emergent criminal enterprise is underpinned by a captured state repurposed towards our fast-growing politics of a bandit economy.

More crudely, it's the '(political) economy, stupid!'. It would be sad if this is business as usual. Which is probably why - and yes, this is an armchair view - we probably need to start thinking 'out of the box'. At our most radical, is there a potential initiative to 'make markets work for bandits'? This is not as wild as it seems, but one imagines, at a purely commercial level, that an engagement that begins from where we are, not where we think we should be, might be a start.

Yes, close your eyes and imagine that we eventually get to move back from 'cattle raiding' value chains where guns are a key input to 'cattle raising' value chains built around the communities within which our so-called bandits reside. Supporting criminality, you say! Yes, but it's a start. One suspects that bad can be turned into good through innovative action towards value creation.

Coming back to hard earth, it is surprising that much of the response to 'North Rift issues' is still national. Area leaders who engaged with media this week do not seem to play an active role in addressing this conflict (notwithstanding the role of some of them in encouraging it). This lack of leadership unity across the North Rift could benefit from the experiences of their North Eastern counterparts on the visible policy impact achieved by pastoralist leadership groups since 2004.

Actually, let's take this further. Is peace and stability a purely national function? Where exactly are counties in this framing? We have a constitutional architecture which does not rely solely on the national government, and yes, we are now operationalising county policing authorities. Even without these authorities, how are counties dealing with these 'North Rift issues'?

Across the eight counties that make up the North Rift Regional Economic Bloc (Noreb), you might be lucky to find any security exposition in their past 2018-2022 and forthcoming 2023-2027 County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs). Governors, where are you when local thinking is needed?

Security is a particularly important development enabler in the North Rift, so one should reasonably expect to find decent coverage of county-specific human security agendas - food, health, environment, economic, personal, political, community - in the forthcoming CIDPs.

Here is another thought. What if we thought about these 'North Rift issues' in data and numbers?

Noreb's eight counties added up to a Sh957 billion economy in 2020. Taking counties rather than specific hotspots, how do we get the 'conflict five' - Elgeyo Marakwet (Sh117 billion), Turkana (Sh109 billion), West Pokot (Sh81 billion), Baringo (Sh77 billion) and Samburu (Sh29 billion) to work with 'peaceful' Uasin-Gishu (Sh229 billion), Trans-Nzoia (Sh165 billion) and Nandi (Sh151 billion) as a coherent whole? Where is the economic convergence agenda here?

As a short aside here, we could probably say the same things about other regions that equally require rapid economic catch-up, such as the six-county Sh918 billion Jumuia ya Kaunti za Pwani (JKP); five-county Sh257 billion Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC) or three-county Sh561 billion South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc (SEKEB). While further accelerating progress in 10-county Sh2.4 trillion Central (Kenya) Region Economic Bloc (CEREB) and Sh2.7 trillion Nairobi even as we reboot potential in 12-county Sh1.7 trillion Lake Region Economic Bloc (LREB) and two-county Sh317 billion Narok-Kajiado Economic Bloc (NAKAEB).

The basic point to be made here is that we have a modernised constitutional and institutional architecture that permits us to consider age-old challenges in a new light, with the benefit of data.

Here's another example from Noreb. There's a 30 per cent overall per capita income gap between the 'conflict five' and the 'peaceful three'. It's smaller in agriculture at 10 per cent but huge in non-agriculture (industry and services) at almost 50 per cent. What economic activity potential exists in the 'conflict five' to take us away from these 'North Rift issues'?

Notice here that we are not talking about 'development bombing', the old 'Dumisha Amani' idea to bombard the North Rift with supply-side 'build and they will come' goodies. That's the part that ends up being funded - unsustainably - by development partners and other non-state actors.

The fix for 'North Rift issues' needs to come from the demand-side which starts from where you are - banditry and all. That's your picture of today. Then you figure out what your picture of tomorrow might look like - before, not after, deciding on interventions in the immediate, and then the short, medium and long-term. Numbers help us to give our northern issues a fresh lens.

But mostly, if Kenya Vision 2030 and 'North Rift issues' are not to be a contradiction in terms, more visible and visionary local leadership, from governors to MPs, must be part of this picture.