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Marsabit conflict has worrying traits of genocide in the making

 A herdsman looks after camels in Sololo, Moyale sub-county in Marsabit. [David Njaaga, Standard]

The simmering tension as result of the conflict between Borana and Gabra communities is gradually mutating into a deadly affair.

The conflict is no longer the regular pastoralist fight over natural resources; water and pasture. Seasons no longer dictate the tenor of this conflict either — the conflict happens during the dry spells and as well as during the rainy seasons. 

The conflict's dynamic has changed drastically, and so have the actors, the battlefields, and the motives. Unlike in the past when pastoralist battles were fought in the rangelands, they are now happening within the vicinity of towns and residential areas. In the past, the active participants and planners of the fighting were mainly warriors with the blessings of elders. Today, the elite and politicians are the principal planners as alluded to by leaders in their usual counter-blame game.

The Marsabit County conflict has caused displacement, loss of lives and destruction of properties. The conflict damage assessment done in July 2021 by government and non-governmental agencies revealed that over 200 lives have been lost and over 4,000 cattle stolen in three years around Saku Constituency alone. The report indicated that more than 300 houses were torched or vandalised, and about 2,000 households were displaced during the period. 

Despite that report, the conflict still persists and only the other day, a truck plying Town-Badassa route was attacked and six people killed and 11 others injured. They are now recuperating at Marsabit Referral hospital.

The ongoing conflict in Marsabit has shades of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Before the genocide, archival records indicate tensions lurked and simmered for decades between Hutu and Tutsi - the two antagonists who shared numerous similarities. Just like Hutus and Tutsis, Borana and Gabra share several similarities; a language, history, beliefs and the rangelands. They also share names, complexion and several other cultural aspects. They have intermarried for decades and shared resources including grazing rights and water points, and jointly fought their aggressors in the past. 

Hutu extremists radicalised their young people to hate the Tutsi and enticed them to participate actively in their elimination. The same wind of indoctrination is taking place among the Borana and Gabra in Marsabit. The extremists from both communities are setting up youth against each other. The hatred is palpable on the streets and even in places of worship.

It was hard to tell Hutus and Tutsi from one another from a close look. Despite some variations in appearance stereotypically – Tutsi being tall and Hutus a bit squat, these two communities are almost indistinguishable through anthropologists’ lens. The Borana and Gabra are similar too in most aspects; the same language, same physique and similar pastoralist ways of life.

Before the Rwandan genocide, highly coded language and dehumanising phrases were deployed against the Tutsi. For instance, Hutus called Tutsi cockroaches, depriving them of their humanity and reducing them to animals.

Coded and dehumanising language is used in the current Borana and Gabra conflict too.  “Ilme ekhera’- a derogatory term loosely translated to mean ''offspring of ghost' and ‘gad’haa’- another derogatory term used to mean ''eliminate'' are just but few. On the streets during the conflict, one can hear phrases like “a game at hand”, “away goals’’, “own goal", ''red and yellow cards”, referring to conflicts, injuries and deaths.

Before bursting into full blown killings, a genocide is preceded by various stages. The conflict between the Borana and the Gabra seems to be at the final stage thus now within home-stretch toward a possible genocide - God forbid. 

In Rwanda, it all began with suspicion from Hutus that the colonial ruler - Belgium viewed the Tutsi minority as superior, and favoured them for almost every leadership position. This in turn created animosity and deeper resentment among Hutu and Tutsi.

On the other hand, skewed employment and resource distribution have sparked loud murmurs among residents of Marsabit since the onset of devolution, a factor which may be fueling the ongoing conflict besides the widely pronounced political supremacy and expansionist agenda.

Interahamwe - an armed militia took charge of the conflict before and during the genocide in Rwanda. A similar scenario has been witnessed in Marsabit conflicts where armed militia take control of the situation whenever there are insecurity flare-ups, posing significant challenges to timely responses from security agencies. 

The participation of this armed militia in the Rwanda genocide was widespread as neighbours, friends and even family members turned on each other. The same scenario is unfolding between the Borana and Gabra in Marsabit where their past blood relations as neighbours, friends and families are no longer binding.

During the Rwanda genocide, militias went from house to house looking for the members of the rival communities to kill. They also set up roadblocks to stop the movement, asking them to show their identity cards. The same was reportedly witnessed in Marsabit when vehicles were stopped and passengers’ identities sought for the purpose of identifying members from the opponent group.

The Borana-Gabra conflict has shown all the characteristics of an imminent genocide: Heightened tension, ever-growing animosity, unmeasured hatred, sophisticated weaponry and a vicious cycle of sporadic and perennial killings.

When we begin to hear speeches that dehumanise or treat people like animals, when we begin to pit people against each other, us against them, when the people have armed themselves freely, when attacks and counter-attacks are the new normal, when once close neighbours are not seeing eye-to-eye, when bazookas and other heavy arms are bellowing anyhow in broad daylight even in the middle of the town, when women and children become the most premium targets, it is the time for the alarm bells to go off. These signals do not lie.

It is time the authorities at national and county government level devise a sustainable method of dealing with this conflict instead of relying on a reactive approach which entails deployment of security agencies for a shorter period just to restore sanity.

Justice, accountability and reconciliation should form the basis of dealing with the Marsabit conflict and politicians who fan and fund the conflict should be dealt with to the full extent of the law.

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