Wajir county’s dying breed of peacemakers

By: RASHID ABDI

A 2014 World Bank study ranked Wajir first among 47 counties for devoting the greatest proportion of its annual budget toward development.

Only 10 counties in Kenya reached the 30 per cent development spending threshold; Wajir managed a whopping 58 per cent.

This has meant visible improvements, such as tarmacking the town’s roads and introducing solar-powered street lighting.

But there is still much work ahead.

Wajir has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in Kenya.

In 2014, primary school enrolment in the county was only 35 per cent, well below Kenya’s national average of 77 per cent.

The vast majority of Wajir’s population live in absolute poverty.

Meanwhile, a growing population puts pressure on the county’s meagre resources – including water and grazing land vital for the region’s pastoral communities.

Across the North East, clashes between the resident Somali-speaking herding clans over wells and pastures are endemic, but over the last decades resource competition has become increasingly deadly.

Wajir has avoided the worst of the clashes and increasingly politicised competition between clans and sub-clans that have blighted its neighbouring, Somali-dominated counties of Mandera to the north and Garissa to the south.

However, tit-for-tat attacks between rival militias in late October – especially between Degodia and Ajuran clans in the restive Eldas locality in Wajir North – have raised fears of an all-out war.

So far, Wajir has managed to contain and mediate disputes that elsewhere in the region have escalated into full-blown conflict.

This exceptionalism is largely due to local peace-building initiatives, including the work of the Al-Fatah Council of Elders.

One of their leaders, Mohamud Hassan Mu’mun “Dukow”, is a charming old man with a henna-dyed red beard.

“They call me ‘Khamis Bongo’, you know, because I am an old man, always dressed in a simple white robe, who jokes a lot and is flippant even with weightier matters,” he presented himself to me in an interview, in a soft and slightly hoarse voice, and with a playful glint in his eyes.

A DYING GROUP

In 1993, at the height of one of the deadliest bouts of inter-clan fighting in what was then the North Eastern Province, Dukow volunteered to chair a cross-clan council of elders to mediate peace.

The council comprised 36 members from all the clans in the county.

They quickly secured a truce signed by the warring clans at a local madrasa called Al-Fatah in Wajir town. “Since that time, the name Al-Fatah has stuck with us,” Dukow recalled.

“We succeeded because we remained steadfastly independent, truthful and honest brokers. We never took sides; we received no resources and depended on community support,” Dukow said.

The council’s ranks have diminished over time.

“Sixteen of our members are now dead,” Dukow said, including former Cabinet Minister Ahmed Khalif and women’s rights activist Deqa Ibrahim Abdi.

“We are a bunch of ageing men, and none is below 70 years of age. Our era is coming to an end”, Dukow noted sadly.

“I would have liked to mentor the new generation of peacemakers, to pass on our skills. But we are no longer taken seriously.”

Al-Fatah’s role has been undercut, perhaps inadvertently, by the new local government’s creation of the County Peace Forum (CPF) – a 60-member council of elders.

The CPF, which includes some Al-Fatah elders, is supposed to be a more representative body, to modernise and adapt traditional peace-making to the changed circumstances of devolved government.

The Al-Fatah group has come in for criticism, including its dependence on Somali clan customary laws (heer) and the payment of blood money (diya) to resolve conflicts, which some said may incentivise and fuel armed hostilities.

“Diya encourages repeat offending,” said one civil society activist. “People convicted of capital offences such as murder get off lightly after paying a fine of Sh500,000 to the victim’s relatives”.

Some also complain that women are underrepresented in the new county-based structures.

“Women remain invisible”, said Ms Fatuma Abdullahi, a nominated Member of the County Assembly (MCA).

She is one of 15 female members nominated to the County Assembly, a number that is itself unprecedented.

Ms Fatuma recalled that women in Wajir were pioneers in the peace-building effort.

“From the late 1990s and up until 2007, shortly before her death, Deqa Ibrahim played a big role in reconciling communities. She went from house to house imploring women to use their influence to end hostilities,” Ms Fatuma said.

“If you do not involve women in the peace process, you might as well forget any chance of real peace.”

DIFFERENT PLAYGROUND

But the conflicts in Wajir and across the North East are arguably different from the ones the Al-Fatah group dealt with two decades ago.

The new violence is more politically driven, say local observers, with some clans engaged in a subtle “expansionist” drive to gain electoral advantage ahead of the 2017 General Election, especially at the county level.

More ominously, there are indications that clans are stockpiling weapons and recruiting militias.

One militia, affiliated with the Degodia and said to be 500-strong, was reported to be conducting stop-and-search operations on roads near Eldas to intimidate clan rivals.

“The number of weapons in civilian hands exceeds that of the security forces,” said Al-Fatah member Jibril, an assessment echoed by a senior officer of the Administration Police’s Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), deployed to contain armed violence in Eldas and other restive parts of the county.

Mukhtar Ogle, the secretary of Strategic Initiatives for Marginalised Regions (SIDMAR) in the Office of the President, happens to hail from Wajir.

“There is no doubt Wajir has great potential to become a role model,” Mr Ogle said.

“The national government and the Office of the President, in particular, commend the progress the county has made, and are keen to tap that experience and enhance engagement and co-operation.”

Official praise for Wajir County is contested by a number of local leaders and civil society activists who argue that devolution’s potential is being undermined by the county’s drive to bring everything under its hand.

Though Wajir’s political leadership has been far more inclusive than in Mandera and Garissa, there are doubts about the county’s capacity.

The county government has not yet proved its competence and credibility among the wider population, and allegations of graft are circulating.

“Many of the ills of the centre are being replicated in the counties,” said one National Assembly member.

ACCOUNTABILITY UNDERVALUED

Mr Hashim El Mooge, who heads the Wajir Good Governance Initiative, claims that the county government is “thin-skinned” to criticism.

“Those who raise concerns over unethical procurement and questionable deals are dismissed as ‘enemies of development’ or worse,” Mr El Mooge said.

He thinks that devolution has brought considerable gains, but “unless we accept the principles of good governance, we risk losing everything”.

Some of his concerns are shared by members of the County Assembly.

Mr Abdishakur Adan – an MCA from Dela Ward, in the troubled Eldas district, and a member of the Budget Committee is a critic of the county’s peace-building and conflict resolution initiatives.

He argues that the county had little to show for the Sh150 million set aside to fund peace efforts.

He said the decision to “sideline” Al-Fatah and set up a new forum of peace elders made up of what he termed “political retirees” was ill-advised.

The Al-Fatah elders are, by their own admission, a dying breed.

However, the role they played in Wajir and the North East in general, was unique and is still much needed.

Their experience should not be let go, especially when sustaining peace is vital to fulfil the early promise of devolution in Wajir.

This feature was originally published on the International Crisis Group’s In Pursuit of Peace blog

SOURCE: DAILY NATION