Northern Kenya’s disarmament dilemma


Banditry and the proliferation of illegal small arms are critical drivers of insecurity in Kenya’s North Rift Region. Survey-derived baselines project the number of illicit firearms in the country to be over 650 000, with most concentrated in pastoral counties.

Despite a drop in assaults in North Rift over the last couple of months, the six months before that saw over 40 incidents involving bandit attacks. Around 100 civilians and 16 police officers were killed, and ‘hundreds’ of people fled their homes, according to Interior Cabinet Secretary Abraham Kithure Kindiki.

Over 2 000 families have been affected, moving to nearby villages. There, they have added to problems such as high poverty rates and the risk of forced migration. In the severely affected Baringo County, border villages prone to banditry have experienced a 90% rate of displacement. In some cases, community members are staying in school compounds.

In an effort to disarm the bandits and bring peace to the North Rift region, the government is implementing Operation Maliza Uhalifu, launched in February 2023. It involves the deployment of military, police rapid response units and intelligence operatives in six North Rift counties. The operations have been extended to other North Rift counties to counter bandit networks across the region. But despite this multi-agency security effort, the armed raids continue.

The decades-old security situation in the region is complex, characterised by banditry, cattle-rustling and local conflicts. The availability of weapons is a key driver of insecurity, but many North Rift citizens fear that disarming both residents and raiders will leave them vulnerable to attacks. Without socio-economic upliftment and community backing for security initiatives, banditry will continue.

Kenya is facing an uphill battle against the spread of illicit arms. During the last five-year cycle of illegal firearm destruction operations, from 2016-2021, Kenya destroyed around 23 000 guns. This represents a paltry 3.6% recovery and destruction rate of the total estimates of illicit firearms in circulation.

The poor rate of recovery of illegal guns in pastoral communities points to numerous problems with arms control policy and strategy at national and regional levels. Despite Kenya’s 2006 arms control action plan, the country lacks a national gun policy. As a result, arms reduction initiatives are poorly coordinated and not as effective as they could be.

At the same time, the focus among East African countries on their own national security interests limits their capacity for tackling problems regionally. Given that arms smuggling is a transnational problem, regional action is vital.

Kenya’s proximity to volatile East African countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan increases the risk of illicit arms flows into the country. The region has various policies and legal frameworks, such as the Nairobi Protocol on small arms, Mifugo Protocol on cattle rustling and Intergovernmental Authority on Development Transhumance Protocol on cross-border arms smuggling. But low rates of ratification and implementation limit their effectiveness.

These circumstances contribute to a nexus between illicit firearms, the risk of displacement, and the perpetuation of violence in North Rift.

In places where there isn’t enough state protection, disarmament efforts have been largely ineffective. Communities arm themselves as a means of defence and to avoid having to flee their homes and join the thousands of internally displaced. Citizens see buying guns as a way to help themselves. But as these weapons proliferate, violence escalates, which in turn drives up the numbers of internally displaced people.

This presents a quandary for security strategy and law enforcement. Disarmament is vital to ending banditry and making local conflicts less lethal, but vulnerable residents are reluctant to give up their guns and face relocation to safer areas.

To discourage forced displacement, which adds to instability in North Rift, strategies must complement current security measures and consider community needs. Disarmament – forceful or voluntary – must reflect the safety requirements, vulnerabilities and risks of displacement of particular communities, so that both state and citizen interests are met.

Country-level arms reduction efforts must be backed by regional action in line with international and regional legislative instruments – specifically, the 2001 United Nations Programme of Action (UNPoA) and the 2004 Nairobi Protocol. The latter has been signed by at least 10 of the 15 states in East Africa and the Horn. Despite the non-binding legal status of UNPoA, both instruments are vehicles for showing the political commitment needed to build consensus on arms reduction.

Among the modalities provided for by the UNPoA and Nairobi Protocol is managing state-owned weapon stockpiles. Kenya has made significant progress in its capacity to monitor and trace state-owned firearms, with over 90% of these having been marked as of 2021. This reduces the potential threat by better regulating and managing state-owned guns, which is a major regional concern.

To address insecurity and banditry in Kenya’s North Rift region, disarmament approaches must be adjusted to take into account the risk that they could increase forcible displacement in affected communities. Building trust between citizens and government is crucial to minimising the risk posed by illegal firearms and nurturing transparency and accountability nationally and regionally.

Written by James Owino, Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.