Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)
Chapter 4. Geopolitics of a Cattle Raid
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
—T. S. ELIOT, The Waste Land
IF THE IMPERIAL CORE of the world system is preparing to adapt to climate change by resort to military methods, then what does incipient climate-driven collapse in the Global South look like? How are the poor adapting? How is the catastrophic convergence lived on the ground? What are its textures and histories? For answers, I traveled to East Africa, and there, one hot morning, I found myself looking down at that dead man, Ekaru Loruman, who was, in many ways, killed by climate change.
As mentioned in chapter 1, this group of Turkana had been pushed south by severe drought and were grazing their herds very close to their enemies, the Pokot. With water and grazing scarce, the herds were ill. To replenish stocks, young men raided their neighbors.1 And this increased violence is very clearly linked to climate change. Surface temperatures are rising, and the clockwork rains of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), are out of sync. At the same time, the waters flowing from the glaciers on Mount Kenya are also in trouble: a century ago, the peak held eighteen glaciers; today, only eleven remain, and four of those are greatly reduced.2 The same is true next door in Tanzania where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that “during the 20th century, the areal extent of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s ice fields decreased by about 80 percent.”3
As one Kenyan veterinarian who works with the Maasai, pastoralists explained to the Guardian’s John Vidal, “In the past we used to have regular 10-year climatic cycles which were always followed by a major drought. In the 1970s we started having droughts every seven years; in the 1980s they came about every five years and in the 1990s we were getting droughts and dry spells almost every two or three years. Since 2000 we have had three major droughts and several dry spells. Now they are coming almost every year, right across the country.”4
The extreme weather is pushing northern Kenya toward desertification, and that means pastoralists must compete for grazing and water. The situation is so bad in some areas that people are now killing each other for water—shooting it out for control of wells and pasture. This is perhaps the most direct example of how climate change plays out as violence.
The Turkana are here—in a place called Kotaruk southwest of the village, or “sublocation,” of Naipa—to be close to a borehole, a well drilled years ago by an NGO. Not far away rise the Karasuk Hills—sharp, barren mountains that thrust up abruptly from the flat desert. When the tribesmen have diesel to run the pump, this narrow well sucks up a trickle of ancient groundwater. In these dry times, which seem to go on and on, well water alone keeps the cattle alive. Without cattle, the Turkana would disappear. They would die or migrate to cities, and their culture would exist only in the memories of deracinated urban slum dwellers.
For now, the well functions, drawing life to the surface. But the well also causes problems. Either due to the ill-informed logic of some forty-year-old aid project or due to simple geological and hydrological necessity, the borehole was drilled dangerously close to Pokot territory—basically on the boundary where the two tribes meet. Here, the mountains drop into a steep valley that opens onto the plains. You can actually see the place if you check Google Maps. It is about halfway up the western edge of the Turkana plains where the muddy and fast-moving Turkwel River comes closes to the mountains. Look closely, and you can see where a steep valley cuts up into the Karasuk Hills. The Pokot use that pass for their raiding.
The enmity between the Pokot and Turkana goes back a long way. The Pokot border the Turkana on the south and, like the Turkana, are of Nilotic lineage. But the Pokot speak a different language and belong to the large, loosely defined group of tribes called the Kalenjin—a cultural formation of relatively recent invention and dubious internal coherence. It is a post-World War II political invention, a banding together of minor tribes seeking to counterbalance the power of the socially and economically dominant Kikuyu.5
Small in number, historically weak, and under pressure from all sides, the Pokot were thus forced up into their rocky, infertile mountain redoubt. But their weakness and vulnerability has made them tough, ruthless, and bold. All their neighbors fear and respect the Pokot because, for at least the last generation or so, they have survived by bringing war to their enemies, raiding and killing far afield, adopting paramilitary tactics, and using the Kenyan-Ugandan border as a sanctuary, crossing back and forth as they wish. In the process of striking back at those who had so long hounded and pressured them, the Pokot began to transform traditional, ritualized, cattle raiding into a modern hybrid of irregular warfare and organized crime.
Now, Pokot war parties raid cattle and ambush vehicles on one side of the border only to slip away and sell their loot on the other side. They make long driving attacks deep into northern Kenya and beat a hasty retreat into the rugged hills of Uganda. They buy weapons and bullets in Uganda to use in Kenya, and cut deals with Ugandan military officers and Kenyan politicians to sell their stolen cattle. The Pokot are unequivocally tough and have a reputation as ruthless. The heaviest losses of the Kenyan military since independence have been sustained during ill-fated campaigns to suppress the Pokot.
For months the Pokot had been raiding hard into sublocation Naipa. Ekaru’s people had been hit only one week before. In that attack, an adult and two children were killed. During other recent raids, the Pokot stole a few children, to keep and raise as their own, and took adults who were dismembered and thrown in the path of the stolen cattle herds to be trampled. As a chief at sublocation Naipa explained, this was a cross between a traditional protective curse and modern terrorism.
Pressed up against the edge of Pokot territory, the Turkana group who Ekaru had lived with were feeling grim. Many families had sent their women and children to huddle in a small town and await relief donations while skeleton crews of young men went to guard the herds. These young men, the moran, or warriors, ranged in age from about seventeen to forty-five and displayed an array of personal styles: homemade sandals fashioned from discarded tires, tartan skirts, plastic beadwork, and an assortment of T-shirts and paramilitary field jackets ranging from khaki, to camouflage, to marching-band grey, to the faded black, pocket-laden garments of some Nairobi-based private security firm. A few of the moran wore small, alpinestyle brimmed hats; others bore rows of decorative facial scars. All carried arms: Kalashnikovs with painted and carved wooden stocks or Germanmade G-3s, powerful rifles with a long range, good for fighting and hunting in the massive open spaces of the Turkana.
The sublocation bore witness to past violence. Just off the dirt track stood the burned-out walls of what had been a school and a dispensary, destroyed in an earlier stage of the war between the Turkana and the Pokot. Through a translator, the moran explained what had happened the previous day.
The raid began at mid-morning and lasted six hours. About ninety of the Pokot attacked from two sides, plunging deep into the flat savanna between the hills and the Turkwel River. They moved east and then swept back west toward the hills like an armed human net, driving thousands of animals before them in an attempt to push the cattle through the pass and up into the Karasuk.
If they could get to the pass and up into the hills, they could hold off, or even decimate, any pursuing Turkana warriors. In the hills at the mouth of the canyon, the Pokot had prescouted gun emplacements from which to ambush anyone who gave chase. About two months earlier, just such a Pokot raid, followed by an ambush, had left twenty-six pursuing Turkana dead and fourteen injured.6
If the cattle made it into the hills, the raiders would break the stock into smaller herds and scatter deep into the district of West Pokot, and then maybe across the border into Uganda. Or they could sell the beef cattle to brokers with links to abattoirs in Nairobi and keep the sheep and goats for themselves.
As the Pokot moved in, the shooting started. Other Turkana men heard the crack of the AK-47s on single shot and then the high-pitched war cries of the Pokot. Alert to the threat, battered and on edge from a summer of unrelenting violence, aware that they could be reduced to penury in a day if the raid was successful, the moran rushed toward the sound of the guns.
As they attacked, the Pokot danced, weaving and bobbing with their guns, ululating and calling out the names of their prize cattle before squeezing off single shots or bursts of three. With only limited ammunition, the Turkana answered the Pokot, snapping off well-aimed single shots, calling out their pledges of valor, their deadly vows, and the descriptions of their prize bulls: This is for the gray bull with a white face. If a warrior kills a man, he can then split the drooping ears of his prize bull so the world will know what he has achieved.
The battle ranged over about six kilometers and lasted for several hours of running, hiding, firing, and chasing the cattle. The Pokot were pushing the cattle and “the shorts”—the sheep and goats—west toward the gap in the Karasuk. Stretched out across several kilometers, the Pokot had warriors at the head of the herd, guarding the sides, and in back guarding the rear.
The Turkana, outnumbered and outgunned, ran desperately to get ahead of the raiders, to outflank them, cut them off, block their retreat into the mountains, and scatter the animals before they entered the narrow valley pass. This time it worked. Many of the sheep and goats panicked, but instead of running, they bunched up, each animal trying to hide inside the flock, all of them pressing into a dense, immobilized mass. Other animals got tangled up in the brush.
The Pokot raiders were stuck on the savanna, trying to get the frightened little beasts to move west. But the sheep and goats were too scared and confused; not understanding the human drama around them, they just tried to hide. Brown and white and golden, the little shorts jammed in closer and closer together, the dust rising among them while the Pokot warriors—their own fear mounting as the delay grew more dangerous—kicked, pushed, and yelled at the animals to move. From the brush, Turkana warriors occasionally snapped off harassing rounds. But most of the Turkana men raced past the flocks, running west toward the hills in an attempt to outflank the raiders. They had to beat the Pokot to the mouth of the pass, block their escape, and scatter the herds back onto the savanna.
When the Pokot finally unjammed the stolen flocks and arrived at the pass, the Turkana were there waiting. The two forces collided, the Turkana firing into the Pokot as they came forward. The blocked and furious Pokot rustlers, determined to get the beasts into the pass, fired back.
The raiders were mostly young men led by a group of older, rougher, seasoned veterans. For both sides, everything was at stake. They were fighting for all that is important in life: honor, status, wealth, love, survival, all of it embodied by cattle, which in turn become money and all that money can buy.
Here, nothing happens without cattle. To marry, a young man must provide a bride price in the form of cattle. And if the cattle are few, or scrawny, or there are no special prize bulls among the lot, the young woman will be insulted. To store wealth, one builds up a herd. Animals are currency: if a child needs medicine or an education, you sell or trade cattle. Tobacco, soap, jewelry, clothes, and weapons are all purchased with cattle or the cash from their sale.
The soothsayers, or emuron, dream of cattle, smear cattle with mud in their rituals, read the entrails of goats, and receive payment for their services in cattle. A man with many cattle is respected; a man with few cattle is not. A good wife takes care of the herds, fending off disease, nursing ill animals, keeping track of stays. Sons become men and honor their fathers by taking the herds far afield to find pasture and water and returning with all animals safe and accounted for. So the battle—brought on in part by drought, which had reduced the herds and is very linked to climate change—was a fight for everything of value.
As the rounds from the Turkana’s guns zipped past all these needs, fears, and passions mixed with a furious will to survive, the Pokot raged forward and straight into the line of Turkana sharpshooters, beyond whom lay the fastness and safety of the Karasuk Hills. For the Turkana it was the same: everything dear to them depended on these cattle now being stolen right in front of them by sworn enemies, thieves, killers who mutilate the dead.
The heavy, tumbling bullets of the Turkana’s guns cut down six Pokot raiders. One or two died quickly; one bled out slowly; a few were wounded and no doubt executed point-blank, like Ekaru had been. Three Turkana, including Ekaru, also died. But most of the cattle were scattered and sent back onto the arid scrubland along the Turkwel River. The raid had been another near miss, a calamity avoided in a land where drought and harsh new weather patterns are pushing the old ways of life to the edge of annihilation.
As the Pokot retreated into the hills, they shouted threats of a prompt and lethal return. Some shorts were missing, though as one angry herder let slip, other Turkana had probably stolen these during the chaos of battle. The next day, the moran were still wired from the fighting and ready for the next raid. The Pokot war party remained close.
“The Pokot said, ‘We did not get enough. Watch out. We’ll be back,’” explained one of the men. “Look, we have no bullets. Each bullet costs fifty shillings. Each of us has only one or two bullets left,” explained another. The men were now showing me their nearly empty clips. “We need bullets.”
For a moment, looking down at Ekaru’s corpse, I almost wished I’d brought them some. All I have to offer is a kilo of raw tobacco, which the Turkana mix with salt and chew, roll up into newsprint cigarettes, or smoke in little brass pipes.
Rain Cloud and Kalashnikov
The raid that killed Ekaru Loruman took place in the heart of “the pastoralist corridor,” a region of mountains, savannas, marshes, and deserts straddling the borderlands of Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Plagued by regular drought and flash flooding, this landscape belongs to well-armed nomadic and seminomadic tribes that live in a delicate balance with each other and their environment. Largely ignored by colonial authorities and modern African states alike, people in this region live much as they always have: cattle are the economic and cultural center of life. The land is generally too dry to farm but can be grazed. The basic socioeconomic unit here is a man, his wives, their children, and their cattle.
The pastoralist corridor, however, is now suffering increasingly extreme weather, marked by drought and sudden flooding, and that puts it on the front lines of the catastrophic convergence where poverty, violence, and climate change combine and collide. Here, the process has resulted in partial state failure and paramilitary violence.7 This grinding disorder is the expression of a “conflict system,” a self-reinforcing political economy of violence that links pastoralists, illegal militias, crime groups, politicians, states, militaries, markets, the aid industry, and climate.8
Most major climate models, aggregated by the IPCC, predict this region of Africa will face intensified desertification with the onset of accelerated global warming. The Sahara to the northwest may be greening, but the weather belts to the south appear to be drying. In recent decades, the drought cycle has intensified, even as overall precipitation levels have risen, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and energy. Now the rain comes all at once, in intense deluges. At the same time, incipient state failure expresses itself as lawlessness, underdevelopment, corruption, and lack of basic services. All of this is epitomized by northern Kenya’s proliferating gun culture.
Over the last several decades, drought and flash flooding have become more common in northern Kenya. Most scientists believe this reflects climate change taking hold. The larger and longer-term implications of this new pattern are frightening. Consider the 2006 findings of the UK government’s Meteorological Office (or Met Office). Based on vast amounts of data and observation, and produced by a 150-year-long institutional tradition of climatology, the Met Office modeling has found that under current trends, fully one-third of the planet’s land mass will be desert by 2100, while up to half the land surface will suffer drought. The study also predicts that, during the same period, the proportion of land in “extreme drought” will increase from the current 3 percent to 30 percent.9
In 2006, Christian Aid commissioned livestock specialist Dr. David Kimenye to study how Kenyan herders are coping with an increasingly desiccated environment. Kimenye talked to pastoralists in five areas across the Mandera District, in northeastern Kenya (due east of the Turkana) and home to 1.5 million people. He found the following:
✵ Incidence of drought has increased fourfold in the Mandera region in the past twenty-five years.
✵ Adverse climatic conditions have already forced one-third of herders living there—around half a million people—to abandon their pastoral way of life.
✵ During the last drought, so many cattle, camels, and goats were lost that 60 percent of the families who remain as pastoralists need outside assistance to recover. Their surviving herds are too small to support them.10
Since 1997, parts of the Kenyan economy have fallen into a prolonged torpor due to inadequate and erratic rainfall. In fact, growth rates in the heavily agricultural economy of Kenya track rainfall almost exactly: normal rains mean normal or robust growth. Bad rains bring economic trouble.11 A typical US Agency for International Development situation report, dated December 2007, reads, “Northern pastoral areas of Kenya have experienced a below-normal short-rains season. In addition, while control operations are underway, locust swarms in northern Kenya also threaten pastoralists’ access to pasture and browse during the upcoming dry season. The impact of the failed March-May cropping season continues to affect the region. Dry weather continues to hamper crop production along the Kenyan coast. Much of the season has already passed and rainfall totals are well below normal.”12
Kenya by Road
To better understand how climate change and regional political history are shaping local cattle and water wars, I rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle and headed north from Nairobi into the pastoralist corridor. Joining me for the seven-hundred-kilometer trek was a young journalist named Casper Waithaka. A Kikuyu from outside Nairobi, Casper did not speak Turkana, but he did speak Swahili, the lingua franca, and had lived in the Turkana for six months when he was jump-starting his career.
“No one wanted to go there, and there were always lots of good stories: rapes, murders, thieving. Lots of good stories. Just take your pick,” said Casper, rolling his r’s for dramatic effect. He agreed to show me the way to Lodwar, one of the Turkana’s main towns. The trip—two days of treacherous, white-knuckle, pothole slalom on small mountain roads dominated by oncoming trucks and buses—offered a rolling lesson in Kenya’s physical, social, and economic geography.
Forty minutes outside Nairobi, we ascended the Elgeyo Escarpment, the western wall of the Great Rift Valley. The Rift is not really a valley so much as a region—a thirty-nine-hundred-mile-long, hundreds-of-miles-wide basin created by the separation, or rift, of two tectonic plates. Bounded by mountain ranges and parallel fault lines, the Kenyan part of the basin contains smaller mountains, plateaus, valleys, lakes, rivers, and, up north, desert. Much of the Rift drains south into Lake Victoria.13 Descending the escarpment, we continued into the cool, moist plateau of the western highlands. The tarmac gave way to stretches of ragged, washed-out, rutted dirt roads.
On the northwest edge of the highlands, we stayed the night at Kitale, a Luhya-dominated farming town surrounded by smoke-shrouded internally displaced person (IDP) camps full of Kikuyu victims of the recent postelectoral pogroms. The Kikuyu are the politically and economically dominant tribe in Kenya, and after the disputed election of December 2008, other tribes rampaged against them. The scars of that convulsion—the blue tarpaulin hovels of the IDP camps, the burnt-out farms and storefronts—belie the Kenyan landscape’s peaceful appearance.
The following day, we ascended into the misty Cherangani Hills, Pokot territory, the eastern shoulder of the ice-capped Mount Elgon on the Kenya-Uganda border. There began our final descent into the semidesert of the Turkana, the lowlands of the Rift Valley, and the drive straight north for three hundred more kilometers, on kidney-pulverizing dirt tracks, deeper and deeper into the quiet savanna and the epicenter of the cattle wars.
“This is an operational area,” said a young officer leaning into my window, scanning the inside of the jeep, then slowly thumbing through my passport. This was the last checkpoint before the badlands.
“You don’t have any security. Maybe you should take an escort.”
Dozens of travelers have been killed on this road in recent years. Each week the Nairobi papers carry lurid stories of trucks and buses attacked and robbed. Murdered passengers have included priests, politicians, even women and children. As a result it is now typical to travel the worst stretches with armed security. The public buses all carry two well-armed cops. The officers of the Kenyan National Police offer this service in exchange for a $5 or $10 fee. Underpaid and poorly supplied, they need the money badly. Two cops in the backseat may or may not fend off highwaymen, but if you do not accept the assistance, a cop might call ahead to tip off the very same bandits.
“I think it is good to take the security,” said Casper.
So I accepted, or rather did not refuse, the offer, and a young policeman named Eric climbed into the backseat. Twenty minutes up the road, Eric loudly chambered a round into his G3 and pointed the barrel out the window.
Eric had the gloomy affect of occupying soldiers anywhere. He viewed the local population and the desert with a mix of contempt and admiration. “The desert is ugly. Where I am from, you can grow anything,” he said.
And what about the people here?
“They have no respect for life. They will kill you just as easily as they would kill a goat. And they are all sharpshooters.” He explained that three officers from his post, including a commander, had died in recent months fighting Turkana cattle raiders. “We called in helicopters and reinforcements.”
Why is it so violent here?
“Drought,” said Eric. “Tradition, lack of education, and drought. And Uganda can’t control its border.”
His explanation made sense: without rain, the browse and grass decline; the herds grow weak and die. To replenish their stocks, the young men go raiding. All around stood dead acacia trees, gray skeletons. At intervals along the road we passed tall, hard-faced Turkana women selling long, thin burlap bags of charcoal. Stalked by famine, they now burn the drought-stricken trees into charcoal.
We dropped Eric off in the scorching roadside town of Lokichar. Our next escort was a police reservist, an older Turkana with a weather- and alcohol-battered face. He carried an AK-47 and two full clips of ammunition, and he wanted a ride out into the bush so he could check on his cattle.
He said he was assigned to guard buses going to the Sudanese boarder. Not long ago, he had been on a bus that was ambushed. Thieves had stepped into the road and shot out the tires and into the windshield. The passengers all hit the floor, while the police reservist and his comrade fired back at the highwaymen, straight through the smashed up windshield. “We killed one and drove away the other two,” said the old reservist. “The dead one was Sudanese. You could tell by the markings on his face.”
Then, in the middle of nowhere, the old man asked us to stop. “I get out here.” And with that, he tramped off into the bush.
The Nomad Town
Eventually, we reach Lodwar, the heart of the Turkana. The town sits at the junction of the A-1 and the Turkwel River. Small and compact, Lodwar has a strange vitality. The town is nothing much, but it is the big city and bright lights for this area. Its main road and the one-lane steel span bridge across the muddy Turkwel River are clogged with herders and their thick flocks of goats and sheep. Improbably rugged trucks and diesel buses, packed with people and piled high with luggage, stop over in Lodwar on their way in and out of South Sudan. The town is dense with hardware stores selling buckets, knives, axes, shovels, rope, aluminum pots, brightly striped plastic water jugs, and bolts of cloth; grubby little restaurants; and foul-smelling open-air bars where patrons hide from the sun behind roughhewn latticework. A few thick old trees loom over the unpaved streets. At night the slowly passing cars stir up dust that floats in the glow of the headlights, giving Lodwar a gloomy, ghostly, narcotic ambience.
In Lodwar I meet Lucas Ariong, head of the small peace-building NGO Riam Riam. Tall and thin, Lucas has handsome, almost delicate features, but his face is splashed with scars, as if a bottle was once smashed on it.
“These are resource conflicts,” said Lucas, referring to the cattle wars. “And now the climate is changing. The rains are late; the land is turning to desert. People are burning the acacia trees for charcoal, killing each other for control of waterholes.”
Lucas’s concern about the raiding cycles is personal: his father was killed in a raid when Lucas was young. Many of his friends have died in raids. And Lucas owns “about 50 cows” and many more shorts, all kept under the watchful eyes of armed men, his sons, and hired hands.
To explain the crisis, Lucas brings out a sheaf of UN-commissioned maps that show the locations of pasture, water holes, salt licks, rivers, roads, arable land, small towns, schools, clinics, and the appallingly low ratio of teachers and medics to population. The maps also indicate the raiding corridors and tribal boundaries, which sometimes overlap with water and pasture resources and thus define the front lines of the Turkana’s little climate-driven resource wars.
Lucas pointed out the sites of several recent conflicts: up in the northwest, the Ugandan military had just crossed over into Kenya and bombed a Turkana cattle camp, probably in hot pursuit of Turkana rustlers who had been preying on Ugandan Kalenjins. In the summer of 2007, cross-border raids even compelled the governments of Uganda and Kenya to negotiate cattle swaps. To the south, the Pokot have been stealing cattle and ambushing vehicles. From the north and northeast, guns are smuggled in from South Sudan and Somalia; ammunition is readily available due east in Uganda. The conflict system took on visual form.
What should the state do?
“More wells. We needed boreholes,” said Lucas. “The issue is drought.”
The Land of Raiding
The annals of northern Kenya’s drought-fueled violence—its little climate war—grow by the day. Here are reports culled from just one month in late summer 2008:
August 5: Seventy-four people are dead in a weekend of attacks on three villages in Lokori Division, Turkana South District. More than twenty-two hundred cattle are stolen.
August 12: Pokot raiders gun down more than thirty Turkana herdsmen at Lokori Division, in Turkana South District. Scores of others are believed wounded; seven hundred head of cattle are stolen.
August 20: Turkana raiders attack herders at Galasa water point, stealing more than twenty thousand animals. Security forces give chase; eight local police reservists and raiders are killed.
August 22: The Ugandan military kill ten and wound four Turkana pastoralists who cross the border in search of water and pasture. Ugandan soldiers steal four hundred animals.
August 24-30: A raiding party of more than one thousand Sudanese Toposa tribesmen crosses into Kenya; over the next week, they attack two villages, kill eight people, abduct three children, and steal an estimated five thousand animals in Lokichoggio, northwestern Turkana.
September 2: Two police reservists are killed repelling other Toposa raiders who have crossed in from southern Sudan.
September 4: Pokot raiders kill two people in Kotaruk and steal more than six hundred animals.14
In mid-2007, the Small Arms Survey, a project of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, conducted research among households along the Sudan-Kenya border. The survey sought to measure the social impacts of small-arms proliferation. It found epidemic gunplay with “both actual and perceived levels of insecurity … significantly worse on the Kenyan side of the border than they were in South Sudan, which is recovering from a 21-year civil war.” Sixty percent of respondents had witnessed a cattle raid, and more than 60 percent said that disarmament would decrease security.15
If this isn’t war, it is something close.