Historians and anthropologists have always been fascinated by the conflict between shepherds and farmers. It is a conflict between two cultures, two ways of looking at life and the environment. Both groups need land and water, and their interests clash.
Pastoralists want to wander in the land and have access to grazing areas and water sources. Agriculturalists want to fence their land to defend it from animals and like to organize water usage to benefit the most from a scarce resource. They also have cattle, needed to work the land and provide milk, wool, leather, and meat. So the rivalry also concerns the possession of cattle, and the cattle- raid becomes one of the strategies which are used to increase their number or to recover lost animals.
In the past, the raid was an exciting topic for anthropologists and ethnologists. They saw in the raid a significant form of social organization. Pastoralists and agriculturalists used spears and arrows, and observed strict rules of engagement with a spirit of chivalry. Today, the cattle raid has become a real plague. And for one simple reason: the proliferation of automatic weapons.
According to reports on arms smuggling in the Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa – a wide area where shepherds and farmers coexist – the market for small weapons is growing, due to the many local wars in the region and the political and economic benefits for those who holds the strings of this business.
The presence of small arms has intensified internal conflicts among the Pokot of Kenya and Uganda, raised the number of cattle raids and forced many people to flee their homes. Today, a Kalashnikov – an automatic rifle also known as AK47 – costs £ 35-50, a high but not impossible price for local tribesmen. Merchants know that the Pokot have little cash, so they are happy to trade weapons for livestock. They ask for four or five cows, and a Pokot knows that with the rifle he will be able to acquire many more. The price can go up between June and October, when neighbouring Karimojong (Uganda) and Turkana (Kenya) increase the number of raids. The transhumant Pokot, Turkana and Karimojong, stopped using the traditional spear and shield; they all have adopted automatic weapons. The AK 47, or similar weapon, has become part of their wardrobe.
Weapons are bought for different reasons. Possessing a weapon raises the social status of the owner. It also allows planning to steal animals to pay the “bride price” (which always tends to rise). Modern weapons help defend the homestead against raiders from other ethnic groups, and come handy during revenge raids. Beyond cattle raids, weapons are used in acts of banditry and in clashes with security forces. The presence of well armed and organized band of people is also a plus for shrewd politicians, who use them as a tool to enhance their control on their constituencies.
The Akiwumi Report – named after the judge leading the inquiry commission on ethnic conflict in Kenya in 1992 and 1997 – showed without doubts that violence between Kalenjin, Maasai and Pokot, on the one hand, and the Kikuyu, Kisii, Luhya and Luo, on the other, was incited by unscrupulous politicians who used the ethnic card to influenced the vote in favour of the ruling party. The same happened in the aftermath of the infamous 2007 elections.
With the collapse of traditional values, the raid has taken on different connotations from the past. Weapon holding warriors do not feel bound to traditional authorities and interpret the rules of engagement solely to their advantage. Central governments have tried to disarm tribesmen, but the exercise is futile. No one will voluntarily offer its weapon knowing well that neighbouring tribesmen will not. No one is willing to become vulnerable to attacks, knowing well – because of previous experiences – that the central government would not intervene to defend them. Only Churches and NGOs have the moral authority to intervene. They do so by offering workshops on conflict resolutions, promoting meetings between different communities, trying to dissolve the mutual suspicion and violence. It is not easy, but some successes are already present and may serve as benchmark for future action. The raid culture will have to disappear, notwithstanding historians and anthropologists.