Indigenous Democracy

Traditional Conflict Resolution Mechanisms (Pokot, Turkana, Samburu and Marakwet communities)

In 2003 ITDGPractical Action EA conducted a study on traditional conflict resolution mechanisms as practiced by the Pokot, Turkana, Samburu and Marakwet pastoralists and agro-pastoralists communities in Kenya. This study was funded by USAID/Kenya and East Africa Cross-Border Biodiversity Project (EACBBP).


This publication details the indigenous methods of conflict resolution among the Pokot, Tukana, Samburu, and Marakwet communities of North Rift Kenya. Traditional conflict resolution structures are closely bound with socio- political and economic realities of the lifestyles of the African communities. These conflict resolution structures are rooted in the culture and history of African people, and are in one way or another unique to each community. The overriding legitimacy of indigenous conflict resolution structures amongst these communities is striking.

The publication outlines scarce and unequal access to natural resources and power, ethnic mistrust (ethnocentrism), inadequate state structures, border tensions and proliferation of illicit arms into the hands of tribal chiefs, warlords and fellow tribesmen as some of the causes of inter-ethnic conflicts in northern Kenya.

A brief description of the three communities regarded as representative of the entire pastoralists community in the greater horn of Africa region has been given. In addition, a detailed description and analysis of their indigenous governance and conflict resolution institutions has been carried out. The Kokwo amongst the Pokot and Marakwet, the tree of men amongst the Turkana and Nabo among the Samburu communities are perhaps the most important governance institutions amongst the study communities.

The study found out that cattle rustling, and to some extent, land clashes are the main manifestation of conflicts in northern Kenya. In response to the cattle rustling menace that has ravaged the vast and rugged region, the communities under study have evolved over time and institutionalised an elaborate system and mechanisms of resolving conflicts whether intra-community or inter-community. The elders in the three communities form a dominant component of the customary mechanisms of conflict management. The elders command authority that makes them effective in maintaining peaceful relationships and community way of life. The authority held by the elders is derived from their position in society. They control resources, marital relations, and networks that go beyond the clan boundaries, ethnic identity and generations. The elders are believed to hold and control supernatural powers reinforced by belief in superstitions and witchcraft. This is perhaps the basis of the legitimacy of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms amongst the pastoralists.

Among other findings, this study has given due consideration to the unique pastoralists? cultures that emphasise the resolution of conflicts amicably through a council of elders, dialogue, traditional rituals and common utilization of resources especially dry-season grazing land. Peace pacts between these communities have largely been hinged on availability of pasture and water and entirely cushioned on a win-win situation. The current peaceful relationship and military alliance between Pokot and Samburu, Turkana and Matheniko and Pokot and Matheniko are testimonies to the power of indigenous customary arrangements of peace building and border harmonization. Nevertheless, such peace pacts are flouted as soon as conditions that necessitated the pact cease to hold as they are governed by opportunistic tendencies. In total, the said communities have consistent and more elaborate methods of intervening in internal (intra-ethnic) conflicts than the inter-ethnic conflicts.

The study reports that among the three communities, there is a marked absence or inadequacy of enforcement mechanisms/framework to effect what the elders and other traditional courts have ruled. The customary courts rely on goodwill of the society to adhere to its ruling.

In terms of gender consideration, the whole process is grossly flawed. There is a serious gender and age imbalance as women and youth are largely excluded from important community decision-making processes. Women and children are there to be seen and not heard despite of the fact that they play a critical role in precipitating conflicts.

Limited government understanding of pastoralists? livelihoods and the ensuing marginalization of pastoralists? issues, livelihoods and institutions have corroded the efficacy and relevance of customary institutions of conflict management. Such traditional structures are referred to as archaic, barbaric and that they lack a place in the modern global village. As a result, governments fail to appreciate, collaborate and complement the traditional methods of resolving conflicts. These pseudo critics have failed to acknowledge that the African traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution are fundamentally different from the Western ways of conflict resolution.

The study proposes that there should be increased collaboration and networking between the government and customary institutions of governance. In particular, the government should recognize and aid customary courts enforce their rulings. The elders should be trained on modern methods of arbitration and at minimum, traditional mechanisms of conflict management should be more sensitive to the universally accepted principles of human rights.

Gender and age mainstreaming in conflict resolution should be prioritised in all traditional courts and in decision-making processes. Women and children voices should be heard and be seen to fundamentally alter the pace and direction of community governance system.

The regional problem of illicit arms that has scaled up the severity and frequency of cattle raids should be addressed by the governments in the region. These arms have also sneaked in the veiled aspect of commercialisation of cattle raids in the region. Pastoralists are no longer raiding to replenish their stocks especially after periods of severe drought and animal diseases, but are increasingly raiding to enrich themselves by engaging in trade of stolen livestock. This aspect has overwhelmed traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and should be addressed.

read more about conflict resolution in ITDG East Africa's Peace Bulletin

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