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The Dynamics of Inter-Communal Conflict in the Moyale Borderland Region

art 3 fig 1 HAB vol 29 iss 3 2017

Source: FAO, cited in Pavanello, 2010:5

Ethiopia and Kenya share a border of over 860 kilometres. Moyale is one of the areas on the border that is divided between the two countries. Diverse communities constitute the inhabitants of the border area, including the Borana, Garri, Gabra and to some extent the Burji. Similar to other African border areas, the Ethiopia-Kenya border in Moyale is a promising borderland region, with great potential to advance mutually beneficial integration between the two countries, as well as among the countries in the Horn, due to already developed trade and social connections across border.[1] However, the borderland has long been a source of inter-communal conflict that can constrain cross-border socio-economic activities. Low intensity conflicts between the communities along the Ethiopia-Kenya border have existed for centuries. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the 1990s, the inter-play of internal (cultural values and beliefs such as raiding and cattle rustling, shortage of land for pasture and scarcity of water, politics of ethnicity and election) and external factors (drought and climate change, proliferation of fire-arms, the presence of armed opposition groups, and  political change and reform of administration boundary), owing mainly to changes in the political systems in both countries, have altered the dynamics of inter-communal conflict in Moyale region and in the process created new factors for conflict, the emergence of new actors, and an upsurge in the intensity, duration and frequency of conflict.

Structural Change as the Prime Driver of Recent Conflicts

The protagonists in the conflicts in the Moyale borderland region[2] align themselves principally along group identities, such as the conflict between the Borana and the Garri (in Ethiopia Moyale) on the one hand, and the Borana and the Gabra (in Kenya Moyale) on the other. However, a conflict breaking out on one side of the border often has a spill-over effect on the other side, largely due to clan or communal affiliations between communities living in both Kenya and Ethiopia.

Several causal factors account for the emergence and prolongation of communal conflicts between the communities within each country and across the Ethiopia-Kenya border from 1992, which can be classified under socio-cultural factors, environment and resource dynamics, and changes in politico-administrative units and boundaries. Though these factors are interwoven, the politico-administrative dimension has become the dominant motive that exerts new impetus on the old drivers for inter-communal conflict in Moyale.

Change in Politico-Administrative Units and Boundaries

The idea of redrawing regional borders by the national governments along ethnic lines and vesting regions with a degree of autonomy is in itself a conflict management measure.[3] This change has nonetheless led to a renewed round of inter-communal conflicts in both the Ethiopia Moyale and Kenya Moyale borderland, and has transformed the relations between communal groups since the 1990s. Before the reorganisation of local and regional governments in 1992, the Ethiopian part of Moyale was under the Borana Administrative region, and served as the capital of the Moyale province, and the local Borana, Garri and Gabra communities lived in peace for many years, though they experienced occasional conflicts over access to resources. From 1974 to 1991, Ethiopia was governed by the Provisional Military Administrative Council (Derg), which pursued a centralised Marxist-Leninist system of government. During this period, Moyale was under Borana Awraja (Province), and the Borana had held uncontested control of the traditional wells.[4] With the demise of the Derg, however, the former Borana province was split into two and fell under the Oromia and Somali regional states, including Moyale town. Consequently, since 1994 Moyale town has become the capital of two competing Woredas (Districts) – Oromia-Moyale and Somali-Moyale – without any clear demarcation.[5] Though an attempt was made in 2004 to reach a final decision to demarcate the boundary between Garri and Borana through referendum, it was aborted and the final status of the town has not yet been determined. Since then, the claims and counter-claims over Moyale town and its surrounding areas by the Borana, Garri and Gabra have led to several violent interactions and aggravated the simmering tensions between the communities, culminating in the deaths of 20 people and displacement of over 20,000 Moyale residents in July 2012.[6]

In Kenya Moyale too, the demarcation of parliamentary constituencies and administrative units has been a source of tension, sometimes resulting in direct violence since the introduction of multi-party politics in 1992. When Moyale district was created, for instance, there were claims that a larger number of areas should be included as part of the district, which led to conflicts between the Gabra and Borana communities.[7] More recently, following the creation of 47 counties along ethnic lines under the 2010 Kenyan constitution, competition over control of administrative units or competing claims over boundaries have escalated the conflict.[8] Candidates for elected positions have gone to great lengths to ensure that the numbers from their own ethnic groups or clans were maximised, often by transporting large numbers of their fellows from other regions to their constituency to register,[9] worsening existing tensions.

The claims and counter-claims over administrative units and boundaries has become a dominant motif in current conflicts in both Moyales, because access to and utilisation of major resources, such as water and pasture, and even employment opportunities, are determined by administrative boundaries, creation of divisions, locations and sub-locations. As Greiner (2013) notes, “Territorial gains are nowadays more enduring and valuable than a few stolen cattle, as new territories open up more options for grazing and cultivation and lessen internal competition.” [10]

Socio-Cultural Drivers

Some cultural values and beliefs such as raiding and cattle rustling have a long history in the borderland, and to some extent continue to be an aspect of traditional culture that drives inter-communal conflict in the Moyale region. However, the motivations for such practices have evolved. In the past, raids and attacks were carried out to obtain the bride-wealth to acquire a wife or as a rite of passage, but today attacks and raids are carried out to increase one’s own wealth or for commercial purposes,[11] or with a more strategic objective such as intentionally displacing communities to gain control over territory or land and resources, which is, most notably, attributable to changes in political system and administrative boundaries in both Ethiopia and Kenya. As stated above, access to and utilisation of major resources are determined by administrative boundaries. Hence, the issue of territorial presence of different communities has become particularly contentious due to the process leading to the new Ethiopian federal constitution and the introduction of multiparty system, as well as the 2010 Kenyan constitution aimed at the identification of ethnic borderlines dividing the regions. Splitting and subdivision of the larger administrative units, which has created new winners and losers, has not only aggravated rivalries between these communal groups but also exerted new impetus for the old drivers. Fluid and flexible attitudes towards identities, which was the norm in the past, have increasingly hardened.[12]

Resource Issues and Environmental Stress

Interrelated dynamics such as drought, climate change, and resource scarcity including shortage of water and land for pasture have often sparked inter-group conflict. The Borana, Garri and Gabra communities frequently cross local boundaries as well national borders in search of pasture and water, but such movements have become more problematic, again largely due to the reordering of administrative boundaries which has raised the stakes in such conflicts.[13] Environmental stresses, coupled with heightened competition over resources, has made lasting control of pasturelands or water by displacing communities a more enticing option.[14]  Consequently, the issue of boundaries has become a lingering problem that has produced a continued stalemate between the Garri, Gabra and Borana borderland communities.[15]

The Involvement of External Actors

Breaking from the past, a range of ‘new’ external actors exert an impact on inter-communal conflict in the Moyale border region. Besides communities (herders, age group systems and organisations, elders, male youth, women and children), local government administrators, police and security forces, armed insurgent groups (including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and al-Shabaab), mercenaries, illicit arms traders and businessmen in providing money and arms in support of their own clan[16] have been involved in inter-communal conflict in the Moyale region. The Gabra-Borana Conflict in mid-2012 is one instance of the unique nature of the new contests that involved multiple actors. Since 1992, and specifically since the aborted referendum in 2004, the Borana and Garri have articulated competing claims over Moyale town and its surrounding areas, and the status of the town has not yet been determined. A bloody conflict between the Borra and Garri that began on 25 July 2012 in Ethiopia Moyale, and continued for the next three days, involving local authorities and insurgent groups. The conflict was triggered after the settlement of some members of the Garri in the west part of the town.[17] Each group blamed the other for the outbreak of the conflict. Some local officials from both the Oromia and Somali regions were brought before the Federal Court for charge of instigating conflict.[18] On the Kenyan side, political leaders such as Members of Parliament and party leaders and Councillors in Kenya Moyale are alleged to have sponsored raids as a means of raising funds for political campaigns or to maintain political leverage over their opponents,[19] hence fuelling further conflict. The presence of OLF and their activity since the 1990s has added new dimension to the inter-communal conflict in the region. The Gabra and Garri claim that the Borana are supported by the OLF, and the Borana for their part complain that the Garri fighters were backed by al-Shabaab.

Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons

The human costs of inter-communal conflict in the Moyale borderland region have risen, owing to expanded access to and use of more advanced weapon systems such as the AK47, and other automatic weapons, as well as grenades and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). This has reshaped the dynamics of conflict, and significantly increased the magnitude of fatalities. A case in point is the July 2012 conflict between Garri and Borana, and the 2013 conflict between Gabra and Borana, where fighters used such sophisticated weapons.[20] Consequently, the conflicts have become beyond the capacity of local security forces. For instance, the 2013 fighting between Borana and Gabra only stopped owing to the deployment of the Kenya Defense Forces via the use of air power.[21]

The recent Borana-Garri and Gabra-Borana conflicts have involved large-scale mobilisation of armed men who were wearing uniforms that gave them the appearance of a professional state army, which was not common in the past. Since 2012, fighters in inter-communal conflicts in Moyale have donned military uniform, including in both the July 2012 Borana-Garri conflict in Ethiopia Moyale and the July-December 2013 conflict between Gabra and Borana in Kenya Moyale.[22] Some claim that fighters were not Garri residing in Moyale, but trained mercenaries hired by the Garri.[23]

Duration and Frequency

The bouts of conflict between the borderland communities in Moyale are not only longer in duration but have also escalated in magnitude, intensity and frequency. For example, the eruption of conflicts between the Gabra and Borana in Kenya Moyale that began in October 2011 and July 2013 continued for around three and five months, respectively. The frequency of the conflict has also increased.[24]

Increased Level of Violence and Indiscriminate Killings

In the past, norms regulated the limits of acceptable violence, and its destructive effects were moderate. In times of tension and conflict, women used to attend markets freely in the territory occupied by rival groups, and even crossed the international borders without fear.[25] However, with the hardening of relations and increasing politicisation and commercialisation of raids, as well as the spread and use of devastating automatic weapons, there are today a much higher number of human and livestock killings, with no discrimination being made between combatants and women and children. For instance, the clash between the Garri and Borana for three days from 25 to 27 July 2012 in Ethiopia Moyale not only forced over 20,000 people to flee across the border into Kenya, but also led to closure of the border, the burning of villages, closing of businesses and the loss of belongings of traders on both sides of the border for around a week.[26] The conflict also affected government revenue – during the three days of the Borana-Garri conflict, the Ethiopian government’s revenue from trade with Kenya through Moyale dropped precipitously by 301 percent.[27]

In another conflict that took place from 15 July to 8 December 2013 between Gabra and Borana in Kenya Moyale, the consequences were more substantial. It impacted virtually all areas of central and Gobo division and approximately 6,500 households were affected, of which 107 houses were burnt and 186 houses destroyed and looted, and it also led to most of the households living below the absolute poverty line. Out of an estimated 80,550 people living in Moyale constituency, 53,968 people, around 67 percent of the population, was displaced and faced hunger.[28]  The violence also led to the closure of border for around two months following the conflict. The same conflict substantially affected sources of revenue for the Ethiopian government due to its spill-over effects.[29]

Contraction of Socio-Economic Linkages

Another effect of prolonged and unabated conflict in Moyale is the creation of fear and suspicion amongst local communities. In Moyale town (Ethiopia), it has become problematic for the Garri or Borana to cross to the other side of the main road (the road having emerged as the de facto boundary between the two communities) for fear of attack by the other group – not the case before 1991.[30] Though Moyale is a busy market for both informal and formal trade, such market operations can only occur in the absence of conflict. In the event of inter-communal conflict, markets are either relocated, closed or rendered inaccessible and interrupted. Another striking trend is the proliferation in the trade in small arms and light weapons, while more benign trade exchanges between communities have been declining in the past few years due to the prevalence of tension among the communities. The persistence of inter-communal conflict has reduced cooperative and social relationships that had existed for a long period of time. 


The Borana-Garri and Borana-Gabra conflicts in the Moyale borderland region are complex, intricate, and multidimensional in nature, making the attempt by various actors through bilateral as well as local administrative governments, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, and District Peace Committees to bring sustainable peace in the area problematic. Owing to its complexity and the use of sophisticated weapons, and the involvement of multiple stakeholders, a single local actor alone – be it a traditional institution or local government – may not be fully effective in managing conflicts. Hence, external intervention and coordination with local actors is indispensable to bring about a sustainable resolution to the conflict that fosters reconciliation among all sectors of the community, and buttresses socio-economic interaction among communities across the border.

Shifts in the political system in both Ethiopia and Kenya have politicised existing differences and polarised relations between communities. It is recommended that a policy of confidence-building by both governments, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union, and the international community that facilitates regular peace meetings and dialogues between the communities to reduce the mistrust between and among the Borana, Gabra, Garri and Burji communities is pursued.

More positively, in December 2015[31] and June 2017[32] the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya, in partnership with IGAD and the United Nations, agreed to establish an integrated cross-border initiative to foster peace and sustainable development in the northern Marsabit county of Kenya and the southern Borana Zone in Ethiopia. This may have a positive impact on mitigating conflicts, so as to strengthen socio-economic interaction and integration between the two countries at the border.

The overlapping of the Gabra, Garri and Borana communal groups in both Ethiopia and Kenya Moyale makes it challenging to divide them into a clear-cut territorial or administrative constituency, particularly as these groups have lived together for years. Hence, a further recommendation is the development of mechanisms whereby they jointly administer the area.

Tesfaye Molla (PhD) holds a PhD in Political Science from Addis Ababa University in 2015. He is a part time instructor at Kotebe Metropolitan University. He can be reached at


[1] Cross-border socio-economic activities between the two Moyales are marked primarily due to their proximity, inter-group marriages and other relations (speaking the same language) among the borderland communities, and political linkages (crossing Ethiopian border to participate in election in Kenya); and the fact that their populations visit the same markets, share the same education (about 4,000 Ethiopian students attending school in Kenya Moyale), and health centres.

[2] Moyale borderland region refers to the districts of Ethiopia Moyale (Oromia and Somali) and Kenya Moyale.

[3] Glowacki, Luke and Gönc, Katja (2013). Investigating the Potential of Peace Committees in Ethiopia: A Needs Assessment in IGAD CEWARN’s Karamoja and Somali Clusters.

[4] Bassi, Marco (2010) The politics of space in Borana Oromo, Ethiopia: demographics, elections, identity and customary institutions, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 4, 2, 221-246.

[5] Bernabini, Francesca (2012) Pastoral Livelihoods in South Ethiopia – Value Chain Assessment of Gum and Resins in Moyale Area, Doctor of Philosphy in International Cooperation and Sustainable Development Policies, Bologna University.

[6] BBC News (2012) Ethiopia: 20,000 flee Moyale clashes – Red Cross. 28 July 2012

[7] The Marsabit Conflict Assessment Report of July 21 – 28, 2005 cited in CEWARN (2006) CEWARN Baseline Study: For the Kenyan-Side of the Somali Cluster The Conflict Early Warning and Response mechanism (CEWARN) September 13, 2006.

[8]For instance, violence in Kenya Moyale in 2012 between the Borana and the Gabra was linked with the perceived importance of controlling power devolved to the County level the accompanying community tensions. For more see Feinstein International Center, et al (2013) Conflict Management and Disaster Risk Reduction: A Case Study of Kenya. July 2013.

[9] Carrier, Neil and Hassan H. Kochore (2014) Navigating ethnicity and electoral politics in northern Kenya: the case of the 2013 election, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8, 1, 135–152, Retrieved from

[10] Greiner, Clemens (2013) Guns, Land, and Votes: Cattle Rustling and the Politics of Boundary (Re) Making in Northern Kenya Oxford University Press. Retrieved from from

[11] CEWARN/IGAD (2007) Report of the IGAD Regional Workshop on the Disarmament of Pastoralist Communities from 28-30 May 2007 confirms commercialization of raiding, which entails funding of raids and purchasing of raided stocks by wealthy business people is fairly a recent phenomenon.

[12] Conflict Early Warning and Response mechanism (CEWARN) (2006) CEWARN Baseline Study: For the Ethiopian-Side of the Somali Cluster Inter Governmental Authority On Development (IGAD)Region September 8, 2006.

[13] Integrated Agriculture Development Consultant (2009). Assessment and Consolidation Report on: Existing Approaches and Best Practices in Cross-border Peace Building and Conflict Mitigation and Strengthened and CSOs across the Ethio-Kenya Border.

[14] Interview with FGD 2014.

[15] Gardner, Tom (2017). Uneasy peace and simmering conflict: the Ethiopian town where three flags fly. Retrieved from

[16] Interviews with Gitonga, 2013, Kenya and Oda 2014, Ethiopia.

[17] Interview with Boru and Aschalew, 2014.

[18] Interview with Tsegaye and Aschalew, 2014.

[19] Gakuria, Anne R. (2013) Natural Resource Based Conflict among Pastoralist Communities in Kenya. A Research Project Submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirement for the Award of the Degree of Master of Arts in International Studies, University of Nairobi.

[20] Interview with Joseph, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Interviews with Boru and Golicha, 2013.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Interviews with Abdulkadir, Tsegaye and Joseph, 2014.

[25] Interview with FGD 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Writer’s own calculation of percentage change of Government Revenue due to ICC based on data collected from Moyale Custom Authority.

[28] Moyale Conflict Joint Assessment Report – Assessment period: 14-12-2013 to 16-12-2013. Retrieved from

[29] If we compare the June-July 2013 revenue (Birr 33,978,723.45) when the Moyale region was relatively peaceful to the revenue gained in late July-August 2013 (Birr 7,330,862.12) where ICC started in Kenya Moyale, the revenue in Moyale custom was suddenly dropped by 446 percent. For more see Tesfaye Molla (2015) PhD Dissertation, Inter-Communal Conflicts in Moyale: Drivers, Dynamics and their Impact on Micro-Regionalization, Addis Ababa University.

[30] Interview with FGD 2014.

[30] For more information, see:

[30] For more information, see: programme/.

[31] For more information, see:

[32]  For more information, see: programme/.

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