More than two years after Kenya struck oil for the first time in its northern-most county, Turkana, the two ethnic groups that live on either side of the oil reserves are engaging in violent, often deadly, armed conflict. For centuries, they have vied for land and access to water points, but now they want a stake in the oil wealth. In the south of the county, the Turkana community is living in fear of attacks from the neighboring Pokots.
On an early morning in the south of Turkana, community herders gather for security meetings. Armed conflict is nothing new in the area, but since Kenya found oil just 60 kilometers away, the conflict has worsened.
"Currently the conflict with the Pokot is at its worst, said Losinyono Kotol, chief of operations of the Agelis community herders. “In the past it was only cattle raids but now they attack also the villages and displaced people.”
With the two tribes locked in a cycle of retaliatory violence, negotiation will be needed to resolve differences. But some observers, like Kenyan priest Nicolas Kimejov, say that won’t be easy with so much at stake.
"The political leaders told the Pokot, if you fight for us we shall drive this Turkana up to Lokichar. Because their aim now is, since the oil well is there, 'if we attain this as our property we shall have a monopoly on the property and we can prosper,'” he explained.
Whole villages have been burned to the ground and unarmed civilians killed. Last year, Lokwar was a busy village with a thriving primary school. Now, neatly thatched homes have been destroyed, sending a clear warning to the residents not to return, says teacher Paul Idoket Ekitela.
“They are all buried. This is a person," he said motioning toward the ground. " This person was killed coming to this place. He was not fighting but he was digging his shamba [farm]."
The annihilation of villages is new to the more traditional tribal conflict between the Pokot and the Turkana, which previously revolved around livestock. Now it is developing into a scorched-earth campaign, a form of land-rustling that works by creating so much insecurity that people move away.
Major oil potential
Caught in the middle of the Pokot-Turkana conflict is the Anglo-Irish exploration company, Tullow Oil, which claims to have found an estimated 600 million barrels of oil beneath Turkana - with potential for a billion in total.
According to Tullow’s Andy Demetriou, to operate in such a sensitive and historically marginalized environment requires oil companies to tread carefully.
"People live off their land, the way they lived hundreds of years ago, in most cases,” he noted. “Here you have big industry and technology coming in with pastoralist communities. There are always going to be challenges. We are not going to agree on everything.”
Despite its buried wealth, Turkana is the poorest region in Kenya. Oil presents a tremendous opportunity for development. But critics - like Turkana activist Lopeyok Ricardo Simeon - fear that the local communities here are being cut out of the equation by the government in Nairobi.
"The government claims that whatever is beneath the earth, below the surface is theirs. Which is true. But we also need to be consulted, because whatever is embedded in the earth, we have to be consulted. We are the owners of the land. We also want to have a take in this process,” he said.
As the value of this land grows, so will the incentive and desire to control it. If this conflict is not resolved, Turkana’s black-gold could be a curse rather than a blessing.
Reporting for this piece was funded by the Pulitzer Center.