Why continued poverty in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya is a human rights issue

By Henry Neondo

Today is Human Rights Day, which is marked every 10th of December. In the context of the ravages, deaths and destruction brought by the ongoing drought in northern Kenya, partly as a result of lack of political will to tackle the systemic poverty in the area, nothing else deserves special mention today.

The happenings in the northern Kenya is testimony of the inept government policies that have failed to mainstream pastoralism into one of the core pillars of our economic activity, thereby confining the over 8 million nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkana, the Somali and Borana among others nomadic communities in northern Kenya at the mercy of the harsh climatic conditions that can only get worse with climate change.

The impact of drought whose cycle has now been reduced to almost an annual occurrence, thanks to the harshness of the global warming is there for all to see.

Sadly, these mobile populations continue to face unique set of challenges that negate all the gains Kenya may claim on the sustainable development goals. Kenya is among the 197 countries to have adopted and ratify the SDGs on the September 25 2015 during a global meeting that took place in New York, US. Thanks to the ongoing severe drought, the nomadic groups are now on the move in their annual seasonal movement in search of pasture wherever it can be found.

The lack of water infrastructure in the area has also meant continued lack of the precious commodity within easy reach for the communities and their livestock and thus become an additional reason for mobility just so that they could save their cattle, camels, and smaller livestock.

This is not to forget that Kenya and indeed the world still face the challenge of the COVID-19, which makes access to health for the herders hard since grazing areas can be far from towns and villages. Apparently, Kenya’s healthcare system is more or less designed for the more stable, sedentary population.

Many of their youth and children will miss the luxury of Christmas as they would most likely be far from their villages.

Let us put things in the right context. The Human Rights Day is marked to honour the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global enunciation of human rights and one of the first major achievements of the new United Nations.

The formal establishment of the Human Rights Day occurred at the 317th Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on 4 December 1950, when the General Assembly declared resolution 423(V), inviting all member states and any other interested organizations to celebrate the day as they saw fit.

Although the Declaration with its broad range of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights is not a binding document, it inspired more than 60 human rights instruments which together constitute an international standard of human rights.

Today, the general consent of all United Nations Member States on the basic Human Rights laid down in the Declaration makes it even stronger and emphasizes the relevance of Human Rights in our daily lives.

So why should this day be celebrated while remembering the suffering by the pastoralists in the entire northern Kenya from North west in Turkana, West Pokot and North East in Wajir, Mandera, Garissa, Isiolo and Marsabit? Kenya wishes to pride itself as a civilized member of the global community. But as a country, we dare not lay such a claim when a section of our population is still being left behind.

Human rights and pastoralism

In the recent past, Kenya’s human rights agenda has theoretically benefitted from the State’s recognition that the key to prosperity is building a just and cohesive society in which citizens enjoy equitable social development in a clean and secure environment.

This recognition was captured in Kenya’s National developmental blueprint “Vision 2030” that affirmed respect for human rights, the rule of law, political pluralism and effective, accountable political institutions form the basis of all development and equitable distribution of resources.

This trajectory is further affirmed by the Constitution that puts the citizens, all citizens regardless of their origin, at the centre of all its provisions and calls upon state and non-state actors to take into account the key human rights values and principles in Constitutional implementation. Additionally, Chapter 4 of the constitution guarantees the enjoyment of rights and freedoms for all Kenyans.

Pastoralist problems

However, the harsh reality pastoralists face and live with negates all claim to on the part of the State about meeting the provisions of the Constitution and these numerous international instruments in as far as the nomadic groups are concerned.

While milestones have been made since independence, the impact of drought on the livelihood of the northern Kenya is a harsh reality that pastoralists have always been left on the margins of development and that more could be done.

Systemic failures to plan for the integration of the pastoralism as an economic activity, the lackadaisical approach to addressing the challenges faced by the millions of Kenyans who did not choose to be born in these regions, to say the least, borders on human rights abuses.

According to the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission, poverty erodes or nullifies economic and social rights such as the right to health, food and safe water talk less of the right to education and adequate housing.

While there is nothing we can do about drought, there is however much that can be done to prevent the systemic confinement of the Turkana, the Pokots, the Gabra, Gurji, the Rendile, Borana and the Somali down the critical vulnerability path and thus subjectively assaulting their human dignity.

Most pastoral communities are not aware of their right to most of the services that the government owe them such as water and sanitation as they lack the vital knowledge on the Government’s obligation to ensure access and also its role to guarantee their access to these resources. Therefore, they are not empowered to demand their rights to access these services from their Governments, both central and county; this leads to further marginalization, neglect.

In spite of the Constitutional entrenched right to water, access to clean water has been an ongoing challenge for pastoral communities. While it is easy to point fingers at the climate change as reason enough for the impacts of drought in our ASAL, governments that have been deliberate in their policy approaches have proved things do not have to stay the way they are in northern Kenya. The UAE, Egypt and Qatar are good examples.

Isn’t time that both levels of government sat to design pathways that would permanently bring this national shame to rest?

We may not be in control of drying shrubs and pasture, but there is what we can do to prevent our communities from losing livelihood, or seeing them scatter around the neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia in search of pasture and water which carries the potential for conflicts, and spreading of zoonotic diseases. Policymakers need to set their minds right, that they can serve Kenyans of all walk of life on the rights platform and not out of benevolence.