Kenya: developing the margins (and the unfinished business of making a nation state)

Remote. Marginalised. Left behind. In Kenya, these journalistic and development clichés apply not just to one or two neglected backwaters but to vast expanses of arid and semi-arid land that make up fully 80 percent of the national territory. In those areas, now highly vulnerable to climate change, relatively sparse populations of pastoralists continue to raise cattle, donkeys, goats and camel on their ancestral land, but they have lived at the margins of national development since Kenya’s independence in 1966.

The pattern was set in the colonial era. British and other European settlers were drawn by the rich forests of the central highlands and the fertile, arable land descending to Lake Victoria. A railway was driven from the coast to extract timber and new cash crops (tea, coffee, sugar). Additional land to the south was taken from Masai pastoralists to establish commercial ranches and plantations. As independence approached, many white farmers who would not countenance living under a black government were bought out with funds made available by the UK and the World Bank. Redistribution of these prime lands became the first bone of contention between Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luhya and Luo peoples. Competition between them—more especially, between their elites—has remained the central political drama of the independence era. The people in the north and along much of the Swahili coast have remained bit players.

Two recent developments raise the possibility of these areas becoming more fully integrated into the nation state. First, a new Constitution, agreed in 2010 after gruesome violence following national elections in 2007, has seen significant decentralisation of powers to (47) county governments. Second, the national government is trying to build transport (and oil pipeline) corridors from a new port on the coast to South Sudan and Ethiopia, across northern drylands where tarmac is even rarer than rain.

During a few months in Kenya in early 2018 I travelled to some places along this route to get a sense of what the future might hold for them.

The three short reports that follow were first published on the Royal African Society’s African Arguments website. After each I add a postscript here with some further reflections.

“We’ll be like a museum”: Lamu locals fear huge regional infrastructure plan

First published here, June 20,2018

Manda Bay pile driver

Along Manda Bay, a mangrove-lined lagoon on Kenya’s coast, a Chinese dredger scoops up millions of tons of sand and coral. Near the shore, a piledriver hammers huge pillars into the sea bed to anchor an 800-metre causeway where huge container ships will one day dock.

This deep-water port is the first phase of an ambitious scheme that, the government hopes, will eventually link Kenya’s shoreline to South Sudan and Ethiopia by road and rail. The LAPSSET (Lamu Port—South Sudan—Ethiopia) project, expected to cost around $25 billion, is designed to boost trade and secure Kenya’s position as regional harbourmaster for landlocked neighbours. It is also intended to invigorate the economy of northern Kenyan regions long marginalised from national development.

Here in Lamu County, however, many residents view the project with grave misgivings. Communities on the archipelago of islands at the mouth of Manda Bay have been barred from fishing grounds once rich in crab, prawns and red snapper. “They have been dredging for three years, destroying the coral,” complains Mohamed Somo, leader of the county’s Beach Management Unit. “Fishermen are losing livelihoods, and they have no schooling so cannot get a job.”

Lost coral also means lost snorkelling for tourists – another source of income for the overwhelmingly Muslim Lamu islanders, who say theirs is the oldest Swahili settlement on the African coast and take pride in historic cultural and trading linkages with Oman. Lamu town, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, is full of stone buildings, narrow streets, and carved doors. Donkeys still carry goods around the traffic-free island. For over a century, tourists have visited the islands to see their pristine marine environment and traditional crafts. “These tools were my grandfather’s,” says an elderly boatman, demonstrating a bow drill as he repairs a hand-crafted dhow.

Lamu Island

But tourism – and these rich traditions more widely – may struggle to withstand the modernising vision of Kenya’s central government. Plans for Lamu include not just a port, but an international airport, a massive 1 GW coal-fired power plant, an oil refinery, and an industrial park. It also includes a “resort city” that, according to Victor Nyakachunga, a communications officer with the LAPSSET Authority, will have a population of “between one and two million”. Lamu County’s present population is little more than 100,000.

Full funding for the vision is not yet in place. So far, only three berths of the port have been financed in a $484 million contract with the China Bridge and Construction Company. LAPSSET planners hope this will stimulate Public Private Partnership investment in many more berths and in an export pipeline to bring crude oil from recently discovered fields in Turkana, 800km to the northwest. China Power and a consortium of Kenyan investors are seeking Chinese state finance for the power plant, which is expected to cost $1.9 billion. But concerns at Kenya’s rising debt, and strenuous environmental objections, may delay the project.

A sign of things to come?

If a new city is not an immediate prospect, however, an early sign of what may lie ahead can be found in Hindi, a scrappy but vibrant settlement on the mainland just outside the port area. This is home to more than 10,000 people. Most are migrants from other parts of Kenya, according to one of the most successful, who introduces himself as Tony and says he moved here from the central highlands in 2010. He has since acquired considerable business interests, dealing in land, machinery hire, animal husbandry and supply of fresh meat to Chinese contractor camps.

“Five years ago, there were just a few buildings here and people were sleeping under the trees,” he recalls. Now, makeshift homes and yards fenced with iron sheets are being replaced by brick houses, grocery stores and bars. “New people are arriving every day,” he says, and it is the most determined and entrepreneurial who come.

Some newcomers rent land to grow crops and raise livestock. Others work as casual labourers or small traders.

Edward, a young motorbike taxi rider, says he arrived three years ago, having ridden across the country from the Rift Valley.

James, a middle-aged man from western Kenya, says he gets by doing casual labour, mostly loading contractors’ trucks. Two of his children have now established their own households in Hindi. “One day this place will be bigger than Nairobi,” he jokes.

Marginalised at home

Back on Lamu Island, few people find this notion funny. Fahad Mohammed, a former member of the County Assembly, fears that with a huge expansion in population, the existing community will find themselves marginalised. “We are scared if many people come from other parts of the country, we might get the leader we don’t want because we don’t have the numbers,” he says. “We are trying to bring the old people in the county together so that when outsiders come they will not be able to outvote us.”

Some worry that marginalisation might lead to radicalisation. Sporadic attacks along Kenya’s coast by al-Shabab militants from neighbouring Somalia have already seriously damaged tourism and delayed road building projects. And some locals believe that the heavy-handed security response is only further alienating people and stimulating violence.

“People don’t feel part of things,” says Thima Aboud, who runs an anti-radicalisation programme under the NGO Kikozi. She claims that for young men, there is “a long, hectic process to get an I.D. card”. “They are treated as a target, as suspected sympathisers,” she says, with some subjected to arbitrary detention and disappearances. “If you treat someone like a beast, they will turn into a beast,” she adds.

An island hotelier known as Bush, who started an annual Lamu Festival, underlines the point. “If the government continues to marginalise Lamu youth then that is very dangerous. Al-Shabab will take advantage. They will say ‘You see, your government doesn’t respect you, it marginalises you, why don’t you come and join us?’”

Many other locals complain of simply being in the dark about the LAPSSET plans. “They say this is a national project, they bring the cream team from Nairoibi, but we are not in the full light,” says a planning officer with the county government. “The County Assembly is supposed to get the information and disseminate, but there is a communications issue.”

Walied Ahmed, who leads Save Lamu, a local NGO that has campaigned against the coal-fired power plant, agrees. “We only hear rumours. We don’t see the official documents. They say ‘this is very special and confidential.’”

The enormous LAPSSET plan is set to transform the region. That may be a welcome prospect for several communities, but for many in Lamu, it is a deeply worrying. “There will be gangsters,” predicts one resident. “We will be like a museum,” says another.



Between the writing and the publication of this story, a Kenyan High Court ordered the national government to pay Lamu fishing communities financial compensation—amounting to around 3,500 U.S. dollars for each of 4,600 families,according to onenews report—for the loss of fishing grounds. This had been a major grievance and demand of many people I spoke to. But, even if the government agrees to the payment (which is by no means certain) it is hard to believe that it will be of lasting benefit to the affected families, who have responded to the court order by demanding a bigger settlement.

Infrastructure projects in Kenya are invariably beset by compensation wrangles. Often, where land is at issue, speculators/investors with inside knowledge of planned projects acquire land cheaply from locals to profit from later settlements. Lamu’s mainland port area saw just such speculative land grabs, local NGOs say. This greatly inflates costs, delays projects during compensation haggles and all too often leaves locals feeling cheated and angry. Families and communities are frequently bitterly divided over private land deals—dubiously legal at best—reached by one or two members without consulting others. Courts and tribunals across East Africa are clogged with such cases.

Even where land is not at issue, an influx of cash can have less than useful results. This is famously illustrated by the case of Samburu people living near Archer’s Post, some 500 kilometres northwest of Lamu along the planned LAPSSET corridor. I lacked the time and money to visit, but the case is well documented.

Starting in the 1950s, the British army maintained a live firing range and training ground in this area. (Which itself implies that such land is good for nothing but explosives, and its population of little consequence.) This arrangement has continued ever since. In the early 2000s, aided by a British lawyer, more than 100 Samburu pastoralist families claimed compensation from the UK Ministry of Defence for deaths and injuries caused by unexploded ordnance on the range. Munitions that had not exploded during live practice blew up when poked by curious children or stumbled upon by adult herders. (Details in this 2001 Guardian article). The MoD eventually paid out but, as a Kenyan television report recalls, many of the beneficiaries, who had little experience of a cash economy and few openings for productive investment in the sparsely populated area, simply and rapidly frittered away the compensation money.

Might Lamu be different? This is already a monetised economy, a globally renowned ‘tourist paradise’ where multimillionaires from far afield own beachfront holiday homes; for the time being at least, it still attracts tourists of more modest means. There may still be time for compensated families to invest in guest houses or other tourist-oriented businesses. (Several locals told me that Lamu Island is already seeing a building boom—with the unfortunate consequence of detracting from the ‘unspoiled’ character that tourists seek.) Cash might also help train youngsters in new skills to equip them for emerging opportunities on the mainland.

Yet most Lamu islanders appeared to have only a hazy idea of what lies ahead, preoccupied as they are with the ongoing dredging in Manda Bay and what has already been lost. No-one I spoke to knew that a new road contract, connecting Lamu to Garissa and Isiolo to the north west, had been signed, or to have considered the consequences.

Throughout my travels I heard repeated complaints from local government and NGO staff about the secretive and high handed manner of the LAPSSET Authority—“They say it’s a ‘national project’ and they don’t tell us anything” was the common refrain—and it is evident that little has so far been done to prepare communities for the project’s impacts. In mitigation, it should be said that the LAPSSET vision has always been essentially that—a ‘vision’ underpinned by very little funding. The Authority has therefore been overwhelmingly preoccupied with selling the vision and drumming up investor funds to implement it. And why raise community expectations before you know you can deliver? Unfortunately, this leads to ‘information asymmetry.’ Elites in and close to government are the first to know what is likely to happen, and the first to take financial advantage. Ordinary people whose lives and livelihoods are intimately affected are all too often the last to know what’s about to hit them. This is particularly egregious in Lamu, where the ink has long been dry not only on visionary plans but also on contracts.

It should also be said that Lamu is already quite “like a museum.” (It was, incidentally, a 17-year-old girl studying dressmaking at a vocational school who coined this phrase, and a classmate of hers who foresaw “gangsters.”) At risk of making a culturalist generalisation I would say that, blessed by UNESCO World Heritage status, most people in Lamu are more oriented to continuity, preservation of lifestyle, religious observance and environment, than to change. That strikes me as a perfectly civilised attitude, but it positions them weakly to contend with the creative destruction coming from outside.

A wave of in-migration appears inevitable and is evidently part of the official vision. Elsewhere in Kenya, opportunities are limited and wages low or precarious enough to nudge people with a get-up-and-go attitude out towards new horizons. Viewed from the commanding heights of the national economy, this is not only the exercise of a human right denied under colonialism, but a rational, market-driven allocation of human resources, bringing skills and migrant energy to a new growth area. But it is abundantly clear that this could result in local people, with strongly localised identities, feeling swamped. And that is particularly dangerous when national security forces treat those local identities as inherently suspicious. On which thought, it is time to turn to Garissa.


LAPSSET: Will a new highway open up the long-neglected Garissa?

First published here, June 27, 2018

Garissa Livestock market

After the April 2015 massacre in which Al-Shabaab militants shot dead 147 students and staff at Garissa University College, the town went into lockdown. Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) were deployed, the modest flow of investment dried up, and travel advisories warned foreigners to keep away.

Isolation has long been the norm for Kenya’s north eastern drylands, now administratively divided into the counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera. At independence, this region’s sparse population, mostly made up of ethnic Somali pastoralists, did not want to merge into the new nation. They fought a three-year insurgency to join neighbouring Somalia instead. Taking its cue from imperial Britain’s handling of the Mau Mau rebellion, Jomo Kenyatta’s government responded with forced “villagisation” and “collective punishment”.

This was followed by decades of neglect. Today, so few youngsters finish high school in the north east that Garissa University College, now encircled with walls and razor wire, has to rely on intake from elsewhere in Kenya. “Development has always been late here,” says its principal, Professor Ahmed Osman. “Roads have not been constructed to Mandera after 60 years [of independence]. Nothing has changed for us.”

Things may now change, however, with the construction of a new highway. As part of the $25 billion LAPSSET (Lamu Port—South Sudan—Ethiopia) project, a major road will stretch from the port in Lamu to Garissa. It will then continue to Isiolo, which was finally linked to Ethiopia by a tarmac road in 2017. A South African consortium has been contracted to build the 580km highway, with an expected investment of $620 million.

Garissa’s business and political leaders are upbeat. “LAPSSET will open the market for goods from the coast. We will have more investment, more integration, people coming,” enthuses a local government official. Omar Abdi Gab, who heads the Garissa Chamber of Commerce, is working on a brochure to show “we have mineral resources, especially gypsum and coal, where we can now invest”. “There is a lot of potential,” he says.

Garissa town is set for growth, albeit from a low base. For now, its dilapidated centre features a row of stores selling khat, but modern commercial buildings are tentatively appearing. Extensive land on the outskirts of town has already been divided neatly into plots ready for when the urban population of around 65,000 people starts to expand.

Belonging and security

For the county to thrive, however, Omar Abdi Gab points out that one priority remains. “The main issue is security; nothing can be done without it,” he says.

In 2016, security fears prompted French oil giant Total to abandon its plans to build an oil pipeline through northern Kenya. Instead, it decided to export its oil from Uganda via Tanzania. Kenya is therefore now hoping to build its own pipeline along the LAPSSET corridor. This would be used to transport oil discovered in the Turkana region onto Lamu.

This conduit would make an appetising target for terrorist attack. But Victor Nyakachunga, a communications officer with the national LAPSSET Authority, claims the situation is sorted. “We had an Israeli consultant doing a master security plan for the whole corridor, using technological systems to track any security threat,” he says.

Garissa’s District Commissioner, James Kianda, who oversees the county’s security, also insists things are under control. “KDF is here and they are bonding very well with the community. Any emergency that arises, they are there to support, and the community are participating in security committees.” An SMS platform has been established through which locals can post alerts warning of suspicious activities.

Garissa’s security threats, however, are highly intricate and changeable. They remain inseparably connected with neighbouring Somalia as well as unresolved issues of belonging and identity.

It is notable that Garissa’s largest conurbation is not the county town, but Dadaab refugee camp. First established in 1991, the site sheltered up to 500,000 refugees from civil war and drought in Somalia at its peak. In 2016, the Kenyan government announced it would close the camp, alleging that al-Shabaab uses it as a recruiting ground and transit point for weapons. The decision was rescinded after negotiation with the UN Refugee Agency, whereupon some residents were relocated to Kakuma, in Turkana, and a programme of voluntary repatriation was intensified. Dadaab’s now population stands at 235,000.

According to an official in Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat, security in the camps is not good. “Even me, I cannot feel free to walk about without protection. Even NGOs that work there have to have protection,” he says.

The same source, speaking on condition of anonymity, also claims that around 40,000 camp residents are not, in fact, Somali nationals, but Somali Kenyans. Bare Adan Kerow, programme officer with a Garissa based NGO Haki na Sheria (‘Justice and Law’), explains that poverty and drought have led many locals to claim refugee status to gain food and shelter. But now, he says, they are struggling to regain Kenyan citizenship.

That means that thousands of young people born into faux refugee families remain stateless and without ID cards. Without these, they cannot work, study or travel. Buses do not leave Garissa for Nairobi until armed police have checked all passengers’ documents.

At the same time, many in Dadaab feel unfairly targeted by security forces. According to Yussuf Bashir, one of Haki na Sheria’s founders, there is a “lingering tendency for government to let the security forces loose on the population when there’s incident”. Feelings of frustration, restlessness and resentment abound.

“Land is an emotive issue”

Another challenge for the LAPSSET road lies in persuading pastoralists to relinquish land for the project.

“Land is an emotive issue here, but the land is not documented, and even as we speak people are making claims – ancestral claims, tribal claims, clan claims,” says Fatumah, a government National Lands Coordinator based in Garissa. “We are trying to talk about spatial planning over that area, but for the last 30 years they have never seen any government system. The attitude people have is that there has been no government.”

Her colleague adds that there is “a massive land grab going on”, largely driven by “civil servants and people with money.”

In theory, the road to Lamu port could be a boon for cattle owners and help forge a route for Garissa’s halal meat products to reach Arab export markets. But, as Omar Abdi Gab points out, the Kenya Meat Commission currently only licences slaughterhouses in Nairobi, to which live animals are shipped. Developing a local industry, with local benefits, will require new policy and new standards.

Gab adds that nomadic pastoralism is “a bit hectic”. He would prefer to see pastoralists settle into “animal agro-businesses” in areas close to the Tana River. “If you achieve that, you get away from a situation where someone may have 200 animals, and then the next time you see him he is on the street and has nothing,” he says.

This is a common view among government planners and development practitioners. When the state has offered pastoralists so little for so long, however, it is not surprising that they should cling fiercely to traditional practices.



I left Garissa in no doubt that the Kenyan state has failed its citizens there in terms of security, public goods and basic citizenship rights—but also feeling that the LAPSSET highway could open a new and better chapter for the northeast region if the government can proceed with more common sense and sensitivity than it has so far shown.

The colonial legacy was, of course, horrible. The drawing of national borders with scant regard for ethnicity or human geography was a sure recipe for Somali secession movements both in Kenya and in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, prompting violent ‘pacification’ before any more systematic and humane effort at incorporation. But, as so often happens once rebellions far from the centre of power are crushed, things were then left to fester until the next crisis, resulting in cycles of neglect and suppression. This has been complicated by Kenya’s 2012 entry into the civil war in Somalia, the influx of Somali refugees and the policy of isolating them in remote camps, as if to contain infection.

This is not in any way to excuse Al Shabaab’s terrorist onslaught. But the government of Kenya has responded ineptly, tending to anathematise not just refugees and its own ethnic Somali citizens but also, as seen in Lamu, its coastal Muslim population. Two recent open-source academic studies offer detailed and persuasive analysis of this débacle: Jeremy Lind, Patrick Mutahi & Marjoke Oosterom’s ‘Killing a mosquito with a hammer’: Al-Shabaab violence and state security responses in Kenya and Brendan J. Cannon and Dominic Ruto Pkalya’sWhy Al-Shabaab Attacks Kenya: Questioning the Narrative Paradigm.

One irony is that (as a BBC journalist, Mary Harper, has argued in a short book, Getting Somalia Wrong) many Somalis have great business acumen, now combined with extensive networks across the global diaspora. This can be seen and felt in the scrappy but vibrant Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali enclave, swollen by migration from Mogadishu, that has become a significant regional trade hub and contributor to Kenya’s economy (as described in this 2012 Financial Times report.) Eastleigh is the likeliest source of private capital to seek out investment opportunities in a more secure, accessible and better-connected northeast Kenya. Yet Eastleigh residents have been subjected to frequent harassment by Kenyan security forces, who treat the area as a hotbed of terror. (And this view extends beyond Kenya: a 2015 British security-thriller movie, Eye in the Sky, portrays Eastleigh as a place where AK47-toting Al Shabaab militants patrol the streets with impunity. This is nonsense.)

There is no easy road out of this morass, but a new highway is probably part of the answer. Highways project and consolidate state power in ‘lawless’ areas (not least in enabling rapid deployment of troops), as well as stimulating flows of trade, investment and people. Yet state power may not be universally welcome in a place where “there has been no government,” especially if “civil servants and people with money” emerge as early winners while others are told they do not belong at all. In other words, it will likely prove difficult to balance fuller integration into the nation state with enough ‘local ownership’ of development to make this work.


“When I grew up the land was for the community”: Oil troubles in Turkana

First published here, July 4 2018

Turkana herder by gas flare

On a Sunday afternoon in Lodwar, the capital of Turkana county, a crowd gathers to watch a hoopla game at a muddy crossroads. The spectators, many wearing the blankets and beads of pastoralists, observe as hopefuls try to win a bottle of Fanta or, even better, the big prize: a KSh50 ($0.50) note.

Turkana, located in the far north-west of the country, is the largest and poorest of Kenya’s 47 counties. Since 2013, it has received around $100 million per year from the national exchequer in a funding formula designed to help marginalised areas catch up. But it remains extremely impoverished.

79% of its nearly one million people live below the national poverty line. A third of the county’s children under five are underweight and a quarter are stunted. Primary school attendance is the lowest in the country, even though free school meals have long been provided, and 82% of adults have no formal education.

Turkana is still hugely underdeveloped, though the county is soon hoping to get a new boost that would eclipse the contributions from central government. First discovered in 2012, it is estimated that there are 750 million recoverable barrels of oil lying under Turkana’s soils. In order to exploit this potential, there are plans to build an 820km export pipeline to Lamu on the coast, along the$25-billion LAPSSET (Lamu Port—South Sudan—Ethiopia) transport corridor.

This could transform the county’s fortunes. But down in Lokichar, the epicentre of Turkana’s oil industry, the boom has so far brought more frustration and conflict than hope. The British company Tullow Oil has opened the oil fields, but many are frustrated that this has not led to more jobs and benefits for those who have lived on the land for generations. Members of the herding community around the village of Nakukulas have barricaded roads in protest.

“Many people working with Tullow are from Nairobi, but they have only given jobs to one or two locals,” says Nakwaan Echwaa. “When I grew up the land was for the community. That is what I knew. God gave us the oil, like the land. Now we hear the government saying it all belongs to them.”

Tullow has tried to earn goodwill by offering $70,000 for each well it drills to committees of residents, who can spend it on public projects of their choosing. As a result, Nakukulas now has a new secondary school and community centre. But people expect more. “We still demand Tullow to build a hospital and drill for water,” says Lowoto Muya who, at 55, is regarded as an elder in the community.

Denis Okore, who leads Kenya field communications for Tullow, argues that these demands have got out of control. “People look to us as if we are the government,” he says. “If someone is bitten by a snake – look for Tullow. Need a road? Go to Tullow. Their appetite for benefits and employment has increased hugely.”

Quarrels over benefits affect not only Tullow but its contractors. Africa Camp Solutions, a Kenyan company that services Tullow’s Lodwar base, agreed to pay a community levy of $5 per night per person sleeping on the site. Wrangles over the management of a committee set up to receive the funds, however, led to angry protests in January.

“He comes back crazy”

Two-thirds of Turkana’s population is made up of pastoralists whose tough, self-contained lives have long been characterised by cattle raiding conflicts with their southern neighbours, the Pokot, and the perennial fear of drought. The arrival of oil has changed people’s lives in a variety of ways.

For instance, livestock has long been the measure of wealth here, but the arrival of large quantities of cash has altered this. “When we came, we established a money system; not deliberately but just by our presence,” says Okore.

According to Ngasike Akuam, a mother of nine, working in oil has also changed some local people’s priorities. “When someone gets a job from Tullow, he comes back crazy, forgets about the family, just running up and down, taking three, four, wives, building houses,” she says.

Andrew Orina, Programs Manager of local NGO, Friends of Lake Turkana, echoes this, arguing that oil has unleashed short term opportunism in disrupted communities. “Everyone is thinking ‘What is in it for me now?’” he says. “There’s no thinking about what it will be like in 15 years.”

Orina suggests that pastoralists have found it difficult to plan ahead in order to ensure the oil boom benefits the area going forwards. “Development is a very loose word,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean much to the local person who has always been more concerned about animals and security.”

Orina mentions a recent community meeting convened to discuss a still unresolved issue: the percentage of oil revenues that will go, respectively, to national government, county governments, and directly affected communities. Whilst many put the case for maximising the local share, one woman simply asked: “What does ‘percent’ mean?”

Who is benefiting?

Walking around Lokichar, which is still more a straggling village than a town, it is easy to see small businesses thriving from the visitors that oil attracts and the local cash it generates. According to Ricardo Lopeyok, Friends of Lake Turkana’s representative here, these all belong to people who work in local government or to members of the County Assembly. People, that is, who know how to calculate percentages, and have steady incomes to invest in sideline businesses.

The biggest show in town, Lopeyok says, is Kapese Contractors, which belongs to local MP James Lomenen Ekomwa. This business has won numerous Tullow contracts for building feeder roads and other facilities.

This dynamic reflects the merging of political and economic elites that is familiar in Kenya more broadly. But District Commissioner for Lokichar sub-county, Alexander Fleming Losikiria, welcomes these investments, which are reversing the usual trend of capital exodus. “There is a multiplier effect,” he says. “Local contractors mean that jobs and money go directly and freely to local people.”

Losikiria adds that “there’s been a very serious awakening to the importance and value of land, which people used to see as just nature, just trees and sand.” He notes that the county government has placed a moratorium on land sales, pending development of a legal framework, in to avoid speculative land grabs.

The district commissioner acknowledges the disagreements that have arisen between Tullow and the community, but claims to be mediating these disputes. “The national government just wanted to bring in the police, but our role has been to try and find out what the issues are,” says Losikiria.

He is optimistic they can be resolved. But many locals are not so sure. In the face of elite interests and oil majors, however, Turkana’s pastoralists may struggle to push back, as Nakwaan Echwaa’s weak threat reveals. If the worst comes to the worst, he says, “We can raise up the spirits that are in our soil and make that oil not come out”.



Turkana has long been a ‘peripheral’ place because it had rather little strategic or material interest for the state. The 2012 oil discovery, coinciding with the move to more devolved government, heralded a new era. This is not just about oil, however. The future of the Lokichar basin’s oil in fact remains uncertain, given the failure of efforts to share export costs in a joint pipeline with Uganda.Butother known or suspected and hitherto mainly untapped mineral deposits include iron, copper, manganese, graphite, gypsum, gold, silver and gemstones, whose commercial viability the county government is keen to explore. These hopes may be fanciful in some but probably not all cases, and new highways—although none has yet arrived—would lower the commercial viability threshold. There are also developments in the water sector. In 2013, a huge aquifer was discovered under the north of the county; initial reports suggest the water is too saline for irrigated agriculture but, given the critical importance of the resource, the feasibility of treatment is likely to be further investigated. At the same time, the impacts of Ethiopia’s new hydro-electric dams on Lake Turkana will need careful monitoring.

Turkana may move fast from ‘peripheral’ to ‘frontier’ status. Oil has been the first harbinger of change and, although the harsh (and short) ‘traditional’ lives of Turkana pastoralists should not be sentimentalised, emerging patterns of change are disturbing.

Seeing their land put to strange new uses, but unsure of the longer term meaning for their lives, families close to the exploration wells are evidently focusing, understandably enough, on demanding immediate benefits. (Echoes of Lamu, here). It is also understandable that, with few other mechanisms for civic engagement, they should make these demands through direct action—road and oil camp blockades, which have recurred since my visit. This has apparently yielded results but may end badly. Tullow and partners may cave in to such pressure, to keep the peace and avoid bad publicity that could drag down their share prices. (Money they spend now can in any case be recouped in ‘profit oil’ when it finally begins to flow). But if the government of Kenya is both determined and able to proceed with export, it is unlikely to shrink from forcefully crushing any local opposition.

Meanwhile, as noted in my report, there is ample evidence of local elites cashing in. As far as I could tell in a short and inevitably rather superficial visit, this was even true of pastoralist leaders and activists, who not only won places on committees to direct oil company ‘social investments’ but also formed small companies implementing Tullow contracts to build ‘social infrastructure’ such as school classrooms. But this is small beer compared to the opportunities for those in the political and administrative class.

Some insight into the wedding of political and economic power can be gleaned from the Kenyan Auditor General’s reports on the financial statements of the Turkana county government for the fiscal year ending in mid-2016. The reports (published here) found so many anomalies—expenditures unaccounted for or unsupported by documentation; funds switched between budget lines without explanation or justification; 11 government bank accounts that were ”not disclosed in the financial statements and not presented for audit review”; flagrant disregard of statutory procurement rules (eg, no evidence of competitive tendering); payments made to consultants and contractors for work on which there was no visible progress and no reporting–that the Auditor General appended a formal disclaimer: “I have not been able to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence to provide a basis for an audit opinion.”

The most generous interpretation of this dismal audit—and, in fairness, many of Kenya’s new county governments received similarly damning reports—is that the devolved administrations were still settling into their expanded role and had not yet developed the capacity to keep proper accounts. (Which surely dents the Turkana government’s claims for a greater share of oil and mineral revenues.) But it is hard to resist the suspicion that at least some of the unaccounted-for millions found their way into the pockets of elected politicians and unelected technocrats, and that millions more went to their cronies in dodgy contracts.

Even if this was not the case, the audit clearly shows the pecuniary advantages of public office. For example, the 47 elected members of the County Assembly had received, on top of their salaries, a total of 122 million shillings (USD 1.2 million, amounting to USD 56 thousand each) in subsistence and travel allowances. In addition, they had access to a 150 million shilling (USD 1.5 million) car and mortgage loan fund (whose financial statements, the Auditor General reports, “were not availed for audit review contrary to Section 167 of the Public Financial Management Act.”) Such considerable perks would create surplus cash for private business ventures. An even bigger perk came for the county governor in the form of 200 million shillings (USD 2 million) to build a “Governor’s residence” (without any plans, tender documents or reports being submitted for audit). That seems rather lavish in a county where most people still live in huts made of sticks and earth.

I was unable to raise these issues with county government leaders who, at the time of my visit, were away at a national conference on devolution, and who declined to answer later emails. However, after walking around Lodwar and noting a veritable boom in the construction or refurbishment of government offices, I did call at the County Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning. The official in charge told me he could not discuss the county’s plans because they are “highly sensitive.” I am glad to report a better reception at the Lodwar referral hospital, whose director allowed me to look round and spoke eloquently and convincingly about new health programmes made possible by funding increases.

But it was hard to find many points of light. Devolved and accountable government seems an obvious way to mitigate the risk of ‘development’ arriving like a truck from elsewhere, running many people over while others jostle to catch hold of its tailgates. One activist I spoke to emphasised that Kenya’s civil society did indeed warmly welcome devolution under the 2010 Constitution as a great step forward—yet has since proved generally reluctant to critically appraise how devolution is working. This mystified me. Why refrain from ‘holding government to account’ just because Nairobi has released some powers?

Is the ‘robber politician’ syndrome that has bedevilled national politics since independence now itself being devolved as ‘peripheral’ areas are brought within reach of both local and national government? The most optimistic conclusion is perhaps that it is still too soon to say.