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Mohamed Ahmed Elfadl
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ISSN-L 1799-6163
ISSN 1799-6163

on Somalian, Djiboutin, Eritrean, Etiopian, Sudanin ja Etelä-Sudanin kehityskysymyksiin keskittyvä verkkolehti. Lehteä julkaisee Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry. Afrikan Sarvessa julkaistaan sekä tutkimukseen että käytännön työhön perustuvia artikkeleita ja puheenvuoroja. Afrikan Sarvi on kolmikielinen (suomi, ruotsi, englanti) ja se ilmestyy kaksi kertaa vuodessa.
är en nättidskrift som fokuserar på utvecklingsfrågor i Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Etiopien, Sudan och Södra Sudan. Tidningen utges av Suomen Somalia-verkosto (Finlands Somalia-nätverk). Artiklarna och det övriga innehållet i Afrikas Horn baserar sig på både forskning och praktiskt arbete. Afrikas Horn är trespråkig (finska, svenska, engelska) och utkommer två gånger per år.
is an electronic journal which focuses on developmental questions in Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. It is published by the Finnish Somalia Network. The articles and other materials are based both on research and practical work. Horn of Africa Journal is trilingual (Finnish, Swedish, English) and it is issued twice a year.

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Hassan Kochore

Hassan Kochore hassan kochore

Kenya: (Re)building the Nation?

Development, national cohesion and integration discourse in Northern Kenya.

Since the 2007 disputed elections and the subsequent tumultuous post-election period, the government of Kenya has embarked on a “national healing and integration process”. A National Cohesion and Integration Commission was formed in order to achieve this goal. This article examines how Northern Kenya, an area that had been, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the “Nation building” process was roped into the National Cohesion and Integration discourse since 2010. Through the lens of a development project and new resources found in the area, the article will try to articulate some responses from the people of Northern Kenya to this "nationalist project" by the government.

A Nairobi-bound truck from Marsabit, the passengers riding on the roof.

Northern Kenya, an area that has historically been marginalized and left on the periphery of the Kenyan nation has become the focus of a national development project, Vision 2030, through the LAPSSET project (Lamu Port South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor). The project seeks to build infrastructures across the highly underdeveloped Northern Kenyan region, including an oil pipeline, railway, roads and a port at the coastal old town of Lamu, to create a network that will connect South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, facilitating trade and, most importantly, to provide oil-producing and landlocked South Sudan with a passage to the Indian Ocean.

The project has prompted the Kenyan government to reframe its policy towards the North which has remained outside of national development processes due to its low economic potential and “badlands” reputation. The government has effectively been running a nationalist campaign in the region, peddling discourses about “turning history on its head” and opening up the north to the rest of the country as if to win the hearts and minds of the people who were previously seen as “anti-national”.

This recent interest in the North by the government to "develop" and integrate the area into the Nation therefore necessitates an examination of this process of economic re-orientation. I look at the government’s nationalist narratives and community perspectives around an infrastructure network meant to connect Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya, a large part of which will pass through Northern Kenya, and discussions around the discovery of oil in the area.

This article argues that this new found love for the North was but a side effect of regional political developments in the Horn of Africa and Sudan ‒ namely the secession of South Sudan and Eritrea from Sudan and Ethiopia respectively ‒ as well as the discovery of oil in Turkana that has rendered the area economically indispensable. This article is informed by a number of research projects that the author has undertaken together with a team of researchers from the British Institute in Eastern Africa since 2009, particularly one on “the History of trade in Northern Kenya”, coordinated by David Anderson where the team conducted over 100 life history interviews in the Northern towns of Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale in 2010. Additional data was gained from participant observation in the recent elections and media reportage especially on Turkana.

Northern Kenya: Historical and political context

Northern Kenya has been the most marginalized region in Kenya. The British colonial government used it as a “buffer zone” against the southward expansion of the Ethiopian empire under Menelik II and unstable Jubaland to the East. Then known as Northern Frontier District, NFD, the North was considered as an area that was economically unviable due to its almost zero agricultural potential, and the British did not see the point of using a lot of resources administrating this vast area with no or minimal economic returns.

Gabra nomadic village in Forolle, Kenya-Ethiopia -border.

This region has the highest concentration of pastoralists: the Borana, Rendille, Gabra, Turkana, Dassanetch and Somali are just some of the pastoralists that straddle the Northern Kenya ‒ Southern Ethiopia borderlands. The colonial administrators posted to pastoralist districts often expressed frustration complaining that they had been relegated to curating "museums" rather than administrating a civilized area.

In this sense, therefore, the North was viewed as “another place”, completely different from the rest of Kenya in terms of its “backwardness” ‒ culturally and economically. Pastoralists were always assumed/imagined as being unfriendly and aggressive towards the government. On top of the economic unviability of this area, its hostile pastoralist population who crisscrossed boundaries of contiguous nation-states (in search of pasture and water in response to the ecological dictates of their way of life with little regard for the notion of state borders) were perceived as “anti-national” and hard to govern and tax as they were constantly on the move; it was hard to pin them or their “property on the hooves” down. This did not help in terms of the development of the area by the government.

Just before Kenya’s independence, the British government set up a commission known as the NFD Commission "to ascertain and report on public opinion in the N.F.D. (comprising of Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale) regarding arrangements to be made for the future  of the area in the light of the likely course of constitutional development in Kenya". The unanimous opinion of the people was in favour of secession ‒ becoming part of “Greater Somalia”. That wish was not granted by the incoming Independence government of Jomo Kenyatta which was adamant that not an inch of Kenya will be ceded to Somalia. Kenyatta is reported to have said, “Let them (Somalis) pack their camels and go to Somalia.”

Following the broken dream of NFD joining Somalia, an insurgency broke out in 1963 where insurgents then known locally as shifta, covertly backed by the government of Somalia, fought for the independence of Northern Kenya against the Kenyan army in an undeclared war which came to be known as shifta war. The war is still remembered in Northern Kenya as the time of “stop” ‒ a time when the rhythmic movement of pastoral life was stopped; a time when man and beast were detained together in concentration camps. Livestock herds decimated and formerly wealthy pastoralists pauperized.

Camels were particularly targeted as they were accused of providing transport (of arms and stock) for the shifta from as far as Mogadishu. The camel pastoralists like the Sakuye were completely devastated. The whole pastoral economy fell apart. Time did indeed stop. The war ended in 1967 with a Memory of Understanding signed in Arusha mediated by the then Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, but its effect left an indelible mark on the landscape and people’s lives.

British anthropologist, Alex de Waal described the consequence as a military assault upon the entire pastoral way of life. The NFD therefore was Jomo Kenyatta’s first political headache. The independence KANU government inevitably viewed the NFD as a hostile territory filled with “secessionists”. Actually all Cushitic people from the area came to be viewed suspiciously as “shifta” ‒ a label that remains to date to derogatively refer to in particular to Somalis.

With this kind of a political background, and the assumed economic unviability of pastoralism ‒ a received wisdom from the British ‒ the KANU government saw the area as a drain on the National Budget. This view was made official through a parliamentary process in a document known as the Sessional paper No. 10 of 1965, African Socialism and its application to planning in Kenya, which balkanized the country into low and high potential areas. The so-called high-potential areas were regarded as having abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall, transport and power facilities, and people receptive to and active in development. With its already “anti-national” secessionist inhabitants and a population whose way of life (read pastoralism) was seen as non-receptive to development, Northern Kenya “naturally” took its “rightful” position in the low potential areas. And there began the justification of even further marginalization of the North in a post-colonial context: roads are virtually non-existent, tap water a “pipe dream”, schools few and far between, and electricity the stuff of fantasy.

Recently however, if only coincidentally, in the Sessional paper no. 10 of 2012, the government has recognized (and therefore admitted) the marginalization of this area by successive governments and has therefore pledged to turn this “history on its head”. As a matter of fact, Northern Kenya and other arid and semi-arid areas have a vision 2030 of their own. This document acknowledges that:

“The defining feature of Northern Kenya is its separation from the rest of the country, which manifests itself in both physical and psychological ways. The primary challenge is how to close this gap and achieve national integration in terms that benefit the people of the region and the country as a whole.” (GOK 2011:12).

As a way of turning this history on its head, the vision for the North in the National Vision 2030 economic blueprint is a resort city, an oil pipeline linking Lamu with the oils fields of South Sudan that traverses Northern Kenya; a super highway connecting to Ethiopia and South Sudan; an international airport; and a resort city. That is, the LAPSSET project.

An untarmacked section of Marsabit-Moyale road.

The envisaged new face of the North will therefore be one of gaming casinos and luxury resorts. This sounds like a fantastic idea, but of course, a lot of water has to pass under the bridge before this fate can be achieved. In the Northern town of Isiolo, which has been proposed to be a resort city, there has been a lot of hype around LAPSSET. Oil finds in Turkana have also triggered a lot of excitement both locally and nationally. But what are the narratives at the local level? How for example are people living the Vision 2030 in a place like Isiolo?

In the following sections, after giving a brief overview of the LAPSSET, I will discuss the ethnographic perspectives on the optimism and skepticism about it in Isiolo and the media reportage on the oil in Turkana.

LAPSSET: Lamu ‒ Southern Sudan ‒ Ethiopia Transport

This Ksh 2.5 trillion ($ 29.24 billion) project was commissioned on March 2, 2012 by Presidents Mwai Kibaki and Salva Kiir of Kenya and South Sudan respectively, and the then Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. LAPSSET is a transport corridor between Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan. It has to be remembered that these countries are landlocked and LAPSSET is meant to provide an express link to the Indian Ocean for them. This means that all the oil from these countries (when oil from Uganda’s Lake Albert basin gets to the surface) will flow through Kenya once the pipeline is up and running. At the regional and international level therefore, LAPSSET is the vehicle through which Kenya is intending to achieve the status of a gateway and a transport hub to the East African Sub-region and the Great Lakes Region. Therefore, the story of LAPSSET can only be told in a regional context. In the next section, I’ll highlight two major regional players in the LAPSSET project.

South Sudan

The Secession of South Sudan in July 2011 and the deteriorating relations with the North meant that South Sudan had to seek its own infrastructure through which to export its oil. Until recently, the production of oil by the South was stopped for about one year. It’s only recently that the first South Sudan crude oil reached Sudan.

The fact that South Sudan is landlocked forced it to seek alternative routes to the Indian Ocean. Kenya has been a key partner of South Sudan having mediated the talks that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. The Agreement contained the secession clause which finally led to the breakaway of South Sudan from the larger Sudan. Therefore, Kenya seeks to benefit from this "diplomatic generosity" it extended to South Sudan. One of the ways in which it seeks to do so is by providing a "passage way" for South Sudan’s oil.

In the Sessional paper number 10 of 2012, it is clearly stated that Kenya wants to benefit from the creation of South Sudan: It states that “the project (LAPSSET) will open up access to Southern Sudan, which has huge unexploited natural resources, including oil”. In 2012 South Sudan also said they wanted the pipeline up and running in 18 months. This shows how urgently the pipeline is needed.


Ethiopia became landlocked after the secession of Eritrea in 1991. Bitter relations between the two and chronic border disputes make the possibility of any economic co-operation almost zero ‒ a position which leaves Ethiopia seeking an alternative route to the Indian Ocean for its imports and exports. LAPSSET is the project to open up these two countries to each other.

Kenya and Ethiopia have enjoyed warm trade and diplomatic relations under the auspices of Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to which they are both founding members. Recently the two countries struck a deal in which Kenya will import power from Ethiopia. This  move was interpreted as the government of Kenya condoning the construction of the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia and agreeing to purchasing power from Addis when the construction of the dam has been proven to be detrimental to its own Lake Turkana. This at the local level in Turkana has been interpreted as disregard for the local populations’ livelihood which largely depends on the lake for survival.

A community activist group known as Friends of Lake Turkana has been in the forefront of the campaign against Gibe III. The founder Ikal Angelei, herself a Turkana, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012. The government has been accused of being too hungry for the benefits from this project with total disregard of its citizens on the periphery. This feeds very well into the narrative about the marginalization of this area by successive governments thus relegating the area to the periphery of the nation ‒ a sentiment which jeopardizes the government’s recent nationalist discourse.

LAPSSET in Isiolo ‒ local perspectives

Fondly known as Texas, this dusty Savannah frontier town of Northern Kenya until recently prided itself as “the start and end of the tarmac (road)”. As you travel down from Nairobi northwards, the tarmac ends in Isiolo and as you travel from Moyale (the border town between Kenya and Ethiopia) southwards, after about 500 km of nerve racking bumpy ride on the roof of a truck, the first encounter with the tarmac will be in Isiolo. No wonder the tarmac forms such an important part of the folklore of this area and no wonder it has been earmarked as a hub for LAPSSET, which intends to open up the obscured and underdeveloped North to economic opportunities. In Isiolo there are contrasting narratives about LAPSSET among the population. There is skepticism on one hand and a strong sense of optimism on the other.

Recently, an informant in Isiolo said, “this LAPSSET thing is a Waiganjo”. This statement is related to the saga of a fake Kenyan police commander who operated as the assistant commissioner of police for a long time without being noticed. In this statement, therefore, LAPSSET, just like Waiganjo, stands for something fake, and indeed, non-existent, at best only a fairy tale.

A Nairobi-bound truck.

For most residents however, there is a lot of hope and optimism, especially as there are signs on the ground: the Isiolo airport is almost complete and the tarmacking of Isiolo-Moyale road that will finally link up with Addis Ababa is at an advanced stage.

There is a Swahili saying that “signs of rain are clouds.” The LAPSSET cloud has gathered around Isiolo and the residents are ready to harness the rain water from their roof tops. Communities are already placing themselves in positions they think are vantage points from where they can reap maximum benefits from this project. There are areas that have been earmarked for the resort city like the Kipsing gap, which is located in Burat Ward of Isiolo North constituency. In the recent Kenyan elections, Burat Ward attracted a large number of contestants for the seat of county representative with about eight candidates from different ethnic backgrounds in Isiolo ‒ Somali, Turkana and Borana. This is due to the high stakes that the area has been earmarked as “Vision 2030” area; in this sense, Vision 2030 has become an economic brand. According to an informant in Isiolo this meant:

“a re-orientation in the voting pattern in the county as some politicians encourage their supporters to register themselves in Burat. Winning the Burat seat is interpreted as becoming in charge of the resort city project and therefore more goodies.”

To some extent, therefore, it is safe to conclude that LAPSSET influenced the elections in Isiolo County. This is made even more apparent as the first governor of Isiolo Godana Doyo and Senator Mohamed Kuti pledged in their first address to the residents of Isiolo that they were committed to raising Isiolo into the status of a resort city “to the level of a New York town” through the implementation of LAPSSET. Thus, in this area LAPSSET has become the foundation on which any economic plans are based.

LAPSSET has also been directly connected to conflict in the area. In 2011 and 2012 in the run-up to the elections, violence broke out in Isiolo pitting different tribes against each other. This was largely influenced by misinformation and rumours about the Vision 2030 project, coupled with speculation about devolution. Devolution was meant to restructure the Kenyan state by creating semi-autonomous County governments which brought power closer to the people, away from the central government.

A tarmacked section of Isiolo-Moyale road.

In the context of Vision 2030, in Isiolo, devolution or majimbo as it is known in Swahili, came to be interpreted as a “winner-take-all” political order under the county arrangement: if one community wins the elective positions on offer, then the losers would have lost out on the county goodies which in this case includes the Vision 2030. Much as the majimbo debate was a national phenomenon, in Isiolo it was amplified by the discourse on Vision 2030 and LAPSSET. On top of this there have been discussions that some of the land in Isiolo has been taken by outsiders, some of whom are influential people in the government.

Oil in Turkana: Shackles of doom?

On March 26th 2012, as fate would have it, President Mwai Kibaki announced the discovery of oil in Turkana. Turkana is a county that has always been dogged by drought, famine and chronic poverty. Turkana County is ranked the poorest in the Country with a poverty index of 94.3 per cent. Naturally, it was expected that this fate would change once the Turkana oil started to flow and a justified sense of hope and optimism engulfed the area. However, even before the takeoff of the exploitation of this resource, concerns were raised that actually the oil might end up benefiting not the locals but some influential persons in the government. It was found out that there were dubious deals that took place in the way land for the oil exploration was allocated to the British oil drilling company, Tullow oil. A minister was accused of selling the land that belonged to the community for a staggering sum of sh. 800 million at the time when Kenyans were raising money to save the Turkana from starvation as a result of famine in a campaign dubbed “Kenyans4kenya”.

Recently a high school drama was banned after the Ministry of Education deemed it unfit for “national cohesion”. The play by Butere girls’ high school titled “Shackles of doom”, which emerged tops at both the zonal and district levels, was bound for the National stage, the point at which it was intercepted before it became “a threat to National cohesion”. The play is set in a land called the Kana and the people there call themselves True Kanas. The True Kanas are unaware of the large deposits of oil beneath their land, but “a neighboring community” knows about it. The neighbours whose name suggests that they are from Central Kenya, come in to exploit the True Kanas’ oil by building a refinery and giving the top jobs to the people from its own community entirely leaving the True Kanas out. It is only after a noisy protest by the locals in response to the overt exclusion announcement that the managing director of the Mafuta oil company appoints a True Kana as a guard “for purposes of National cohesion and integration” ‒ a statement that is meant to forestall any possible rejection of the blatantly ethnically biased list of the employees. “National cohesion and integration” in this case therefore becomes like a gagging tool whenever injustice is committed, and the rallying call is “let’s live as brothers and citizens of this great nation” in order to suppress protest or rebellion.

The dominant sentiment therefore is that the Turkana will be shortchanged and with the dubious land deal mentioned earlier, there is reason to believe that they indeed could be. This in turn has generated a sense of paranoia on the part of the Turkana that they are going to lose the oil bonanza to the government and “outsiders”. In this regard the integration of this area into the nationalist discourse seems to be fading quite quickly as the Turkana become more psychologically alienated ‒ one of the conditions that the Vision 2030 was intended to remedy. In the recent Kenyan elections, oil inevitably became an election issue. The Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) ran an effective campaign in this area promising the Turkana residents that CORD will ensure that they will benefit from the oil ‒ a statement which speaks to the fears on the ground of the possible siphoning away of the oil revenues. All these underline the fact that there are tensions around the ownership of this new resource. The Turkanas overwhelmingly voted for CORD, but CORD went on to lose the elections. In a political system that has somehow always rewarded the government supporters and marginalized the opposition areas, the fear of the unknown by the Turkana would not be too far-fetched.


An enquiry into the discussion surrounding these two cases of LAPSSET, and Oil in Isiolo and Turkana respectively, points to the fact that that there is a common narrative: the government and the "outsiders" are perceived as rushing to the area to take advantage of the boom to grab land and other resources and shortchange the local populations. This seems to run parallel to the government’s nationalist project of integrating the area into the nation. The lethargy on the part of the government to, for example, predict and forestall conflict related to these projects among the local populations is interpreted as the government being indifferent to the pastoralists’ conflicts. Therefore, the form of nationalism that the government is keen to produce in the area runs the risk of turning into some form of anti-nationalism where the peoples’ sense of distrust for the government may further be deepened by the way the government goes about the implementation of these projects.

Hassan Hussein Kochore is a Research Assistant at the National Museums of Kenya with academic background in Anthropology. Research interests and experience include: pastoralist, ethnic and national identities; cultural heritage; socio-economic, cultural and religious change; indigenous knowledge; and climate change with a regional focus on the Horn of Africa, particularly Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not, in any way, represent those of the National Museums of Kenya.

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Photos: Kimo Quaintance, except the Gabra nomadic village -photo by Liz Watson.


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