Northern Kenya ni Kenya?

The fundamental question is how a government that has forsaken a region can invite itself after 50 years of near absence. What explanation can the government provide for making the place a Siberia – where indiscipline civil servants and police and administration officers are sent?

Since pre-independence, Northern Kenya has been viewed as an accessory, but never part of the state. To the British, the North’s only value was to act at buffer against Italians, if not a wildlife hunting playground. As a colonial hangover, the independent Kenyan continued to treat the region the same way, if not worse. The North Eastern Somali’s attempt to join Somalia to fulfill the then Somalia expansionist grand pan Somalia vision- Soomaaliweyn, which encompasses Somalia, Djibouti, the Ogaden of Ethiopia and the North Eastern Province of Kenya, provided a perfect opportunity for the state to unleash the raw states authority of the Somali’s.

The interaction between the state and Northern Kenya has since then been mediated through mutual suspicion, especially looked at through the mono lens of security – hence the use of maximum force. This has manifested itself in history of military massacres and grave human rights violations, inimical government budgetary allocation to the pastoralism sector- the economic lifeline of the community which if viewed as anachronistic and stuck in a time warp.

Off course during these periods- especially after the 1982 coup which was put down General Mahmoud Mohamed, there was symbolic tokenism to reward the Northern Kenya through public appointment- poignantly; the country was saved from sliding into a military rule by someone whose community was never fully accepted as Kenyan. Despite the softening of stance, security was still the overarching context within which the state viewed Northern Kenya pastoralist communities.


The Economic – The rightwing market evangelism as a panacea

Over the past few years, the government’s attitude seems to be shifting significantly, although it is not for altruistic reasons.

Kenya’s first economic model after  independence was guided by Sessional Paper No 10 on African socialism whose premise was the government should invest in the high potential areas, and the trickle down from these regions will spur development in the low potential area. Off course, Northern Kenya obviously was classified as a low potential area. Aside from the economic fallacy of trickledown economics, there was never a genuine desire by to invest in the areas outside the security paradigm.

But the discovery of natural resources has suddenly changed the state’s engagement calculus with Northern Kenya, with the government making a beeline for the region as demonstrated expansion often neglected infrastructure. Logically, as the least populated, and in being strategically close to the key borders this made sense.

But this courtship is anchored on a deterministic reductionist single causality narrative- the market; open the region to the market and all their problems will go away. This narrative is problematic, first, it assumes the moment the region is hooked up to the other parts of Kenya; it will automatically ‘develop”.  It reckons the problem of Northern Kenya is the problem of lack of market. Secondly, creation of northern Kenya in other Kenya’s image is at the very minimum denies the people the agency to determine what does development means to them. Thirdly, we need to be circumspect regarding the pervasive language of business which assumes public service’s only problem is pesky inefficiency and the fusion of technology, corporate efficiency and big data is the panacea; this techno fallacy and big data syndrome de-historicizes and de-contextualizes problems and it is bound to fail. Thirdly, the market while could it be “efficient” at allocating economic goods and service, but not social services. Unleashing the market forces onto the region will destroy the collective social fabric that has held these people together even the bad times.

Often unaccounted for is the pastoralist community of Northern Kenya have been trading amongst and with their counterparts across all the borders without the government support. In the face of the mutually reinforcing twin issue of insecurity and fragile ecosystem have taught the community to the community has learnt to be remarkably innovative. Therefore, the paternalistic posture is ill suited in the community embracing the state that has engaged in serious dereliction of duty to start determining how the fate of the community will be determined.

This is the first part of multiple parts posts focusing on northern Kenya’s place in Kenya 50 years since independence. The next posts will focus on securitization of Northern Kenya, northern Kenya and devolution and finally, Northern Kenya, gas and oil.


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