African politics, Horn Watch, Kenya Watch, Uncategorized

Pastoralism and the Hierarchy of Kenyanness part I

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? How can a state whose only presence was felt through coercion- to be feared and not loved, show its benign face; develop the regions using the new discovered region’s natural resources, or the newly established devolution and resource. 


Northern Kenya’s status as an appendage to the Kenyan state predates Kenya’s independence. 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 post-colonial state to unleash its raw power on the Somalis.

Since then, the interaction between the state and Northern Kenya has been mediated through brute force and mutual suspicion- viewed through the mono lens of security – hence the use of maximum force. This has manifested itself in the 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 this 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; someone whose community was never fully accepted as Kenyan saved the country from sliding into a military rule. Despite the softening of stance, security was still the overarching context within which the state viewed Northern Kenya pastoralist communities.

A. The Economic – The rightwing market evangelism as a panacea

The perception towards the community over the last few years has been shifting in part because of the discovery of gas and oil as well as the trans-boundary large-scale infrastructure projects that passes through the pastoralist community’s’ area.

However, the approach is to “commodify” the pastoralist community instead of looking at them in aggregate terms. This is has a historical antecedence. Kenya’s first economic model after Sessional Paper No 10 guided independence 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 was 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 of some of the 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 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 business language that 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. Fourth, the market, while could it be “efficient” at allocating economic goods and service, it is terrible as the last arbiter regarding 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. The mutually reinforcing twin issues of insecurity and fragile ecosystem has engendered community’s’ remarkably innovative. Therefore, the paternalistic top-down posture from the state towards the community will be counter-productive. The government should facilitate the community to take care of its destiny.


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