The Islamist insurgency in Somalia has had a spillover effect on security in the northeast of neighbouring Kenya, affecting livelihoods and the delivery of services, say residents and officials.
The worst crimes reported in the region recently include killings, carjackings and abductions – including, in 2009, of aid workers and, in 2008, of two nuns. Insecurity in the borderlands has led thousands of livestock herders to abandon their traditional grazing land, say locals.
Dozens of community programmes have been disrupted, notably those dealing with reproductive health, sanitation, food security and education, according to NGOs working in the region.
“There is a direct effect of insecurity in Somalia for the humanitarian operations in northeast Kenya,” Patrick Lavand’homme, deputy head for Kenya of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN.
“One of these effects is that Somali rebels enter Kenyan territory. Messages and threats have been received by humanitarians about their own security from some of the Somali groups,” he added, noting that as a result of these incursions and indigenous banditry and armed cattle rustling, the UN classifies the region as a phase-three security zone, “which means no [UN] movement can be done without armed escorts”.
A senior UN source working with security concurred, asking not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“I think it [insecurity in Somalia] has worsened the situation in northeast Kenya. There is no government on the other side. Nobody knows how many weapons go back and forth across the border. That is always a concern,” he said.
|Messages and threats have been received by humanitarians about their own security from some of the Somali groups|
“Northeast Kenya, and Mandera specifically, is just across the border, and this is not a real border, there is no fence. There are known Al-Shabab elements in control on the other side of the border,” he said, adding, however, that it was impossible to say how much of the criminality in the region could be attributed to Somalis rather than Kenyans.
“It makes it harder for the UN to do business, there is no freedom of movement without escorts, there is a 6pm to 6am curfew. It is not an area where humanitarian workers move freely,” he said.
The difference between the two sides of the porous border, he added, was that Kenya had an active police unit that provides “some level of security” in the region.
Kenya Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe told IRIN: “The spillover effect is mainly in terms of firearms and lawlessness. The legal way of solving disputes has also been suspended on the other side such that disputes are sometimes solved with shooting.
“The frequency [of attacks] may be small but the impact is high… humanitarian workers may not be able to do all they would like to or they may not go to the areas at all,” he said.
“This feeling of vulnerability has caused a disproportional deployment of security officers there. Going by the population of the area and the economic activities, that place should not be taking the number of security officers it takes.”
For such security officers, according to a recent Chatham House report, “being posted to the arid northeast, and particularly to administer the border area, is not an attractive proposition.
“It entails dealing with a ‘strange terrain’, ‘strange people’, a ‘strange culture’ (pastoralism) and ‘strange way of life’ (relentless insecurity),” Hussein Mahmoud wrote in Livestock Trade in the Kenyan, Somali and Ethiopian Borderlands.
|Mandera and El Wak towns in northeast Kenya|
“As a result, soldiers’ morale is usually low, and this seriously affects their performance. The problems of effectively controlling the border are compounded by its length and rough terrain,” the report added.
To minimise risks, many agencies review security on a daily basis. Measures, often costly, such as not travelling at night, avoiding certain routes and areas, moving in convoys, ensuring field staff keep in regular radio contact with head office and using local staff to work in more sensitive areas are also employed.
"Current security management procedures and adherence have been made very strict, the security situation along the border is frequently monitored with all staff and volunteers under instructions to liaise with the security forces about any changes in the security situation," said an NGO worker.
“The [Somali] militias have made several attempts to abduct other workers and steal vehicles but failed; the threat, however, still looms,” he added.
NGOs are opting to ground their own vehicles, relying on hired transportation instead. “The police stations and patrol bases in Mandera resemble a parking bay... all the vehicles owned by NGOs have been parked and instead we hire vehicles to do our work. It’s expensive as transporters charge exorbitant prices and we use a lot of money to pay for security,” said a member of the Mandera NGO Forum, who asked not to be named.
He said the insecurity had denied hundreds of needy families assistance because few skilled personnel were willing to work for NGOs in the insecure areas. Voluntary staff, who lack insurance, are particularly reluctant to work in risky areas.
“The NGOs which have left Mandera are not cowards… Their reasons for leaving are justified as some had been attacked and threatened as being agents of western countries and spreading Christianity,” the Forum member added.
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A ban, reportedly imposed by clerics with links to Al-Shabab, on public screenings of films and football matches has cut off the income of many video parlours, said one trader in Mandera.
“It’s a very sad situation that a group of [foreigners] can disrupt our lives, deny young children, poor families and women the support they need most,” added another resident.
The situation is similar in the neighbouring districts of Garissa and Wajir, said Irshad Yussuf, the Sisters for Maternity Health Organization Community Health Programme Manager.
“Our budget has considerably increased; this has forced us to evaluate some of our projects in areas along the border.
“The expenditure on security is enormous, our reproductive health programme is at risk because we propagate the use of condoms for family planning, raise HIV/AIDS awareness and campaign against FGM [female genital mutilation/cutting]. I am sure the guys across the border consider our mission to be anti-Islam. This is wrong. We are also Muslims,” he said.
Health programmes such as child immunization suffer the most, with some community organizations unable to monitor their projects, Yussuf told IRIN.
According to the Kenya Red Cross Society, the insecurity has also complicated the planning of prompt disaster response.