The presence of foreign militias in parts of northeastern Kenya, and their collusion with security officials and business people there, may be to blame for a rise in insecurity in the region, where multiple gun and grenade attacks have been reported over the past two years.
But securing northern Kenya is increasingly vital to the government, with the badlands growing in economic viability, the new constitution shifting power to the counties, and mega development projects being planned in the region.
In October 2011, Kenyan troops launched an intervention into Somalia in pursuit of the Somali insurgent Al-Shabab militia, which it blamed for incursions into Kenya. Since then, dozens of people, including security officers, have been killed in attacks, mainly in the northeastern town of Garissa and the mainly-Somali Dadaab refugee camp.
To address this, a number of security operations have been launched, involving the deployment of hundreds of police and military officers, arrests and curfews, as well the cessation of the registration of new Somali refugees amid fears of Al-Shabab infiltration.
The most recent security operation in Garissa led to hundreds of arrests. "Ten police officers, among them the head of crime investigations [and] six local [administration] chiefs, have been suspended,” Charles Mureithi, the northeastern regional police chief, told IRIN, adding, “More arrests are on the way, and, of course, convictions.”
The police officers and chiefs were said to be operating in league with the criminals, a view shared by a Garissa political leader, who spoke with IRIN on the condition of anonymity.
"The monster responsible for all the sufferings we have experienced is… a club of wealthy traders from the Far East, Somalia [and] Kenya [as well as] politicians, our security officers and at least two sects of Al-Shabab,” said the Garissa leader.
Who is to blame for the rising insecurity?
An Al-Shabab-linked militia group has been blamed for some of the attacks in Garissa.
"They only strike with an objective [of] fight[ing] other religions,” said Maulid*, a Garissa resident. “In Garissa, they worship in two mosques, same [as] in Nairobi. They consider us as infidels.”
Churches in Garissa have been among the buildings targeted by grenade attacks.
An Islamic religious leader, who preferred anonymity, called for the arrest of Al-Shabab-linked leaders and the seizure of their properties. "We want to see traders who paid gangs of criminals to kill arrested,” he said.
According to Ahmed Yasin, a political science graduate from Somalia, the Al-Shabab-linked militias are retaliating against some prominent Kenyan Somalis’ support for the creation of an autonomous region of Jubaland in southern Somalia - which could serve as a buffer zone between the two countries - and against their support for the Ras Kamboni militia.
In September 2012, the Ras Kamboni militia, alongside Kenyan troops, forced Al-Shabab out of the lucrative port city of Kismayo, which is a key economic and strategic resource for militias in southern Somalia. On 15 May, Ras Kamboni leader Sheikh Ahmed Madobe was announced as Jubaland’s president.
While Al-Shabab is bitter at losing Kismayo, Yasin said, it also opposes the creation of a buffer zone, which would protect Kenya from Al-Shabab incursions.
"Political leaders, elders and clerics must abandon support for [the] Ras Kamboni militia group... They must be wise [and] restrain from Somalia politics… and let their people enjoy peace," warned Yasin.
What has been the fallout of the insecurity?
A security operation to pacify the region has led to dozens of arrests; those found without legal identification documents were netted. Rights groups, however, are critical of these sweeping operations.
Some Kenyan youths in Garissa are wrongfully being arrested as they lack identity cards, said Abdiwelli Mohamed of the local organization Citizens Rights Watch. The process of acquiring identification documents is often fraught with challenges, including long delays in the often-neglected northern region.
According to Khalif Abdi Farah of the Garissa Northern Forum for Democracy, a civil society organization, dozens of people have also been injured, with others being illegally arrested in the crackdown.
The police denied claims of arbitrary arrests, a view shared by Haji*, a Garissa resident and retailer. "It’s true [that] the police conducted house-to-house searches [and] stopped people on the streets. They checked identity cards and counter-checked with a list they were carrying. It’s clear [that] they are looking for particular individuals," he said.
Besides a rising death toll and a large number of people injured in attacks over the past two years, the insecurity has had adverse socio-economic effects. Garissa businesses have been hit hard.
A night club and guest house owner in Garissa said his business has suffered due to the curfew. "I only have an hour to operate. [I] open the pub at 5pm and close by 6pm.”
Fear has also affected his business: “My guest house clients, [who] were mainly travellers either heading to Wajir, Mandera or Nairobi, these days no longer spend a night in Garissa for fear of arrest or attack," he said.
Proceeds from the once-booming Garissa livestock market are declining too, said a revenue officer, noting that livestock traders are afraid of arrest. Asset and property values have also dropped significantly since December 2012, with fewer people opting to live or invest in Garissa.
Why is securing northern Kenya vital?
Securing Garissa and other northern Kenya regions has become a priority for the government, particularly amid the country’s newly devolved governance structure, lucrative cross-border development plans and the north’s growing economic viability.
Devolution, a centrepiece of Kenya’s 2010 constitution, will allocate more resources to the county governments, a move that is expected to reduce the marginalization of outer areas like northern Kenya.
Kenya is also seeking to develop closer ties with its neighbours in the north, mainly Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan, amid planned mega development projects, such as the Lamu Port and Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), which will link the Horn of Africa region.
“Previously peripheral areas to the north and east will assume a new economic, and so political, significance,” states a 2 May analysis by Oxford Analytica, a global analysis and advisory firm, which notes that development had previously been concentrated in the central belt stretching from Nairobi to the Ugandan border.
Kenya also expects to get relief from its current electricity shortages by 2016 thorough the Eastern Electricity Highway Project, which will connect Kenya’s electrical grid to Ethiopia’s, adds the analysis. “Protecting this supply will require: greater security in border areas; more careful management of local conflicts between communities in border areas to prevent escalation into disputes between the two states; and continued friendly relations between Nairobi and Addis Ababa.”
Recent oil discoveries in northwest Kenya, and ongoing exploration in other regions, such as near Lamu, “ further underline the importance of once-peripheral areas of the country to future economic development,” added the analysis.
What challenges lie ahead?
“Nairobi's incentive to extend state authority to historically neglected regions will grow, but not without facing significant challenges,” said a 14 May Oxford Analytica analysis.
The northern Kenya regions are characterized by widespread insecurity. Inter-communal violence and the proliferation of small arms are common, the state is largely absent, and the borders are mostly porous.
For example, there are currently inter-clan clashes in Mandera, which neighbours Garissa, with several people being reported dead and at least 6,600 displaced, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society.
In response, security in Mandera has been beefed up and residents have been urged to surrender illegal firearms.
Forceful disarmament is likely there, as similar moves have occurred elsewhere in the north. But this only further alienates residents who blame insecurity on the inadequate state presence.
“While such events appear familiar and of little wider significance, the new geography of Kenya's development plan - including energy, transportation, hydrocarbons - alters the political considerations of centre-periphery relations and increases the relevance of long-standing insecurity and distrust,” Oxford Analytica’s 14 May analysis said.
“If an historical state reliance on coercion continues, rising insecurity in northern and coastal areas creates some risks for smoother longer-term economic development,” it noted.
Kenya After the Elections, a 15 May policy briefing by the International Crisis Group (ICG), warns that devolution may not “be a ‘magic bullet’ that will allow the country to correct historical patterns of neglect, and redress regional marginalization and inequitable development… There are concerns devolution could ultimately balkanize counties, creating ‘ethnic fiefdoms’.”
The briefing urges county governments to be inclusive of minority interests to address inequality.
“The new government has the opportunity to usher in a new era of peace and socioeconomic development that would benefit all communities and unite the country. The foundation has been laid with the overwhelming support the constitution received in 2010, a base that should be maintained and built upon for a peaceful and prosperous future.”