6 January 2014

Kenya: Insecurity in Northern Kenya - Is the Government Losing Its Grip?

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In the resource rich northwest Kenya - specifically in Turkana County - conflict between Tullow Oil and the local communities over employment led to the temporary closure of the operations of the exploration company in late October. Grievances centred on allegations of bias against 'locals' in the firm's hiring practices.

Although exploration work has begun, the unrest illustrates that local expectations of the benefits that will flow from the oil sector already far exceed the realities of the sector, and point to questions about the ability of government (national or county) to manage those expectations adequately as exploration continues.

Beyond the borders

The fact that the oil-rich Turkana region borders South Sudan is cause for further concern. The longer the conflict there continues without resolution, the greater the risks of instability spilling over the border into an already volatile area - most likely in the form of refugees, whose needs could be a cause for strain with other local communities.

Kenya's continued intervention in Somalia is another source of instability, and not only in the north. This was most spectacularly manifested in the Westgate attack.

However, smaller scale violence has continued in parts of northern Kenya, especially attacks (presumably by militants allied with Somalia's al-Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin) on police or local government offices - Garissa has been particularly frequently targeted. The December bombing of a minibus in Nairobi's Eastleigh district appears similarly to have been linked to the Somalia intervention.

Kenya's attention?

Meanwhile, Kenya's presidency and the political elite are preoccupied with the ICC cases and with infighting within the Jubilee Alliance over political power-sharing. The political situation in Somalia and the IGAD-mediated process in South Sudan are also diverting policy attention and resources from the security situation at home.

While northern Kenya features prominently in the country's 'Vision 2030' economic blueprint, which the Jubilee Alliance has moved to strongly associate themselves, the government is sending conflicting signals.

On the one hand, policy attention and resources are unquestionably being turned to northern Kenya, which marks a significant shift in the region's political significance to the country overall.

The envisaged transport and logistics corridor, LAPSSET, which would connect a new Kenyan port at Lamu to the South Sudanese and Ethiopian markets, involves major new projects at key urban centres across northern Kenya.

Nevertheless, continued insecurity fuels the perception that many politicians in Nairobi remain more concerned with the economic opportunities - licit and illicit - associated with the projects than the welfare of the population in a region that is woefully underdeveloped, even by Kenyan standards.

Kenyatta's recent appointment of a veteran political insider, former Civil Service chief Francis Muthaura - a powerful political ally of the Kenyatta family since the 1970s, and former ICC co-accused with the president - to head the LAPSSET project has doubtless reinforced such perceptions.

Northern voting blocs were crucial to the Jubilee victory, and Kenyatta's win in particular - for which he owes much to Ruto's successful deal-making in the region, most strikingly in Mandera (an excellent analysis of these bargains by Neil Carrier and Hassan Kochore is forthcoming in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies).

Thus, not only is the region's vulnerability to continued conflict a source of concern in humanitarian and welfare terms, but it also links directly to the political alliance at the heart of this government. Continued government failure to address insecurity across the region therefore carries significant political risk.

Nuur Mohamud Sheekh is the Nairobi Forum Programme Coordinator for the Rift Valley Institute, but this article reflects his personal views not those of RVI.

Jason Mosley is a Research Associate of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University, also writing in his personal capacity.

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