The calm and beautiful Mandera you didn’t know

Irrigation farms along River Dawa that marks the natural frontier between Kenya and Ethiopia. [photos: Mandela Okoth/Standard]

It is unfortunate that majority of Kenyans cannot differentiate between Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. This is why when 12 people were killed in an attack on a lodge in Mandera on October 25, 2016, I received texts and phone calls asking whether I was okay. I could not have been any better because I was in Garissa.

Fondly referred to as MDR by residents, Mandera County borders Ethiopia and Somalia, forming a triangle. The weather in Mandera town is tolerable compared to other parts of North Eastern. This could be as a result of River Dawa that flows between Mandera and Suftu, a town across the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

Before travelling to Mandera, I explain to the person meeting me that I will be dressed like the locals to fit in culturally. He tells me I can wear whatever I want, I don’t have to dress like the locals and I am taken aback. Dress however I want? Is this not the same place where 12 non-locals had just been killed?

As you descend to Mandera, River Dawa is visible from the skies. The silence in the small plane is perhaps because of security concerns in the county.

At the airstrip, all passengers descend and walk a good 200m from where a truck delivers the luggage at the roadside along the strip. While waiting for our luggage, I am met with smiles as if to say welcome. I immediately feel at ease.

Warmly received

After a short drive from the airstrip, I arrive at the hotel. I am warmly received by the hotel manager and given my keys. As I enter my room, the first thing on my mind is security, so I check the door locks and windows.

Surprisingly, the door lock is broken and the window locks do not shut. I ask for another room and I’m shown the adjacent one. Here too, the balcony door cannot lock, the windows towards the balcony are large enough to walk through. I ask the room assistant whether I am safe considering the situation in Mandera. He says there is nothing to worry about. After the first night, I do not bother to lock the main door and I’m confused. What I expected and what I am observing are two different worlds. The hospitable nature of the people is far from what I anticipated.

I feel more comfortable and welcome in Mandera than in any other towns I have been to in North Eastern region. In the first place, residents in different areas coincidentally nicknamed me Halimah (an Arabic name meaning gentle, mild and humane). In my visits in the region, this was a first. Mandera residents made me forget I was in a different culture and a dangerous area with a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

I begin to question why Mandera has had such violent attacks yet residents seem so friendly. A young man tells me Mandera people are good, but “kuna shetani anatoka ng’ambo ile anataka tu kutuharibia Mandera (there is a devil from across the border that wants to destroy our county). Why would we destroy our country when we have nowhere else to go? We cannot go to Somalia, as no one will accept us there, neither can we go to Ethiopia for we do not have Ethiopian papers”.

To understand this man, you need to know the clan dynamics. He is a Garre, which is from the Oromia dialect and traces its origin in Ethiopia. There are no Garres in Somalia. They primarily occupy Mandera and some parts of Ethiopia. In Mandera, apart from the Garre are the Degodia in Mandera North, Murulle in Mandera East and a few Marehans who are settlers from across the Somalia border and are primarily businessmen in Mandera town. Basically, the Marehans live along the Kenya-Somalia border from Bula Hawa to Bula Hajji.

So what is ailing Mandera? It is argued that there are selfish people who collaborate to create the insecurity for their own benefit. There are gangs committing the crimes. Who is behind the gangs and what is there to gain? There also is the view that Al-Shabaab is killing the innocent poor with the help of collaborators. Who then are these collaborators?

It is not easy to tell the good, the bad and the evil. This is shown by the resistance by nearly every local we meet. After a chat, it is normal to request for phone contacts. The reaction is the same everywhere, no, followed with a smile. Later I am understand that here people do not know who to trust, hence would rather not share their phone numbers. “In Mandera, one cannot trust even their blood brother or sister, it is that bad,” a woman tells me.

Business potential

The potential for business growth in Mandera town is un-imaginable. The town is encased by Ethiopia and Somalia border points, which are at most 25 minutes’ drive from Ethiopia border through Mandera to Somalia border. It implies you can cross three countries in thirty minutes. This is the potential this town holds.

The residents of Mandera speak Swahili more often than those in any other part of North Eastern. Mostly, I heard Swahili being spoken at the hotel where I stayed. One night after dinner as I head to my room, the manager asks me why I was secluding myself in the room, yet there are people outside in the gazebos conversing up to midnight. Simply put, one is not just a guest but a family member at the hotel. It shows the friendly nature of MDR people.

In Mandera, I am told people will laugh with you during the day and at night you will hear some have been killed because they are non-locals. I’m told Mandera residents are great actors, all they do is to put up a great show. I am not convinced because it does not make sense unless someone somewhere is saying that Mandera people have a double personality disorder. Something else is ailing Mandera, it goes beyond the locals’ involvement and cuts across the fabric that makes the Kenyan society.

The other dilemma of Mandera is the presence of security officers. Here, a security is like your co-worker. Everywhere you go there is one, either visible or invisible. Despite all this security, death is almost becoming a norm in this town. This dilemma is expressed too by the residents who feel that Mandera should be the most secure county, given the number and diversity of security personnel.

The army barracks is within the proximity of the town, then there is Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Police Reservists, Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) and Criminal Investigative Department (CID) not to mention Kenya Police. The question I am left with is, what is going on in Mandera? A friendly people together with a massive security presence is not equal to insecurity.


During a visit to the Kenya-Ethiopian border, the Kenya police advised us not to take any pictures across the Ethiopian side. We did take a raft ride at River Dawa but only up to the middle of the river, meaning only in Kenya. On Somalia’s side, the border post is adjacent to Bula Hawa town in Somalia.

Shortest route

This is the potential in Mandera, yet it is dying under the devil and traitors. If business was to pick up in this town, Nairobi would be but a shadow. Furthermore, Ethiopians living in Suftu, Dollo Ado and nearing towns must fly or travel by road via Mandera before proceeding across River Dawa to Ethiopia. It is the shortest route from Nairobi. All this is not tapped because of insecurity.

On the trip back, while undergoing a security check, a man aged about 27 is asked in Swahili where he was going to. He stares back at the security agents without a word. It is apparent he does not understand the question.

The man suddenly utters “hapana Swahili’ (no Swahili). This is one of the tests used to distinguish Kenyans from foreigners. However, the man has in his possession a Kenyan identification card, which clearly has seen better days. How did this man get a Kenyan ID and who issued it? The answer to this question is what is ailing Mandera.

- The writer is a United States International University-Africa PhD Candidate in International Relations-Security