This week I had the pleasure to visit the border town of Mandera. Like Basel in Europe, a city that connects three countries, namely Switzerland, Germany and France, Mandera was designated as Border Point One or BP1 as local people fondly call it. The town brings together Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. All the border points in Kenya have numbers. Therefore, it is easy to suggest that Kenya starts and ends with Mandera after completing the cycle covering five country border points.
Normally, the town is booming with economic activities. Like most regions of Northern Kenya, the drought is also biting in Mandera. The temperature averaged 37 degrees Celsius even at night and the heat was not showing any sign of letting up. As I arrived with the early morning flight, three other Fokker 50 scheduled flights arrived. The airstrip in Mandera can qualify to be one of the busiest in Kenya. Hundreds of people, including taxi drivers, tuk-tuks and boda boda riders throng the landing field to receive the arriving passengers or bring the departing travellers. The sad part is that the airstrip is based inside a military facility. Being a protected site the passengers are often subjected to torturous security measures. One can easily feel humiliated at how the KDF officers subject the passengers to unnecessary and rigorous security checks.
The most amazing part about Mandera is that the community here is highly enterprising. Even though the border with Somalia is currently closed, people still cross after parting with some little facilitation fee to the security officers on both sides of the border. The Ethiopian side is still open and hundreds of people cross daily as they bring in merchandise and others export Kenyan products. The potential in increasing the volume of trade between the three countries through Mandera town is enormous.
Many years back Kenya enjoyed a favourable balance of trade because it exported manufactured products such as mattresses, plastic utensils, cigarettes, and sugar. But currently, since the border had been closed for several years, the resilient people on the Somali side have discovered a niche in the market by establishing cottage industries near the border and have since started manufacturing some of the items such as mattresses and export into Kenya. As Kenya continued to get preoccupied with security issues people in the neighbouring countries have learned to be resilient and normalise their lives as they manage issues of insecurity caused by the violent extremist group, Al Shabaab.
The beauty of Mandera is that people on all three border points are Somali and speak the same language and share a common culture. They seem to be at peace with each other. On my attempt to cross to the Ethiopian side I was received by smiling security officers who indicated that I am free to visit and feel at home. “This is also your country,” one officer said. It felt so hilarious to feel at home in a foreign country.
Cross-border trade and free movement of people and goods are very important to increase the volume of trade between the three neighbouring countries. The only obstacle is the official closure of the border with Somalia. If people are allowed to cross freely then this can also increase collectible revenue for KRA.
The writer is CEO, Frontier Counties Development Council.