Political goodwill critical to Isiolo County's peace

As the year 2018 comes to an end, a look at one of Kenya’s potential hotspots, Isiolo County, is appropriate. Geographically at the centre of Kenya, Isiolo county mirrors some of Kenya’s challenges; a convergence point for different interest groups. Starting as a colonial administrative centre, the town has a sense of insecurity due to large influxes of small arms and light weapons from Ethiopia and Somalia.

The relation between the county and national government on one side, and the Isiolo business community on the other appears frosty. The Isiolo business community worries about banks closing because operators feel insecure. The town looks sleepy in the midst of complex challenges.

Besides insecurity, simmering tension exist at four levels; local, inter-county, national, and international. Local tension mostly involves Isiolo’s big five communities; Borana, Somali, Turkana, Samburu, and Meru. Second, there are regular feuds between Isiolo and Meru Counties over boundaries, shared resources, and land demarcations.

Suspicion between counties is compounded by tensions relating to the county and the national government over projects and who should be doing what. The international part relates to the 'untouchable' conservancies as well as British military training camps that take thousands of hectares of land, yet they are rarely subjects of discussions when it comes to land disputes.

Fuels tension

The tensions are partly due to deliberate misinformation, lack of information, and political mischief.  Although Isiolo is cosmopolitan, a feeling of rampant discrimination in the County Government exists among the Samburu, Somali, Turkana, Meru, and Minorities. There is belief that the razing of the market in Isiolo town was part of a scheme to make one community poor. Poverty creation has in turn encouraged feelings of despair which fuels tension and claims of discrimination. This is fodder for politicians who love misrepresenting facts, in the name of their people.

Politicians fueled the purported opposition to the location of the resort city in the scenic Kipsing Gap area. The LAPSSET project, it was claimed, would destroy the environment and displace pastoralists by taking over grazing land.

The suggested alternative place, Kula Mawe, is dry and less scenic, but even there, questions of compensation abound. Speculators, colluding with land officials, became active in expectation of land compensation. This expectation generates conflict as 'titled' owners from elsewhere start fencing land, which hinders the free movement of cattle and camels.

Many people will get burnt in the Isiolo land bonanza. The assumption that the government and the LAPSSET will generously compensate speculators holding titles along the corridor is misplaced. There will be no monetary compensation, mainly because the government learned from past mistakes associated with SGR, Lamu, and Isiolo airport.

At the Isiolo airport, for instance, people in Isiolo and Meru counties were short-changed in land compensation because the influential pocketed the money. Despite some officials misleading citizens on compensation, the evolving policy of land for land exchange along the corridor is likely to burn numerous speculators.

Indian Ocean

The Isiolo International Airport is a good example of emerging tensions at inter-county, national, and even international levels. The terminal is in Isiolo but the runway is in Meru. Although the airport is national, the Isiolo-Meru inter-county quarrels, even over the airport name, make it appear local. Since the possible runway expansion zone is in Meru County, Meru wants to have big say in the running of the airport.

The design of the airport is structurally wanting. It raises questions of whether the designers were aware of the vision inherent in making Isiolo one of the potential hubs for the LAPSSET project that would ultimately link Lamu in Kenya on the Indian Ocean and Doula in Cameroon on the Atlantic Ocean. Their thinking was not even short term. Airport operation facilities are missing and security considerations escaped the designers’ attention.

There are, for instance, residences and small business activities at the airport gate, not far from the terminal. The runway is only 1.4 kilometres long instead of the necessary 3 kilometres. Since it cannot handle cargo planes, the airport remains tethered and wasted.

Sleepy Isiolo needs emotional and political recasting. It is a matter of political will, not of technicalities. Bad airport designs, political mischief, and laxity, fuel trouble that would spread to other counties. Relevant authorities, however, can unleash the airport, unlock surrounding economic potential, help reduce tensions, and thereby avoid trouble.

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at [email protected]