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Lokichoggio, the town that lost its glory

NORTH EASTERN
By SILAH KOSKEI | February 16th 2014
           Part of Lokichoggio today and the town’s once-buzzing airstrip, below. [PHOTOS: PETER  OCHIENG’/STANDARD]

By SILAH KOSKEI

Lokichogio, Kenya: It was a vibrant town teeming with activity. Business between locals and refugees from Sudan was booming. Planes flew in from Nairobi and other parts of the country regularly, bringing with them businessmen and an expatriate crowd.

That was way back in 1998.

Today the town that owes it growth to the presence of United Nations agencies and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that established bases in the region to assist victims of the Sudan civil war is a far cry from what it once was.

The town’s glory is gone.

The once busy airstrip rarely sees a plane, while business activity has dwindled and locals now steer clear of their town.

Lokichoggio has changed drastically in 16 short years and the once charming town is currently unappealing to both locals and investors from outside.

Now the locals just talk about the time South Sudan officials would travel each weekend to the town to make merry.

The town situated in Turkana west, 30km from the Kenya-South Sudan border, is bestowed with an airport that was once used by Belgian nationals for direct flights to their home country in search of funds to aid refugees from South Sudan.

Border insecurity

Willy Thuo, a proprietor of Loki Makuti enterprise, has been in the town since 1998 and recalls the good times, saying NGOs played an integral role in the towns growth.

He says major installations evident in the town are as a result of the input by NGOs who had to come to the aid of Sudanese refugees.

He says after peace returned to Sudan following a ceasefire agreement between Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM) rebels and the Sudan government, refugees and NGOS vacated the town.

“Their exit in 2007 transformed the town’s outlook as locals failed to maintain its standards,” he adds.

He says business opportunities between locals and new entrants ended, while the once robust hotel and lodging business boomed.

Insecurity is also mentioned as one of the main reasons for the current state of affairs with cases of cattle rustling and cross-border conflicts between Turkana and pastoralists from South Sudan, the Toposa, being blamed.

For Thuo, his liquor business has failed to pick up years after the exit of the South Sudanese and the abandoning of operations by more than 72 NGOs in the region.

Henry Mwangi, who has been a mechanic in the town for the last eight years, blames the fall of the town’s fortunes on the exit of investors, saying that the presence of NGOs saw the region’s income surpass the expected mark.

“The road headed towards the border was always busy with trucks full of food and water being transported to South Sudan and on most occasions the drivers could book rooms thus boosting local businesses,” he says.

Mwangi says locals used to trade their livestock with hotels frequented by South Sudan officials and refugees.

He says lodges in Lokichoggio were always packed despite being expensive due to the high number of new entrants into the area.

“Currently, most lodgings are rarely booked, forcing the landlords to give the houses to the locals for free just to keep them occupied and secure,” he says.

Mwangi remembers how locals, NGO officials and immigrants intermingled freely leading to establishment of many entertainment joints.

High taxes

Francis Ragui, a prominent businessman in the town, cites bad roads in the region as another factor for the collapse of the town.

He says the road from Kitale to Nadapal border is in a deplorable state, forcing most businessmen to go through Uganda when transporting goods and services to South Sudan.

Mr Ragui said there is need for the Government to repair the roads in the region to provide an opportunity for investors interested in revamping the fading town.

He says huge taxes imposed at the Kenyan-South Sudan border has also become a challenge to most businessmen who conduct trade in both countries.

The petrol attendant says charges incurred at the two border points have killed trade between the two countries.

“The taxes have increased tenfold and are a deterrence to those willing to travel to neighbouring countries to trade. Many people now prefer to operate within their regions because they are likely to experience losses,” he states.

Engage South Sudan

Charles Lorogoi from Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Turkana County acknowledges that taxes incurred by business groups when crossing the border are high.

“Most locals suffer a lot from huge taxes leading to slow development pace in Lokichoggio,” he said.

He says government needs to impose regulations to curb the high taxation in a move to restore the once beautiful urban centre.

He said with the presence of an airport, the county government should empower locals to make use of the facility and use it woo investors.

He called on President Uhuru Kenyatta to dialogue with his Southern Sudan counterpart and come up with a favourable taxation rate in a bid to promote development between the two countries.

Lorogoi says the Turkana county government should find a way to ensure the town rises to its feet again, saying it will benefit the locals.

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