The early 2000s saw changes in the political economy of the region that significantly shifted the nature of conflicts. The end of emergency rule in 1991 allowed Kenyan Somali traders – using their clan, business and religious connections in Somalia and Gulf Arab states – to move goods into and through Kenyan markets, and on to markets in Uganda and the Great Lakes region. Border regions and northern Kenya more widely were viewed as rich with resources and new markets to help secure the country’s economic growth. No longer dismissed as an inconsequential borderland, national business and political elites now sought to establish links in the borderland region for investment, trade and political power. This was a marked reversal from the region’s marginalised past and its exclusion from wider development planning and investment.
Economic change also hastened pastoralist ‘sedentarisation’. For example, the drilling of boreholes in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged both settlement and competition. By wresting control of water points, clans created new permanent settlements and asserted territorial claims and pressure for political recognition. Small and medium-sized towns throughout the region experienced exceptional growth, especially after 1991 once the state of emergency was lifted and refugees arrived from Somalia.
From 2003, the Kenya state began to support new social infrastructure like schools and clinics as well as administrative offices through Constituency Development Funds (CDFs), contributing further to town growth. In recent years, Garissa has become the country’s fastest-growing city, while Dadaab, home to the world’s largest refugee camp, now ranks as Kenya’s third largest city. As sedentarisation accelerated and towns expanded, demands for the supply of goods heightened. The volume of transport services increased as goods and people moved between growing centres in the region like Wajir, Mandera, Garissa and Isiolo, as well as between these towns and larger cities like Nairobi and Mombasa. This increasing connectivity between the centre and borderlands, and within the borderlands, signified north-eastern Kenya’s growing encapsulation into wider Kenyan political and economic life.
Livestock marketing and trade, the backbone of local livelihoods and economic life, continued to flourish despite recurring drought and the Somali war, increasing demand for transport links. Much of this trade was cross-border into Somalia, with elites such as wealthy businesspeople, large livestock owners and clan leaders making use of differentiated conditions on either side of the border. Insecurity and lack of poor governance in Somalia meant an absence of enforced taxation rules and unregulated access to ports. The proximity of centres in the north-eastern borderlands between Nairobi and Kenya’s central highlands, and Kismayo port in Somalia, made them a ready market for transiting goods. A key example is the growth of the Garissa livestock market in the region since the 1990s, now one the largest such markets in the Horn of Africa.
The borderlands economy has changed with the growth of towns, multiplying transport connections, accessible and unregulated sea ports in southern Somalia, and expanding transnational flows of goods. The improving position of Kenyan Somali business elites, and refugee elites that control trade routes from Somalia to Dadaab refugee camp, has also generated increasing flows of investment into Kenya’s northern borderlands, in areas such as property, agriculture, haulage and financial services, as well as illicit trade in goods such as charcoal and sugar. Nonetheless, human development indicators remain largely very poor. According to the World Bank, the average poverty rate in north and north-eastern Kenya is 68 per cent (compared to 38 per cent nationally), primary school attendance is 55 per cent (82 per cent nationally), women’s literacy is 41 per cent (89 per cent nationally), and access to safe water 57 per cent (72 per cent nationally).
The impact of devolution
Political developments have also been a key factor in changing dynamics: Kenya’s 2010 constitution paved the way for devolution and the creation of new county governments that receive the equivalent of 15 per cent of national revenue. While many in north-eastern Kenya celebrate devolution as a form of ‘home rule’ signifying the region’s greater autonomy from the centre, in practice it is one of the most ambitious efforts to expand state power into the borderlands.
Devolution has also brought new forms of conflict, including shifts in inter-clan rivalries. The greater integration of the borderlands with political and economic processes in Kenya and transnationally has led local elites to seek to control both territory and political-administrative positions in order to assert and consolidate power. The creation of Wajir, Garissa and Mandera counties in 2013 sharpened the trend of rising clan-based competition to control sub-national political offices. Positions in county governments carry with them the power to decide the distribution of public resources for development but also the ability to wield influence over institutions that allocate contracts and tenders, jobs and scholarships.
As a result, fragmentation at sub-national level along clan and sub-clan fault-lines, already evident since the early 1990s, has increased. Clan identities have increasingly become crucial markers in conflict dynamics as a way to stake and contest claims to resources, including rangelands, water points, irrigable land and political positions. Local clan leaders and elders, and the use of Xeer, have become less prominent in resolving localised conflicts, which more easily spread into higher-level conflict dynamics.
Al Shabaab’s influence has also increased. The Somalia-based militant group has waged an intensifying campaign of attacks in Kenya since 2008. By 2015, Lind (2018) reports, it was implicated in nearly 40 per cent of all conflict events in northern Kenya, concentrated in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. Al Shabaab propaganda refers to Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya as ‘colonised territories’, drawing on long- standing local grievances against the Kenyan state and the sense of marginalisation among borderlands populations that fuelled the earlier Shifta conflict. State security responses included extrajudicial killings, a crackdown on refugees, amendments to security laws and police swoops on certain communities. As in earlier times, these were felt as a form of collective punishment, reconstituting the wedge between Kenyan Somalis and the state while doing little to curb the threat of Al Shabaab attacks.