Where is the border between Kenya and Somalia? Not where we think it is.
On May 15th, the Kenyan and Somali governments jointly announced the staged re-opening of border posts between the two countries after 12 years of closure.
‘First to open will be Bulo Hawa in Mandera county in 30 days. Next is Liboi in Mandera county in 60 days and Ras Kamboni in Lamu county in 90 days,’ stated Kenyan Interior Cabinet Secretary, Professor Kithure Kindiki. Apparently, a fourth border crossing in Wajir County is also being considered, although it is unclear where that would be.
Re-opening of Kenya/Somalia border posts suggests a thawing of an historically icy relationship
Clearly, relations between Nairobi and Mogadishu are back on track. The insecurity of the border area that justified the launch of Kenya’s incursion into southern Somalia, Operation Linda Nchi, in 2011 has now clearly been resolved and we can return to the border on the map, not the theoretical one somewhere further into Somalia. (That theoretical border runs along the northern edge of Somalia’s Jubbaland state and creating an effective buffer zone to keep out the al-Qa’ida-inked terror group, al-Shabaab).
Is it all great news?
But what do border posts mean if there are huge, uncontrolled spaces in between? Nothing, in effect – symbols of border security, rather than the real thing.
The historic problems with the Kenyan-Somali border
Feelings of grievance and marginalization amongst the border population and a parallel mistrust and dislike of the ethnic Somalis and Kenyan Muslims by other Kenyans has a long history, coming to a head soon after independence with the shifta war (1964-67) where ethnic Somalis in North Eastern Province attempted to secede and join Somalia.
The campaign wasn’t pretty (internal security operations against secessionist movements seldom are). It was characterized by violence and deeply divisive propaganda where clans, ethnicities and religions were played off against each other (an approach learned from the British colonial power, some commentators say, and by both sides).
Subsequently, some land in the Border counties, notably the very fertile areas of Lamu County, were forcibly populated by Kenya tribes from outside, further embedding feelings of grievance between communities.
This is not to say that this is Shifta Wars Episode 2: the Kenyan-Somalis Fight Back
Kenyan-Somalis have often served as loyal members of the security forces for, a good example being General Mahmoud Mohamed’s suppression of an attempted coup against President Daniel Arap Moi in 1982. Kenyan-Somalis calls themselves just that, with the ‘Kenyan’ part first, the latter part being their ethnicity and which they view as being effectively their ‘tribe’.
Somalis continue to hold senior positions in the Kenyan government regardless of who is in State House, an indication of their financial sway in elections and the constituency they can bring to bear. For example, only this week Nuruddin Haji was appointed Director General NIS: Adan Barre Duale is the CS for Defence; Brigadier Abdikadir Burje is the Chief of Military Intelligence; Mohamed Amin leads the
Directorate of Criminal Investigations; Nur Gabow is the Deputy Inspector General
APS… The list goes on. These are consistently loyal servants of the Kenyan government.
The contemporary problems with the border
However, putting the political elite aside, more recently the Border population in Mandera, Garissa and Wajir, have felt neglected by Nairobi. This is partly because of the continuing and mutual antipathy between some elements that was noted above (although this is by no means a universally held belief).
But it also because of the changing climate (which is now incredibly harsh in the border area), the lack of infrastructure development in the area to facilitate trade and livelihoods, as well as continuing insecurity, which has been exacerbated by al-Shabaab.
The last election saw violence in the Border counties and many residents now feel they are once again being slighted because they were not perceived to have voted for the winner. It is interesting to note that the new ‘Hustler Loans’ offered for small business start-ups are not ‘believed’ to have been offered in the Border counties except in Lamu.
The loans were considered haram by many in the Border counties anyway because they levied interest, which goes against the tenets of Islam. But whatever the truth of the matter is (there are forms of Islamic ‘loan’), this narrative has now entered the public discourse as yet another example of marginalization of the Border counties by the Nairobi government.
The real problem with the Kenya-Somalia border
Putting all these elements aside, though, the real problem is a knitting together of two different problems.
Firstly, Kenya doesn’t really border a single ‘state’ in terms of Somalia’s Jubbaland State – it is made up of three regions. One, Lower Jubba is pro-Kenya and fairly stable, if pretty corrupt (especially in terms of illegally exporting charcoal and sugar).
One, Middle Jubba, is an al-Shabaab fiefdom. The third, Gedo, is… well, it’s very much its own region: sometimes pro-Kenya; sometimes pro-Ethiopia; sometimes pro-Mogadishu; sometimes pro-the Jubbaland state temporary capital, Kismayo; then again sometimes not; and a lot of the time it is busy fighting itself.
As a result, ‘border controls’ are temporary, shifting and fickle. Some detractors have even said that Kenyan security forces are not always exhibiting the integrity they should when policing the border. As a result a lot of ‘things’ cross the border without ever going near a border checkpoint, nor will they when the official checkpoints open sequentially over the coming months. These ‘things’ include the aforementioned sugar (a 25kg bag of sugar costs half what it does in Wajir as it does in Nairobi because it has never gone near a customs check). They might also include fake goods, ranging from printer cartridges to watches to televisions – to guns, explosives, drugs, terrorists, and trafficked people.
And in the background is al-Shabaab, taxing all vehicle movements and sometimes, allegedly, even providing the transport now. ‘Legitimising’ seems to be where al-Shabaab is going, like a tired mafia family. They are also now offering loans that they say are ‘Islamic’, often with not a black flag or an AK47 in sight. (It didn’t exist when the Holy Q’ran was dictated the Prophet Mohamed, but we can be confident it would not have agreed with supporting the slaughter of civilians and all the other things that go with terrorism.)
Maybe Kenya should have focused on the Donald Trump-style border wall after all or maintained the buffer zone. At the moment it seems instead like the border is already moving south and west to the inward edges of Mandera, Garissa, Wajir and Lamu, and the new border posts mean as much in terms of territorial integrity as flags planted on the moon.
For more information on the relationship between Somalia and Kenya, consider reading the below articles from our Somalia Correspondent:
‘Will Somalia Join the East African Community?’
‘Climate Change Tops New Somalia Government’s Agenda’