Dropped balls and costly historical errors: How forgotten corners of Africa are taking centre stage

Neglect of the north costs Kenya a pipeline deal, DR Congo's derelict interior keeps Kabila hanging on, and terror groups flourish in the vast Sahel

IF you look at a relief map of Africa, you will notice that northern Kenya extending into southern Somalia is a low, flat plain hemmed in my mountain ranges to the north, west and south.

It’s unusual for this to happen in Africa, but the region is in two rain shadows, the Ethiopian highlands to the north, and the Kenyan highlands to the south and west.

The combined effect of the mountains attracting all the moisture coming in from the monsoon winds blowing over the Indian Ocean means that the most of northern Kenya and southern Somalia is arid and semi-arid.

In the colonial era, the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, as the name suggests, was considered incidental to the colony’s core interests, regarded as little more than a buffer zone to protect the Kenyan interior from raids by Ethiopian soldiers, and westward expansion of Somali pastoralists.

The neglect continued well into the independence era, when official government policy was to allocate resources to agriculturally “productive” areas of Kenya and particularly along the railway line.

By 2010, the social, economic and infrastructure exclusion was so deep that Mandera county, bordering Ethiopia and Somalia, recorded 3,795 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, then the highest maternal mortality rate ever recorded in the world (by contrast, the Kenyan national average was 488 deaths per 100,000; and globally, 216).

41.2% of men in North Eastern province have no education at all, as well as more than three quarters of women; the respective national averages are 4.1% and 14.2%.

But this arid and semi-arid region accounts for 80% of the Kenyan land area, dominated by pastoralist communities who hold half of Kenya’s total livestock population, valued at 10% of the national GDP.

Market economy

The potential is massive, but the livestock economy from the region remains poorly integrated into the market economy, deepening cycles of poverty and exclusion, even as much of the land also has huge potential for dryland agriculture, with the right irrigation networks and market linkages.

Now, the decades of marginalisation is coming back to haunt Kenya in a major way, as it is one of the main reasons the country lost out to Tanzania on the oil pipeline deal with Uganda, which could have earned the country millions of dollars in transit fees.

Uganda had the choice between using the Kenyan route through Lokichar in northern Kenya to Lamu at the coast, but chose to go sign on the southern route through Tanzania to Tanga port.

READ: Uganda president Museveni’s oil polygamy and the East African pipeline race

According to a recent article expounding on the intrigues of the deal, the lack of infrastructure on the northern route dulled the attractiveness of the Kenya option – only a network of 183 kilometres of tarmac roads and 250 kilometres of usable murram roads are close by the project right of way on the northern Kenya route, none of which are suitable for heavy trucks.

The Tanga route has existing roads, with 1,101 kilometres of tarmac roads and 582 kilometres of usable murram roads, and a railway along the project right of way.

The Lamu option was also considered expensive because of the cost of construction of the port itself; by contrast, the Tanga port is already up and running. That meant that realistically speaking, the Kenya option would cost $5.1 billion, while the Tanzania one was estimated at around $3.5 billion.

A devolved governance structure adopted in 2010 in Kenya attempts to correct this historical marginalisation, but disgruntlement has for example, already emerged over the management of the anticipated benefits of the oil of Turkana County in northern Kenya – a county which is estimated to have 50,000 small arms in civilian hands.

But the story of regional exclusion and infrastructure dilapidation is by no means unique in Africa, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila been trying prolong his term in office by politically motivated extensions to the election timetable, in part made possible by Congo’s notoriously poor infrastructure.


It began with controversial electoral census requirement from the Kabila camp, which – in a densely populated but very poorly connected country – could take up to three years to complete.

READ: Rogue view: Africa’s ‘pole of inaccessibility’ and how it contributes to the central region’s third term disease

That bid was abandoned after widespread protests, but then came another requirement that local, communal, provincial, and gubernatorial elections all take place prior to the November 2016 presidential elections, which has been met with more protests.

This glissement (loosely translated as “slippage”, but more elegant in the French) of the electoral timetable would allow Kabila to prolong his stay in power without resorting explicit constitutional changes.

Central Africa more broadly has the worst infrastructure on the continent particularly transport, which impacts negatively on not just production capacities but on democratic process too. 

Anti-Kabila protests in DR Congo in 2015. (Photo/File).

It arguably contributes to the “third term corridor” phenomenon in Central Africa and inner east Africa because within a country, democracy - even loosely defined - cannot take root in isolation. It depends on the flow of information, where people are able to access services and when citizens can reach each other and feel inter-connected.

Simmering discontent

The same phenomenon is playing out in the Sahel, which has long been a region of simmering discontent from the lack of state services. That gives it a fundamental fragility that terror groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram are keen to exploit.

READ: The deadly ‘true pan-Africanists’: Jihadism in the Sahel dissolves borders, and Senegal gets nervous

In Mali’s dysfunctional political system, for example, the north has historically been marginalised, with what limited central control there was exerted through patronage and proxies. For local groups, taking a slice of the region’s lucrative informal, cross-border economy – from drugs, to migration routes and contraband cigarettes – has provided yet more impunity.

In 2014, the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso formed the G5 – a regional organisation to strengthen cooperation on development and security in the Sahel.

The African Union’s Nouakchott Process expands the number of participants in enhanced security cooperation, which includes regular meetings of security chiefs. But the area is vast, the terrain unforgiving, and regional security forces are small and often poorly equipped. 

“The emphasis should not be on securing borders,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, the senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN in February. “The emphasis should be on providing exactly what’s missing – social services, state services. It’s a huge project, a long-term project, but it’s the central issue.”

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