‘We shall return’: elections, anxiety and prophecies in northern Kenya

 By Hassan Hussein Kochore

 Hassan Hussein Kochore writes about a ‘we shall return home’ narrative gaining traction in parts of northern Kenya. People are looking north to a post-Meles Ethiopia while worrying what the 2013 Kenyan elections will bring.

In his seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson suggested that a feeling of national community is produced by the knowledge that all over the nation people are performing the daily ritual of reading the same newspaper.  This idea is best captured in the name of our own Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation.  In Nairobi, one can take for granted the ease with which a newspaper can be obtained from the supermarket, roadside vendors, and hawkers in traffic jams or even by borrowing it from a fellow passenger in a matatu. Many matatus these days actually have a copy of the day’s paper and if you’re lucky enough to sit next to the driver, you can monopolize it. By the time you get to your destination, you’ll have read the whole paper for free!

Then picture a place where a newspaper is hard to come by, a place where you can only ever buy yesterday’s paper, asking a shopkeeper on a Monday morning, “Nipatie Sunday Nation ya leo.” (Give me today’s Sunday Nation). Welcome to Marsabit County in northern Kenya, the nation’s ‘B-side’. Northern Kenya has historically been marginalized, closed off from the rest of Kenya and development actors like the churches. It was only after independence that the Catholic Church, for example, was allowed to build schools in Marsabit. Roads are almost non-existent, with heavy trucks – the most popular means of transport – carving out new roads for themselves every few days in the sandy landscape. It still takes two days riding on the roof of a truck to get to Marsabit from Nairobi.

On the way, just after leaving the frontier town of Isiolo, you’ll meet herders walking to distant water points with their cattle, camels, and herds of goats and sheep. The herders occasionally try to stop speeding cars for water, waving their plastic jerry cans in a plea for assistance, or try to catch a lift to the next trading center, which are few and far between. With almost immotorable dusty roads, the journey is far from an enjoyable experience – save for the picturesque savanna landscape and the wildlife occasionally dashing dangerously from the bushes in front of the passing vehicles.  At almost every trading center, a person will ask you “Habariya Kenya?” (‘How’s Kenya?’).  This is the situation that a long history of state neglect has produced: apathetic citizens who do not see themselves as part of Kenya.

Tarmacking of the Marsabit-Moyale road has begun. Photo courtesy of Liz Watson.

In order to turn this history on its head, the government of Kenya has included in its economic blueprint Vision 2030 a major plan to change northern Kenya from a low potential area to a high potential one. In fact, there is a separate Vision 2030 document for ‘Northern Kenya and other arid and semi-arid areas’ underlining the ‘commitment’ of the government to open up the North to economic opportunities. One of the more literal ways they plan open up this area is through the construction of roads. The road from Isiolo to Marsabit is already half tarmacked while work has begun on the Moyale-Marsabit road. Once completed, these will provide a direct, tarmacked connection between Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

The face of northern Kenya therefore is changing, and one might expect people’s opinions and loyalty to the Kenyan state to shift accordingly. However, while the government has set out to socially and economically integrate the northern populations into Kenya, the narratives on the ground seem to be painting a contrasting picture.

For example, in the remote Boran areas of Marsabit county, there are discussions about the prophecies of a famous Boran prophet called Arero Bosaro who, about two centuries ago according to the tale, had prophesied that ‘a black road’ (read tarmac) would come from the direction of what is now ‘Kenya’, carrying all the Boran from the south (Nairobi, Mombasa, etc.) and pour them into their homeland of Dirre and Liban in southern Ethiopia. This is interpreted alongside another prophecy that Kenya will not last more than three abas (presidents). It is said in this prophecy that the South (Kenya) will become dark and the North (Ethiopia) will light up. The demise of Meles Zenawi is given as one of the indicators of a brightening Ethiopia as the Oromo population in Ethiopia (including the Boran) faced marginalization and brutality under the Zenawi regime. His exit gives hope of an Ethiopia in which the majority ethnic community, the Oromo, will thrive (though this of course is debatable). On the other hand, the confusion surrounding the several tiered elections in Kenya (‪voters used to chose only their local councilor, M.P. and then the president, but now have to vote for about 6 positions – president, governor, M.P., senator, county representative, and women’s representative as well as potentially vote in a presidential rerun; see more about confusion surrounding the election here) and the possibility of the next Kenyan president being detained in a ‘foreign court’ (ICC) is seen as portending tough times ahead for Kenya. Worries about these developments underlie a sense of anxiety on the periphery about the forthcoming Kenyan general elections. This anxiety is all the more marked because the elections represent a moment of transition for the country on several fronts, not only because of the Kibaki succession but also because they are supposed to usher in a new federalist governance structure.

The prospects of opportunities in a post-Meles Ethiopia and the ‘return home’ narrative told through the prophecies seems to be gaining traction, especially among the elderly and the young rural folk who are marginalised and lack opportunities, and to whom their homeland of Dirre and Liban has powerful symbolism.  This narrative is obviously counterproductive for the Kenyan state’s ‘nationalist project’ of opening up the North to Kenya. People’s hearts still seem to lie elsewhere. With names such as Dirre Dawa, Soyama, Tulla Sallan and Nagelle (all places in southern Ethiopia) on trucks and shops across Marsabit County, it is not hard to see that northerners perceive themselves as belonging to a different ‘imagined community’.

Indeed, gubernatorial politics in Marsabit has already spilled over into Ethiopia. A few months ago, the Boran Abagada (Boran political leader) based in southern Ethiopia endorsed one Boran candidate for the position of the governor of Marsabit. Only time will tell whether his decision will be backed by the Boran electorate, but one thing is clear: Ethiopia has become important in the political life of the area more than ever before. WIth the impending opening up of northern Kenya to southern Ethiopia through the construction of the Isiolo-Moyale road, it seems likely that this connection will be reinforced.

A tarmacked section of the Isiolo-Marsabit road. Photo courtesy of Liz Watson.

Hassan Kochore is a research assistant at the National Museums of Kenya. Recent research in Marsabit, together with Dr. Elizabeth Watson,  was funded by the Royal Geographical Society in conjunction with the Thesiger Oman International Fellowship. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not, in any way, represent those of NMK or the Royal Geographical Society.

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