By Hassan Wario
The Upper Eastern region covers the three districts of Marsabit, Isiolo and Moyale.
This is where majority of the groups that speak Cushitic Oromo dialects live. They are Borana, Gabra, Rendille, Turkana, Samburu, Meru (in Isiolo), Burji, Dessanetch and El Molo, among others.
The region has one of the highest concentration of diverse ethnic groups with pastoralist backgrounds. It is arid and semi-arid and has a long history of neglect and underdevelopment. Despite the problems, the loud silence from the region, especially at this time when political drums are beating, is astounding.
Politics and development are two sides of the same coin. People or regions that make the loudest noise about neglected and threaten the ruling elite with withdrawal of support are listened to. The irony is that in Upper Eastern, this is not happening. It is as if leaders wait for development manna to drop from the skies of Marsabit, Isiolo and Moyale.
Those clamouring for presidential votes are traversing the country in search of support. They do not care about Upper Eastern. They believe that western Kenya, eastern or the coastal votes are more valuable than the ‘few scattered’ pastoralist votes.
Thus the election is about votes and not people and how best to improve their lives. Of course, the big players will go to Upper Eastern after they have covered the ‘core’ areas.
If the people of Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale were united, then they could tell off all the political aspirants who only jet in when they need votes and never return until after five years.
How many times, since the death of the leaders in a plane crash in Marsabit, did the President or his senior aides visit the region? Has Marsabit Airstrip, whose location was the key cause of the crash, been revamped, re-located or rehabilitated? It is plausible that the airport in Wajir is now a better quality and will serve the northern region well. Why don’t we have an international airport in Moyale — one of the most important gateways to landlocked Ethiopia?
The average Kenyan living outside the region has little clue about it because it has been shrouded in isolation for so long that it behaves like another distant country separate from the ‘Kenya we know’. For instance, most Kenyans have heard of Koobi Fora — where fossils linked to early human evolution were found.
But how many know that it is in Marsabit? If Koobi Fora is one of the possible cradles of humankind, then the first humans may have lived in Marsabit before they migrated to other parts of the world. That is debatable, but what is true is that Marsabit is endowed with cultural, palaeontological and natural resources that could be used to promote the economy and livelihood of the residents.
The tourism potential that the region offers has not been exploited and no leader from the region thinks in those terms. The key pre-occupation of local politicians is ethnic difference between Borana, Gabra, Sakuye, Rendille and others or, in the case of the Borana, entrenched clanism. The situation in Isiolo highlights widening clan divisions among the Borana and the possibility of the community losing the parliamentary seat in Isiolo North to a outsider.
very educated person seems to have thrown his hat into the ring, increasing the chances of divisive clanism. The blind clamour for a place in Parliament on the back of divided and poor communities will be costly to those who care about development — hospitals, schools, social welfare and peace.
Development possibilities are extensive, but they have been exploited for individual gain or were done on ad hoc basis. For instance, the Isiolo County Council once collected a lot of money from game parks in its region. None of that money is evident in development if dirty streets, raw sewage and abject poverty of the residents are anything to go by.
In short, there has never been a strategic development to better the lives of the people in Isiolo by local or central governments. The same case applies to other towns and townships in Upper Eastern.
A large part of the region does not have and it takes about two days on the back of a lorry to get to Moyale yet one can fly to London in eight hours. There are no proper schools. Garba Tulla, which was the only national school in the region, is decaying. Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale hospitals do not offer quality medical care.
Universities being awarded to different corners are a distant dream to a region without polytechnics. There was a long-term plan to build Dabasso Wabera Polytechnic in Marsabit. Of course, it never took off.
To politicians in the region, the message is this: Kenya is now, albeit not officially, a majimbo State. Look at the power bases of Ford-Kenya, Narc-Kenya, Shirikisho, Ford-People, ODM and ODM-Kenya. If you do not have a mouthpiece, you won’t get much for your people.
It is a scandal that Upper Eastern is still part of Eastern Province. The people of the three districts deserve a province so that meaningful development plans can be mooted and executed. This should be the basic demand.
Other demands should be for better schools, colleges and infrastructure. Upper Eastern needs a blueprint for development. But the truth is that nobody cares about the region save for local communities.