Sunday, October 10, 2010

Garissa: The Largest City Between Nairobi and Mogadishu

KE-GarissaImage via Wikipedia

The City of Garissa in Kenya’s North Eastern Province (NEP) has been on the top list of the most peaceful cities in East and Central Africa for over twenty years. It is the provincial headquarter of NEP as well as the administrative center for Garissa District. Named after a riverine local Pokomo elder or farmer called Karisa, Garissa became a recognized settlement in 1936. Majority of the inhabitants of Garissa are ethnic Somalis. Besides subsistence and small scale farming and local business initiatives by urbanites, livestock raring remains the major sustainer of the region’s economy. From 1963 when Kenya became a sovereign republic until the late eighties, the region suffered tremendous insecurity resulting from recurring banditry, poaching, and cattle-rustling.

However, according to Kenya government figures, Garissa District has continuously for years recorded the highest concentration of livestock in East and Central Africa. Traders in Garissa get their surplus livestock from Somalia’s southern regions consequently making Garissa a haven for livestock merchants primarily between the months of January and April when the volume of cattle substantially increases. Cattle trading in Garissa attract traders from as far as Machakos, Nairobi, Nyeri, Mombasa and other coastal towns during this time of the year consequently transforming the city into a beehive of activity. Despite generating enough revenue from the taxation of cattle sales, Garissa city has lagged behind other cities of Kenya in all aspects of development. The district’s markets in southern Somalia include Baidoa, Dinsor, Qorioley, Jowhar, Afgoi, Salagle, Bardhere and Afmadow, among others. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that 60-80% of livestock in Garissa originate from the Somali region in Ethiopia, Somalia, and other divisions with NEP.

In the past, the district experienced remarkable government involvement after health concerns related to the epidemiological outbreaks of Rinderpest (cattle plague or steppe murrain) and other devastating foot and mouth diseases necessitated in the enforcement of veterinary regulations, consequently and at times, leading to closure of cattle markets.

Despite being the major supplier of beef to major cities in Kenya and to as far as Tanzania and despite being the largest city between Nairobi and Mogadishu, Garissa greets its visitors with grim reality. With the exception of a teachers’ training college and one Islamic school founded by mindful businessmen and overseas-based organizations, the city has no university; it has no feasible infrastructure; the only visible tarmac located in the city center measures a few kilometers; its dusty potholed streets transform into lakes during rainy seasons; the municipality and the city council have no refuse collection systems in place thus making inhabitants susceptible to waterborne and airborne diseases; it has no manufacturing industries; unemployment is rife; drug addiction among the youth continues to skyrocket; poverty, beggary, and street children remain an eyesore and a social menace, and worst of all poor land allocation strategies riddled with corruption has been the major cause of civil skirmishes among the tribal-minded inhabitants resulting in government application of emergency laws such as extended curfews and deployment of the dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) together with the rapid Deployment Unit (RDU) to quell disturbances.

The city has a long history of election rigging; harassment of electors and opposition groups is common-dirty tricks and techniques inherited from past fallen autocratic regimes. Just like their cousins across the border, Somalis in Garissa and other parts of NEP have over and over again championed clan domineering approaches by unconventional means especially by rampant warring and ethnic animosities. Reminiscent of Somalia’s “Guulwadeyaasha” or revolutionary youth during the military junta, Kenyatta and Moi era governments relied on a force that recklessly represented the Kenya African National Union (KANU) Party-a consortium of embellished, underfunded youth wingers whose arguments rested on the just war doctrine of “kill or be killed”. Such political plunders ensured the uninterrupted reclamation of political structure and extension of inheritance for the old guards.

The trouncing of Moi’s single-party regime and the birth of multiparty democracy in 1992 did little to alter the pervasiveness of past odious events. In fact it exacerbated the political scenario when new contestants found their ambitions obstructed by the same old guards who jumped on the bandwagon using the same old tricks inherited from their past masters of deception.

The district has suffered poor county and parliamentary representation since Kenya’s attainment of independence in 1963. The reason the region is underperforming is due to the government's discriminatory practices of allocating resources, unfair distribution of wealth, outright marginalization of the people who inhabit the land, and diversion of funds earmarked for the region to other more prosperous regions.

Ironically, because of their adroitness at accumulating wealth, majority of the region’s uneducated councilors and parliamentarians have promoted their self-esteem and thus harbor elitist mentality such that even those who bowed out of politics remain a force to reckon with. These men have the power to imprison, kill or regain one’s freedom. While the poor suffer dental decay due to unhygienic eating habits coupled with shortage of dentists, the uneducated honorable parliamentarian or councilor displays sparkling white teeth because of abundance of money at his disposal. For a long time, stealing from state treasury has been a hallmark of African politics and Kenya, because of its corruption ranking profile, is no exception.

The Offspring of a Snake is a Snake
The above phrase is a translation of the Kiswahili saying “mtoto wa nyoka ni nyoka”. It has been used by corrupt Kenya leaders as a rallying cry to provoke non-Somalis to hate and oppress Kenya-Somalis. The saying inspired Kenya leaders after the succession of past Somali governments instigated political irredentism and supported the repossession of what used to be the Northern Frontier District (NFD) from the Republic of Kenya. This idiomatic expression and phraseologically provocative aphorism applied to almost every Kenyan-Somali and that its widespread use slackened only after the collapse of the Somali central government in 1991. The bitter territorial dispute that kicked-off between Kenya and Somalia in the 60s has gone down in history as the “Shifta War”. The word Shifta (or “shufta”) implies a bandit, outlaw, or rebel. The name became an allusion and nom de guerre for every Kenyan-Somali regardless of whether one was a law-abiding citizen or a contextually sadistic law-breaking criminal.
Thus, Kenya-Somalis saw themselves wedged between two diametrically opposed forces with profound conflicting ideologies-one a civilian authoritarian government (Kenya) with western inclinations and a dictatorial regime (Somalia) -espousing a plethora of political dimensions.

Thousands of families lacking guidance or controlling force or influence crossed the border into Somalia to escape rampant hostilities on the Kenya side. Leaders of the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (NPPP) incorporated Somalis of diverse clans, Borana, Rendille, and others.

For decades, Garissa had been under the radar of Kenya security and intelligence agencies primarily because the region was under martial law decreed immediately after Kenya’s proclamation of independence. Besides the insecurity that came with the shifta menace, widespread illegal poaching by Somalis scavenging for better living conditions decimated-if not-drastically reduced wildlife concentration in Kenya’s internationally-acclaimed national parks and game reserves. Besides the hazards of wildlife plundering, poachers stealthily brought with them dangerous small arms that endangered the lives of government game wardens whose task implied the protection of wild game and the preservation of Kenya’s vigorous tourist industry. Since independence and till this day, tourism has been a cornerstone and sustainer of Kenya’s economy. The best the Kenya government can do for the moment and in the future is to fully integrate Kenya-Somalis and give them a share of the national cake.

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