In the seven years he has been Mandera governor, Ali Roba has had five attempts on his life by people he believes are uncomfortable with the position he has taken against terrorism and radicalisation.
He also went against the directive of the revered clan elders not to defend his seat. Instead, he vied on a Jubilee ticket against the wave of a new outfit, Economic Freedom Party, and won.
Governor Roba spoke to Sunday Nation on why terrorist Al-Shabaab wants him dead, his position on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and how devolution has transformed Mandera.
There have been a number of attempts on your life in the past, including the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) targeting your convoy. What do you think is the motive for these attacks? Who wants you dead?
From a speculative perspective of the community, it is always that somebody wants me dead for political ends.
But the reality is all these incidents are linked to terrorism. Before the advent of devolution, Mandera was seriously affected by radicalisation and terrorism.
At the advent of devolution, a lot of effort has been put towards freeing Mandera from the grip of radicalisation and terrorism. I have been at the forefront in these efforts.
What we have been doing has been interfering with the status quo and terror networks do not appreciate this interference. I have been very vocal in a heart-and-mind campaign to counter radicalisation.
The more we do these campaigns and our people’s hearts and minds change, the more we are being looked at as a threat to terrorists. That puts us in harm’s way and that is what has been happening to the best of our knowledge.
Many radicalised minds and terrorists would like me to be quiet but that is impossible because I manage the affairs of the county, and whenever the county is affected in one way or the other it affects our operations.
As long as we continue talking, then the risk will always be there because terrorists are looking at me as their enemy.
But we depend on God for protection as we continue to do what we have to do to ensure that we confront this major challenge.
How have those attempts on your life affected your personal and social life?
There have been five attempts but two were extremely catastrophic.
In one of the incidents, I lost three security officers and in the other we lost five security officers.
In one of the cases, there was a direct hit on the vehicle by a rocket-propelled grenade and in the second incident it was an IED.
These incidents have affected us tremendously because the people we serve need to access their governor yet the risk factor has gone high.
Therefore, the movement of leaders within the county has been curtailed a lot. We are not able to move as we would have wished.
At a personal level, the attacks have affected our lives because people who provide security have to be those very close to us.
When you lose people like these, you get emotionally affected. The last incident was my worst and it has seriously shaken me for over a month.
It has also affected my children because the security people were very close to them and then suddenly they are no more.
The only motivation for us is that someone has to provide leadership and, the challenges notwithstanding, Mandera people need development.
We cannot just recoil because of the threats; we have to go out and do the best that we can under the circumstances.
On your way to re-election, you ignored the elders’ directive that you do not seek a second term. How has this impacted your relationship with elders?
It was unprocedural in terms of the way the decisions were made more than a year to the General Election, where a leader is asked not to run in a democratic country such as ours.
In principle, I do not believe in leadership based on rotation. The leadership profiles are built over a period of time.
If you look at people like James Orengo, Prof Sam Ongeri, Raila Odinga, Charity Ngilu and others, they built their profiles over time.
Rotating leadership does not help the community, the county and the country.
We want a scenario where leadership is nurtured; the good ones are left in circulation while the ones who do not identify with the public in terms of development should be left to the voters to sieve them through democratic processes.
It is on that basis that the elders’ decision was not acceptable to me as well as for quite a number of people.
While the wish of the elders was that I, and other leaders, should not run, the public was able to make their democratic choice and the elders have respected that decision.
They were only guiding the community but the public felt differently with regard to some positions.
We have learnt some lessons and I believe the elders and the public have learnt something too.
Your re-election in 2017 was met with a lot of political, and even personal, hostility from the county assembly. In fact, it took almost a year for the assembly to approve your new Cabinet. How have you managed to work with ward representatives, considering that your party is a minority in the House?
The post-election excitement and denial engulfed the whole country. It was not only in Mandera. For me, it was a natural reaction after the gruelling campaigns.
Fortunately, the population of Mandera is one and the same — we all come from the same community and socio-economic background — and, therefore, the extended enmity is not sustainable in our area where people naturally have close social bonds.
Through the help of many stakeholders, including the assembly speaker, ward reps, community leaders and even political opponents we had competed against in the poll, there were a lot of mediation efforts and that worked out very well.
Now we have an assembly that views things, not from the perspective of political parties, but more about what the public need.
We are also giving the assembly all the support we can give in order to enable them to execute their mandate.
After seven years as governor, in what ways has devolution changed your county?
Devolution has changed Mandera in virtually every sector. At the advent of devolution, we did not have any basic services. Now we have something we can talk about.
In terms of healthcare, we have managed to construct 60 new facilities and increased the workforce from about 150 to almost 900 skilled workers.
The maternal mortality rate was at its highest, at 3,795 deaths per 100,000 live births. We have managed to get that number down to 588 per 100,000 according to the latest report.
In terms of education, we have built close to 300 ECDE centres, which were basically non-existent at the advent of devolution.
We have also established vocational training centres in virtually all the sub-counties.
We have even managed to invest in programmes that are under the national government such as construction of a teachers’ training college, medical training college and technical training colleges, among others.
In agriculture, we did not have any meaningful agriculture at the advent of devolution. Virtually all the farms along the river had been taken over by the mathenge plant.
However, we have managed to open up all those farms and there is vibrant riverine farming.
We are now in the process of doing two pilot projects namely Koromey Irrigation Scheme and Kutulo Irrigation Scheme. Both projects are halfway implemented.
We hope to extend the projects to all the sub-counties based on the success of these pilot projects.
In terms of agricultural mechanisation, we have been able to acquire nine tractors which are now helping our farmers.
Mandera is transforming and the image of a dusty town that was there before is no more.
We are building tarmac roads in Mandera and all-weather roads elsewhere, including a lot of stormwater protection programmes along those roads.
Journey-times have been cut short. For example, the journey from Mandera to Banisa, which used to take a whole day, now takes fewer hours.
One of the major challenges you are currently facing is the issue of non-local teachers leaving Mandera County and other frontier counties en masse because of insecurity. What are you doing to stem the tide and ensure that learning in schools in your county goes on smoothly, the teacher shortage as a result of the mass exits notwithstanding?
Ideally, the running of primary and secondary schools is a national government function and which we intend to respect.
However, when learning completely stops as a result of lack of teachers, it can no longer be left to the national government alone.
For this reason, the local leadership has agreed to hold a major conference in Mandera bringing together all education stakeholders and national and county governments teams on the ground.
A number of things have been planned to mitigate the impact: in the short term, the main objective is to ensure the institutions remain open and learning goes on.
Some of these measures are recruitment of Form Four leavers and other locals with teaching qualifications through Board of Managements to bridge the gap.
We are also looking at redeployment of some of the county government staff that have a teaching background to help in various schools.
We are also looking at the possibility of merging schools so that they make maximum use of the available teachers. The county will be providing transport to facilitate this programme.
In the long term, we expect the outcomes of the planned conference to put us on a firm trajectory towards recovering from susceptibility to terror shocks and this issue of non-locals being moved.
The end game is to make sure we have sufficient teaching personnel so that we put this issue behind us once and for all.
What is your stand on the BBI?
We support BBI 100 per cent. We are excited about the opportunity that the initiative is bringing into the country. After the concept of Building Bridges started, Kenya has opened itself up so much that people in different political camps who previously would not access certain parts of the country are now able to do so unrestricted.
It has diminished the political enmity that was there before. Of course there are a few issues from the initial BBI report that we would like to see made clear.
One is the protection of representation - the current constituencies and wards need to be protected. There is no rationale to take away what you have already been given.
The second point touches on counties like Mandera and other arid and semi-arid counties whose healthcare sector was virtually dead before devolution.
Any proposal to have a body that is going to run personnel affairs for healthcare like the much talked about Health Service Commission will be the beginning of the death of the healthcare service provision in Asal regions.
We fear the same thing that is happening to teachers now could also happen to healthcare personnel if we go that route.