For over a decade, I lived adjacent to the building where Jomo Kenyatta spent two years under house arrest in Lodwar. The house was the epitome of decay and neglect, yet no one complained/ Locals claimed that Turkana District was just as neglected and abandoned during the founding father’s tenure as President.
Turkana was part of the Northern Frontier District (NFD) during the colonial era, but little changed after independence apart from missionaries being granted access to areas that the government had no interest in providing with health or education services. The first primary and secondary schools were built by the church and even in the 1990s, up to 70 per cent of all medical services were provided by the Catholic Church.
The Danish and Norwegian governments also took up the slack with the latter building the Kitale to Lodwar road. Yet, when the Norwegian government granted Koigi wa Wamwere political asylum in 1984, President Daniel arap Moi retaliated by unceremoniously banishing the Norwegian Aid Agency from the country. Politicians from Turkana, led by junior Minister Peter Ejore applauded the decision claiming the government would continue their projects; but of course these remained empty, unfulfilled pledges.
Despite being the cradle of mankind, Turkana has been exploited and left to its own devices for half a century. The Turkwell Gorge may have enriched some but it impoverished the people of Turkana, who were denied access to the national electricity grid. More recently, the government has not raised any public concern that the Ethiopian government’s construction of a dam on the River Omo will most likely lead to the gradual disappearance of Lake Turkana and deny the people its major source of food and employment.
Whatever few resources God provided the hardship area with have consistently been looted by outsiders. No surprise then that Governor Josphat Nanok is so aggressive in asserting that the community will not take less than 10 per cent – minimum international standards – from the benefits of the recently discovered oil. Despite President Uhuru Kenyatta’s defensive reaction to the governor’s challenges, the community is deeply suspicious about the national government’s interests and intentions with the petroleum. There are justifiable grounds for such mistrust in that Jubilee has not made any commitment to protect the community’s interests nor to fast track the National Resources (Sharing) Bill of 2014.
The decision to transport the unrefined oil all the way to Mombasa by road begs questions regarding the wisdom and the real beneficiary. The oil, together with devolution, has the potential to reverse the endemic poverty that the county has experienced since independence. On the other hand, managed by an insensitive, greedy and corrupt national government, Turkana could experience the same tribulations that the Ogoni community experienced for decades in Nigeria.
Devolution has changed the face of Turkana. Like all former NFD counties, devolution has radically transformed services and infrastructure. More importantly, it has restored the dignity and confidence of the community. Their future is now in their hands, and Nairobi should take heed.