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Lamu, Kenya’s emerging military capital

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A US marine with Kenyan troops in December 2002 during joint training in Manda Bay, Lamu.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media

Since early 2000, Kenya has increased the number of security installations in Lamu County, which has helped make the county safer, boosting the local, national and regional economy, but wrinkles persist on land acquisitions and residents’ access to fishing and other economic activities.

Lamu is rich in military bases.

Apart from the American Manda Magogoni Naval Base, there are camps manned by Kenyan military in places like Bar'goni, Baure, Milimani, Mkunumbi, Bodhei, Saurian, Mararani, Mangai, Kiunga among others.

Residents have since benefited from the security installations, especially in Manda Bay, which has led to increased investment in both the public and private sectors.

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US Marines disembark from a hover-craft at Manda Bay during a joint exercise with Kenyan soldiers in January 2004 near the coastal town of Lamu. 

Photo credit: Pool

The development of Lamu Port, various Lamu Ports South Sudan and Ethiopia Transport Corridor (Lapsset) projects and private individuals have benefited from the security provided by the Lamu-based security officers.

Recent developments indicate that Kenya is making progress in securing its ports and maritime space.

As a result, the International Maritime Organisation has removed the country as a high-risk area due to its success in tackling the challenges of piracy. 

The American Manda airfield, which supports Kenya in various operations in the country and sub-Saharan Africa, played a key role in the capture of Kismayu by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in September 2012.

According to locals, the presence of US military at the Naval Base in Magogoni, Manda Bay Island, Lamu County is critical to the region’s peace and stability.

The base is located in part of the expansive Boni Forest, where Operation Amani Boni aimed at flushing out al-Shabaab militants believed to be hiding in the dense forest, has been ongoing since 2015.

The KDF has a base next to the American naval base, and has been complementing each other in the operation.

Community members, especially elders interviewed by the Nation on Friday, commended the State for establishing such an important facility in Lamu.

Ali Kea, an elder of Magogoni village, about 400 metres from the Kenyan and American military bases, said the community will continue to cooperate with security agencies to ensure continued peace and stability in Lamu.

"We are happy as a community that the military bases are in Manda Bay Island. We will cooperate and support all the government's security efforts for the betterment of Lamu and Kenya," Mr Kea said.

"In recent years, Lamu has been peaceful, thanks to the ongoing Operation Amani Boni and the simultaneous presence of the Manda Bay military bases. It has protected the community from external attacks."

But as military bases continue to occupy more of Lamu and part of Tana River counties, the National Land Commission's recent plan to acquire 5,000 acres has not gone down well with locals.

The community says they should be well compensated as the vast land is used for grazing and farming.

"In October 2021, the government in a gazette notice announced its intention to acquire more than 5,000 acres in Lamu and Tana River counties to expand the base. What we are demanding is that we should be well compensated to start other businesses as it will affect our economic lives," said Aden Bule.

The Manda base, which operates as a KDF Forward Operations Base (FOB), was established in 1992 and officially inaugurated in 1995 to provide logistical support to Kenyan military units stationed in Northern Kenya and Kismayu.

Over the years, the Kenyan base has grown to include an all-weather airstrip with night landing capability and a 1.3 kilometre runway.


Kenya Defence Forces and US marines carry out a joint military exercise in January 2004 in Manda Bay, Lamu.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

US and Kenya last week, during President William Ruto State visit, agreed to lengthen the runway in the American base.

“Underscoring our shared commitment in the fight against terrorism, US and Kenyan officials plan to sign a memorandum of understanding to expand the Manda Bay Airfield in coastal Kenya by building a 10,000-foot runway. The expanded facility provides Kenya the required infrastructure to increase operations against the terrorist group al-Shabaab,” a White House communication said.

Government Spokesman Isaac Mwaura on Friday quantified the security deals Kenya inked — including helicopters, armoured vehicles and other support — from the US trip at Sh130 billion.

“Kenya secured over Sh 130 billion in joint efforts to improve regional security, combat terrorism, and enhance border security; as well as support for Kenyan security forces through training and equipment,” he said.

It is worth noting that for over a decade, Lamu has been battling insecurity incidents caused by al-Shabaab militants from neighbouring Somalia.

This has led to the death of scores of security personnel and civilians.

The worst Shabaab attack in Lamu is that of June 15, 2014 in Mpeketoni and Kibaoni towns, that left more than 90 people dead, over 30 houses and 40 vehicles burnt in one night alone.

Subsequent attacks also occurred in Witu, Hindi and Boni Forest villages.

The situation prompted the national government to launch a multi-agency security operation dubbed 'Linda Boni' in September 2015 to flush out the terrorists believed to be hiding in the dense Boni Forest.

The operation has undergone several transformations from Linda Boni, Boni Enclave Campaign, Operation Fagia Msitu, and now Operation Amani Boni.

It comprises the KDF, National Police Service, Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service and National Government Administration Officers with KDF as the lead agency.