Lokichogio: Once a vibrant haven for NGO workers, now a ghost town

An abandoned and destroyed house on the UN compound in Lokichoggio, which was used when NGOs had bases in the town.

Photo credit: Sammy Lutta | Nation Media Group

Dusty streets leading to a pedestrian flyover in Lokichoggio Town signal the harsh reality that befell a once vibrant town, dotted with luxury hotels and frequented by foreign workers.

Once a vibrant haven for workers of various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Lokichoggio is now a ghost town.

In its vibrant days, luxury hotels in the town used to accommodate foreigners directly flying in from different countries. The foreigners came to work for various NGOs that had established bases in the region, particularly to assist victims of the Sudan civil war.

Some sections of the hotels which include Camp North, 748 Hotel, Proland Inn, Trackmark, and Kate Camp were preserved for moneyed visitors that were served by well-paid permanent staff.

Entrance to the Kate Camp Hotel in the town of Lokichoggio, part of which has been abandoned due to high maintenance costs.

Photo credit: Sammy Lutta | Nation Media Group

Not anymore. The hotels are now struggling to stay afloat after Lokichoggio was abandoned due to inactive airports and competition from Kakuma and Lodwar towns that now offer affordable accommodation and conference services.

Some hotels with dilapidated and rusty sections are now contracting locals and paying them on days that they have activities.

The poorly maintained streets in the town located 214 kilometers from Lodwar town mirror well with the conditions of the once luxury hotels, as well as the abandoned compounds of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations compound, Aircraft leasing services, Flex Air Cargo, Africa Expedition and the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) that are struggling to stay afloat.

Elected leaders have been urged to intervene to reinstate the economy of Lokichoggio Town where some sections of hotels are being destroyed by ants and some houses snakes and bats.

Mr Benjamin Ekuwam, a Lokichoggio resident recalls vividly how the facilities used to be well guarded to host foreigners from across the world, who during Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) established in 1989 by a consortium of United Nations agencies mainly Unicef and World Food Programme as well as other 35 Non-Governmental Organizations were providing humanitarian services for victims of the civil war between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Army (SPLMA).

"Lokichoggio Airport was too busy with both passenger and cargo flights from different parts of the World including Germany, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom, that would not need to connect from Nairobi. Some hotels like 748 Hotels were popular at accommodating pilots and even had offices for flight services," Mr Ekuwam recalled.

A resident of Lokichoggio passes in front of the Proland Inn Hotel on their way to sell building sticks for temporary houses.

Photo credit: Sammy Lutta | Nation Media Group

He said that despite the NGOs showing signs of relocating their bases to Sudan from 2005 when the war ended so that they would be much closer to the operations, authorities in Kenya did little to have a strategic development plan to sustain the economy of the town.

"The relocation was hastened by an insecurity incident in 2008 when a Zimbabwean aid worker working for the UN World Food Program was shot dead. Even if the culprits were arrested, tension forced many organizations to flee," Mr Ekuwam said.

748 Hotel Manager Rehema Chepchumba who has worked in Lokichoggio for more than 18 years now says the facility used to have a lot of customers forcing them to construct more rooms and conference services.

"This facility was among the most booked ones with affordable conference and accommodation services in a secure environment. However, since last year, bookings have reduced as most people question on the easiest way to reach Lokichoggio," Ms Chepchumba said.

She said many clients are canceling bookings whenever they learn that their Lokichoggio can't be accessed by air leaving them 40 rooms unoccupied for days and 38 permanent staff to pay.

Hoteliers are now appealing to the national government to prioritize the completion of the works on the runway extension and open the airport for flights.

When Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki in July last year operationalized Lokichoggio as a sub-county, he was categorical that it was among measures the government was taking to revive Lokichoggio town as promised by President Ruto.

He said that Lokichoggio Airport requires at least Sh200 million to complete rehabilitation works promising to work closely with his Transport Counterpart Kipchumba Murkomen to hasten the process and together with leaders talk to airlines such as Jambojet and Kenya Airways to introduce flights along the route.

Residents said that the Sh. 38 billion South Sudan Link road project dubbed Eastern Africa Regional Transport, Trade & Development Facilitation Project that has been constructed by the Kenya government through Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) in partnership with the World Bank is yet to catalyze economic activities through cross-border trade.

"To start a business at the moment, there is no need to renovate the dilapidated structures that were once a beehives of activities. The business environment is characterized by corrugated iron sheet structures, wooden buildings, or temporary shades that have given the town a miserable living condition where many traders have crammed into small spaces," Ms Mana said.

Ms Joyce Maina, a hotelier who owns Webbs Hotel said that before NGOs relocated, the demand for beers by her customers was higher than the supply from Mahungu Distributors.

"I would demand 400 crates from Mahungu Distributors but was being given 89 crates because besides the employees there were other self-employment opportunities that had attracted more people," Ms Maina said.

At the moment there is low money in circulation with banks only working with agents to serve residents and establishing branches at Kakuma.

A technical team from the County Department of Lands, Physical Planning and Urban Areas Development that conducted an assessment on the former United Nations Compound that occupied 21 acres of land established that all the 115 units were in bad shape.

"Due to poor management and lack of security, they were all vandalized. Only 25 units with 6 rooms each are occupied by the tenants though not in the required standards," County Lands Executive, Peter Akono said.

Turkana West MP Daniel Epuyo recalled that when I was a university student, Lokichoggio was the main economic hub of Turkana where people from other parts of the county were flocking in for jobs and businesses.

"We hope that the town which has now been elevated to be a sub-county will benefit from more security officers of various units including Kenya Defence Forces, recruitment of more National Police Reservists, and establishment of peacebuilding committees to boost security along the border and ensure the road is completed to facilitate cross border trade," Mr Epuyo said.

Locals want the airport repaired and valuable facilities like the UN Compound given a facelift so that President Ruto and other senior government officials can spend a night there during an official visit noting that the high cost of maintaining the facility saw some people develop temporary timber structures defacing it.

Elected leaders have been urged to intervene to reinstate the economy of Lokichoggio Town.

Some of the interventions include referring NGOs and development partners targeting border residents to set bases in Lokichoggio, on arguments that it also has a good climate compared to other towns.

The lack of jobs is now forcing the educated locals to relocate to Kakuma or Lodwar for jobs with fears that pastoralists might invade the hotels while seeking pasture in the well-secured compounds and swimming pools now turned into water pans.