Kenya-Somalia border

Poles at a section of the border wall in Mandera on May 10, 2016. The fence has been stripped bare by vandals.

| File | Nation Media Group

Kenya-Somalia border ‘wall’ stripped bare by vandals

What you need to know:

  • Decision to build the wall was reached after Al-Shabaab militants killed 148 people at Garissa University in 2015.
  • Smuggling of goods from Somalia into the country is rampant as traders bribe security officials manning border.

In early 2015, Kenya announced plans to build a 700km wall along its border with Somalia.

The barrier was intended to keep away Al-Shabaab terrorists, who continued to cross into Kenya at will, killing and maiming innocent people.

The fence would also tackle the smuggling of goods, and illegal trafficking and immigration.

The plan followed the terrorist siege of Garissa University in 2015, leading to the execution of 148 people, mostly students.

The project took at least a year to kick off due to what the government described as logistical challenges and opposition from Somali authorities.

The idea was not welcomed by residents of Mandera nor of Somalia’s neighbouring town of Bulahawa as they viewed it as a government plot to separate them.

The following year, the national government assembled National Youth Service (NYS) personnel and kick-started the project.

The NYS crew started complaining about non-payment of their dues and staged protests on the streets of Mandera town several times.

The government withdrew the NYS team and replaced it with the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) engineering department.

The Mandera stretch of 360km was divided into three sections and awarded to local contractors to work under military supervision.

Planned project

When the plan was first announced, the government said it would build a 708km wall made up of a series of concrete barriers, fences, ditches, and observation posts overlooked by CCTV stations.

Under this plan, the wall was meant to stretch from the Indian Ocean all the way to Border Point One in Mandera, where Kenya and Somalia meet Ethiopia.

The plan changed to a chain-link and barbed wire fence, which has since been vandalised. The wires were supported by concrete poles.

In 2017, the government attempted to engage Magal Security Systems from Israel for the project but the plan flopped under unclear circumstances.

Today, Nation.Africa can authoritatively report that the initial eight- kilometre stretch from Border Point One to the official customs area in Mandera town has been vandalised.

Some Sh3.4 billion had been spent on that stretch.

Residents of the area point an accusing finger at their immediate numbers residing in Somalia.

It is never that easy to tell which home is in Kenya and which is in Somalia, except by use of the concrete poles still standing.

“The fence has been helpful despite the feeling of separation. Our farm products were safe with the fence but at the moment we have to spend the nights on farms to watch over thieves from Somalia,” said Mr Adan Siad.

He said Somali nationals have been vandalising the fence since 2020 after a wanted government official crossed over and hid in Mandera.

Vandalised 8km stretch

“They have been pulling the wires using lorries and as you can see, it’s only the concrete poles standing,” he said.

People kept crossing freely with their livestock on both sides of the border during our visit to the site.

We witnessed men with a donkey cart uprooting some of the remaining poles.

Our source said the poles are being used in fencing residential plots in Bulahawa, a town neighbouring Mandera.

Mandera County Commissioner Onesmus Kyatha confirmed that the fence had been vandalised but referred us to the ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs for more information.

“I can confirm we have recovered some wires that were stolen from the project, which are at our police station and some are at a security camp in Bulahawa. You can reach out to Nairobi for more information because the matter is beyond me,” Mr Kyatha said.

The vandalised eight-kilometre stretch has a General Service Unit (GSU) camp but Mr Kyatha could not say how the fence had been damaged in the presence of highly feared security officers.

In 2018, a demonstration of anger was organised by local leaders in Bulahawa to protest against the decision to build “the wall”.

They said closing the border had seriously affected business between Bulahawa, Somalia, and Mandera, Kenya and education activities.

Residents of both towns still cross the border at will using the many unguarded points.

Individuals who cross through areas guarded by the Kenyan police pay Sh50.

Exchanged fire

“You only pay Sh50 to the police at Border Point Three and you cross into Bulahawa or Mandera, do your business and go back using the same amount. You only pay once,” a regular traveller between the two towns revealed.

Those transporting goods in bulk from either side of the border pay between Sh500 and Sh1,000 to the police, depending on the size of their luggage.

“Once you buy your goods, mostly in Bulahawa, you only pay the donkey cart operator Sh1,000. He knows how to get your product into Mandera through the police check,” our source said.

Severely, Kenyan security agencies have clashed with their Somalia counterparts over “fee” collection at this point.

The latest clash was on September 25, 2021 over miraa transportation.

The two sides exchanged fire after several miraa-transporting vehicles had been blocked from entering Bulahawa.

A vehicle belonging to the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) was damaged and its driver escaped death by a whisker.

The miraa-transporting vehicles also pay ‘revenue’ to the police guarding these points.

It is estimated that the closure of the Kenya-Somalia border in Mandera at the height of insecurity six years ago could be costing the country at least Sh2 billion ($20 million) annually, as smugglers have a field day sneaking substandard goods in and out the country.

The KRA, immigration and Kenya Bureau of Standards offices at the border post are deserted, with the office walls dotted with bullet holes.

Keeping militants out

This has allowed smuggling to thrive, with local traders saying goods from Mogadishu and Kismayu ports are relatively cheaper because they are not taxed and their quality is not tested.

In March 2018, the National Assembly questioned how the "wall", which was meant to stop militants from crossing into Kenya, ended up being a wire fence that was only 10km long.

Parliament suspended construction and demanded an investigation into the project.

Speaking in the House, some politicians questioned how effective a wire fence could really be at keeping militants out of the country.

Others went further, saying that they suspected corruption - specifically that officials may have taken advantage of the threat from terrorists to steal money from the public.

Reached for comment on the vandalism, Col Cyrus Oguna, the government spokesperson, referred us to the Ministry of Defence.

“That project is under the Ministry of Defence and any information about the state of border security sensitisation programme can be provided by Bogita Ongeri or Esther Wanjiku,” Col Oguna said by phone.

Some of the senior military officers who have come to Mandera to supervise the project since its inception are current Chief of Defence Forces General Robert Kibochi, Major-General (Rtd) Gordon Kihalangwa, Major-General Thomas Chepkuto, Major-General Mohamed Badi and Colonel Ngare.

Former Defence Principal Secretary Saitoti Torome had also been to Mandera to check on the progress of the project.

Mr Torome was accompanied by members of Parliament from the Defence and Foreign Relations Committee in November 2017 led by Mr Kato Ole Metito. 

The Ministry of Defense did not respond to queries from the Nation.