Remaking a frontier town: Anticipating property in northern Kenya

In spite of its geographical positioning at the heart of Kenya, Isiolo has long been imagined as a border town. Isiolo marked the end of the fertile ‘high potential’ region of the Kenyan colony’s central highlands, crucial to the white settler economy. In contrast, the arid desert lowlands that lay beyond Isiolo town were considered ‘low potential’ by the colonial government: unprofitable and unworthy of appropriation or development. After independence, the region continued to be largely ignored when it came to the provision of infrastructure or services. Isiolo town, marking the interface between a ‘Kenya B’ and the nation ‘proper’, was known as mwisho wa lami: the end of the tarmac.

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Isiolo town centre (photo by Hannah Elliott)

Since the mid- to late-2000s, however, Isiolo town has been popularly reimagined as a place of potential: as the gateway to a ‘new frontier’ for economic growth. This reimagining has been majorly facilitated by Isiolo’s positioning as a key node in the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport corridor, known by the acronym LAPSSET. LAPSSET proposes a vast network of infrastructure including highways, a railway line and an oil pipeline linking oil fields in South Sudan and more recently discovered oil reserves in Kenya’s northwestern Turkana County with a new port at Lamu. Isiolo now lies at the centre of an  economy of anticipation across northern Kenya; the LAPSSET plans propose to remake Isiolo into an ‘economic hub’ with a number of infrastructure projects that would complement the transport corridor: an international airport (now complete), a modern abattoir, a mega-dam and, most spectacularly, a ‘resort city’ located twenty kilometres outside of the town.

At the time of my research, in 2014-15, many of these projects had not yet materialised, and there was much to disrupt and delay their implementation. But the ‘not yet’ was full of busy activity as people anticipated a LAPSSET future. Most prominently and strikingly, these future preparations were related to land. Multiple actors were rushing to the town’s edges to seize and fence land that had previously been considered communal pastoral land with little economic value. In doing so, they sought to make land into property – to lay exclusive claim to it.

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Fenced of land in Isiolo (photo by Hannah Elliott)

Through these anticipatory acts, Isiolo residents, more than LAPSSET itself, were remaking Isiolo town. I came to understand this remaking as part of deliberate efforts by ordinary Isiolo residents at securing rights to the town. Through collective land claims, they sought to pre-empt others from taking control of the same land. Since the announcement of LAPSSET, better-off and better-connected people from Nairobi and elsewhere had become increasingly keen to speculate on land in Isiolo that was popularly seen as ‘empty’ and ownerless. But land claims also involved ethnic competition by local residents. As one woman informed me when describing a recent land seizure at Isiolo’s fringes by Turkana residents, such an acquisition ensured that the area would be ‘for the Turkana’. This claim sought to prevent the same land being claimed by other ethnic groups whom she said were trying to ‘make Isiolo theirs’ – that is, to claim that the town belonged to them.

Anticipating property in this time of LAPSSET was part of long-standing efforts by Isiolans at claiming rights to Isiolo town. Isiolo is ethnically diverse and home to members of five major ethnic groups: Somali, Borana, Turkana, Samburu and Meru. Towns in northern Kenya have, since the colonial period, been seen as places of the government  – that is,  places where state power and authority reside – and thus have long been crucial sites to which to forge belonging. Competing claims to Isiolo town’s ‘ownership’ by different ethnic groups conjoined issues of belonging and issues of authority: people sought ethnic political representation with the hope that this would secure their belonging and rights to the town. Since independence, collective settlement projects have been means through which ordinary people have sought to secure these rights: by building constituencies, settlers have sought to generate the voting power through which to produce politicians who will ensure their belonging.

In a time of LAPSSET, Isiolo residents were doubling up their efforts at claiming ‘ownership’ over parts of Isiolo town. The promises of unprecedented levels of investment rendered the question of ‘who owns the town’ even more urgent. Many Isiolo residents feared that LAPSSET would encourage the migration of other ethnic groups to the town, rendering local ethnic groups political minorities. Newcomers were expected to vote for their own politicians; if they came, settled and eventually outnumbered local ethnic groups, Isiolo could end up being controlled and ultimately ‘owned’ by outsiders. Rushing to the edges of town to collectively claim land before others got there, residents ensured their participation in Isiolo’s remaking. By anticipating property, they were demanding inclusion in the city of the future.


Hannah Elliott

Copenhagen Business School

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