Stood with the Police Commander at Mandera’s border post, a few hundred metres to my left across the Dawa River, is Ethiopia. In front of me, just beyond the border fence, is Somalia.
This community, like those in Wajir and Garissa – that I have also visited in Kenya’s North East over the past few months – sits at the heart of a vibrant but insecure region.
It is a region of huge potential, of inspiring communities proud of their culture, ambitious for their children’s future and tired of feeling marginalised.
It is a region sadly blighted by the menace of al Shabaab. It is a region too often thought of solely as a barrier, a buffer to what may come over the border.
This means underlying drivers of insecurity and underdevelopment, which continue to hold back Kenya’s human capital and economic potential, are often left unaddressed. Foreign investors are nervous and tourists deterred.
Devolution has delivered many successes, and I was delighted to visit Mandera with Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa.
Outcomes in the devolved sector in general, and the health sector in particular, have dramatically improved.
However, other functions including education and infrastructure are still not sufficiently achieving desired results.
Schools are often without teachers, power is unreliable, while roads are rough and untarmacked.
Opportunities for youth are few, making them vulnerable to the siren call of al Shabaab.
I acknowledge the historic part Britain has played in this region. The pre-independence referendum result sent a clear message that was not sufficiently acknowledged.
Since then successive governments have pursued a security-focused approach that has, at times, punished the communities. Devolution has allowed this narrative to be changed.
This is why I am delighted the approach I discussed with both County and National governments is one that is now looking to combine security with development, peace-building and community solutions.
It is indeed time to try a new, more positive approach. We collectively need to focus more on the root causes of instability – not just the symptoms.
Education and economic investment should be the focus. A managed, open border with Somalia is a potential source of revenue for Kenya; revenue that currently ends up in the pockets of al Shabaab, or lost to corruption.
Consistent, reliable power will enable small industries. Tarmacked roads will take the goods they produce to new markets and open up access to services. Most of all, schools need teachers.
Comprehensive access to education is a success Kenya can be proud of. And this achievement now needs to be replicated in the North East.
Imaginative solutions are required to help youth from the region exploit their potential.
We need to prevent another lost generation falling into the hands of those whose twisted ideology kills indiscriminately and robs the children of a future.
I saw how Garissa has recovered since the April 2015 attack, but we need to prevent this happening again.
The UK is providing huge support to the North East, both through bilateral projects and as the biggest donor to a Sh110 billion World Bank programme.
Our North East Task Force, working with local and national institutions, focuses on governance, security, refugee support, health and education.
We are also empowering civil society to tackle youth unemployment and create opportunities for girls.
But the most important change needs to be in the minds and perceptions of those who do not live there.
For too long Mandera, Wajir and Garissa have been characterised as barrier counties to be hardened against al Shabaab advancement from Somalia.
This has only been to the advantage of al Shabaab. These communities deserve the same opportunities as the rest of Kenya.
When the young have employment options, I trust that al Shabaab will not be their choice.
My eyes were opened when I visited these counties. Overwhelmingly what I saw was potential.
I appeal to anyone who currently associates this region with violence and despair to see the opportunity and potential instead.
I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised if you do.
The writer is the British High Commissioner to Kenya
March 24, 2021
November 9, 2019