An international airport in Mandera County, in north-eastern Kenya, was first proposed in 2013, but has faced opposition at every stage of development. Initially the airport project was launched in the administrative division of Libehia in Mandera East. A feasibility study costing about USD3 million was conducted then the project stalled and moved to Wargadud in Mandera South. Wargadud residents refused to be relocated to make way for the project.
In February 2019 it was reported that a ‘section’ of residents were ‘up in arms’ over the proposed construction of the airport. The proposed site had moved to Karo in the Khalalio ward (alternative spelling: Kalaliyo) which is in the north-east of Mandera near the border with Ethiopia. Elders in the region, concerned that the airport would disrupt their way of life, took to the street in protest. Mohamed Hussein, a former chief, said that no public participation had been conducted before county officials ordered them to vacate the area, adamant that residents depending upon pastoralism for their livelihoods would resist any plans to force them to leave the area. He said: “The airport will only benefit a few people especially the contractor and county government officials, we did not ask for it and it is time the executive rescinds on the decision.” Hussein also said that pastoralists from a 40 kilometer by 25 kilometer area of land would be displaced by the airport project.
Governor of Mandera, Ali Roba, denied that a “huge chunk of land” was required for the airport, stating that a piece of land “two kilometres wide and six kilometres long…nothing more” would be allocated. Roba alleged that powerful individuals, whom he did not name, had incited locals against the airport project and exaggerated the area of land to be allocated. Libehia ward Member of the County Assembly (MCA) Farah Abdinoor requested information regarding the budgetary allocation for the airport project, the source of the funding, the exact site measurements and when and where public participation had taken place.
Residents who would be affected by the airport, now referred to as Karo Airstrip, said that the development would spur inter-clan conflict over the surrounding area which is a water catchment area used to sustain livestock, of particular importance to pastoralists during the dry season. In March 2019 a case was filed on behalf of Mandera residents, aiming to stop construction of the airport. Residents claimed that authorities did not consult them about the airport and that the livelihoods of nearly 140,000 people would be affected by the impacts on livestock. The lawyer representing the residents said that once the area was fenced off animals would no longer be able to graze. Transparency issues were also raised; residents said the tender process had been shrouded in secrecy and the construction cost had not been made public. Locals also said that authorities should address more pressing concerns, in particular water scarcity and healthcare. The judge ordered that the case be heard in Garissa High Court, terming it as urgent.
Residents resisting construction of the airport have a strong case that there are ‘more pressing’ concerns that government should be working to address. Mandera is one of the poorest areas in Kenya. Statistics compiled in the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey for 2015-16, released in March 2018, showed that Mandera County had the third highest proportion of residents living in conditions of extreme poverty, with 38.9 per cent of citizens unable to afford the minimum food consumption basket.
A petition ‘Stop the Karo Airfield Project’, launched on 14th March 2019, called upon Mandera County to halt the project which ‘risks displacing thousands of people’ and would also block the community’s access to the Daua river, their main source of water. A number of residents refuted claims by Mandera County that the proposed new airport is essential, to provide an alternative to the existing airstrip, which governor Roba said was unsafe. One resident said the governor must prioritize provision of essential services before embarking on an unnecessary megaproject “that is only meant to siphon public money into private pockets”, adding that the areas that would be affected have no water yet “we want to build an airport as a resource looting project just like Dams or fence projects”. A resident calling from Rhamu said,“instead of the administration hankering for the airstrip project that is not even a priority and will end up serving only the interests of a few people, the governor should provide us with water and equip our hospitals". A vocal opponent of the Mandera County administration said the airport was unnecessary and criticized the governor’s speech as “Pharaonic”, comparing pursuit of the project to lack of action on water shortages: “The governor has never even called a press conference to address issue of drought and how to mitigate it”.
Mandera residents’ protest, court case and petition against construction of the new airport, which threatens to restrict access to water, coincides with severe and worsening drought gripping Kenya. Mandera is one of the most seriously affected areas. A March 2019 Relief Web briefing on the drought and food security situation listed Mandera as the second worst affected county in the country with 88,800 people requiring immediate food assistance. Mandera’s most drought-affected sectors were listed as water, health and livestock. Mandera was also one of the areas requiring water trucking and Hunger Safety Net Programme cash transfers by the National Drought Management Authority (NMDA) and where the county government had commenced food distribution to affected communities.
Residents’ legal case against construction of Karo Airstrip succeeded in stalling the project. On 27th March 2019 it was reported that Garissa Court had issued an interim conservatory order on the Karo airport project, pending the hearing and determination of the application before the court.