Walking on Oil

East Africa is the world’s latest hotspot for oil and gas exploration. Will this be a boon or a curse in arid Turkana?

A long way from anywhere, Lokichar is a one-street frontier town of dust-scarred butcher shops and general stores. The settlement straddles a single shattered highway that runs through Turkana, Kenya’s northernmost region, from the provincial capital of Lodwar, over a flat scrub of semi-desert split by dry river beds and twisted funnels of volcanic rock. The highway runs all the way to the giant camps at Lokichoggio, the refugee capital of East Africa.

Along the roadside, herds of cattle, goats, camels and donkeys pick through bare acacia trees, watched by Turkana pastoralists — tall, thin men in crimson blankets with shepherd’s crooks. Many have an AK-47 slung over one shoulder. Somewhere out in the dark hills, across the plain, is the loose and ill-defined border between the local Turkana and their neighbours, the Pokot. The two Nilotic cultures have been engaged for centuries in cattle raids that ebbed and flowed until a few years ago when a sudden influx of small arms across the porous borders with Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan allowed the conflict to escalate.

With the weapons, traditional conflicts over pasture and animals have become exponentially more violent. Rival tribes regularly raid deep into each others’ territory. In some places, cattle-rustling has become mechanised, with armed gangs crossing the borders and shipping herds on trucks either out of the country or down south, to Nairobi or Mombasa, for sale. When travelling in the region, international development agencies insist on armed guards.

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