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Why Famished Turkanas Resent Sudan Aid Effort

By John Kariuki, The East African (Nairobi), 31 January 2000

Nairobi - A High-Level World Food Programme team from Nairobi is expected to fly to Lokichoggio this week on a fact-finding mission following the dramatic stand-off between a detachment of the Kenyan military and armed Turkana home guards last week.

The team will include Mr. Ben Martinson, the head of the Sudan Operation for the World Food Programme. "We want to have first hand information on the circumstances that led to the encounter," the official said. The Office of the President would not comment on the matter, however.

Sources said the incident occurred last Monday when the army was called in to contain a potentially violent demonstration by members of the local Turkana community outside the United Nations camp. Lokichoggio aid camp has the highest concentration of expatriates in Kenya.

Residents were protesting at a decision by the camp administration to terminate the services of a private security firm which mainly employs local residents. Armed local home guards came out in support of their tribesmen, and triggered the involvement of the army.

The community saw the decision to end the security firm's contract as a threat to residents' job opportunities. The demonstrators were unable to enter the UN camp and instead vented their rage on traders at the local trading centre where they beat up non-Turkanas and looted shops.

A curfew was slapped on the area and flights in and out of the airstrip suspended for the day. Calm had been restored by Tuesday.

In 1997, a former area Member of Parliament is said to have incited Turkanas against Kenyans from other ethnic groups hired as guards and workers in other unskilled jobs. An agreement was reached that the UN camps would give priority to the local community when recruiting for non-skilled jobs.

The issue of sensitivity to the local community's needs was emphasised by some of the Kenyan nationals working for aid organisations in Lokichoggio, who feel that the multimillion dollar relief aid administered from Lokichoggio had overlooked the welfare of the Turkana. This, many believe, is a potential source of tension in the community as the famine in the region continues to bite.

A Kenyan aid worker with one of the UN agencies said that the Turkana have similar problems to those afflicting the people of Sudan. "The only difference is that theirs are not being addressed and tensions are bound to escalate as the locals continue seeing food being airlifted to Sudan literally over their heads," he said. He added that the operation needed to address the issue and provide the host community with more direct benefits from the huge UN and relief organisation' presence. This, he contends, will help ease the mounting tension in the Turkana community and in turn guarantee the security of the UN personnel working in Lokichoggio.

But Mr. Martinson said that while it was true that the danger was real, the food and materials going into the operation are all custom bonded and cannot be diverted to the local community. "But I believe that if the government made the proper representations, it would be possible to organise assistance to the local community," he said.

An Oxfam volunteer said custom bonding was unlikely to make much sense to the local community, who see themselves being deprived of badly needed relief assistance.

Last week's incident also brought to the fore the multiple conflicts now brewing between the aid agencies, the government and the local residents over the mode of operations adopted by the Lokichoggio-based Sudan relief operation.

Mr. Martinson complained over the tariffs charged as landing fees on aircraft and airport tax on passengers using the airstrip. He termed the levies "exorbitant".

The airstrip was built by the World Food Programme 10 years ago and has been maintained and administered by the UN body until last year when President Moi ordered the Kenya Airports Authority to take over its running. The facility has been classified under category 1, which puts it in the same tax tariff as Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

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