Neither Ethiopian nor Kenyan, just Gabra, Garre or Borana

Monday August 31 2009

By Muchemi Wachira

HAVING SERVED AS A chief in Ethiopia, Huka Gompe finds himself comfortably sitting among the elders and leaders of the Gabra community in Kenya.

He is very much at ease identifying himself as a Kenyan despite having spent much of his life in Ethiopia where he served as a chief until 1991 when the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime was ousted.

He insists he has a right to Kenyan citizenship.

“Here we don’t know about boundaries. I was born in Ethiopia but since 1963, I have been herding my livestock in both Kenya and Ethiopia. Even when I was a chief, I would cross over into Kenya to look for pasture when drought ravaged Ethiopia,” the 70-year-old Gompe told The EastAfrican at his home in the border town of Dukana. Dukana is a location in the greater Marsabit area.

“I have several relatives in Kenya who also don’t know whether they are Kenyan or Ethiopian,” he adds.

The issue of citizenship baffled many people living in the north of the country where Kenya shares a border with Ethiopia. Most are nomads from the Borana, Gabra or Garre communities, which are found on both sides of the border.


Moreover, the border is porous. It was only recently when the Borana-Gabra conflict intensified, that the people in the region became aware of the border between the two countries.

The two communities, which speak the same language, have been embroiled in ceaseless conflict caused by sharing of the scarce resources in the northern Kenyan region.

The climax came in June 2005 when raiders believed to be Boranas from Ethiopia crossed into Kenya and attacked the Turbi trading centre in the newly created Chalbi district of greater Marsabit.

They killed more than 90 people during the attack, now referred to as the Turbi Massacre.

In April 2006, the Gabras found themselves unwelcome in Gorai location of southern Ethiopia after the death of their leader and former North Horr MP, the late Dr Boyana Godana.

THE LATE DR GODANA DIED in a plane crash in Marsabit with four other parliamentarians — former assistant minister for state Mirugi Kariuki, Abdi Tari Sasura (Saku), Titus Ngoyoni (Laisamis) and Dr Guracha Galgallo (Moyale).

They were all heading to Marsabit for a peace meeting.

BOTH SASURA AND GALGALLO were from the Borana community while Ngoyoni was a Rendille. By then, Boranas and Rendilles had combined forces against Gabras.

“The Boranas started becoming hostile to us since the Turbi Massacre, but they eventually pushed us out of Ethiopia in April 2006 after the death of Dr Godana,” Mr Gompe recalls.

This is how the old man settled in Dukana border town with his wife and seven children. Today, Mr Gompe is a respected leader and elder in the Gabra community.

Dukana is some 800 kilometres from Nairobi. Being on the border, Dukana is an operation area where cattle rustling is frequent.

The Gabra community, frequently at the receiving end of cattle raids from their neighbours in Ethiopia, frequently calls on him and other elders for advice.

Mr Gompe is also the leader of the internally displaced persons who were forced out of Ethiopia. He explains that even after fleeing into Kenya, he would often take his livestock to graze in Gorai (where he was born, 45km from Dukana) where leaders at the location were mainly from his Gabra community.

In the 1990s, when Mengistu was overthrown, Mr Gompe recalls that many people living in Southern Ethiopia fled into Kenya. Many are today to be found in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, Kariobangi, Lungalunga and Kayole estates.

Others flocked into Marsabit, Moyale and Isiolo towns, which are all in northern Kenya or what is commonly known as the Upper Eastern Region. In these towns, it is hard to differentiate between Boranas or Gabras of Kenya and their counterparts from Ethiopia.

It is the same case with Garres who live in Moyale and Mandera districts. The two districts neighbour Ethiopia to the North.

Like Gompe, most Ethiopian nationals living in Kenya have acquired the country’s national identity cards and they participate in the presidential, parliamentary and civic elections.

Mr Gompe claims he has no interest in returning to his country of origin.

“I can’t go back there. We were forced out of the place and all our livestock was taken away from us. So why should I go back there?”

In the 1990s, fleeing rebels from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) took refuge in Kenya. The heavy presence of the OLF rebels especially in Sololo division of Moyale district has been blamed for the escalation of the Borana-Gabra conflict.

Speaking at a peace meeting last month, the officer-in-charge of Borana zone in Southern Ethiopia, Duba Liban, said OLF rebels who reside on both sides of the Kenya-Ethiopia border were behind the conflict.

Liban complained that Kenya was not doing enough to maintain peace along the common border. At the meeting, Kenya sent sent a district commissioner and a deputy police boss while Ethiopia sent its provincial team and representatives from five districts.

ELDER GOMPE AND HIS FELlow IDPs are now trying to establish themselves in Kenya.

With the assistance of local NGOs and the Marsabit Catholic Diocese, he says they are in the process of starting a business venture.

“The church assisted us to establish a fund through a women’s group, which we want to use to market products like baskets and mats that our women make. We also make wooden carvings, which can sell and make good money,” he points out.

The IDP’s wants to establish their own business in Kenya after locals assisted them to restock after their livestock were stolen when they were in Ethiopia.