Informality and procedural innovation at borderlands: Lessons from Mandera

It is August 2016, with the relevant letters of introduction from our research employers in hand, my colleague and I, both Kenyan-Somalis, set off for Ethiopia. Not through the Bole International Airport in Addis-Ababa, but across the River Daua, which marks the border between Kenya and Ethiopia in Mandera County, the most north-easterly corner of Kenya.

I am in Mandera without my passport because of my visa application to study in the UK. My colleague tells me that local administrators have informed him of a local practice where nationals of Kenya and Ethiopia are normally allowed to cross the border from 8 AM, and to return to their country of origin before 5 PM, without the necessary documentation often required in international travel. He is also informed that this is possible so long as we do not intend to go beyond Suftu town, the border town in Ethiopia bordering Mandera. Counting on this flexible spirit, we arrive at the Kenya-Ethiopia border at River Daua, where we immediately notice that there is only one officer of the Kenya police reserve unit manning the entire crossing. He is carrying what appears to be a very rugged and old firearm. We cross the river on makeshift rafts and pay the conductor – a boy barely out of his teens – fifty Kenyan shillings (almost half a dollar) for the service. There are many more guards on the Ethiopian side of the border. There is no formal border post and we do not see any border officials. There are many more people, all of whom have formed a queue, and the guards are frisking them before allowing them to cross. It seems more like a security operation than a border-crossing service.

Map of Mandera County. Source: Danish Demining Group/Danish Refugee Council, Kenya
Map of Mandera County
Source: Danish Demining Group/Danish Refugee Council, Kenya

We also join the queue, but we immediately recognize that the guards are taking particular interest in us. Despite the fact that my colleague is Somali, and speaks the language, to the guards, we do not strike a local appearance. We do not intend to hide our intentions for being here, that is, to conduct research on how the borders of the Mandera Triangle – the cross-border area between Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia – impact on local livelihoods. And so we are shoved aside for more questioning. We hand the guards our letters of introduction, which serves to increase their general anxiety. Our phones and wallets are quickly confiscated, and we are taken to the nearest police station, where we are held for more questioning. My colleague is the one speaking, as I do not know any Somali. The entire ordeal will last three days, after which we would be “released” and allowed to do the research. The explanation for holding us: ‘we were verifying who you really were’, the border guards explain. 

Trade and livelihoods at the Mandera Triangle

Informal Cross-Border Trade (ICBT) is crucial to the livelihoods of residents of African borderlands. They depend on the ability to cross borders relatively quickly and frequently to access goods. At the Mandera Triangle, where both the Kenya-Ethiopia and Kenya-Somalia borders meet, Mandera County, Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado woreda (district) and the Gedo region of Somalia, are all distant from the centres of authority, business and trade in their own countries, cut off from most of their respective countries by poor transport infrastructure. This means that sourcing goods from Nairobi, Addis Ababa or Mogadishu is far more expensive than obtaining them from just across the border.

Thanks to this significant volume of informal cross-border trade, small towns and settlements have sprung up, especially along the Kenya–Somalia border. Most of these towns and settlements are within walking distance from each other, and some, like Bulla Hawa and Mandera, actually straddle the border, making it difficult to police cross-border movement. Residents on both sides of the border have kinship ties and make use of each other’s social services, especially livestock markets, abattoirs, schools, hospitals and airstrips.

The fact that the Kenya–Ethiopia–Somalia border in the Mandera Triangle has long been prone to fragility, recurrent external shocks, humanitarian disasters, drought, famine and poverty, makes these cross-border relationships extremely important for the survival and resilience of residents.

From procedural innovation to intimidation and violence

The lack of formal regulations, guidelines and legal procedures on cross-border trade has pushed some residents into smuggling, that is, illegal activities, not out of choice, but due to the lack of an enabling legal and policy environment that allows for small-scale cross-border trade to take place.

This necessitates the adoption of procedural innovation and adaptive strategies by border guards and local administrators, in agreement with influential local businesspeople and clan elders. Other arrangements, including the sharing of livestock markets on the Kenya–Somalia border (at El Wak and Mandera), joint vaccination of livestock and measures to tame cross-border clan conflict (such as a recent agreement to share pasture lands between the Degodia clan in Mandera and the Marehan clan in Gedo), are also dependent on procedural innovation on the ground, where such informal ‘pacts’ remain unsanctioned by national governments, but receive the unofficial blessing of the local administrators who work for, and represent national governments.

While cross-border innovations and arrangements, some of which are unofficial, have created multiple opportunities for residents, it is important to note that our experience at the hands of Ethiopian border guards at Suftu town, as highlighted above, shows that these local adaptations and conventions have often been implemented within a general environment of unpredictability and informality. Whoever is allowed to cross the border is often a matter of discretion, exercised exclusively by border guards. Following this, border officials and/or guards may disregard some of these local arrangements at times, pushing residents to use unofficial border routes; or they may ask for bribes from people ferrying goods across the border. In sum, in many borderland zones, including Mandera, border officials are normally comfortable exercising a degree of flexibility, depending on the circumstances and stated reason for travel.

At Mandera, border crossers continue to be subjected to this unpredictable, discretionary environment, and reports of intimidation and violence are notuncommon. One way of addressing all these challenges, driven especially by informality, and the unpredictability and uncertainty that informality induces, is to formalise existing local arrangements, introduce formal border crossings, or improve the existing border infrastructure.

Formal border crossings: Proposed interventions

Account for transit needs

REF’s latest paper investigates the impact of formal border crossings on the lives and livelihoods of borderland communities. It advises that in the conception or improvement of border infrastructure in Mandera, border management authorities (at the national and county levels) and representatives should appreciate and account for the transit needs of communities in Mandera (and cross-border communities in Bulla Hawa) vis-à-vis trade and access to goods and services. This could be in the form of introducing trade licences for specific types and amounts of goods, and the formalisation of trade and peace pacts among various local actors, such as local government, businesspeople, clan elders, traders, and others.

Involve local actors

Since these local actors are crucial in the shaping of cross-border experiences, it is critical that they are involved in the introduction of formal border crossings, or in the improvement of other aspects of border infrastructure. In this way, civil society and county government representatives must promote and advocate for the active involvement of and consultation with local communities, especially clan elders, women and youth committee representatives, in border management improvement.

Ethical awareness

Given the reported cases of intimidation, bribery and violence on the part of border guards, efforts to improve border management and the existing border infrastructure in Mandera more widely, should involve awareness raising on national ethics and anti-corruption policy and human rights-based approaches among border officials.

IGAD policy alignment

Last but not least, support for both formal and informal cross-border trade must be bolstered in line with IGAD’s policy framework on Informal Cross Border Trade (ICBT) and Cross Border Security Governance (CBSG), which promotes, among other things, strengthening border security systems and supporting trade facilitation at border-crossing points. Regional governments, civil society, donors and other stakeholders must coordinate efforts to support context-specific and gender-sensitive livelihood strategies, all the while promoting community involvement in border management strategies and plans.

By Ngala Chome

Ngala has just completed his PhD at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He can be reached for comment at

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