Lamu Island lies just under 100 kilometres from the border with Somalia. Lamu town, the administrative centre of Lamu County, is a UNESCO world heritage site made up of winding alleys, bustling shopping streets, mosques of varied sizes, and distinctive buildings that speak to the town’s historical role as a major centre of trade in the Indian Ocean. The island’s beaches – and the more than 65 islands making up its archipelago – have long attracted tourists. Alongside fishing and farming, they remain a major source of livelihood for its inhabitants.

As with the other five coastal counties of Kenya, Lamu scores low on development indicators. After the north-eastern region, also bordering Somalia and generally marginalised from development processes since independence, the coastal area of Kenya has the highest rate of poverty in the country. Its economy and broader socio-economic development is, nonetheless, undergoing a substantial upheaval with the construction of a US$ 5 billion 32-berth port, which will act as the gateway into East Africa’s largest proposed infrastructure project, the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopian Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor.

LAPSSET was conceived to create a second transport corridor through Kenya’s north-eastern region – providing a new highway, railway track and oil pipeline to both South Sudan and newly discovered oil in northern Kenya. As well as a port, Lamu has been promised a new international airport, an oil refinery and a resort city. [20] Coal and wind power stations are also under development, as are plans to drill for gas. While the rest of LAPSSET’s infrastructure still remains largely on paper, Chinese contractors have made significant progress on developing a port that could revive Lamu’s former prominence as a maritime trading centre.

People in the county generally welcome LAPPSET, but it has implications for one of the most explosive issues in this area: land. “The whole issue started with land. When LAPPSET began new people came to Lamu and occupied land, and the locals feel threatened.” [21]

In the 1970s, then-President Jomo Kenyatta allocated parcels of public land to ‘up-country’ settlers – from his own Kikuyu ethnic group. Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyus, have been in economic and political ascendance since independence. They were awarded title deeds to land that historically belonged to ‘indigenous’ communities – including the Mijikenda, Bajuni, Sanye, Boni and Swahili. [22]

Over decades, growing numbers of Kikuyus and other up-country ‘outsiders’ have moved to the area, buying up land and altering the county’s demographics. The bulk of Lamu County’s population is now in the mainland’s farming areas, away from its traditional centre, Lamu Island, and in mainland towns such as Mpeketoni which have large populations of ‘non-indigenous’ people. Lamu is one of the only few counties in Kenya where nearly 50 per cent of the population is ‘non-indigenous’. [23]

As one local official explains, the problem is that “local people don’t have the title deeds, they don’t even know about it, they don’t know how to get it or what it is. These small people suffer when big people come from Nairobi with the titles.” [24] Aside from sometimes pushing people off the land they have farmed for generations, those with title deeds have control of assets meaning that they can, for example, take out loans.

Even though all Kenyan citizens are entitled to the same rights, including over property, these perceived inequities in land ownership and tenure have deepened notions of a difference between ‘outsiders’, ‘settlers’ or ‘up-country people’ and ‘indigenous’, ‘local’ or ‘coastal’ people in the area.

Critically, these identity divides extend beyond ethnicity and into religion: not all coastal people are Muslim, and not all newly-arrived settlers are Christians from up-country – indeed, some move from other parts of the coast – but the division between ‘indigenous’ and ‘outsider’ is all too easily presented and described as a Muslim-Christian one. [25]

Huge land speculation by investors – who are often non-local, politically-connected Nairobi-based elites and referred to as land grabbers – has driven the value of land up, especially in areas of close proximity to the Port. As one woman stressed, “now everyone thinks if you can get a piece of that land then you will be set for life!” [26] Another Kikuyu landowner explains that:

Upcoming projects have increased the value of my land, due mostly to speculators. I have 10 acres, and now with values so high I can sell just one-quarter and easily make money, but the locals they can’t sell as they don’t have the titles. [27]

Some people stress that the issue is not about ethnicity or religion: “We have no issue with immigrants – the problem is land issues and title deeds. Some have them and some do not. This discrimination is the problem.” [28]

A local priest informed us that, by focusing on ethnicity and religion, people are missing the point:

In Lamu there are only two groups of people: the rich tycoons from Mombasa and Nairobi and the poor local communities. The tycoons are using the poor local people to wage violence in order to grab land. [29]

The LAPPSET project also risks fueling other forms of economic disparity. [30] While the government has sought to provide training to local youths so that they can benefit from broader development in the area, some still say that “better educated people from up-country get the jobs in the big projects and in the hotels.” [31]

Photo: Alcibiades Sanchez

Photo: Alcibiades Sanchez

The rest of Kenya’s coast shares Lamu’s tensions over inter-group inequality. Unlike other areas of the coast, however, Lamu was largely unaffected by the inter-ethnic violence that exploded following a contested election at the end of 2007. Yet such political violence remains a risk.

Following the violence, a new constitution was adopted in 2010 that set in motion Kenya’s devolution process. In Lamu, this led to the creation of a County Assembly, with ten elected and ten nominated members, and the post of governor. These new structures sit alongside the county commissioner (a presidential appointee) and his administration. The county also has representatives in the legislature: a senator, two MPs plus one women’s representative (also an MP).

With devolution, as with land, as one government official explained, “there have been winners and losers”. [32] Elections for parliamentary seats have always been highly charged, but the same is now true of races for the local assembly and governor’s post. The fault lines in these political competitions have again largely been ethnic, religious and outsider/insider.

As one local businessman notes, “migrants are important as they vote as a bloc, which impacts on elections.” [33] Many of those we interviewed noted the common narrative among Lamu’s ‘indigenous’ people: first the Kikuyu arrived, then they took the land, then they took the jobs, and then they took the political posts. The Kikuyu and other settlers, one interviewee told us, “want it all”: by virtue of constituency boundaries, solidarity and block voting across the settler population, “they” now have the position of deputy-governor, one of the county’s two MPs, and a disproportionate share of seats in the County Assembly. [34]

Ethnicity has assumed this political importance partly because of real differences in living standards between groups. However, as elsewhere in the country, Lamu’s politicians foment ethnic division by connecting local issues to the identity of their support base. This gets votes, but undermines the promotion of a binding Kenyan identity and citizenship. In the words of a Kikuyu businesswoman:

The locals believe the national government is favouring the Christians … in political rallies, [opposition politicians] incite against the strangers. They say ‘these strangers will go and we’ll get our land back’. The politicians highlight the differences between us. [35]

A county government official told us the same story:

Politicians take [tribalism] to higher levels, they tell people what they want to hear and exploit their feelings of marginalisation and ideas of injustice. [36]

In many ways, these dynamics are typical of Kenya. But while Lamu has escaped the electoral violence seen in other parts of the country, it has not escaped from terrorism and the cycles of violence unleashed by al-Shabaab. Lamu’s structures of grievance and division proved highly combustible when al-Shabaab brought its incendiary violence to bear in 2014. The challenge is that these strands of conflict are now knotted together. As we will see, Lamu’s issues have been interwoven into Kenya’s wider war on terror. This has brought some big problems, and made local divisions even harder to grasp and deal with.


21. Key Informant Interview with official, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
23., p2
24. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
25., p 20
26. Key Informant Interview with journalist, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
27. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
28. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
29. Key Informant Interview with religious leader, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
30. The compensation scheme for people living on land directly affected by the project’s construction has been messy and contested at points, but in the end largely deemed by people we spoke to as fair. The same cannot be said for fishermen, who still feel that they have not been compensated for the potential loss of their livelihoods.
31. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
32. Key Informant Interview with county government officials, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
33. Key Informant Interview with businessman, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
34. Key Informant Interview with group of religious leaders, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
35. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
36. Key Informant Interview with county government officials, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016

Header photo: Thomas Wheeler/Saferworld