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Half a century of neighbourly tiffs: The complex story of Kenya, Somalia

The Kenyan delegation trooped to Rome like lambs to the slaughter. The charge sheet had been scripted by a belligerent neighbour and the delegates were not supposed to talk.

The Kenyan delegation trooped to Rome like lambs to the slaughter. The charge sheet had been scripted by a belligerent neighbour and the delegates were not supposed to talk.

Like martyrs, Cabinet ministers Tom Mboya, Mbiyu Koinange and James Gichuru walked around Rome, Italy weighed down by the expectations of their motherland. Uhuru was around the corner but Somalia was determined to ruin the birthday party after a 70-year-old wait.

Their mission as outlined by the brief given by their prime minister, Jomo Kenyatta was simple. They were supposed to convince the international conference that North Eastern province was part of Kenya.

The conference had been called at the insistence of Somali government. Three years earlier in July 1960, while designing their national flag, Somalia had provocatively put five stars. The stars represented the regions they felt historically belonged to them.

Five stars

The first star represented the region that was formerly regarded as British Protectorate Somali-land, today known as Somali-Land. The second denoted what used to be Italian Somali (currently Somalia), while the third was for  the French Somaliland (now Djibouti). The fourth star represented Somali-speaking provinces of Ogaden and Haud in Ethiopia.

The fifth star according to Mogadishu was the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya which is dominated by Somali speaking people. It was on account on this claim that Somali had demanded a meeting to determine the future of NFD before Kenya was granted independence. At that time, Kenyatta who was trying to cobble out a government was outfoxed by his counterpart in Mogadishu, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. Somalia insisted that since Kenya was still a colony, it could not sit or talk at the table of men in Rome.

Somali had all the aces and had a convincing narrative to back their claim of almost a quarter of Kenya’s soil. But Britain, who were in Italy as a part to the conference by virtue of being the colonial masters pulled a master stroke.

After Somali’s submission, the Commonwealth and Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys who was leading Britain’s delegation stunned Somali side when he forfeited his chance and chose Mboya to present Britain’s view.

The tides changed as the burden of saving over 100,000 square miles of his motherland was thrust on the shoulders of Mboya, whose oratory skills and grasp of technical and legal issues were legendary. He tore apart Somalia’s claim of NFD and dismissed the idea to create Greater Somalia as a bad dream in the minds of those who conceived it.

The conference resolved among other things that a referendum be held in the affected area so that the people of Garissa, Isiolo, Mandera, Marsabit, Moyale and Wajir could determine their own fate.

When the question of whether they wanted to remain in Kenya after she was granted independence or become the fifth star of Somalia, they resoundingly rejected Kenya as the region voted to the last man to break away and join Somalia.

A lot was at stake for the area inhabited by Somali speaking people accounted for 102,000 square miles out of Kenya’stotal land mass of 224,960 square miles, translating to a quarter of the whole country.  The bad dream Mboya had talked about suddenly turned into his nightmare and that of his government. When the outgoing governor, Malcolm MacDonald, called a meeting in Wajir for 34 chiefs from the six districts he was shocked. His attempts to convince them to participate in the May 1963 independence elections took a dramatic twist; they all walked out on him.

It took each of the chief less than 30 seconds, according to government records, to tell the disbelieving governor they had quit and that their people would not participate in these elections. All the 34 chiefs issued a singular resignation letter which was delivered to the District Commissioner, John Golds for onward transmission to the governor.

The letter read: “Since Her Majesty’s Government has now finally decided against our desire to re-unite with our bretheren in the Republic, we are left with no alternative but to tender resignations to you as a sign of protest against Her Majesty’s Government decision.

“Our resignations can only be withdrawn on condition that Her Majesty’s Government concedes to our legitimate demand for secession from Kenya and unification with the Somali Republic,” the chiefs concluded.

Soon after chaos started and for more than five years anarchy would reign in the region as government forces faced off with guerilla attacks which were later called Shifta.

Korwa Gombej-Adar writes in his doctorate thesis which examines Kenya’s foreign policy towards Somalia between 1963-1983 how about 200 pro-secessionists freed a colleague who had been arrested in Moyale in an incident where the area District Commissioner Lieutenant-Colonel John Balfour was wounded. At the same time, about 300 residents tore the British Union Jack in Isiolo while even as the government dispatched security agents and put 1,800 British troops Kings African Rifles (KAR) soldiers on a twelve-hour on alert.

In what had started with killing of government administrators among them Daudi Dabasso Wabera, the entire Northern Frontier District was gripped by a new wave of violence with support from Somali.

And as the Union Jack was lowered at Jamhuri Grounds in Nairobi at the stroke midnight, December 12, 1962, there was no euphoria in NFD where no such ceremony took place. It would have been suicidal for any government employee to unfurl the brand new flag. 

Inevitably on the Christmas Day of 1963, gangs ran amok along the Wajir/Tana River border, killing 40 people, among them four administrators. It is against this background that Kenyatta held one of his first Cabinet meeting on Boxing Day in Gatundu and declared a State of Emergency in North Eastern Kenya. Historical records show that the government used all its resources to break the impasse in the North Eastern province but it was no match to the locals whose leaders routinely travelled to Mogadishu in search of material and moral support.

The most dominant political party, the Northern Province Peoples Progressive Party (NPPFP) sent a delegation to the 100th World Muslim Conference in Mogadishu in 1964. The NPPPP delegate told the conference that NFD is inhabited by Somali people and ‘historically, geographically, culturally and religiously is an integral part of Somalia.’

As NFD was waging a war of self-determination, the government had to think on its feet because the region was cut off from the rest of the country and was actually tuned in to radios broadcasting from Somalia.

In a bid to win the minds and souls of the restive region, the Voice of Kenya (VoK), opened Eastern FM-based in Garissa to counter propaganda by Radio Mogadishu.

There were some difficulties though because there were very few Somali-speaking Kenyan broadcasters and those available owed their allegiance to the secessionists who were acting as double agents. 

The Shifta War formally ended on May 16, 1968, when President Kenyatta travelled to Tanzania to attend “The Good Neighbours Summit” that was chaired by President Nyerere and was also attended by Somali Prime Minister, Mohamed Egal who had replaced Sharmarke.

The summit agreed that Kenya and Somalia cease hostilities and a non-partisan committee was picked to monitor the progress and report to Organisation of African Unity (OAU, now the African Union).

Finally on February, 20, 1969, Kaunda and Egal jetted into Nairobi for the official signing of the protocols that ended the Shifta War. On the same day State of Emergency was lifted in North Eastern Province.

Lt. Colonel Omar Jess, in his book, The Roots of Somali Crisis, “Kenya is a special case. Since independence it has directly given equal rights and many opportunities to Somalis that could neither be found in Somalia or Ethiopia.”

He contends that “most Somalis without disguise consider Kenya their first and not their second home and in irreversible way, that is even if Somali state stability is restored.”


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