Why Kenya’s Real War Is Within Its Borders

Guest Writer
21 April ,2015

by Owaahh

As the flowers begin to wilt on the graves of the 147 people who were killed in the Garissa University attack, it is essential for Kenyans to reflect on the journey that brought us here. This journey has been one of many mistakes and very few legitimate successes.

The story of how the Northern Frontier District (NFD) came to be a part of colonial Kenya, and independent Kenya, is intriguing, if not sadistic. Borders were arbitrarily drawn on the map of Eastern Africa, cutting through communities and clans; boardroom deals with Ethiopia and Italy further divided the Somali people, with the British governing their part from Kenya.

A few years before independence, the British canvassed the NFD in an informal referendum. The question was simple yet powerful, as it would chart the destiny of the Somali people on the Kenyan side of the border. An overwhelming majority rightly knew they were doomed if they stayed in Kenya, and they voted to join the Greater Somali Republic. Somalia would be a large state incorporating all areas that had a majority Somali population, including Djibouti and Ogaden in Ethiopia.

Kenya’s founding fathers, however, made it clear that they would not cede an inch of soil to anyone. Anecdotal evidence suggests the British prevailed upon Kenyatta to consider the idea but he rubbished it, to them and to the government of Somalia. Instead of a peaceful transition for Somalia and Kenya, Britain’s ignorance on the impact of its lethargy marked the start of a decade of mayhem.

Contrary to common history, the Shifta War was a term only right in one aspect: it was a war. There were no shiftas (bandits), but revolutions. The Somali people of the NFD united behind a group called the Northern Province Progressive People’s Party (NPPPP). This ragtag militia eventually grew into a full revolution, calling for unity with the Somali Republic.

The Somali people had been marginalized by the colonial government, especially after World War II. If the idea of annexing Northern Kenya was an embarrassment for KANU, the idea that the revolutionary war would ever be branded as such was even worse. The government immediately launched a military and a propaganda campaign. It was this campaign that branded the NPPPP shiftas, Somali for bandits.

The NPPPP received military and financial assistance from the Somali government, who were in turned trained and funded by the Soviet Union. Winning this war was paramount for Kenya as a capitalist state, and a friend of Western powers. The NPPPP’s military wing, known as the Northern Frontier District Liberation Army (NFDLA), had battalions of a thousand armed men deployed in smaller units of about 30 soldiers. Until 1965, their armory mostly featured old European arms such as rifles and grenade launchers. With Somalia’s support, however, the strategy changed to employing mine warfare, allowing the NFDLA to extend beyond Wajir, Mandera and Garissa.

KANU drew its lessons from how the British had handled the Mau Mau insurgency. They had everything, including genocides and concentration camps, down to an art. The difference was that unlike the British, the Kenyan government was now dealing with an enemy who had sophisticated weaponry. Security personnel were allowed to confiscate and kill animals, and detention camps with kangaroo courts and dubious legal processes were founded in the region.

Partly, the goal of the war was to curb pastoralism and make the Somali people easier to govern. Innocent civilians were herded into concentration camps branded as villages. Inside such camps in places such as Garbatulla, the torture and massacres continued unabated. The Kenyan military was allowed a free hand in Northern Kenya. In the course of battling the secessionist body, it also encountered real bandits who would often be found with bows and poison arrows.

The agreement to end hostilities between Nairobi and Mogadishu effectively cut off the lifeline for the NPPPP and allowed the Kenyan military to vanquish its central structure. Kenyans of Somali ethnicity who escaped the fighting by crossing into Somalia found it impossible to get back in. This created secondary and tertiary problems for Kenya that would eventually bubble into an insecure border.

The counterinsurgency strategy had similar effects to the one colonialists applied against the Mau Mau; it targeted the larger Somali community, just as the Kikuyu community had once been targeted. The previously oppressed became the oppressor. These efforts effectively decimated the informal Somali economy. An unknown number of cattle heads were killed or confiscated by the Kenya military. From Isiolo alone, it is estimated that more than 15,000 heads of cattle were confiscated or killed. This made an entire population desperate, and most of them shifted to other economic activities such as business.

However, the attempt to ‘create Kenyans’ failed miserably. Although the experiment reduced the population of pastoralists and established the authority of the Kenya government in the district, it spelled doom for the son of the man who led Kenya during the Shifta War. It also meant that Kenyans of Somali origin would never feel as patriotic or enthusiastic about their country as their neighbors. That the NFD always voted for the government of the day was wrongly read as their acceptance of the political powers in Nairobi, and not as an indication of the collective trauma that roamed the region.

The State collapse of the Somali government also meant that there was little hope for the Somali people. Even with that, however, the Kenyan state that had been fighting to keep them within its borders continued killing them. Although the guns of the NFDLA died out in the 1970s, the instances of state-sponsored violence continued. There was a shoot-to-kill policy in the region in the 1980s, the same period when the Wagalla and Garissa massacres occurred. The 1980 massacre started as an effort to flush out a local criminal called Abdi Madobe, and ended with the deaths of hundreds of ethnic Somalis. In 1989, there was a nationwide screening of Somalis living within Kenya.

The period of relative peace in the late 1990s and early 2000s coincides with the time when Mohammoud Saleh was the provincial commissioner of the NFD. A Kenyan-Somali himself, Saleh tried to mend the fractured relationship between the Kenyan government and the inhabitants of the NFD. He was said to have zero tolerance towards abuse by security forces, although anecdotal evidence suggests he suffered stigma under unknowing security forces who frequently stopped him when he was in plain clothes.

In 1991, the Somali government effectively collapsed, leaving social units with the mandate of finding ways to govern themselves. A system of Islamic courts filled the judicial gap, and spread into other roles such as policing, healthcare and education. In the first decade, most of them worked alone with no system of collaboration. However, this changed in 1999 when they decided to work together. They formed an armed militia that immediately started fighting for control of Mogadishu. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was funded by the Eritrean government and Ethiopian insurgency groups, making it an enemy of Ethiopia. In the next half a decade, the ICU grew in power and control, especially in areas around Mogadishu. Its military wing decimated warlords who had previously controlled the country. It was a time of peace and prosperity in Somalia, albeit short-lived. The Mogadishu airport and the seaport were reopened and the economy began to recover. Having a Sharia-based, largely informal government in Eastern Africa made Kenya and Ethiopia jittery.

At the end of 2006, Ethiopia-funded transitional government forces began attacking the ICU. By the end of 2007, the courts union was no more, mainly due to infighting and resignations that weakened its response to the concerted effort to remove it from power. It’s military wing, Al Shabaab, whose full name is Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, did not die off with the death of the ICU. Instead, it moved in fast to fill in the gap, transforming itself to one of the most formidable powers in Somalia. It eventually controlled a significant part of inhabited Somalia, and tried to transform itself into a national power. Uganda intervened, as did Kenya, uprooting the Shabaab from all its lifelines. The group fled to the background and became an insurgency.

Kenya’s actual reaction to the Somalia situation began years before the 2011 invasion. It was a foolhardy plan, and would eventually bring a war that was not Kenya’s right into its borders. In an attempt to shield her borders from attacks, Kenya turned to what looked like a brilliant plan by a former Al Shabaab leader, Ras Kamboni warlord Sheikh Ahmed Madobe. The plan was to form an autonomous Jubaland on the Somalia side of the border to act as a buffer zone for Kenya. A small force of Somalis would be trained by Kenyan forces to help the transitional government bolster its position. It was a terrible plan, and Kenya’s security partners told its officials as much.

Kenya went ahead to recruit and train 4,000 Kenyans of Somali origin, contrary to reports that they were Somali nationals. Half of the recruits were sent to camps at Archers Post and Manyani. They were promised jobs and money, and a destiny in Jubaland. They were then transferred to Somalia and as the clan infighting killed off the plan, most disappeared with their weapons and training. Many of them ended up as members of Al Shabaab.

During the April 2nd 2015 dawn attack, the attackers used what they called ‘Kenyan weaponry.’ One was revealed to have been a Kenyan-Somali from Mandera, one of the areas where the Kibaki government had recruited young men for its secret mission in Somalia. Although it is unlikely he was one of those trained at Archers Post or Manyani, it is likely he has links to those who were. The exact number of Kenyan-Somalis who underwent training and then ended up in Al Shabaab’s ranks is unknown, at least publicly, and the Kenya government is unlikely to reclassify the war against the terror group as an internal insurgency.

While the government has continually portrayed the war as a war against illegal immigrants, and recently refugees, the real enemy is actually disillusioned Kenyans of Somali ethnicity. Born in a tormented land where their parents were traumatized and subdued, they were then given hope of finally doing something for the motherland. Whether Kenya’s officials actually knew the risks involved is another story, and one they are unlikely to be honest about because it would make them culpable.

The newest genius plan seems to be the construction of a border barrier on the border with Somalia. The border barrier, the government hopes, will solve the problem once and for all. The Daadab camp, the largest of its kind in the world, should be closed within the next year if the UN heeds Kenya’s demands. These efforts assume the enemy is a Somali national, and not a person who has a valid Kenyan ID card.

The level of ethnic profiling that goes on every time there is an attack, whether in Garissa or in South C or Eastleigh, is built on this security paradigm. It is a rather interesting way to look at it; that it is outsiders who spoil citizens. Yet, the truth is that Kenya will never know peace until the North Eastern region it annexed is peaceful and thriving socially and economically.

That peace will not come from police crackdowns and ethnic profiling. Fighting the Al Shabaab should stop being about fighting the Somali people, because profiling is not the solution. Neither is a border barrier or a closed refugee camp. Both ideas are as terrible as the idea of training Kenyan Somalis to fight in Somalia. It will only furnish Kenya’s enemies with new recruits.

The real battle is not in Kismayu or Mogadishu, it is right within Kenya’s borders, and it cannot be won with guns and armored tanks.

Owaahh is a writer, blogger and researcher. He blogs here  and tweets from @Owaahh

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