The Shifta War (1963–1967) was a secessionist conflict in which ethnic Somalis in the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya attempted to secede from Kenya to join Somalia. The Kenyan government named the conflict “shifta”, after the Somali word for “bandit”, as part of a propaganda effort. The Kenyan counter-insurgency General Service Units forced civilians into “protected villages” (essentially concentration camps) as well as killing livestock kept by the pastoralist Somalis. The war ended in 1967 when Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal, Prime Minister of the Somali Republic, signed a ceasefire with Kenya at the Arusha Conference on 23 October 1967. However, the violence in Kenya deteriorated into disorganised banditry, with occasional episodes of secessionist agitation, for the next several decades. The war and violent clampdowns by the Kenyan government caused large-scale disruption to the way of life in the district, resulting in a slight shift from pastoralist and transhumant lifestyles to sedentary, urban lifestyles. Government records put the official death toll in the thousands, but NGOs say that more than 10,000 lives were lost.
The Northern Frontier District (NFD) came into being in 1925, when it was carved out of the Jubaland region in present-day southern Somalia. At the time under British colonial administration, the northern half of Jubaland was ceded to Italy as a reward for the Italians’ support of the Allies during World War I. Britain retained control of the southern half of the territory, which was later called the Northern Frontier District.
From 1926 to 1934, the NFD, comprising the current North Eastern Province and the districts of Marsabit, Moyale and Isiolo, was closed by British colonial authorities. Movement in and out of the district was possible only through the use of passes. Despite these restrictions, pastoralism was well-suited to the arid conditions and the non-Somali residents—who represented a tiny fraction of the region’s population – were relatively prosperous, whereas the Somali owners of the land were calculated in underdevelopment.
In 1953, anthropologist John Baxter noted that:
The Boran and the Sakuye were well-nourished and well-clothed and, though a pastoral life is always physically demanding, people led dignified and satisfying life… They had clearly been prospering for some years. In 1940, the District Commissioner commented in his Handing Over Report: “The Ewaso Boran have degenerated through wealth and soft living into an idle and cowardly set”…
On 26 June 1960, four days before granting British Somaliland independence, the British government declared that all Somali areas should be unified in one administrative region. However, after the dissolution of the former British colonies in East Africa, Britain granted administration of the Northern Frontier District to Kenya despite a) an informal plebiscite demonstrating the overwhelming desire of the region’s population to join the newly formed Somali Republic, and b) the fact that the NFD was and still is almost exclusively inhabited by ethnic Somalis.
On the eve of Kenyan independence in August 1963, British officials belatedly realised that the new Kenyan administration were not willing to give up the historically Somali-inhabited areas they had just been granted administration of. Somali officials responded with the following statement:
It was evident that the British Government has not only deliberately misled the Somali Government during the course of the last eighteen months, but has also deceitfully encouraged the people of North Eastern Province to believe that their right to self-determination could be granted by the British Government through peaceful and legal means.
Led by the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (NPPPP), Somalis in the NFD vigorously sought union with the Somali Republic to the north. In response, the Kenyan government enacted a number of repressive measures designed to frustrate their efforts:
Somali leaders were routinely placed in preventive detention, where they remained well into the late 1970s. The North Eastern Province was closed to general access (along with other parts of Kenya) as a “scheduled” area (ostensibly closed to all outsiders, including members of parliament, as a means of protecting the nomadic inhabitants), and news from it was very difficult to obtain. A number of reports, however, accused the Kenyans of mass slaughters of entire villages of Somali citizens and of setting up large “protected villages” – in effect concentration camps. The government refused to acknowledge the ethnically based irredentist motives of the Somalis, making constant reference in official statements to the shifta (bandit) problem in the area.
The province thus entered a period of running skirmishes between the Kenyan Army and Somali-backed Northern Frontier District Liberation Movement (NFDLM) insurgents. The first high-profile victims were two Borana leaders, the first African District Commissioner Dabaso Wabera and tribal chief Haji Galma Dido, who were assassinated while a route to Isiolo to urge locals not to back the secessionists. The two assassins were Somali residents of Kenya who later escaped across the Somali border.
One immediate consequence of the Shifta insurgency was the signing in 1964 of a Mutual Defense Treaty between Jomo Kenyatta’s administration and the government of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
At the outset of the war, the government declared a State of Emergency. This consisted of allowing security forces to detain people up to 56 days without trial, confiscating the property of communities allegedly in retaliation for acts of violence, and restricting the right to assembly and movement. A ‘prohibited zone’ was created along the Somali border, and the death penalty was made mandatory for unauthorised possession of firearms. “Special courts” without guarantee of due process were also created. The northeast—declared a “special district” – was subject to nearly unfettered government control, including the authority to detain, arrest or forcibly move individuals or groups, as well as confiscate possessions and land. However, as part of its effort to reassure the public, the Voice of Kenya was warned not to refer to the conflict as a “border dispute”, while a special government committee decided to refer to the rebels as “shiftas” to minimise the political nature of the war.
Over the course of the war, the new Kenyan government became increasingly concerned by the growing strength of the Somali military. At independence, Somalia had a weak army of 5,000 troops that was incapable of exerting itself beyond its borders. However, in 1963, the Somali government appealed for assistance from the Soviet Union, which responded by lending it about $32 million. By 1969, 800 Somali officers had received Soviet training, while the army had expanded to over 23,000 well-equipped troops. The Kenyan fear that the insurgency might escalate into an all-out war with phalanxes of well-equipped Somali troops was coupled with a concern about the new insurgent tactic of planting land mines.
The Kenyan government response may have been inspired by the counter-insurgency efforts taken by the British during the Mau Mau Uprising, which had been spearheaded by the Kikuyu, who now ironically dominated the Kenya African National Union-led government. In 1967, Kenyan fears reached a fever pitch, and a special government committee was created to prepare for a full-scale war with Somalia. The government also adopted a policy of compulsory villagization in the war-affected area. In 1967, the populace was moved into 14 Manyattas, villages that were guarded by troops (some referred to them as concentration camps). East Africa scholar Alex de Waal described the result as “a military assault upon the entire pastoral way of life,” as enormous numbers of livestock were confiscated or killed, partly to deny their use by the guerrillas and partly to force the populace to abandon their flocks and move to a Manyatta. Thus, made destitute, many nomads became an urban underclass, while educated Somalis in Kenya fled the country. The government also replaced the dynastic Sultans, who were the traditional leaders, with low-ranking government-appointed chiefs.
In 1967, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda mediated peace talks between Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Egal and Kenyatta. These bore fruit in October 1967, when the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (the Arusha Memorandum) that resulted in an official ceasefire, though regional security did not prevail until 1969. After a 1969 coup in Somalia, the new military leader Mohamed Siad Barre, abolished this MoU as he claimed it was corrupt and unsatisfactory. The Manyatta strategy is seen as playing a key role in ending the insurgency, though the Somali government may have also decided that the potential benefits of a war simply was not worth the cost and risk. However, Somalia did not renounce its claim to Greater Somalia.
With Somali support for their movement for self-determination temporarily halted, many former rebels returned to the traditional activity of pastoralism.
The forced internment of the Northern Frontier District’s inhabitants also resulted in an economic bifurcation of its other minority residents. Those with means diversified into trade and sedentary farming. Those without became wage labourers, while the poorest were reduced to dependence on outside relief aid. The anthropologist John Baxter returned to the village in Isiolo District, which he had researched in 1953, and had this to say about the few non-Somali minority tribes that lived at the time alongside the Somali majority:
In 1982, only a few fortunate ones still maintained themselves through stock pastoralism. Some 40 percent of the Boran and Sakuye of the District had been driven to peri-urban shanty villages in the new administrative townships. There, they eked out a bare subsistence, hanging around the petrol stations for odd jobs, hawking for miraa, making illicit alcohol, engaging in prostitution and the like.
The war thus marked the beginning of decades of violent crackdowns and repressive measures by the police in the NFD, coupled with trumped-up allegations and unsubtle innuendo on the part of the Kenyan media, charging the region’s almost-exclusively Somali inhabitants with “banditry” and other vice.
A particularly violent incident referred to as the Wagalla Massacre took place in 1984, when the Kenyan provincial commissioner ordered security forces to gather 5,000 men of the Somali Degodia clan onto the airstrip at Wagalla, Wajir, open fire on them, and then attempt to hide their bodies. In the year 2000, the government admitted to having killed 380 people, though independent estimates put the toll at over 2,000.
Not until late 2000 and the administration of Provincial Commissioner Mohammoud Saleh – a Somali—was there a serious drop in violent activities, partially attributable to Saleh’s zero tolerance policy towards abuse by security forces. Ironically, Saleh himself was the target of the local police, having been arrested and booked several times. Wearing plain clothes, Saleh was apparently mistaken for an ordinary inhabitant of the NFD.