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Somalia and the Shifta Conflict

At independence Kenya's only outstanding dispute with a foreign country was with Somalia, independent since 1960, which had irredentist claims on the Northern Frontier District (NFD), including postindependence North-Eastern Province. Although poor and arid, the area constituted nearly one-fifth of Kenya's territory and was the home of about 200,000 ethnic Somali and Oromo. Somalia's concern for these mostly nomadic people reflected its policy of pan-Somalism, in line with which Somalia sought the unification of all Somali-inhabited areas, including the NFD and the Ogaden region in Ethiopia.

In pre-colonial days, greater Somalia was comprised of what is now the Ogden District of Ethiopia, the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya, Djibouti, Somali Land and Northern Somalia, unofficially known as Puntland. Colonial administration namely; Britain and Italy necessitated the decentralization of authority to enable collaboration with other clans to achieve some aspect of governance. Three of the five districts, namely the Ogden, Kenya‘s NFD, and Djibouti, found themselves in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti respectively, at the time of independence in 1960, with Somalia remaining with British Somalia land and Italian Somalia land.

This new state system challenged the traditional structure of governance in Somalia‘s pastoral system. Upon independence, the leadership challenges and pre-occupation with greater Somalia shaped the character of the formation of Somalia and led to the build up of the Somalia military and ultimately to the shifta resistance of Northern Frontier District of Kenya in 1963-68.

In the colonial era, the British did not incorporate Somalis living in Kenya into the prevailing order. At independence, the British reversed previous colonial policy and decided to force unity among disparate ethnic groups (including Somalis) in Kenya. In 1961 the establishment of the Republic of Somalia inspired Somali political leaders in Kenya to rally for secession from Kenya and incorporation into Somalia. Subsequently, the Somalian government supported the Shifta (“the lawless”).

Even after British control had been established in Kenya, Somali clans were still migrating into the trans-Juba region, extending their range southwestward to the banks of the Tana River. In their movements the Somali paid no regard to political boundaries, and those who crossed the Juba River, where the British sphere of influence began, maintained their contact with fellow clansmen in Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. Kenya's border with Somalia was a result of the secret arrangements that brought Italy into World War I on the side of the Allies. In 1916 Britain promised to cede part of its own colonial holdings in compensation for Italy's exclusion from the postwar division of German colonial territory already agreed to by Britain and France.

A treaty drawn up in 1920 and ratified in 1924 provided that Italy take over the area west of the Juba River up to 41° east longitude, including the port of Kismaayo. Known as Jubaland, it was incorporated into Italian Somaliland the following year. The new colonial boundary left a Somali-populated area within Kenya that was equal in size to the ceded territory. Although a number of Somali had settled in towns or as farm workers elsewhere in the colony, British authorities prohibited the nomads from moving over the internal frontier of the NFD as a precaution against ethnic conflict and the spread of interclan warfare. Other barriers (including taxation at a higher rate) were erected as well, setting the Somali apart from the rest of the African population.

These distinctions, all of which indirectly recognized the Somali as an alien element in Kenya and therefore emphasized their ties with Somalia, remained in effect until Kenya's independence and continually reinforced the Somali sense of exclusiveness. The Somali in the NFD were convinced that their interests were neglected by colonial authorities, and they expected them to be similarly neglected by an independent Kenya. They looked to fellow Somali across the border for political leadership, particularly after Somalia's independence.

Somalia's constitution stated prominently in its preamble that it promoted "by legal and peaceful means, the union of the Somali territories," and its fundamental laws provided that all ethnic Somali, no matter where they resided, were citizens of the republic. Somalia did not directly assert sovereignty over adjacent territories in Kenya and Ethiopia but rather demanded that Somali living there be granted the right to self-determination. At the London talks on Kenya's independence in 1961, Somali representatives from the NFD called on Britain to arrange for the region's separation from the colony before Kenya was granted self-government. The British government appointed a commission to ascertain popular opinion on the question in the NFD.

The results of its investigation indicated that separation from Kenya was almost unanimously supported by the Somali and their fellow nomadic pastoralists, the Oromo. These two peoples, it was noted, represented an overwhelming majority of the NFD's population. Despite considerable diplomatic activity by Somalia, the British government decided not to act on the commission's findings.

Anxious that independence negotiations proceed smoothly, the British were reluctant to alienate Kenyan nationalist leaders, who were all opposed to giving away a large part of their country. It was also felt in London that the federal format then proposed in the Kenyan constitution would provide a solution through the wide degree of autonomy it allowed the predominantly Somali region within a federal system. This solution did not ease Somali demands for unification with Somalia, however, and even regional autonomy disappeared when Kenya amended the constitution and introduced a centralized form of government in 1964.

The denial of Somali claims led to steadily increasing unrest in the NFD. Adapting easily to life as shifta (bandits), Somali dissidents conducted a guerrilla campaign against the police and army for more than four years. Kenya's charges that the guerrillas were trained and equipped with Soviet arms in Somalia and that their activities were directed from Mogadishu were denied by the Somali government. But it could not hide the fact that Somali radio exerted an influence on the level of guerrilla activity by the militant tone of its broadcasts beamed into Kenya.

Meanwhile, clashes between Ethiopian police and Somali in the Ogaden had grown steadily in scope, eventually involving small-scale actions between army units along the border. In February 1964 armed conflict erupted along the entire length of the Somali-Ethiopian frontier. A cease-fire was arranged in April 1964 under OAU auspices, but the potential for future hostilities remained high. Consequently, Ethiopia and Kenya concluded a mutual defense pact shortly after the latter became independent in December 1964, in response to what both countries perceived to be the continuing threat from Somalia.

Most OAU members were alienated by Somali irredentism and feared that, if Somalia were successful in detaching the Somali-populated portions of Kenya and Ethiopia, the example might inspire their own restive minorities divided from their brothers by frontiers imposed in the colonial period. In addition the Somalis had challenged two of Africa's most important elder statesmen, President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Under OAU auspices a number of efforts were made to settle the differences between Somalia and its neighbors. The resulting agreements between Kenya and Somalia were usually honored for a time, until some reported incident in North-Eastern Province once more inflamed public opinion on both sides. The propaganda level would then rise and with it the level of hostilities. This situation eased only after a change in government in Somalia brought Mohamed Ibrahim Egal to office as prime minister in 1967.

Without relinquishing Somalia's commitment to uniting the Somali people, Egal sought rapprochement with Ethiopia and Kenya through the good offices of the OAU, hoping to create an atmosphere in which the questions of self- determination for Somali outside Somalia could be peacefully negotiated. After a meeting between Kenyatta and Egal, diplomatic relations were restored in January 1968, and the state of emergency in effect in North-Eastern Province since before independence was at last related. Tensions were so reduced that Kenyatta by mid-1968 could refer to them in the past tense as "a little quarrel."

The military junta that took power in Somalia under Major General Mohamed Siad Barre after a coup in 1969 pledged to continue that country's peaceful relations with Kenya. Nevertheless, Kenya remained mindful of Somalia's long-range goal for the unification of "Greater Somalia," and its caution was heightened by the knowledge that the Soviet-trained and Soviet-equipped Somali army was nearly three times the size of its own. Misgivings about Somalia's intentions seemed to be confirmed in 1974 by a revival of guerrilla activity in North-Eastern Province by the clandestine United Liberation Front of Western Somalia.

The Kenyan attorney general, Charles Njonjo, heatedly invited Somali dissidents to "pack up their camels and go to Somalia" if they were not satisfied with their lot in Kenya. Protests were also directed at Somalia for allowing the installation of Soviet bases on its soil in violation of the zone of peace that Kenya (among other nations) sought to establish in the Indian Ocean region.

Kenya reaffirmed its alliance with Ethiopia after Haile Selassie was deposed by a military government in 1974. Kenya's fear of Somali subversion proved more compelling than even that of Soviet influence in the region, sustaining the alliance after Somalia expelled the Soviets in 1977 and after Ethiopia was drawn within Moscow's orbit. During the Ogaden war in 1977-78 Kenya openly sympathized with Ethiopia against Somalia. Although Somalia tried to assure Kenya that it wanted peace along their common border, the Kenyans took the renewal of fighting by shifta insurgents early in 1978 as a more reliable indication of Somali intentions. Citing unrest in the region, Kenya had already undertaken to upgrade its armed forces with purchases of military equipment from the United States and Britain.

Despite increased political pressure to "Kenyanize" the armed forces, the upsurge of guerrilla activity on the part of ethnic Somali in northeast Kenya dictated the retention of experienced British officers. The campaign against the shifta, which continued until late 1967, gave the army the opportunity to cast itself in the role of defender of the national honor and integrity against a threat that had some element of foreign instigation. The shifta challenge also heightened the civilian leadership's understanding of the need for an effective military force.

Although British officers were retained during the shifta conflict, the political fallout of the 1964 mutiny did accelerate the Kenyanization of the armed forces. The small elite officer contingent produced at Sandhurst, at Mons Officer Cadet School, and in other Commonwealth countries was inadequate to meet the army's revised staffing requirements in the 1960s.

For a time in the mid-1960s, a number of young men received specialized officer training in other countries, such as Egypt, China, the Soviet Union, and Bulgaria, under private arrangements between these countries and political factions in Kenya. Many of these hopefuls, however, found upon their return to Kenya that their credentials for a commission were unacceptable to the Ministry of Defence, which regarded their officially unsanctioned foreign training as politically suspect. Israeli-trained personnel were accepted, but only after they retrained in Kenya.

The great majority of new officers had to be commissioned from the ranks. A side effect of the rapid production of African officers was a lasting shortage, which became acute in several areas, of the experienced senior NCOs and technical personnel who had been the backbone of the colonial forces.

Eventually, the Shifta depended too much on Somalia and lost its internal drive for self-determination. The Shifta war colored Kenya’s relationship with pastoralists from the 1960s onwards and helps to explain (along with a number of other factors) state failure to deal with growing populations and development problems that have threatened the way of life and ecosystems in much of the north of the country.

Mutual antipathy toward Somalia induced Kenya and Ethiopia to join in a ten-year treaty of friendship and cooperation in January 1979, although their political systems had little in common. The government in Nairobi refrained from directly blaming Somalia for a resurgence of shifta (bandit) activity in 1980, but Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi joined Ethiopia's Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam in a harsh condemnation of Somali goals and activities during their meeting of December 1980. The two leaders demanded that Somalia renounce all territorial claims to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, and pay reparations for damage caused during the Ogaden war.

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Page last modified: 24-05-2015 20:46:52 ZULU