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Kenya’s first secessionist war

By | Aug 24th 2011 | 5 min read

Residents of Northern Frontier Districts desperately wanted to unite with Somalia and were prodded by Somalia government but Kenya would hear none of it, writes ALI ABDI

Rebels who fought Kenya during the country’s first secessionist war in 1960s were trained in the same region terror mastermind Abdulla Fazul carried out his operations.

The thick forested area between the Juba River and Indian Ocean in Somalia, not far from Kenya-Somalia border provided a perfect secret military training field away from the ears of Kenyan leaders who were then busy negotiating for the country’s independence.

Somalia had attained independence earlier in 1960.

Gobo Guyo who was shot by the Kenyan military during the Shifta wars at Garba-Tulla where he says there is a mass grave. He lost five members of his family during the crackdown.  [PHOTO: ALI ABDI]

Thousands of men between 18 and 40 years trooped to Qoqane and Ras Kamboni in the Kismayu belt to plan warfare to destabilise Kenya two years before its independence.

It is the same area Fazul, the leader of Al-Qaeda in East Africa who was killed in June operated and planned terror attacks in the region including the twin attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998 and the July, last year, Kampala bombing.

The mission was to ensure that Kenya gave up the colonial Northern Frontier Districts (NFD) that comprised Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera to Somalia.

Genesis of war

Discontent was widespread in NFD and coupled with political activities in the Horn of Africa and the Cold War led to the demand by local leaders to secede from Kenya and unite with Somalia.

Somalia meanwhile was not happy that the Ogaden and Haud regions were ‘given’ to Ethiopia by the colonial powers and was pushing to get ‘back’ the NFD.

A new party, Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (NPPPP), was formed to demand that NFD should secede from Kenya.

Mohammed Guyo, the then regional representative for Isiolo South at the Embu based assembly said thousands of youth had been taken to Somalia years before Kenya’s independence, for military training with the help of then Somalia Prime Minister Ali Sharmake.

Guyo said the young men, drawn from the six districts in the region were taken to the Kenya-Somalia border by the local pro-secessionist leaders and thereafter to camps in places like Qoqane by the Somalia military commanders.

“Most of the youth from my area voluntarily joined the movement and were helped to travel to bases in Somalia. The first group of graduates came back in 1961 to wage the Shifta war,” Guyo told The Underworld in an interview.

Another veteran we traced to Bula Pesa in Isiolo Central said the youth were trained by Somalia and the then Soviet Union commanders in lower Juba region.

“I was with 600 colleagues from Isiolo at the Qoqane camp where we trained in using automatic rifles, mortars, grenades and landmines. We also received guerrilla tactics like how to hit a police post and stealing arms,” said the veteran who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

He said they trained for six months before they were dropped at the Dadaab border by the Somalia soldiers and handed over to pro-secessionists officials. Later, the youth travelled by road or foot to their respective districts.

“In Isiolo, we operated from bushes near Garba-Tulla, Modogashe, Sericho, Merti and Isiolo town. For food, we relied on supplies provided by locals and sometimes used force to get ration,” he said.

When the result of the referendum where locals voted to join Somalia was ignored by both Britain and Kenya, the secessionist movement undertook a guerilla war against the Kenyatta government.

Extracts from the Kenya national archives on the Shifta insurgency indicated that on November 22, 1963, Britain declared that there would be “no altering Kenya’s frontier without the decision of the new Kenyan Government”.

The first high profile victims of the rebels were the first African DC Dabaso Wabera and paramount chief Haji Galma Dido, both Borana who were assassinated by armed bandits while en route to Sericho in Isiolo South for a public function to urge locals not to back the secessionists.

This heightened tension in Isiolo.

Kenya soon after detained 20 pro-secessionists leaders—mainly drawn from NPPPP at Manyani in Voi and Kajiado.

Those detained included Wako Happi (Isiolo), Alex Kholkhole (Marsabit) and Dekho Istanbul (Garissa), all top officials of the party.

This was followed by mass resignation of chiefs and political leaders who resolved not participate in regional and General Elections in Kenya.

Half of the region did not participate in the first election in the country.

Military operations

In Isiolo, the Meru and Turkana communities took part in the violence-riddled exercise that saw Lawi N’Kubitu elected as Senator. Scores of locals and security personnel died during the exercise.

Britain undertook a military exercise dubbed “Operation Sharp Panga” in the region in March 1963, with more than 4,000 soldiers to secure its interests in post-independent Kenya.

In December 1963, Kenya’s Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta declared a state of emergency in NFD and deployed the military to crush the secessionist soldiers it dubbed as Shifta (bandits).

The Government undertook several military operations to defeat the pro-secessionists soldiers who were backed by Somalia.

The military initiatives included Operation Maliza Shifta (destroy bandits), Operation Fagia Shifta (clear the bandits) and Operation Shambulia Sana (reinforce the effort).

The operation by the military took the shape of ‘search and destroy’ where troops specifically hunted down the rebels and their sympathisers in areas like Isiolo and Garissa.

Routine use of automatic rifles in 1963 was replaced by explosives like mortars, grenades and landmines on§ both sides up to 1967 when the war ended.

Records put the death toll in the region at thousands but NGOs say more than 10,000 lives were lost.

Guyo said key roads like the Isiolo-Modogashe-Wajir section were heavily mined where both civilian and military vehicles were hit leading to deaths of hundreds.

He said the bandits also targeted civilian homes and business premises that were raided for food and money. Regular and Administration Police posts were attacked for fuel and arms.

“Whenever I visited my home in Garba-Tulla, I used to spend the night at the local police station because I was among the leaders hunted down by the rebel soldiers,” said Guyo.

However, the rag-tag militia was not capable of kicking out the Kenyan military from the region and their aim was to create chaos and destabilise the region in a bid to make Kenya give up and let NFD unite with Somalia.

The end

The war ended formally in 1967 and was followed by the Arusha Conference of October 23, 1967, that was attended by regional leaders Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Milton Obote (Uganda), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Mohammed Egal (Somalia).

Parties at the conference agreed that emergency regulations imposed on either side of Kenya-Somalia borders be suspended and diplomatic, economic and trade ties be restored.

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