The Jubilee government is taking dramatic steps to secure Kenya’s border with Somalia by erecting a 500km wall designed to keep out al Shabaab terrorists.
Is this initiative a solution to terrorist activities or a misguided effort towards continued isolation, discrimination, marginalisation, violation of human rights, cultural genocide, and destruction of the nomadic way of life of Kenyan Somalis?
But first let us look at the genesis and results of border or security walls in other parts of the world.
Border-wall data compiled by anthropologists Miguel Diaz-Barriga and Margaret Dorsey is the most extensive research on border security.
Their study focuses on the sociological and ecological ramifications of the border wall’s construction along the United States-Mexico border. The data includes about 2,000 high-quality photos of various sections of the border wall, images of local protests, and border wall construction through backyards, wildlife parks, and so on.
The Mexico–United States security barrier – also known as the Border Fence – is a collection of several barriers, designed to prevent illegal movement across the US-Mexico border. The border wall was built as part of three larger operations to deter illegal drugs and illegal economic immigration entering the United States from Latin America.
Globally, the number of border security walls continues to grow. An example is Iran’s building of a 700km wall along its border with Pakistan. India has erected fences along its border with Pakistan and plans a fence along the border with Bangladesh, as well as a 767km fence along Jammu and Kashmir. Malaysia and Thailand have been building a wall along their shared border to avert illegal workers, smugglers, and terrorists. In South America, Brazil is building a wall along its Paraguayan border to deter smugglers from entering that country illegally.
Israel began construction of a separation barrier wall in the West Bank in 2002, running over 643km. While the Israelis believe the wall has saved lives, for Palestinians it meant towns completely divided and productive agricultural land destroyed. The Palestinians refer to it as the ‘Apartheid Wall’ and claim the wall violates international law and human rights as determined by the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly.
Israel is also constructing a wall along its border with Egypt.
The United States military has strategically built walls in Iraq throughout the occupation period that began in 2003. However, a wall constructed in 2007 around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah drew much criticism from Sunnis, Shiites, and the then Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Of course the result has been the creation of ISIS, while US military expectations were to quell sectarian violence. The Iraqis saw the wall as “punishment” and predicted an increase in violence. So, what is the logic or rationale, of building a security wall or long fence on the Kenya-Somalia border? Let us consider a brief background of the border region.
The counties of Isiolo, Garissa, Mandera, Marsabit, and Wajir constituted the former Northern Frontier Districts (NFD). The inhabitants of these vast region consist of Borana, Burji, Gabra, Sakuye, Rendille, and Somalis. They speak various languages of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Isiolo and Marsabit counties were part of the former Eastern Province, while Garissa, Mandera and Wajir counties constituted the former North Eastern Province (NEP). The inhabitants of the former NFD are nomadic pastoralists. Most of their livestock was killed by government forces during the Shifta War of 1963-67, reducing many residents of this vast region to poverty. The British, French and Italians divided the Savana haphazardly from Ethiopia and Somalia during the European Scramble for Africa of the1880s.
After partitioning the region in 1902, the then Commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate, Charles Elliot, stated, “If it were possible to detach the districts inhabited by the Somalis it would be an excellent thing to form them into a separate government”. This did not happen and after the completion of the partition of Africa by the colonial powers, the NFD became part of Kenya, while the rest of the areas inhabited by the Somalis came under the French (Djibouti), Italy (southern Somalia), British (northern Somalia) and the Ogaden region under Ethiopia. This was based on the colonial philosophy of divide and rule. Menelik, the King of Ethiopia at the time, took an active role in the partition of the region.
Somalis are principally concentrated in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. But today many Somalis reside in the Middle East, Europe, North America, Latin America, and Australia – all the continents. Somalis were residing on the Island of Madagascar way before the civil war in Somalia.
In Kenya, the colonial power enacted several laws specifically targeted at the NFD. The Outlying District Ordinance of 1902 effectively declared the NFD – comprising the former districts of Garissa, Isiolo, Mandera, Marsabit, Moyale, and Wajir – a closed area. Movement in and out was only possible under a special pass. The Special Districts Ordinance of 1934, together with the Stock Theft and Produce Ordinance of 1933, gave the colonial administrators extensive powers of arrest, restraint, detention and seizure of property of “hostile tribes”. The latter legalised collective punishment of entire communities for the offences committed by individual criminals. These ordinances applied not only to the NFD, but also to the former districts of Kajiado, Lamu, Tana River, and Samburu.
The consequence of this early colonial oppressive legislation sentenced the NFD to being a closed zone that had no contact with the rest of Kenya. Other Kenyans knew little about the NFD and didn’t consider the region as part of Kenya. That situation continued after Independence, and is best captured by the statement of the American writer Negley Farson, “there is one half of Kenya about which the other half knows nothing and seems to care even less”.
When political participation was allowed in 1960, the people of the NFD formed the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (NPPPP). The party’s main agenda was the secession of the NFD and its reunion with Somalia. At the Kenya Constitutional Conference of 1962, an independent commission was formed to gather the opinion of the people of the NFD regarding their future. The commission visited the districts of Isiolo, Garissa, Mandera, Marsabit, Moyale, Samburu, and Wajir. It listened to oral presentations from 134 delegates, received 106 written submissions, and held meetings in Nairobi with the leaders of competing political parties. The majority of the NFD people were in favour of secession.
However, the British government didn’t accept the result of the commission – on the grounds that it was not prepared to take a unilateral decision on the future of the territory on the threshold of Kenya’s Independence. As a result of the British manoeuvre, the Regional Boundaries Commission was set up in 1962, and the NEP was created, consisting of Garissa, Mandera and Wajir districts. The foundation for isolation, discrimination, and systemic human rights abuse was thus put in place. From 1963 to the 1990s, gross violations of human rights by members of the security forces, including instances of genocidal killing, mass murder and rape, extrajudicial killing, arbitrary arrests and detention of individuals and large swathes of entire communities and illegal confiscation and theft of property were widespread.
This was a betrayal of the wishes of the people of the NFD in general and the NEP in particular. The people boycotted the 1963 elections and the leaders of the NPPPP started what came to be known as the Shifta War. Somalia broke off diplomatic relations with Britain and supported the secessionists. Kenya’s newly independent government was firm in its stand through the advice of neocolonialist Britain that it would not cede an inch of the territory. Two weeks after Independence, Nairobi was declared a state of emergency over the NFD that lasted for close to 30 years. The emergency was provided pretexts for extrajudicial execution, detention, and torture by Kenya’s state security machinery. The pictures of these times and incidents that were recently posted on Facebook and circulated in social media are just the tip of the iceberg.
Independent Kenya’s government inherited and continued with the colonial administration divide-and-rule policy. It is in that spirit the Districts and Provinces Act No. 5 of 1992 established the composition of Kenya’s provinces. That Act added Isiolo, Marsabit, and Moyale districts in Eastern Province, whose headquarters was far away – in Embu.
The strategy was not only aimed at the isolation of the Somali of the NEP, but covered up systemic human rights violations, discrimination, marginalisation, and underwrote underdevelopment. Thus, the building of a border security wall on the frontier early in a new century is the continuation of legal and administrative impediments to the development of the region in the name of fighting terrorism. When terrorists attack in other parts of the country it is treated as an ordinary crime, but in the NEP the state security machinery unleash counterterrorism. When 40 police officers were massacred in a single day in Baragoi, it was seen as normal crime. In the NEP a single attack on police by a thug justifies a full, multiagency security operation and the massacre of residents and collective punishment, instead of going after the individual criminal. What is happening in this region is not only marginalisation and human right abuses, but systemic cultural genocide.
In the NEP, the raping of girls and women, looting of property, indiscriminate killing, harassment, and human rights abuses have been ongoing since Independence. I am sure we may not be able to verify some of the reports, but you just need to look at the Wagalla Massacre (Wajir) of 1984 and the burning of Garissa in 1980. Wananchi – and the world – still remember KDF officers’ looting of the Westgate Mall in the middle of a national disaster and in the full glare of local and international media. The CCTV footage from the mall was viewed right around the world. We saw the ‘thugs in uniform’ shamelessly looting, while the government denied everything despite the overwhelming evidence. Injustice cannot be justice for another injustice – don’t build that wall!
By Prof Osman Warfa is a researcher and author based in the USA.