On the Shifta War and national determinism

Here in Kenya, we take it for granted that ours has been the most stable country in East Africa since independence. This is a lie. We have had dictatorships, an attempted coup, multiple political assassinations, and deadly electoral mishaps. Besides, Tanzania has been way more stable, and it is just across our southern border.

But we have gone to great lengths to maintain the myth of our political stability, not shying to pile up even more lies to burnish our credentials. It is in the service of the myth that we hold it to be incontrovertibly true that Kenya has never experienced a civil war, unlike those other wretched African countries. This is also a lie.

Though it is not counted in our popular imagination as one, the Shifta War (1963-1967) had all the markings of a civil war. In history, civil wars have been generally either, or a combination, of two kinds. Either a portion of a country fights for control over the entire country, or a portion secedes and fights to secure its separation.

The Shifta War was of the second kind. As Kenyan blogger Owaah narrated in an excellent 2015 article, it was a brutal war. Nevertheless, it occupies a blackspot in our history, remaining virtually absent from our common consciousness. We are not taught about it properly in school. It is an open wound in our body-politic, but we are largely ignorant of it.

The part of the world that became independent Kenya in 1963 was made up of patches of previously-existing political entities. One of these was a large, sparsely populated semi-arid swath of land known as the Northern Frontier District (NFD). It became North Eastern Province, and was broken up by the 2010 constitution into Garissa, Wajir and Mandera counties.

Just before independence, an informal plebiscite established that the scattered inhabitants of the region, consisting largely of ethnic Somalis, with a minority of other Cushitic peoples sprinkled among them, preferred to join the newly-independent Republic of Somalia, instead of being incorporated in Kenya.

Their reasons were pretty simple. On national grounds, they identified more with their kinsmen in Somalia, than with the Bantu and Nilotic peoples of the rest of Kenya. Their portion of land had been broken away from the greater Somalia region and retained by Britain when it handed the larger part to Italy after World War I. They just wanted to reunite with their kinsmen and forge a common destiny.

However, Kenya’s independence era leaders declined to grant this wish. Exactly why cannot be said for sure, partly because they did not care to articulate their reasons. Perhaps they were afraid of inheriting a country that was only two thirds the size of the former colony. It clearly wasn’t about resources, and there was no strategic reason to keep the district in Kenya. After all, the Somali Republic was quite enthusiastic about forming an alliance with Kenya, and wasn’t antagonistic to its statehood.

Thus spurned, the people of the NFD started a secessionist movement that inevitably became armed. The new Kenyan army fought it with the kind of brutality that had been meted out upon the pre-independence Mau Mau insurgency. And just like in the case of the Mau Mau, the war was branded, through clever propaganda, as an effort to flush out bandits (“shiftas”) and edited out of popular discourse.

This is part of the reason why most Kenyans know so little about this war. Here, it bears mentioning that Ethiopia, our northern neighbour, did a similar thing with Ogaden, another majority-Somali region within its borders that wished to join Somalia. After all attempts at convincing Ethiopia to let Ogaden go failed, Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977 to stamp its sovereignty over the region. Ethiopia won the war, and Ogaden remains within its borders.

Having shaken off the shackles of their colonial oppressors, Kenya and Ethiopia themselves became oppressors of their own neighbour. When Somalis tried to construct a state conforming somewhat to their historical homeland as a people, the two countries that had been built out of its pieces did everything they could to thwart their aspirations. Then they told lies about it for generations.

While multiple factors contributed to the failure of government in Somalia, the annexures by its neighbours loom large on the roster. The two countries contributed a great deal to the degeneration of Somalia into the textbook case of African instability. It is now a pariah, divided into multiple fiefdoms, and held hostage by Al-Shabab, which arose and thrived in the power vacuum left by a collapsed government.

But the truth does not hide forever. Today, the two countries spend the largest amounts of money, and have lost the greatest number of military and civilian lives, in maintaining the semblance of stability in the country they hamstrung from the beginning. In effect, they have to run the government of Somalia, alongside their own, and that is pretty difficult. Their sins have come back to haunt them.

What went wrong? Why didn’t Kenya allow the NFD to secede into Somalia? What was so sacred about our borders that our independence heroes could not bear to see them redrawn to better reflect the history and aspirations of the Somali community? Why was the majority opinion of the residents of the area ignored by a central government 500 kilometres and various ethnic lines away? Why force an entire people to feel patriotic about a country they do not wish to be part of, a country that has essentially beaten them into belonging?

At the highest level of analysis, this is not an economic or political question. It is philosophical. It goes right to the heart of how we define the nation-state, the pre-eminent political structure of our times. The nation-state is how the world is organised. Although globalisation has recently chipped away at its foundations, it remains, to the modern mind, the highest level of territorial sovereignty. The recognition of a political unit as a nation-state is the final blessing upon its right to self-government.

It is on this principle that, in the latter half of the 20th century, almost fifty polities on the African landmass were thrust onto the world stage through decolonisation. It is also on this principle that late 19th century Europe was parcelled out into its modern polities, which were then reorganised by both world wars. This is what powered the successful secession of South Sudan and the failed attempt in Biafra. It is also the fundamental principle that allowed Kenya’s founding fathers to frustrate the NFD’s Somali ambitions.

At the core of the idea of the nation-state is the assumption that a people, however defined, has a right to form a state. It is the ultimate expression of their common will to live together, and to be recognised as a polity. It is a simple and powerful idea, and has the blessing of Europe’s pre-eminent intellectuals of the late 19th century. It was first properly articulated by Nietzsche, and Renan sung its blessings. It is the foundation of the idea of nationalism, which powered the struggle for independence in Africa.

However, how nations-states are actually formed is a slightly messier affair. For, despite the romantic allure of the idea, it is not clear how a common will to live together is to be measured and interpreted. Whose opinion should count? Should the opinions of the people within a region that desires self-determination count more than those of the other people within the rest of the country?

Make it too easy to define the common will of the people, and the world would splinter into countless polities with tenuous claims to legitimacy. Make it too hard, and it would be impossible for oppressed groups to escape tyranny. What should inform the necessary balancing act that goes into this definition?

Once we ask ourselves this question, we immediately realise that our modern nation-states rest on very rickety foundations. Defining the common destiny of people through the right to form states becomes quite difficult. Confronted with this difficulty, we prefer not to talk about the foundations at all in most cases. For all practical purposes, we assume it doesn’t even matter because, hey, we have a country to run already!

However, in those specific cases where a group of people wishes to build a new state upon this foundation, we ignore the idea at our own peril. The Shifta War was a classic case. The only problem is that I think it was unnecessary. The NFD did not matter to Kenyans. This is the other reason why the war is light on our consciences. It was fought over something about which the rest of the country didn’t give a rat’s ass. But it mattered a lot for the Somali residents of the NFD.

It is my humble opinion that the NFD should have been allowed to join Somalia. The map of Kenya would have looked weird. But it looks weird even now. The only straight lines that belong on the map are longitudes and latitudes, and even they aren’t really straight because the earth is a marble. The views of people regarding their region’s self-determination should be taken very seriously, and indulged if they are consistent.

As I see it, this tends more towards the person, for whom all society exists anyway. The only natural and physical boundary is the skin. It separates the person from the rest of the world. Anything above that is abstract and malleable.

Moreover, we get so hung up about our borders, that we fail to remember the damning fact  that they were bequeathed to us by colonial rulers, who cannot be said to have had our best interests at heart. This game is rigged, yet we continue to play it as if it matters, and are willing to kill to win.

Feature image: Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

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