Chapter 12: The Problem Of The Kenya Somalis from the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa – The Horn of Africa can be thought of as a triangle, whose up-tilted eastern point extends so far into the Indian Ocean that it is approximately due south of Tehran. The “Horn,” of course, is not a definite territorial jurisdiction, but for the purposes of this book, we define it arbitrarily (but conveniently) as the region inhabited mainly by Somalis.


Chapter 12: The Problem Of The Kenya Somalis

From the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa

Somali Nationalism International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of AfricaSaadia Touval

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts • 1963

Somali nationalism constitutes a challenge to the territorial integrity not only of Ethiopia but also of Kenya. The Somali nationalists claim that the eastern portion of the Northern Frontier Province ought to be detached from Kenya and annexed to the Somali Republic. The area in question covers some 45,000 square miles and comprises approximately one-fifth of the total territory of Kenya. It is mostly savanna, though parts can be described as semi-desert. The area’s population is sparse—approximately 94,000—almost all of them Somali nomads. Notwithstanding the sparsity of the population and the meagerness of resources in the area, the issue is likely to be intractable. Kenya’s African nationalists are determined to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity and oppose the cession of territory to the Somali Republic.

The area claimed by Somali nationalists is populated by a number of tribal groups belonging to the Ogaden and the Hawiya. In addition, there are two tribes which are sometimes classified as “semi-Somali”: the Ajouran and the Gurreh. Both were among the first Somali tribes to reach the area and were much influenced by its Galla inhabitants. Politically the Ajouran and the Gurreh tend to identify themselves with the Somalis and are therefore included in this discussion.


Two politically active groups of Somalis in Kenya live outside the disputed area. There is a Somali settlement at Isiolo, at the southern edge of the Northern Frontier Province, estimated in 1960 at 1,500 persons. The settlement was formed during the 1920s when Somali ex-servicemen, most of them from British Somaliland, who had been living in the Kenya highlands, were settled there. The second group are the Somalis of Nairobi, and others scattered in townships throughout Kenya. They too are former military personnel (and their descendants) who settled in Kenya after the First World War. According to a government census, they numbered 5,428 persons in 1957. A very high proportion of them used to be stock traders, and their number has been declining since the early 1950s, when the establishment of the Kenya Meat Commission, with a monopoly over the marketing of stock for meat, deprived many of them of their livelihood and induced them to migrate to Tanganyika and Uganda.[1]

The Somalis of Kenya have sympathized with the Somali nationalist movement since its inception. In the mid-1940s, branches of the Somali Youth League (S.Y.L.) were formed in the Northern Frontier Province. It is hard to say how much their establishment was due to local initiatives and how much inspiration or initiative came from across the border in Somalia. The S.Y.L. in Kenya, like that of Somalia at the time, had objectives that were primarily educational and social. Soon after its formation, however, its activities began to expand. It reportedly set up courts which levied fines upon individuals cooperating with the government, and some of its leaders apparently resorted to intimidation of their opponents. Moreover, rumors were spread that the British government was preparing to relinquish the administration of the Northern Frontier Province and that an S.Y.L. government would take its place. According to the provincial commissioner, the situation had become so bad in some areas, notably in the Garissa district, that “normal administration work had been brought to a standstill”; and consequently in July 1948 the S.Y.L. was proscribed and its branches were closed.[2] A number of leaders were arrested and later exiled to the Turkana district where they lived in restricted residence. They were released in the summer of 1960 at the time of the independence and unification of British Somaliland and Somalia. Simultaneously the S.Y.L. was removed from the list of proscribed organizations.

At this writing, the released former leaders have not regained their influence. The apathy of the Somali population toward their long exile and toward the revival of the S.Y.L. indicates that the organization did not have deep roots, and supports the view that the arrested leaders had attempted to use the organization for personal ends.

For almost a decade following the banning of the S.Y.L. in 1948, no significant nationalist activity had taken place among the Kenyan Somalis. The only Somali organizations active in Kenya during this period were the United Somali Association and the Ishaqiya Association. Both associations were limited to the urban Somali population outside the Northern Frontier Province. They were essentially pressure groups representing Somali interests, rather than nationalist organizations. The United Somali Association had mainly a Darod membership, while the Ishaqiya, as its name suggests, was the organization of members of the Ishaq tribes. During the 1950s both organizations campaigned for a change in the Somalis’ legal status, and for educational and other privileges similar to the ones enjoyed at the time by the Asian community.[3]

In 1959 the organizations merged to form the Somali National Association. The new organization identified itself with Somali nationalist aims. It remained, however, a pressure group concerned mainly with representing various Somali interests and seeking amends for specific grievances, and did not assume the character of a nationalist movement. Its links with the Somalis of the Northern Frontier Province were tenuous. The nomadic Somalis tended to mistrust their urbanized brethren and seemed to prefer making representations to the authorities independently.

In the Northern Frontier Province, there was no organized political activity among the Somalis for almost twelve years after the banning of the S.Y.L. in 1948. A revival of nationalist activity was prompted in 1960 by the imminent independence and unification of British Somaliland and Somalia, and by the growing concern among the Somalis that Kenya’s constitutional progress might frustrate their hopes for ultimate unification with the Somali Republic. This concern is coupled with a reluctance to become subject to an African government when Kenya attains independence. The Somalis of the province appear to be still much influenced by traditional Somali prejudices against Negro Africans.

On these matters, the urban Somalis of Kenya differ somewhat from the nomads to the north. In particular, the educated younger generation, born in Kenya and reared in the nationalist-charged atmosphere in the towns, are more favorably disposed toward the nationalist aspirations of the Kenyan Africans. They are sensitive to events elsewhere in Africa and share the Pan-Africanist sentiments of the urban African elite. Yet they also support the goals of Somali nationalism. With respect to the Somali claims on portions of northern Kenya, their attitude is ambivalent: they support the principle of a “Greater Somalia,” but would be greatly troubled if attempts to realize this aspiration led to a conflict between the Somalis and the Kenya Africans.

The reappearance of nationalist sentiments among the Somali nomads prompted a number of petitions to the British authorities, requesting that the Somali-inhabited territory be detached from Kenya and be incorporated in the Somali Republic. An attempt to calm the atmosphere was made by the governor, Sir Patrick Rennison, during a visit to the Northern Frontier Province in the spring of 1960, when he assured the Somalis that they would be consulted on any change in the administration of the area.

That same year saw the creation of a political party, the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (N.P.P.P.P.). It had branches in the main centers of the Somali-populated eastern half of the province. Its active core consisted of young people who had attended schools and had settled in the administrative centers: Isiolo, Wajir, Garissa, Moyale, and Mandera. The party took up a number of Somali grievances concerning educational facilities and the operation of the African Livestock Marketing Organization (A.L.M.O.).[4] Yet the party’s main objectives were nationalist; it demanded that the Somali-inhabited region be detached from Kenya and united with the Somali Republic.

The Somalis’ participation in the political life of Kenya has been very limited. Until 1961, Somalis did not participate in elections to the Legislative Council. The majority of those living outside the Northern Frontier Province were classified as aliens, with no right to vote. As for the province, the commissioner appointed to consider the question of African representation on the Legislative Council reported in 1955 “that the tribesmen had expressed a wish that until such time as the Province could be represented by its own Member, their interests should continue to be cared for by the Government through the Provincial Commissioner.”[5] In 1959 a Somali, Ahmed Farah Eleya, a trader from Moyale, was nominated for the first time to represent the province in the Legislative Council, and he served until the Council was dissolved in preparation for the elections of February 1961.

In these elections, the Somalis were given the right to vote for the first time. Outside the Northern Frontier Province, they were not a political factor. Somalis participated in the elections as individuals and usually voted in conformity to the preferences of the African community.

In these elections, the Northern Frontier Province was divided into two constituencies—east and west. The electorate of the constituency of Northern Province West consisted mainly of Turkana and BoranGalla tribesmen, along with a small number of Somalis (mainly around Isiolo), Asians, and Arabs. The constituency of Northern Province East comprised the essentially Somali districts of Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, and Moyale. The elections caused some controversy among the Somalis of the province. Most of them feared that their participation in the elections might be interpreted as tacit acceptance of their status as Kenyans. Consequently, electoral registration was generally boycotted by the Somalis, and only 1,622 of them (mainly in Mandera and Garissa) registered. Even these did not actually vote, because, in the constituency of Northern Province East, only a single candidate presented himself, and was thus elected unopposed.

This man was Ali Aden Lord, a 41-year-old Somali, born and educated in Nairobi, who lived in Wajir in the Northern Frontier Province for twenty years and was engaged there in commerce and transport. Ali Aden Lord was the first president of the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party, but later resigned from the party, and was elected to the Legislative Council as an independent. At that time he was secretary of the Wajir Muslim Association.[6] He died a few months after the election, and his place in the Legislative Council was taken by A. R. Khalef.

The elections brought home to many African political leaders the existence of a Somali secessionist movement. Commercial, social, and political contacts between the Northern Frontier Province and the rest of Kenya have been quite limited. Commerce is largely in the hands of Asians. The marketing of livestock is carried out through the African Livestock Marketing Organization and does not afford opportunities for personal relations. Social and political ties are almost nonexistent. The province is physically remote. There are administrative restrictions upon travel in the area. Consequently, few Africans in Kenya have any knowledge of the province, its peoples, its problems, or its administration. In the autumn of 1960, in preparation for the elections, the major political parties, the Kenya African National Union (K.A.N.U.) and the Kenya African Democratic Union (K.A.D.U.), became interested in winning support among the Somalis of the Northern Frontier Province. In this, they failed, as neither party was even able to present a candidate in the predominantly Somali constituency. But the African politicians did become aware of the problem presented by Somali nationalism.

The vehemence of Somali feelings regarding secession was again demonstrated during the constitutional conference in Nairobi in September 1961. The Somali representatives came to the conference to present their claims for the right to secede. When their claims were not accepted, they walked out of the conference.[7]

Somali secessionist aims were restated at the Kenya constitutional conference held in London in the spring of 1962. In response to Somali representations, the conference authorized the setting up of a commission to investigate the state of public opinion in the Northern Frontier Province. The commission’s findings confirmed that the Somali population wished to secede from Kenya and join the Somali Republic, but the commission, by its terms of reference, was precluded from making any recommendations on the subject. On March 8, 1963 (just before this book went to press), Duncan Sandys, the British Colonial and Commonwealth Secretary, announced that the Somali-inhabited portion of the Northern Frontier Province would become one of seven regions into which Kenya is being divided. The Somali population of Kenya thus would gain a wide measure of autonomy. The announcement evoked sharp protests from the Somali Republic, as it seemed to signify Britain’s intention of handing Kenya intact to its African government, without meeting the Somali demand for secession.

In the face of Somali insistence upon secession and the ignorance of non-Somali Africans concerning the Northern Frontier Province, the administration of this huge territory will pose many problems to an independent Kenya. Unrest among the Somalis may make the task even more formidable. Yet the alternative, the cession of the Somali-populated portions to the Somali Republic, is unacceptable to Kenya nationalist leaders. The preservation of territorial integrity is a cause that no Kenya nationalist leader can disregard.


[1] J. M. L. Elliot, “Report on the Census of the Somali Population of Kenya Colony,” Nairobi, 1957 (unpublished). On the origins of the Somali settlement at Isiolo see British Colonial Office, Kenya Land Commission, Evidence and Memoranda (London: H.M.S.O., 1934), pp. 1643-1649.

[2] Kenya, African Affairs Department Annual Report, 1948 (Nairobi: Government Printer, 1950), pp. 4-5.

[3] Lewis, “Political Movements,” p. 254; A. A. Castagno in Africa Special Report, December 1958, p. 12.

[4] The A.L.M.O. had a monopoly over the marketing of livestock in the province. The Somalis complained that they were thus left with no choice but to sell to the A.L.M.O. at prices that this organization fixed. They believed they could get better prices for their livestock if they were permitted to sell it at a free competitive market. The A.L.M.O.’s principal contributions were veterinary supervision and the establishment of cattle-purchasing stations in remote tribal areas.

[5] [W. F. Coutts], Report of the Commission Appointed to Enquire into Methods for the Selection of African Representatives to the Legislative Council (Nairobi: Government Printer, 1955), p. 28.

[6] For the election results, see the East African Standard (Nairobi), March 3, 1961. For the biographical information on Ali Aden Lord, I am indebted to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Nairobi.

[7] East African Standard, Aug. 27 and 29, Sept. 13, 14, 15, 18, 1961. See also The Observer (London), Sept. 10, 1961. The Kenya Africans may also face difficulties with the Boran-Galla tribes of the Northern Frontier Province. Some of them apparently sympathize with the idea of joining Ethiopia (where the majority of Gallas live) when Kenya becomes independent. The Gallas and associated groups in the province number close to 50,000.

To be continued …..

About This Book

In this first book on the emergence of Somali nationalism, Saadia Touval draws on extensive research and firsthand knowledge to explore the complex and dangerous situation in easternmost Africa. He describes the land and people, the spread of Somali tribes with their Moslem culture, the arrival of Europeans during the nineteenth century, the development of national consciousness, politics in the new Somali Republic and French Somaliland, problems presented by the Somalis of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the overriding question of boundary lines. Finally, he discusses the prospects for a peaceful solution.

About the Author(s)

Saadia Touval lectures on Political Science and African Politics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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