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When Somalis were Rendered Stateless*

By   /  May 26, 2010  /  2 Comments

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On October 14th 1977, a young Somali man was arrested by the Kenya Police in what they claimed was an undercover operation. His name was Mohamed Ahmed and he was described as a former Kenya army private from Mandera. His crime was being found with a Somali passport issued to him by the Second Secretary of the Somali Embassy in Nairobi, Jalle Mukhtar Sheikh Abdirizak. The Kenya Police accused the Somali Embassy of issuing passports to Somalis of Kenyan origin even when they produced Kenya documents and of facilitating Somalis in joining the Somali National Army in fighting Ethiopia in the Ogaden war. The Police Spokesman made a very controversial statement that touched on the very nationhood of the Somali people. He said the Somali government believed that “all Somalis were one, and there should be no restrictions in providing the Somali travel documents, irrespective of where one is from”.

Mohamed’s picture was splashed on the front page of the Daily Nation which described the Somali Embassy in Nairobi as a doorway to Ogaden War. There was a cultural misunderstanding between Kenya and Somalia at this point. Somalia believed that all Somalis were one nation living under different states and the core state was Somalia which was duty bound to facilitate all Somalis regardless of nationality of origin. The constitution of the Democratic Republic of Somalia contained provisions stating that the citizenship in the state of Somalia is by descent rather than by birth and anybody whose parents are Somalis could apply for the Somali passport providing documents of domicile and birth under any country. The Somali government was forced by its constitution to provide legal, travel and citizenship documents to Somalis wherever they maybe. The fact of the Ogaden War notwithstanding, it would be against the constitution of the Democratic Republic of Somalia to reject an application of a Somali person for any service provided by the government.

The Kenya government was wary of the intention of Somalia in its war against reclaiming the lands allocated to other countries by the colonial powers. In the war between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ogaden region, Kenya sided with Ethiopia fearing that a triumphant Somalia will overrun the Northern Frontier Districts inhabited by Somalis. There was another issue that made Kenya jittery about the Somali Republic’s intention. While Somalia had given up on the NFD issue ten years earlier, Somalia had not given up on the Somalis. Somalis crisscrossed the Kenya-Somali border with no regard to the sovereignty of either country. The Somalis grazed their animals on both sides of the border, carried out brisk business and actually joined the Somali Army. This was something that Kenya could do nothing about however it irked their sensibility or trampled on the very idea of the sovereign state.

The allegations against Somalia that it was providing travel documents to Somalis of Kenya origin was given a direct and forthright answer by the Somali government through its Charge d’Affairs, Hussen Dahir Dirir who told Kenya that there were no difference between Somalis and any Somali with a problem can get assistance from the Embassy. Dirir’s forthrightness did escape Kenya media and authorities. He just affirmed what his country’s laws dictated and also reminded Kenya that Somalis did not actually need passports to enter Somalia, they just need to cross the long border with Kenya. A few individuals obtaining documents from Nairobi would not make much of a difference to the movement of Somalis either way. Those who obtained Somali passports were not destined for Somalia; they were seeking jobs and opportunities abroad in Europe and Middle East. Somalis are known for their tendency to immigrate to countries where they believe they can make money through business or employment. By 1977, the Arab countries in the Middle East were looking for construction and domestic workers which Somalis were suited for but with Kenya refusing to provide identity and travel documents to Somalis easily, many sought alternative passports to travel with. Somalia was the natural choice since Somalis by fact hold dual citizenship wherever they are in the world.

These events led to a along argument ensuing between Kenya and Somalia with Ethiopia coming into the fray. Kenya newspapers were full of stories that blamed Somalia for all sort of things. The Daily Nation demanded the Somali President to promise peace and make a singular commitment to eradicating all his designs on Northern Kenya. The Daily Nation failed to mention that the Democratic Republic of Somalia had already agreed to give up its claim on the Somali dominated region of NFD through a Tanzania brokered peace deal ten years earlier. Somalis were accused of being disloyal and lacking in patriotism to Kenya. A map was also circulated by Geoffrey Karithi who was the Permanent Secretary Office of the President. The map showed what was termed as greater Somalia including NFD and Ogaden region. Karithi explained that Kenya was concerned that after they are finished with Ethiopia, the Somalis will attempt to liberate Northern Kenya which is inhabited by Somalis. The map was disowned by Somali government officials who displayed the proper Somali map which they said was used in all educational institutions.

It was one story that appeared on the Daily Nation that set the stage for the future treatment of Somalis in Kenya. On October 17th 1977, on the day Ethiopian forces quit Jigjiga in the Ogaden region and the Soviet press confirmed to the world that Jigjiga had fallen to the invading Somali forces, the Vice-President of Kenya made a statement that instilled fear among Kenyan Somalis. It was a statement that insinuated that Somalis were disloyal and disrespectful to Kenya. The Vice-President said “The Government cannot tolerate citizens who pretend to be patriotic to Kenya while they involve themselves in anti-Kenya activities” The Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi continued to say that few misguided elements “act as agents of a foreign country with a view to launching an attack on the territorial integrity of their mother country. Such people should leave this land and engage themselves in the name of the country they intend to advance”. The Vice-President’s statement gave a cue to the Health Minister James Osogo who was also acting as the Foreign Affairs Minister to explain the government’s intention. Osogo declared that there was an influx of Somalis people into urban areas. Osogo neither explained who these Somalis were and the reasons why it was alarming for Somalis to flood the urban areas. In a plan that were well in hand, the Minister said the government found it necessary to register Kenyans of the Somali ethnic group to make them easily identifiable by the security forces. It was left to the Daily Nation to make the grand statement; “The Government is to register all Kenyan Somalis, and expel those found to have sympathies with Somalia”. The Daily Nation followed these announcements with its own editorial which asked President Siad Barre to state his intention about Kenyan territory. The editorial was emphatic that government had decided to screen Kenyan Somalis and those backing Somalia were to be expelled. “This country will be better off without these wolves in sheep’s clothing. Kenya has for years provided offered them home and shelter and ample means for trade and self-advancement”, the Nation wrote. It was easy to note that citizenship was not the yardstick for expulsion but sympathy with Somalia. Somalis could not prove that they had no sympathies with Somalia in any way.

While the Ministers were making these policy statements, the police descended on Somalis homes in Northern part of Nairobi and arrested about a 100 Somalis. They were required to produce identity cards, alien cards or passports or they faced prosecution. These statements created a situation where ordinary people were given leeway to identify disloyal Somalis. There were also other occurrences that punctuated the flurry of diplomatic row between Kenya and Somalia at this time. Reports of guns being handed over by bandits in Northern Kenya was also being reported in the press. The guns were presumed to be from Somalia. Although the bandits were common criminals and herders who carried weapons for personal rather than having any affiliation to Somalia, the whole episode was blamed on the disloyalty of Somalis to the Kenyan state. The government and the media showed hostility towards Somalis in this period which was not uncommon any sense. The events reported did not seem to offer the Somalis a chance to state their peace. These were Kenyatta’s years and there were no known Somali politicians who contested the treatment being meted to Somalis by the government. The response among of the Somalis was limited to official reactions from the Somali government.

There was no let up in the woes of the Somalis in these times. In a Garissa court two men claimed that they were forced by Shifta to train with the Somali Army in preparation for fighting Ethiopia. An unnamed Arab country was also accused of supplying uniforms to the Somalis fighting in Ethiopia. Somalis in Kenya were caught up in a regional conflict between three countries that have a very long history of hostility. Ethiopia and Kenya were both involved in trying to contain Somalia’s territorial claim that resulted from the colonial demarcation of Africa that divided tribes in half and gave them to different countries. At this time Somalis in Kenya had already lost the bid for independence against Kenya, disbanded their fighting force and were busy trying to rebuild their tattered lives. Kenya’s assault on the patriotism of Kenyan Somalis was an attempt to appease Ethiopia and show support for its cause.

The Somali are unique group of people in East Africa. They are easily identifiable; neither Caucasian nor Negroid, curly hair, pointed noise and thin stature. The bodily and colour difference with other communities in Kenya created a form of racism against the Somali people that made them stand out clearly as an alien community in Kenya. The government did not need any special papers to identify the Somalis to the security forces. Kenyan Somali problem is an African problem. The identity of the individual is typified by the existence of a mother country where one’s ethnic origins lie and the de facto citizenship where one had claimed domicile. The creation of Kenya as a state divided the Massai into half leaving a majority in Tanzania. The Teso are the second largest tribe in Uganda but they have a significant presence in Kenya, so do the Samia who straddle the border between Kenya and Uganda. While other groups peacefully exist within the borders of these countries, the Government of Kenya has shown particular preoccupation with the Somali’s citizenship and have perpetuated a distinctive phobia of Somalis are as a tribe.

The concept of citizenship has been problematic for the Somali people. They are citizens of where they found themselves at a particular time. Nomads with adventurous tendency not easily containable, their lifestyle demanded that they move freely between Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. The colonialists find it impossible to impose any order on the Somalis eventually creating perplexing boundaries between clans in a bid to foster land ownership and settlement on the Nomads. The Kenya government in its earlier years implemented a programme of forced urbanization which led to massive immigration of Somalis across the border. In their own small way, Somalis have always been a difficult group to administer, very uneasy about exercise of governmental power over them, warlike nature that may erupt into a rage of battles over small issues and expert pastoralists who will suddenly move out of a whole region once they feel threatened either by the natural climate or from other communities. The British found it easier to use Somalis as part of the African regiment; they were collaborators with the colonialists against African communities. The British realized a bit late that while supporting the British effort against African Freedom as an active fighting force, Somalis also engaged in arms trade supplying the liberation movements like the Mau Mau of Kenya with arms and ammunitions.

The promised screening of the Somalis did not take place in 1977 and continued pending for more than ten years. Somalia quit the Ogaden war in 1978 in a very humiliating circumstance engineered by Western powers engaged in the cold war. Kenya Somalis however did not get any reprieve from constant harassment by the authorities. Somalis were accused of poaching in Kenyan game parks killing herds of elephants and leopards for their tusks and hides. Tales of well armed Somali gunmen roaming the game parks butchering wildlife became the staple of the Kenya media. Conservation documentaries screened worldwide depicted the Somalis as the threat to conservation. Poachers were always shown typically with Somali features and accents. This led to the characterization of a whole community as marauding criminals heartless in their very essence. Somalis were involved in poaching; they were expert gunmen, had seen action in shifta war and with very unique knowledge in tracking animals in the reserves. Somalis were just the foot soldiers working for their masters who ranged form Asian businessmen to Kenya European cowboys engaged in a very profitable business in the game trade. The Somali poachers were getting peanuts compared to the huge amounts of money then available from the poaching business while getting blamed for all the problems.

This was 1977 and as the story of this tragedy continued the scheme to render Somalis stateless went full throttle.

* This is the first chapter of a work to be published in the future that tell the story of the screening of the Somalis in 1988 and 1989. Somalis were subjected to a screening process and issued with a pink card that differentiated them from other citizens. The historical significance of this process will be told in this book.

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About the author


S. Abdi Sheikh is the author of "Blood on the Runway: The Wagalla Massacre of 1984".


  1. avatar Njroge says:

    Its an amazing story that sheds light on the atrocities, massacres and cold-blood executions of Mzee Moi-era, I hope that will not happen again to our belevod somali countrymen in the light of the new leadership and consitution.

    Thanks a lot Mr. Salah.

  2. avatar Omar Ahmed Abdinoor says:

    It is a true story of our predicaments as kenyan somalis in the past which extends to our present day.The kenyan has never missed excuses to harrass and discrimate somalis.The kenyan media incited the government and the public against somalis and major media houses continue to do so even today.
    The kenyan media did not report on anything on the worst massacars and genocides on the land.They have specialised on reporting negatively on this community and in doing so they disregard their professionalism and all ethics in journalism.

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