The Shifta War

The complications in Garri identity have a lot to do with the documentation errors of historic accounts. One of the most inaccurately documented event in Garri history is The Shifta War which started in 1963 and continued into the early 1990s in the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya. In the essay “Pursuing Pastoralist”, author Hannah Whitaker from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, describes shifta as a term “associated with violence that combines partisan warfare with organized livestock stealing”. The Shifta War did in fact consist of organized livestock stealing which in turn escalated violence as well as banditry in the NFD. Historians and Politicians, intentionally and unintentionally avoid defining the real reason why these crimes took place and continually distort the image of the true participants in The Shifta War. The war was actually a conflict propagated by adherence to partisanship, even though most documentation advocate in such a way as to make it seem like a conflict between “Ethnic Somalis” residing in the NFD, against Kenya.

Somali leaders initiated a campaign to gain control over NFD as soon as they received independence and a border line in 1960. Dr. Abdirashid Ali Sharmarky, Somalia’s prime minister from 1960-1964, was one of the first Somali leaders to advocate for the campaign which called for integrating NFD into Somalia.

 No our misfortune is that our neighboring countries, with whom we seek to promote constructive and harmonious relations are not our neighbors but our Somali kinsmen whose citizenship has been falsified by indiscriminate boundary arrangements. They have to move across artificial frontiers to their pasture lands. They occupy the same terrain and pursue the same pastoral economy as ourselves. We speak the same language. We share the same God, the same culture, and the same traditions. How can we regard our brothers as foreigners. -Dr. Abdirashid Ali Sharmarky

Sharmarky refers to the residents of NFD as “Somali Kinsmen whose citizenship has been falsified by indiscriminate boundary arrangements”. Historically, the NFD region has been exclusively inhabited by ethnic Garris, and other Borana speaking people. The absurdity of the NFD campaign is apparent in Sharmarky’s claim that residents of NFD share the same language and tradition as Somalis. One who has been to the Northern Frontier District will actually find the opposite; the minority Somali tribes who live there must conform to the Garri language and culture in order to fit in. This campaign was clearly an effort to attain land rather than to reconnect with “kinsmen”.

Most assume that The Shifta War was a struggle for “ethnic Somalis” in the NFD who wanted to join their fellow Somalis. In reality, the conflict resulted from people revolting against the idea of integrating NFD with the Greater Somalia. A 68-year-old former NFD resident describes The Shifta War as a strife which elevated from two conflicting ideologies. “It is true that there were some people who wanted NFD to be part of Somalia”. Amongst other incentives that were part of the campaign, NFD residents were offered the promise of pastureland as well as a [Somalian] government that will back them up. There were those who were captivated by the offers, and they supported the campaign; but the majority of people were not lured by this.

Those who did not support the propaganda believed that the Somali leaders designed the campaign only to aim for their own national interest. They did not see a legitimate reason as to why NFD should integrate into Somali. The Garri speaking people of NFD have been residents of the Northern Kenya region for centuries, and did not feel the need for their land to merge into Greater Somalia. This opposing idea set the background for the emergence of violence and chaos of The Shifta War. The people who were being robbed, murdered and stolen from were all residents of NFD. Through this violence and chaos, Somalia failed to convince the natives of NFD to join Somalia. Surely, the Kenyan government was also not going to allow it to happen.

Kenya will never surrender an inch of her territory to anyone. – President Jomo Kenyatta

The error in documentation of The Shifta War has led for the world to believe that the Garri people in the Northern Frontier District are actually Kinsmen of Somalis. Majority of Garris do not support and have never encouraged the joining of their land into Somalia. Although Somali officials claim Garris to be their kinsmen at times when the agenda allows, this is only to fulfil national interest. The language and traditional barrier between Garris and Somalis is one thing that cannot be denied.

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. – George Orwell
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