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A deserted north: forgotten by history and cursed by devolution

The history of Northern Kenya and marginalisation goes as far back as the colonial days. The same trend used by colonisers has remained in play. Historical evidence points at a neglected, abandoned and marginalised region and successive governments have not done enough to reverse the deep inequalities and marginalisation.



The history of Northern Kenya and marginalisation has an historic bearing right from the colonial masters to the subsequent Governments who continued to consider the region unproductive and was therefore neglected from any form of development. The colonial masters set out a plan of segregating the region and that was necessitated with the British’s view of the Somalis as a threat and their belief that the region’s climate was harsh and their agricultural interests stands no chance. The commissioner of the East African Protectorate, Sir Charles Eliott in 1904 recommended that the NFD region be separated to form a separate government, even though that did not happen the way the region was administered in comparison with the other protectorates was a clear indication of the white man’s tendency to lean towards Eliott’s recommendations. The problems of the Northern Frontier Districts as it was formerly known began with the formulation of three policies which have had a serious historical injustice to the region. The Outlying District Ordinance of 1902, the “Closed District” Ordinance of 1926 and the Special District Administration Ordinance (SDO) of 1934. The Outlying District Ordinance established posts within the NFD making Isiolo the district headquarter as well as imposing administrative tax in the region. The armed Somalis did not accept that and the colonial master was forced to administer the region using the military between 1921 and 1926. The ‘’Closed District Ordinance’’ of 1926 was meant to isolate the region by regulating travelling of non-residents into the area. 

The Special District Administration Ordinance (SDO) OF 1934 was meant to hamper social interaction between diverse groups in the NFD. It delineated the area into tribal zones in order to prevent Islam from spurring the people in the NFD against the colonial administration and, allegedly, to prevent epidemics from spreading to livestock in the rest of the Kenya. This policy of isolation only got worse as nationalistic feelings spread across the Southern part of Kenya by the 1940’s. Later on, no resident of the NFD could leave the region, which meant going past imaginary peaks marked by the Ewaso Nyiro and Tana Rivers, without NFD passes authorised by colonial government officials as the British feared that the Somali would aggravate political awareness in the country. The white man alienated the region to the extent that when they left, the region was the most backward both politically and economically. The situation appeared extremely volatile to the extent that there were feelings within the region that they are not part of Kenya, a feeling that still remains to date. 

Post – election and sessional paper no.10 of 1965

In 1963 the country celebrated independence and as the nation was in joy and ululation, Northern Frontier Districts were in disarray and appeared more alienated than ever before. The Jomo Kenyatta’s government picked up exactly where the colonialists left and the marginalisation of the North continued. In 1965 the Government released the infamous Sessional Number 10 which Okoth Ogendo opined that it was neither a political philosophy, nor a plan, but rather, a simple answer to public clamour for an ideology of government. Policy analysts termed the paper as a policy malfunction and recognised it as the root cause of all the problems in the North. The paper perpetuated the biased distribution of public investment established under the colonial rule and resources were then directed towards the so called ‘high potential’ areas of crop production, overlooking the wealth of lowland livestock – based economy and creating the deep inequalities in human development which we see in Kenya today. 


The residents of the region were apprehensive and they immediately began to alienate themselves as the ‘shifta War’ commonly referred to as ‘Gaf Daba’ began to take shape. The Shifta war was a secessionist conflict in which the ethnic Somalis in NFD attempted to join Somalia. The war was just a culmination of long periods of conflict and calls for self-determination which the colonial master refused to heed. The treatment of the NFD post-independence created mistrust among the NFD communities and lack of services and minimal development escalated the situation to the point of violence. The Kenyan Government then opted to respond to the protesters quite violently and several others were arrested. The resignation of 33 Somali Chiefs who protested against the colonial chieftaincy which went against their clan structure was a culmination of the anger from the residents against the government of the day. The Northern Frontier Districts boycotted the election which was viewed as a total disobedience to the regime and slowly by slowly the government was being pushed to the corner. 

The assassination of Senior Chief Haji Galma Dida and District Commissioner Daudi Wabera Dabaso, was quite significant considering the fact that it is believed that assassins had sneaked into Somalia and upon inquiry the Somali government refused to hand over the killers for trial within the Country. The Country had attained self-rule and thus there was a lot of pressure from Kenyans for the government of the day to prove its worth by stamping authority and protecting its border. The government acted aggressively and swiftly by declaring a state of emergency in what was commonly referred to as ‘Gaf Daba’. The people were separated into manyattas who were then confined in one area, as their animals were killed and several lives taken. The government did not care and the level of destruction, loss of animals and human lives was in quite a significant level and most people from the North have never forgotten about that. Once the Shifta war was over and NFD was now officially recognised as part of Kenya, there was hope that the government will now invest in the region to try and bridge the gap. However, the historical evidence points at a neglected, abandoned and marginalised region by successive governments as the same trend used by colonisers remained in play. The North was a deserted parcel with little or no significant development, the poor pastoralists were forgotten and completely cut-off from the other parts of the Country and when they travelled to Nairobi they would say, “Tunaenda Kenya” (We are going to Kenya).

The advent of devolution

The promulgation of the 2010 constitution appeared to create an array of hope especially with the introduction of devolution which was seen as the best bet for the historically marginalised and under privileged Counties. The hope and aspirations of thousands of residents living in the North was short lived and as one angry resident noted, “before devolution public funds were being eaten far away in Nairobi, however, devolution allowed few individuals to eat public funds but now closer to us.” Dreams were shuttered and 10 years later we are still faced with the same problems ranging from lack of good roads, dilapidated health sector, lack of access to clean water, as well shameful and disgraceful launch of relief aids every now and then. The billions that have been sent to NFD Counties since 2013 have ended up building luxurious hotels in Nairobi as a few cronies have enriched themselves at the expense of the poor locals who have nothing to smile about.

The calls for an all-inclusive, accountable and transparent NFD Counties still remains the primary objective of many residents of the North. Article 174 of the constitution calls for both County and National governments to provide for citizens well-being through an equitable provision of services, recognition of the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development, the protection and promotion of the interests and rights of minorities and marginalised communities. There are calls all over for a change in the way we hold counties especially in the North accountable for their actions, and the biggest hope now lies in the youths who are slowly taking up the challenge of holding the government accountable. An informed citizenry will give a huge opportunity for the North to prosper even further despite the tremendous challenges. To achieve all this openness is a key factor as well as interdependency, consultation and collaboration between both levels of government as well as the general public if we are to end economic marginalisation in NFD. 


Ali Edin Abdi is a socio-political commentator from Isiolo.

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