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The Isaq Somali Diaspora And Poll-Tax Agitation In Kenya,
1936-41 (Part four)
By E. R. Turton
The Isaq campaign in Kenya
The nature of the Isaq movement posed a number of problems for the Kenya administration. It was exceptionally difficult to keep under constant surveillance an organization whose contacts extended throughout the Colony and into Uganda and Tanganyika , and the CID Nairobi often bewailed the lack of any substantial interchange of information between the three East African territories. In practice, neither Uganda nor Tanganyika furnished any reports on the Isaq until a specific query had first been submitted and even then the reply was almost certain to take many months. The mobility of the Isaq posed a further problem. One week their leaders might be in Nairobi and the next week in Tanga or Kampala . Traditionally, the Kenya administration had made considerable use of Isaq traders as a useful source of intelligence. Now, in the 1930s, by contrast, these highly mobile people had in their turn to be watched, their movements noted and controlled, and some efforts made to gauge their intentions. And this proved more than a little difficult.
From the beginning of 1938 the Isaq started holding secret meetings and placing look-outs outside houses, and they were remarkably successful in preventing the authorities from discovering what they were discussing. There were wild and unsubstantiated rumors of plots to assassinate various administrative officers which were taken very seriously. The CID made strenuous efforts to infiltrate informants into the movement and also made plentiful use of plain-clothes officers. However, the number of Isaq informants was very few and the plain-clothes men tended to be of strictly limited value. PC Muhammad Abdi, described as ‘the pseudo fish scout’, found that within a few days of taking up his duties at Nyeri his house was being watched by a strange Somali. After climbing out of his back window he found himself constantly followed and was soon relegated to other duties. The plain-clothes constable on special duty in Isiolo who was trying to pick up local gossip in the coffee houses reported that he was so well known that local Somali deliberately avoided discussing controversial subjects when he appeared. Elmi Farah was sent as a temporary replacement and reported at the end of the first day that many Somali had asked him whether he was yet another plain-clothes officer seeking information about them. Corporal Elmi was a disappointment to the CID for he was quickly won over by Isaq arguments and started pleading their case to his superiors. Even the local administrative officials seem to have doubted the value of the extra police effort. As the District Commissioner at Isiolo noted light-heartedly in April 1938: ‘there had been a change in the political atmosphere since Police precautionary measures were instituted. The change may, however, be due to the rains which started at approximately the same time. ‘
One consequence of this is that there is very little information about the activity of local Isaq committees, while quite a lot is known about the National meetings held in Nairobi , for no attempt was made to conceal the latter. Indeed, on several occasions the Commissioner of Police was invited to attend, and the Isaq were fully aware that police informants were present at these meetings. As a result, special motions clearly designed for police consumption would be slowly and laboriously read out in English, while most of the proceedings were naturally conducted in Somali.
The National branch met once every three months in the Eastleigh section of Nairobi . Members who attended were charged one shilling admission fee and attendance varied between 150 to just over 200. The organization was highly centralized and the greater part of every meeting was taken up with the election of office-bearers. First, there were seven office-bearers on the National Committee; then there was a Central Managing Committee of 15; finally, the main office-bearers of the local branches were chosen and so too were local clan-heads. Wisely, the choice of office-bearers in Uganda and Tanganyika was generally left to the local branches in those countries. But in Kenya there was often considerable friction between the Central Committee and the local branch over the nomination of local office holders. In January 1938, the local branch at Nakuru refused to accept their new President who had just been elected in Nairobi at a National meeting; and the local branch unanimously threatened that if the appointment were not cancelled ‘then we shall be obliged to take up the matter legally and have your Private elections stopped. ‘ Yet the Central Committee got its way, as it did elsewhere, by threatening to impose heavy fines on any branch that defied its authority.
The second major item discussed at all National meetings was the question of finance. The leaders of the Isaq community showed a certain penchant for flamboyance and extravagance. There were occasions, true they were rare, when anything up to 850s. were spent on hiring a fleet of cars to visit a single branch. And while the normal mode of communication was by word of mouth or by letter, the Central Committee was all too often inclined to send telegrams. At the end of 1937 the Isaq had succeeded in collecting 3,000s. and by March 1938 the sum had risen to 10,000s. At the March meeting it was agreed to divide the Association into three sections: (1) Nairobi ; (2) outlying districts; (3) Northern Frontier Province. And each of these sections was to contribute 1,000s. a quarter. Additional revenue was to be raised by the sale of tickets and at the meeting 110 books each containing a hundred tickets at one shilling each were issued. Moreover, every member of the Association was expected to pay a monthly contribution of one shilling.
A great deal of this money was presumably spent in obtaining legal advice. Mr. Morgan had to be paid for his services in Cardiff and there were two firms of solicitors whom the Isaq consulted regularly in Nairobi . But as their agitation became more intensive, especially towards the end of 1938 and through out 1939, more and more money was needed to support those members who were arrested and imprisoned. Throughout 1937 the Isaq successfully paid the 30s. poll tax that was demanded from Asians. The Kenya administration accepted the money but returned a receipt of 20s. in lieu of poll tax and a separate miscellaneous receipt of 10s. Money collected on this miscellaneous account was then deposited in a bank and the payee told that he could withdraw it whenever he wished. In 1938, however, the Government decided not to accept 30s. from the Isaq any longer. But, since the latter had just petitioned King George VI over the tax issue, they refused to pay at the lower rate until they had heard the result of their petition.
By the middle of 1938 it was estimated at Isiolo that out of 154 Isaq registered there only 11 had paid their 1937 tax and none had paid anything in 1938. Moreover, the movement was having an impact on the Herti Darod and out of 120 of the latter only 38 had paid their 1937 tax and six their tax for 1938. There was apparently little the administration could do. Two dozen tax defaulters were arrested, but lack of jail accommodation prevented the arrest of any more. The complete lack of grazing for attached stock (seized in lieu of tax) was also a serious handicap. Again the identification of a defaulter’s cattle could be difficult. Objections could be lodged and towards the end of 1938 a movement to make over cattle to wives was started. Towards the end of the year over 100 Somali were arrested in Nairobi and imprisoned. Nevertheless, during the first three months of 1939, the Isaq continued to refuse to pay any poll tax, though according to Police Intelligence a number of Isaq did in fact pay but then attempted to keep this a secret for fear of reprisals.
Due to the lack of administrative staff, the Isaq campaign of passive resistance was beginning to have some success. By this time the campaign had spread to all centers where the Isaq were to be found, and two leaders were imprisoned in Lamu. In the middle of April 1939, the Isaq learnt that their petition to King George VI had been rejected. The news was received with incredulity. The Isaq maintained that they were being duped by individual District Commissioners and that the truth was being kept from them. The year 1940 opened with the campaign of the Isaq to be allowed to pay Asiatic tax in full swing. Passive resistance to the payment of lower tax was extended in April to non-observance of the Outlying Districts Ordinance; the Isaq rejected their passes because they were described as Somalis, whereas they now called themselves Sharif Isaq Arabs.
The Officer in Charge of the Northern Frontier District (NFD) noted with concern that ‘much is made of the greatness of the Somali nation, and the great deeds of the Isaq troops in the past. The spirit of nationalism seems to have spread to East Africa .’ One may doubt the accuracy of this diagnosis, for there was a considerable difference between Isaq tribal chauvinism and post Second World War Somali nationalism, yet clearly the Isaq movement was causing concern. It was well known that a number of Isaq were in the pay of the Italian Consul at Nairobi and there was the usual fear that their agitation was being manipulated from outside sources. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that when allied troops gained control of Italian Somaliland the Officer in Charge of the NFD wrote hopefully: ‘we want to get rid of as many Somalis as possible be they Herti or Isaq and we are asking for the assistance of British Somaliland and Somalia as well. , Such assistance, however, was not forthcoming; while, in July 1941, the Attorney General ruled that though many Isaq and Herti had entered the Colony illegally, those who had resided there over five years —and this was the vast majority—would have to be considered as legally domiciled in Kenya. Yet, by the end of 1940 the Isaq had begun to pay their tax and the following year the administration was surprised to discover that to the best of their knowledge the Isaq had indulged in no disloyal or subversive activity. Even more surprising, the Isaq in no way opposed the issue of identity certificates in 1941 under the Defense Regulations and willingly put their thumb-prints on certificates instead of photos. This sudden collapse of their movement requires an explanation. And, although the war situation in East Africa was clearly a contributory factor, a much more important reason can be found in the actual organization of the movement itself.
It was one of the main weaknesses of the Isaq movement that they failed to gain the support of two important groups of East African Somalis who could have contributed significantly towards the successful achievement of their goals; these were the Herti Darod and the NFD pastoralists. There were many good reasons for the hostility that often prevailed between the Darod and the Isaq. In the first place, many of the supporters of Muhammad Abdille Hassan (better known perhaps as the Mad Mullah) had been Darod, while most of the Somali who had fought on the side of the British against him had been Isaq. The legacy of this conflict was a long-standing blood feud between these two groups. Secondly, this blood-feud was compounded by the actions of Abdurrahman Mursaal of Serenli, who led an uprising in 1916 in which a number of Isaq were murdered by Darod. Finally, most of the Herti Darod came from Italian Somaliland and there was little point in them supporting the Isaq claim to Asiatic status since the claim was based so firmly on their alleged place of birth being Aden .
.........................to be continued