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Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Isaq Somali Diaspora and the poll-tax agitation in Kenya 1936-41

 - by E. R. Turton - 'Kenya has always regarded the Somali as either an infernal nuisance or embarrassment'. Glenday to Beckett, 21 June 1941.University of Zambia - Poll-tax agitation has been a fairly common phenomenon in Africa.


On most occasions it has involved little more than vocalized protest. In a few instances, however, it has led to resistance that has been both serious and violent; the earliest example of the latter is probably to be found in the widespread Fante uprisings that occurred immediately after the introduction of the Gold Coast Poll Tax Ordinance of 1852; a later example is the Natal uprising of 1906 which has been attributed in large measure to the introduction of poll tax at the end of the previous year.

Yet the agitation by the Isaq Somali in Kenya did not follow either of these two patterns. In several respects it was a highly unusual movement: first, the Isaq were campaigning to pay higher taxation; secondly, in order to secure their aims they attempted to mobilize the whole Isaq diaspora, so that Somalis in Uganda, Tanganyika, British Somaliland and Britain were all involved in this agitation.
The Isaq are one of six Somali clan-families (the widest level of segmentation amongst the Somali) and are divided further into clans, sub-clans and primary lineages. Traditionally their home is along the northern coast of the Somali peninsula, though for centuries a number have settled in Arabia. The
emergence of an Isaq diaspora, however, only dates from the end of the nineteenth century and seems to have been encouraged by three different factors. First, there was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Then, during the jihad of Muhammad Abdille Hassan between 1899 and 1920, the Isaq found themselves on the whole supporting the British Government and subject to increasing political and economic pressure. Lastly, there was the constant problem of poverty and population increase and the opportunity of alleviating this by temporary or permanent emigration.
The opening of the Suez Canal led to the development of bunkering facilities at Aden which quickly became an important port of call. The Isaq were well placed geographically to take advantage of this development, since many lived at Aden or on the Somali coast immediately opposite, and they enlisted in significant numbers as stokers and firemen on passing ships. As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century, ports as far apart as Perth and New York had small Isaq communities, but the largest groups outside Africa and Arabia were to be found along the Welsh coast of Britain.
At the same time there was a steady flow of Isaq from the northern Somali coast down to East Africa and their numbers gradually increased between 1900 and 1930. Initially many came as askaris and gun-bearers. It was Stanley who set a precedent in 1874 by stopping at Aden and recruiting the first Isaq for his Congo expedition. Others quickly followed suit: Count Teleki, Sir Richard Burton, Captain Lugard and J. W. Gregory all hired Isaq for their trips. Most explorers formed a highly favourable opinion of them and not surprisingly, therefore, many were encouraged to stay on in British East Africa, despite strict repatriation clauses in their contracts.
Many Isaq entered government service as clerks and interpreters or joined the King's African Rifles and the East African Constabularies. Most, however, became stock-traders an occupation at which they excelled—either trading on their own account in the pastoral reserves, or working as factotums to large stock-owners such as Lord Delamere, the Hon. Galbraith and Berkeley Cole A number of European farmers encouraged and financed Somali stock-trading contracting them to buy donkeys in Karamoja or Southern Ethiopia and to exchange cattle for sheep in Laikipia.
Invariably the Isaq ended by residing in the townships and trading centres of Kenya. From 1900 onwards the largest concentration of Isaq was to be found in Nairobi, while Isiolo became their second most important centre after 1927.
There were sizable communities at Nanyuki and Nyeri and less numerous groups at Kakamega, Kajiado, Maralal, Nakuru, Embu, Kitale and Eldoret. There were also a small number of Isaq in Uganda most of whom were confined to the area around Mbale. During the same period there was a similar, though
very much smaller, movement of Isaq to Tanganyika. The Germans, like the British, had made use of Somali askaris recruited at Aden, and most of those that remained on had likewise turned to the cattle trade. But the evidence suggests that during the 1930s Isaq migration to Tanganyika was very much
more rapid than it was to either Uganda or Kenya, until eventually their number came to be almost as great if not greater than in either of the other two East African countries.
The status of the Isaq in Kenya, 1919-36 
Virtually without exception all those who wrote of their contacts with the Isaq either in Kenya or in Tanganyika noted their proud, reserved bearing and haughty demeanour towards other East African peoples. The Isaq were indeed strongly convinced that their status was superior to that of other East Africans and they bitterly resented being placed in the same category as the Bantu, whom they perjoratively referred to as 'slaves'. Moreover, such an attitude was encouraged by those government officials who claimed that the Somali were not of African origin and who advised that the Isaq should not be classified as ordinary African natives. For their part, the Isaq refused to be called Africans, or even Somali, if this gave the idea that they came from a part of Africa. Instead, they emphasized that they had either resided or been born at Aden, and that their written language was either English or Arabic. The significance of this claim lay in the fact that from 1839 to 1937 Aden was annexed to British India and its inhabitants were therefore considered to be Asians. But the claim suffered from the fact that verification was impossible due to the absence of documentary evidence, and so, despite Isaq pretensions, they were initially classified as natives.
Pressure from the Isaq in Kenya to be allowed to pay higher poll-tax was almost certainly motivated by their desire to acquire Asiatic status. According to a Provincial Commissioner of the Northern Frontier District (NFD), the Isaq believed 'that Asiatic status would confer, amongst other things, immunity from arrest by African police constables, special accommodation in hospitals and prisons, more favourable treatment in the law courts, and eventually the sharing with the Indians of lands in the "White highland".' Whether the Isaq ever wanted land is a moot point, but according to Ahamed
Nur and M. H. Mattan, two prominent members of the Isaq Association, their aims were to obtain: (1) access to Asian wards in hospitals, which was granted them between 1919 and 1928; (2) Asiatic privileges in jail; (3) an Isaq member on the Legislative Council; (4) the same trading privileges as Indians both in the townships and in the reserves the Somali, for instance, were not allowed to
own more than one shop, and trading licences, so they claimed, were sometimes refused them.
Isaq Somali aspirations were partially fulfilled in 1919, when they achieved limited non-native status through the Somali Exemption Ordinance of that year. This ordinance allowed them to pay non-native poll-tax and also permitted them to be classified as non-natives in all future ordinances. In a government notice of 1921 defining the term 'native', in the General Revision Ordinance of 1925 which repealed it, and in the Interpretation (Definition of Native) Ordinance of 1934, the Isaq were indeed consistently defined as non- natives. At the same time, however, almost all native legislation was still made to apply to them with only a small number of exemptions. This was clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs. 4 The Isaq were considered to be natives under the Native Authority Ordinance but not under its corollary the Native Tribunal Ordinance, while under the Registration of Domestic Servants Ordinance they were considered to be either native or non-native depending on their salary.
Their social position was confused and uncertain.
Nevertheless, between 1919 and 1936, the Isaq continued to pay exactly the same taxation as Asians and this, to them, was a significant vindication of their claims to equality of status. In 1936, however, a sliding scale was introduced and non-native tax was divided into three categories: Europeans paid 40s.,
Asians 30s., and other non-natives 20s. The Isaq found themselves placed in the last category, their per capita tax being reduced by 10s. and it was this that sparked off their agitation.
Initially, they sought to change the 1936 Non-Native Poll-Tax Ordinance by articulating their grievances to as wide an audience as possible. Lawyers were consulted, memorials drafted and signatures gathered for petitions. In 1937 the Isaq asked Ormsby-Gore, then Colonial Secretary, to appoint a board of
enquiry so that their complaints could be properly investigated and settled definitively. The following year they sent a petition to King George VI. All this proved to be extremely expensive, however, and funds had to be raised to defray the costs. Moreover, this sort of activity if it was to be sustained,
required some form of central organization, and this was provided by the Ishaakia Shariff Community, an Isaq Somali association, which met once every there months as a national body in one of the Eastleigh sections of Nairobi.
Yet, in the process of orchestrating their complaints, the Isaq were not content merely to involve their fellow clansmen in East Africa. At their most expansive, they addressed circulars to 'Isaq everywhere in the World'; but, in particular, they attempted to organize a vocal and sympathetic following in British
Somaliland.
The support for the Kenya Isaq in British Somaliland
The Kenya Isaq had persuaded their clansmen in Burao as early as 1926 to raise the question of their status with the Governor of British Somaliland, and four years later the Burao Isaq presented the Duke of Gloucester with a memorandum on the same issue when he visited the Protectorate. After 1936,
however, the Nairobi Isaq began to organize support in British Somaliland for their agitation more systematically. First, they started to correspond regularly with the Nadi Atiya Rahmani Association, a sort of Somali welfare club, which had been founded by Isaq traders in 1935 and which had branches in Burao, Hargeisa and Erigavo. Secondly, in 1938 they appointed Haji Farah Omar as their representative in British Somaliland. Educated in India, where he had been greatly influenced by Gandhi, Haji Farah was an experienced political leader, and, according to Touval, was 'one of the first modern politicians to emerge in the Protectorate'. Within a matter of months Haji Farah had found an issue the proposal to introduce written Somali into the school curriculum which not only aroused widespread local opposition but which could also be closely linked to the struggle of the Isaq in Kenya over Asiatic status.
At this time, the administration in British Somaliland was preparing to implement a programme of educational expansion that was long overdue. A Director of Education was appointed for the first time in 1938 and it was hoped to open a number of new schools, starting with one at Berbera. It was also
planned to introduce written Somali into the curriculum. Mr Ellison, the new Director, arrived in the Protectorate in April 1938 and almost immediately began a tour of the government assisted Koranic schools. At that stage the government's plans seem to have been accepted without opposition, though
from the start a number of reservations were expressed at Berbera by certain influential religious leaders.
These reservations, which were initially religious, quickly acquired a political significance when they were supported by appeals from Isaq Somali in East Africa for full scale opposition to the introduction of written Somali. The Isaq in Kenya claimed Asiatic status partly on the basis that Arabic was their written language and they feared that this claim would be undermined if an alphabet were invented for the Somali language which was at that time only spoken.
They therefore wrote to British Somaliland expressing their keen apprehension that if Somali were to be written in Roman script, as were many Bantu languages, Somalis everywhere would be reduced to the same status of the Bantu they despised. Many of these letters described the plight of the Isaq in
East Africa in highly emotive terms; an Isaq trader from Moshi for example wrote to the Nadi Atiya Rahmani Association in Burao: 'We are in a very bad condition and treated very severely in respect of the tax as some new regulations have been issued against us. Because we agreed to pay yearly the same taxes as the Indians and Asiatics and now we are ordered to pay the same taxes as slaves as if we are the natives of this Africa. . . . You must not think that he (the new Governor Sir Vincent Glenday) came to Somaliland to administer justice —No! No! No!—but he came to make you slaves as those in this Africa . . . This information must be kept secret.'
An impression was created in British Somaliland that should written Somali be accepted there, other disabilities against which the Isaq were vigorously campaigning in East Africa, such as poll-tax and registration, would likewise be introduced into the Protectorate. The fear that poll-tax might be introduced was not entirely unreasonable since the British Somaliland Protectorate must have been virtually unique in 1939 in not having any system of direct taxation.
Earlier attempts to introduce tax had been dropped after bloodshed and riots. However, there was in fact little chance of any tax being introduced until the Somali clans had been disarmed and that did not happen until 1942.
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