On 11 January 1985, the Principal State Counsel, Moijo Ole Keiwua, wrote on behalf of the Attorney General to Ibrahim Khamis Adan and Alinoor Yussuf Mohamed Hussein through their lawyers, Munikah and Company Advocates, asking them, by the rules of civil procedures, to supply specific information about the deaths of their fathers. The information requested included the dates and times when the deceased persons were killed; whether they were killed by the Kenya Army personnel, the Kenya Police or 1982 Air Force personnel; and the names of the specific officers responsible for the deaths of the deceased.
Khamis Adan Mumin, Ibrahim’s father, worked for Wajir County Council until his death. Yussuf Mohamed Hussein was a civil servant in the Ministry of Health. The two were among 55 or so employees of various government agencies who disappeared from work in early February 1984, never to be seen again. Their employers reported them as having deserted their duties, and their families could not access their terminal benefits.
The question of who killed these two men and others was raised in parliament by the former Member of Parliament for Wajir West, the late Ahmed Khalif Mohamed, on 21 March 1984. During a debate on then President Moi’s speech at the opening of that parliamentary session, Khalif accused the security forces of killing hundreds in Wajir District. The government forces, he said, had placed more than 4,000 people in a concentration camp, over 300 had been immediately executed, and over 600 were confirmed missing.
Khalif directly accused the Provincial Commissioner for Northeastern Province, Benson Kaaria, and the Somalia government of collusion in the murders. Kaaria had claimed, as reported by the Standard on 9 November 1980, that he would eliminate all Somali-speaking people in the country unless they exposed the Shifta who had killed a District Officer. Khalif’s accusations were met with utmost hostility by the entire parliament. Mwai Kibaki, Kenneth Matiba, A.Y. Boru and Samuel Ng’eny demanded substantiation. Charles Muthura accused Khalif of irrelevance in his contribution to the presidential speech, while Parmenas Munyasia jestingly demanded to know the names of those who had threatened to wipe out the Somalis. Khalif was cornered into dropping the Somalia claim but stood his ground on the mass killings of Somalis in Wajir. In a bid to substantiate his claim, the late MP tabled the list of victims of the massacre and their photographs in parliament on 28 March 1984. Many were civil servants, including Noor Haji, the former Senator from Wajir, who had been killed in the military operation.
During a debate on then President Moi’s speech at the opening of that parliamentary session, Khalif accused the security forces of killing hundreds in Wajir District.
The question of just what happened at the Wagalla Airstrip between 10 and 14 February 1984 was partially answered by the late Justus Ole Tipis in a ministerial statement about the military operation, read on the floor of parliament on the night of 12 April 1984, and reported in the Nation of 13 April 1984. Ole Tipis revealed that the security situation in Wajir was politically motivated and that leaders were involved in divisive strategies that were planned based on ethnic considerations. He claimed that the government decided to carry out its operations against the Degodia community to provide security to a neighbouring clan. Ole Tipis gave an accurate account of the processes but avoided mentioning the resulting genocide.
The Wajir District Security Committee and the Provincial Securities Committee were convened by an order from the National Security Council. The meeting took place on 8 February 1984 at the Wajir District Commissioner’s office. The District Commissioner himself was conveniently replaced by a District Officer, M.M. Tiema. According to the signatures in the visitor’s book at the DC’s office, and eyewitness reports, this meeting was attended by J.S. Mathenge, Permanent Secretary Office of the President; B.A. Kiplagat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; David Mwiraria, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs; John Gituma, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting; Brigadier J.R. Kibwana, Department of Defence; B.N. Macharia of the Treasury; Z.J.M. Kamencu, Deputy Secretary in the Office of the President; J.P. Gitui, D.C.O. Police Headquarters; J.K. Kaguthi and J.P. Mwagovya of the Office of the President; C.M. Aswani, Provincial Police Officer, North Eastern Province; Lt. Col. H.F.K. Muhindi of 7 Kenya Rifles; J.K. Kinyanjui, Director of Land Adjudication Nairobi; and finally Benson N. Kaaria, Provincial Commissioner, Northeastern Province. The meeting resolved to carry out an operation to disarm the Degodia and force them to provide the names of the bandits who were committing crimes in the district.
According to the statement by Ole Tipis, once the operation was authorized, it began in earnest on 10 February at 0400 hours and involved the Police, the Administration Police, and the Army. The operation covered Elben, Dambas, Butelehu, Eldas, Griftu and Bulla Jogoo. According to the government statement, most of these areas had been swept by 11 February. When the army surrounded Bulla Jogoo, they ordered the residents to vacate their homes. According to Ole Tipis, the residents refused to comply with the order. The military then forcibly removed 381 male members of the Degodia clan from their homes and took them to the Wagalla Airstrip, nine miles West of Wajir Town. Ole Tipis admitted that those held were interrogated for three days, and a scuffle erupted when the District Commissioner, accompanied by the OCPD (Officer Commanding Police Division), entered the airstrip. Some of the crowds started to escape while others shouted at government officers. In the confusion, 29 people died of gunshot wounds or were trampled to death, while 28 others were killed when the army met with resistance during the operations, according to the ministerial statement.
The official story narrated in the government statement closely mirrors what happened, save that the government minimized callousness of the operation. The operation covered the entire Wajir District, including Tarbaj, Leheley, Wajir-Bor and Khorof Harar. The target community was the Degodia but it is believed several Somalis of other extraction were caught up in cases of mistaken identity. The operation targeted male members of the clan above 12 years of age. Still, women were raped, houses were burnt, and property was looted in every locality where the operation took place.
The military then forcibly removed male members of the Degodia clan from their homes and took them to the Wagalla Airstrip, nine miles West of Wajir Town.
The men rounded up were subjected to torture to force them to confess to owning a rifle. Some died of their wounds before they reached the Wagalla Airstrip. Those who got to the airstrip were sorted by sub-clan, and up to 30 members of the Jebrail sub-clan were burnt alive in an orgy of unprecedented violence. Their clothes were piled up on top of them, petrol or some other highly flammable chemical was poured on the clothes, and a bonfire whose fuel was human flesh was lit. The other detainees watched as their colleagues were roasted alive. The rest of the men were forced to strip naked and told to squat in the hot sun – those who resisted were shot. The late Ahmed Khalif reported that the detainees were held at the airstrip for five days, that they were denied food and water, and that during this period, those who tried to pray were shot. In those five days, more than 1,000 people either starved to death, were shot for questioning the orders of the armed forces, or died at the hands of gangs that were allowed into the airstrip at night to carry out revenge attacks against those against whom they held a grudge.
On the fifth day, the remaining men bolted, breaking through the barbed wire fence and running for their lives. The military opened fire, and hundreds were shot — many in the back — and killed. The stampede helped most escape into the bush, where they received help from nomads. It was an escape that should have happened in the first couple of days before so many were murdered, but the Degodia people would have been wiped off the map without it. The military found itself amid thousands of dead and injured men. The plan had gone awry: men had escaped and told others what happened. The army attempted a massive cover-up that involved piling the dead and injured into lorries and dumping them in the bushes. Many bodies were also disposed of by fire and acid. Mohamed Ibrahim Elmi, Catholic nun Analena Toneli, businessman Noor Abdille and others saved many people who had been ferried into various parts of Wajir district and abandoned by the armed forces. That is how the Wagalla Massacre took place. The survivors’ stories are almost unbelievable.
One survivor says that he had never stepped into Wajir town before 9 February 1984. He had decided to visit his father there and they were both picked up by the military the night he arrived. He found himself at Wagalla naked, hungry, and thirsty, watching as life ebbed out of his father. Another survivor woke up in a pile of bodies in a depression in a bush; next to him was a 16-year-old cousin’s corpse — just an innocent boy shot in the back of the head. One survivor escaped in the stampede naked and found a young girl herding goats who helped him cover his shame with her scarf.
The army attempted a massive cover-up that involved piling the dead and injured into lorries and dumping them in the bushes.
It has been exactly 38 years since the Wagalla massacre. In all these years the victims have refused to stay quiet, the dead are bursting out of their graves and giving clues to those who wish to resolve the massacre. The available evidence is sufficient to recreate what happened at Wagalla. It is possible to give State Council Moijo Ole Keiwua the specific information he requested, to allow Ibrahim and Alinoor to bring to justice those who killed their fathers, Yussuf Mohamed Hussein and Khamis Adan Mumin, along with 3,000 others —the figure given in the UN report — on 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14 February 1984 by a combined contingent of security officers from the Kenya Army, the ‘82 Air Force, the Kenya Police and the Administration Police. (The larger casualty figures were also mentioned to the author by Ahmed Khalif while he was still alive). The officers who took part in this massacre received an order from their superiors who met at the Wajir District Commissioner’s Office on 8 February 1984. The sons of the deceased could not give information of this kind in 1984. However, the same information can now be adduced in a court of law in the light of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report and recommendations.
One of the most intriguing stories about the Wagalla Massacre was how it was planned and implemented. The target community was collected from three districts and detained at the Wagalla Airstrip.
My uncle, Abdullahi Jehow, who left Wajir District in 1965 when the Kenya Army killed his family’s herd of 200 camels, had established himself in Madogashe in Garissa District. On the morning of 9 February 1984, he was at Jalaqo, about 30 miles from Modogashe on the road to Garissa, in a shallow well with other men, busy filling troughs with water for his livestock, when a column of army vehicles arrived.
The soldiers asked them to which Somali clan they belonged, and they innocently replied that they were Degodia. They were arrested, taken to the Habaswein police post overnight and driven to the Wagalla Airstrip the following day where they witnessed the atrocities first-hand. Today in his late 80s, Uncle Abdullahi has had a very long life, but he avoids Wajir like the plague. He has lived in Isiolo, Garissa, and Tana River, but nobody has been able to convince him to go back to Wajir.
The stories told of the Wagalla Massacre demonstrate a broader conspiracy to commit genocide. Wagalla was never about the immediate security concerns in Wajir District. It had nothing to do with the low-level conflict between Somali clans; such conflicts have been simmering since time immemorial and have never resulted in genocide.
Wagalla was a classic extermination of a people; the implementation of a policy that began at independence that was aimed at clearing the inhabitants out of their land and pushing them off the map of Kenya. It was a policy set by Jomo Kenyatta and inherited by Daniel Moi. It is a policy practiced by low-level government officials and the Provincial Administration as can be gleaned from official documents and public pronouncements.
One survivor escaped in the stampede naked and found a young girl herding goats who helped him cover his shame with her scarf.
The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission Report recommends reparations for the victims of the Wagalla massacre and other mass killings in the country. The report also recommends actions against the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, which includes banning them from public office. The report however was ignored by the government and parliament failed to adopt it. The Government Printer gazetted only parts of the report leaving out the sections relating to the massacres and killings, Volume 2A and 2B. In a bid to sidestep the broad redress mechanism proposed by the TJRC, on 26 March 2015 the president issued a bold apology and announced the establishment of a KSh10 billion Restorative Justice Fund of which only KSh3.6 billion was budgeted for in the subsequent year, 2016/2017. The Attorney General failed to initiate guidelines for victims to make claims against this fund until 2018. The beneficiaries of this fund are not aware of these guidelines as no public participation and awareness was conducted. The lethargy in implementing the TJRC report seems to emanate from the system’s determination to protect its own. Many of the perpetrators named in the TJRC Report are still serving in the boards of public institutions. Until the government takes concrete steps to provide redress for the victims of the Wagalla massacre and other crimes against humanity reported in the TJRC Report, it will be hard for the victims and their families to move on.
Moijo Ole Keiwua rose to become President of the East African Court of Justice and Judge of the Court of Appeal. He succumbed to cancer in 2011. Ibrahim Khamis Adan recently retired from the government after a long career in the diplomatic service including a stint as deputy ambassador. The writer is not aware of the whereabouts of Alinoor Yussuf Mohamed Hussein. Abdullahi Jehow is at an advanced age and lives in Tana River County; he will probably never again set foot in Wajir. The TJRC interviewed most of the persons named in connection with the Wagalla massacre, including its own Chairman, Benjamin Kiplagat. None of them accepted liability and their standard defence was, “I do not remember.”
Abdi Sheikh is the author of “Blood on the Runway: The Wagalla Massacre” of 1984. A version of this article first appeared at www.kenyaimagine.com