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Thirty-eight years later, the quest for justice has remained nothing but an illusion for the people of Wagalla and, between the 10th and the 14th of February of every year, the sense of neglect is heightened. Survivors and victims’ families meet every year during this period to rejuvenate their resoluteness to seek justice. The only real solace the suffering families have received is the acknowledgement in the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission Report that atrocities were visited upon them by their very own government. But the affected families still await the execution of the recommendations made in the report.

The Wagalla massacre is possibly one of Kenya’s worst human rights violations. It took place between the 10th and the 14th of February 1984; heavily armed security officers descended on the quiet Wajir area, ostensibly to mop up guns illegally held by locals.

Balkanizing legislations

To truly understand what led to the Wagalla massacre, one must go back to the very formation of Kenya.  Only in doing this do we realize that massacres such as Wagalla do not just happen – they are the result of a ‌history that precedes them.  And for the north, this history began even before Kenya became a nation.

According to a Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) paper, Foreigners at Home – The dilemma of citizenship in Northern Kenya, the Scramble for Africa carved up much of the continent with little regard for the need to keep ethnicities together. In 1896, Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia, buoyed by his conquest over Italy II, wrote to the heads of states of Britain, Italy, France, Germany, and Russia, stating his claim over ‌territory stretching from Juba River on Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf) to Marsabit Mountain.

The British, afraid that he would encroach on their colony, formed a boundary commission that was mandated to establish boundary features and map out the ethnic identities of the populations. The Northern Frontier District (NFD) was created as a buffer zone against international and inter-clan territorial conflicts that threatened to spill over into the colony.

To this end, several legislations were enacted by the colonialists. First, in 1902, the Outlying District Ordinance Act effectively closed the NFD, restricting movement in and out of the district. The Special Districts (Administration) Ordinance of 1934 gave extensive powers of arrest, restraint, detention, and seizure of properties in the north. Finally, the Stock Theft and Produce Ordinance (1993) legalized the collective punishment of northern tribes and clans declared hostile by the Provincial Commissioner (PC). The definition of what constituted a hostile tribe was left to the Provincial Administration to determine.

By the time of its independence, Kenya was practically divided in two — north and south — with specific laws in place that ensured that the north continued to be governed under draconian legislation that became even harsher after independence. An Indemnity Act passed in 1970 restricted the taking of legal proceedings regarding certain acts carried out in certain areas between 25 December 1963 and 1 December 1967. The Indemnity Act was passed to protect members of the security forces who participated in the secessionist Shifta War in northern Kenya between 1963 and 1967.

The stage was set for what happened in Wagalla two decades later.

In the 1980s, scarce natural resources and political tensions had led to feuds and repeated violent conflict between the Degodia and the Ajuran in Wajir. The government issued an ultimatum to both groups to surrender their weapons. The ruling administration felt that the Degodia, who surrendered just eight weapons (in comparison to the 27 surrendered by the Ajuran), had not complied fully and decided to mount a joint operation to disarm them.

Anatomy of the Wagalla massacre

The massacre at the Wagalla Airstrip occurred in what is presently Wajir County. The bloodbath began in the small hours of 10 February, ending with a stampede and a shootout on the chilly morning of 14 February 1984. All men and boys over the age of 12 years belonging to the Degodia sub-clan of the Somali tribe in north-eastern Kenya were rounded up and detained at the newly constructed airstrip in Wagalla, nine miles from Wajir town.

According to Annalenna Tonelli, 1,000 people were killed, but according to various community groups, the number is closer to 5,000. Annalena is the undisputed heroine of Wagalla. An Italian volunteer and Catholic lay sister, Annalena had lived in Wajir for 15 years prior to the massacre, assisting the less fortunate, running a tuberculosis and rehabilitation centre.

The Wagalla massacre destroyed a community, changed its social cohesion, and placed the burden of regenerating the dead society on the shoulders of widows. Those murdered were husbands, fathers, brothers or guardians, citizens of this sovereign republic who had a right to have their lives protected by the state. If indeed the state had a case against these people, natural justice would have dictated that they be brought before the courts and charged according to the laws of the land. That was not the case.

This is the worst massacre recorded in Kenyan history. Previously, the government has said that only fifty-seven people had died. However, On Wednesday 18 October 2000, when he was minister in the Office of the President, William Ruto told parliament that 380 people had died in what has been called the Wagalla massacre.

The Wagalla massacre destroyed a community, changed its social cohesion, and placed the burden of regenerating the dead society on the shoulders of widows.

The Member of Parliament who raised the issue, Elias Barre Shill, said the minister was trying to avoid crucial questions. Shill charged that more than 1,000 ethnic Somalis were victims of the 1984 killings, adding that the Kenyan government should apologize and pay compensation.

There were other massacres in Bulla Karatasi in Garissa, in Turbi, and in Malka Marri, but Wagalla remains a classic example of a state run amok, an illustration of the genocidal intentions of a government incapable of exerting any meaningful control over the security of its citizens.

Like most Kenyans, I learned about the Wagalla Massacre from newspaper stories about 5,000 men who were killed at an airstrip by the Kenyan government. I was shocked by what sounded like a tale from another world; in many ways, it was a tale from another planet.  The Northern Frontier District, as it was then known, had for long operated under a different set of military laws from the rest of Kenya. Successive regimes treated its populations brutally. Only during the sunset years of the Moi era did the residents begin to feel free to speak out about that terrible event.  

The facts and figures from the Wagalla massacre are now etched into the fabric of the history of Kenya. What is probably less known is that this massacre was a deliberate act of genocide, not a military operation gone rogue. It began at the policy level.

It all started with a high-level cabinet meeting at Harambee House, where the political idea of justifying a massacre was mooted. No details emerged from this meeting, no minutes or reports. Even the efforts of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee could not unearth ‌ the policy prescriptions discussed that initiated a process that culminated in the death of so many people. More fundamentally, the TJRC came under fire because of “inherent flaws” in its mandate – which allowed for amnesty recommendations in some cases – and concerns that it would fail to hear from the perpetrators as well as from the victims, and would thereby fail to explain how the crimes were allowed to occur.  

What is probably less known is that this massacre was a deliberate act of genocide, not a military operation gone rogue.

These concerns led the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Maathai to describe the commission as one designed “to facilitate impunity, hoodwink and massage the victims and sweep the crimes under the carpet”.

Sources within the corridors of power confirm that a meeting did take place at Harambee House where security issues concerning Wajir were discussed and orders issued to the Provincial Security Committee in Garissa to initiate a security operation against a small Somali sub-clan living in Wajir District.

State-sanctioned operation

The meeting gave authorization, but the timing, strategy, and resources were left to the Provincial Security Committee led by Benson Kaaria who was the Provincial Commissioner of North Eastern Province at the time. This committee authorized the District Security Committee (DSC) to prepare the ground for the military operation. The District Commissioner at the time, J.P. Matui, was on leave. In the available documents and in his own testimony at the TJRC, the acting District Commissioner, M.M Tiema, appears to have been used to achieve a predetermined objective.

The final order for the operation was given on 8 February 1984. This was at a meeting held in Wajir by the Kenya Intelligence Committee. The DSC and the Provincial Security Committee were in attendance. This meeting was the crucial source of authority to undertake the major security operation.

According to the Etemesi Report, the military operation began on 10 February with a signal from the Garissa Provincial Police Officer that read:

All Degodias plus stock in Griftu Division plus adjacent divisions will be rounded up and treated mercilessly. No mercy will be exercised. You will get more instructions from this Head Quarter in another two days. No nonsense will be accepted. Further instructions will follow on the relief of the stock. Report progress daily.

On that day, the military moved into all the areas occupied by the Degodia sub-clan and carried out their orders. The Commander of the operation was Major Mudogo. According to the Etemesi Report, the operation had no written “Operational Procedures”. In layman’s language, the military operation had no rules or limits, and the security forces were given a blank cheque to run riot. And run riot they did. They started detaining people from northeastern and eastern Kenya at four o’clock in the morning. The military was assisted in identifying their targets by KANU youth wingers, some of whom were from the targeted community.

Early in the operation, the military moved into Bulla Jogoo, a heavily populated section of Wajir. The Ministerial Statement and the Etemesi Report have their versions of what happened. Survivors have an altogether rather different and chilling story.

Military invasion and raids

According to the Ministerial Statement made in parliament by the Minister for Internal Security, the military moved into Bulla Jogoo at five in the morning and ordered the residents to leave their huts.  The order was not complied with and “the commander gave orders for the huts to be destroyed.”

The Etemesi Report has a slightly different version of events: by five in the morning, under the command of Captain Njeru, the army had already placed a cordon around the Manyatta. Administration Police and Kenya Police then moved in to round up the people. Residents were hiding in their huts in fear of the ‌security forces. They were ordered to dismantle their homes and move out of the area. By two in the afternoon, they had not complied with the order and Major Mudogo gave the order for the huts to be razed.

Survivors say the huts started burning at daybreak when ‌soldiers raided the area.

Government documents that appear to have been doctored after the event and suffer serious contradictions, say that 381 male Degodia were detained.

According to the Ministerial Report tabled in parliament, all the people were gathered and detained for screening and interrogation at the newly constructed airstrip at Wagalla. The Etemesi Report says the people were first divided into various sections for easy identification, then forced to strip naked. Survivors say those who refused to strip were summarily executed in front of their colleagues. A prominent religious leader was the first to be executed after he resisted the order to strip. All of this happened on 10 February 1984.

The military operation had no rules or limits, and the security forces were given a blank cheque to run riot.

The operation to round up the Degodia sub-clan continued on 11 February. People were arrested from their settlements in places far away from Wajir District. Some herders were picked up as far away as Jalaqo in Modogashe, Garissa District. Some were captured in Eastern Province and others near Mandera District.

The net was cast so wide that nobody could escape the reach of the security forces. The Etemesi Report says that those arrested were placed under guard, and interrogations continued at the airstrip.

According to the DSC, having so many people detained made it impossible to interrogate them individually, so they were divided into subsections. In total, there were 11 subsections of the sub-clan at the airstrip. The method of interrogation applied was extreme even for that era.

After being forced to strip, the prisoners were ordered to lay face down on the hot surface of the airstrip during the hottest month of the year. Temperatures are so high in February that one can get cooked by the sun. Survivors say many people succumbed to heatstroke, and this is corroborated by the Etemesi Report, which adds that detainees were subjected to “physical beating”. The physical beating, according to survivors, involved the butt of a gun, batons, and bayonets. A witness at the TJRC testified that the torture was so extreme that men complained they were sodomized at night. Survivors say people were being beaten to death in front of their colleagues.

To add to their misery, the people were denied food and water. A situation was created at Wagalla Airstrip that led to disaster in the following days.

On 12 February, the acting District Commissioner (DC), M.M. Tiema, addressed a public gathering in Wajir. Witnesses say he issued a lot of threats. Official records indicate that he assured members of the public of security in the town and asked them not to panic. In reality, most people in town had either been detained or displaced due to fear of the military. The targeted sub-clan were the dominant urban poor in the town and the place looked deserted and desolate. Tiema and Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD) Wabwire decided to take a stroll to the Wagalla Airstrip to assess the progress of the operation. They were accompanied by another officer, C.M. Mbole, who was the head of the dreaded — now defunct — Special Branch.

Arbitrary shooting

Official reports indicate that as soon as the DC alighted from his vehicle, the crowd burst out shouting, some detainees moving towards him and others running away through an opening in the perimeter fence. That is when Wabwire ordered that those escaping be shot. A total of 13 people were shot dead in the confusion. Survivors remember the District Commissioner’s visit, the shouting and the brief melee but have no recollection of shooting at this point. The Etemesi Report suggests that due to the difficult conditions they were subjected to, the people were begging for clemency from the District Commissioner. Witnesses report that there were many people who were killed in the first three days of the operation and the report of people running away was used to cover up that fact.

A witness at the TJRC testified that the torture was so extreme that men complained they were sodomized at night.

The District Commissioner jumped into his car and left the venue amidst the cries of the suffering men in the airstrip. The Etemesi Report says that the operation did not succeed in recovering guns or arresting any known bandits. The report is scathing about the DC and the OCPD leaving the situation to junior officers, calling their action a “cowardly move” lacking “any sense of responsibility”.

On 13 February, official reports showed for the first time the confusion reigning among the authorities in Wajir. There was a state of “fear, confusion and panic” within the DSC. This is probably because of the sheer numbers of the dead at the Wagalla Airstrip. By this date many people had been tortured to death, others had died from heatstroke and a large number were facing death due to thirst and starvation. Since the operation had no clear guidance, there was no way forward. Reports indicate that a decision was reached to release the remaining men and transport them back to their homes. The Provincial Security Committee visited Wajir on this date and received a briefing on the situation. The committee agreed with the DSC’s decision to release the remaining detainees.

The provincial security did not visit Wagalla Airstrip but flew right over it. Survivors told the TJRC that they clearly remember a helicopter flying over the airstrip and being threatened by being told that the PC was supervising the operations. The order to release the detainees was given as part of a cover-up that was conjured up after the event.

Corpses everywhere

The 14th of February, Valentine’s Day 1984, is completely absent from official reports regarding what happened at the Wagalla Airstrip. The Etemesi Report says nothing about this to date. However, survivors say it was the morning on which the stampede happened.

By this date, the Wagalla Airstrip was full of dead bodies. The military and police manning the area were tired and jittery. They were butchering the detainees one after the other. It was no longer an interrogation, just a slaughter.

Witnesses recall the crowd surging once towards the barbed wire fence, which gave way, allowing hundreds to make a dash for the nearby bushes. The military opened fire and many were shot. In fact, people survived because of their determination to escape or to die trying, and not because they were released from the Wagalla Airstrip. The stampede saved many but caused confusion. It was no longer the clean operation envisaged by the government. A lot of people escaped and ran naked into the bushes near Wagalla. Corralling them was difficult because there were no roads and the forces involved in the security operations were by that time fatigued and demoralized. It was a nightmare of immense proportions. That Valentine morning the Wagalla Airstrip was full of bodies in different stages of decomposition. Some had died moments before, with fresh bullet wounds in their backs, others were injured and screaming for help. Dazed, weak men were milling around naked and totally disoriented.

The 14th of February, Valentine’s Day 1984, is completely absent from official reports regarding what happened at the Wagalla Airstrip.

According to the Etemesi Report, Tiema and Wabwire reported that 13 people were shot in the stampede and that, as arrangements were being made to transport people to their various destinations, 16 more bodies were discovered at the airstrip. The report says that it is “believed that they may have died as a result of dehydration, hunger and excessive exposure to the sun”.

At that point, the security team was faced with the question of what to do with the dead bodies and the injured persons at the airstrip. Official reports say there were 29 bodies at the airstrip and, in a state of panic and confusion, the DSC decided to “dispose of the bodies”. The Etemesi Report further states that “a total of 20 bodies were thrown into the bush near Korodile, 100 miles northwest of Wajir town, while the other nine were buried at an area 6 to 10 miles from the Wagalla Airstrip on the way to Giriftu. This was done by Lieutenant Chungo of the army and police inspector Wachira respectively”.

Bodies exterminated

Survivors remember things very differently. The dead, the injured, and the weak survivors were all thrown into the backs of army Lories and disposed of in different locations. Some were discarded in the places mentioned in the official report and others were dumped as far away as Moyale and Mandera Districts. What they all agreed on is that bodies were disposed of as far away as 100 miles away from the Wagalla Airstrip. The Etemesi Report agrees with the survivors when it states that the “officers were unable to verify what took place at the airstrip and how many people died”.

Official records say that the Wagalla Massacre was a routine military operation gone wrong. The Etemesi Report is specifically focused on this angle. The report says there were no specific instructions given to the subordinate commanders other than to show no mercy to the detainees. It seemed to the committee that compiled the report that no individual was responsible for any specific action. Accordingly, this was mob action. The report says that the situation got out of hand and an “unfortunate incident occurred at Wagalla Airstrip”. It adds, “The system of interrogation used at the airstrip left a lot to be desired and was very unprofessional”.

There were no specific instructions given to the subordinate commanders other than to show no mercy to the detainees.

The most contentious question concerning the Wagalla Massacre is the death toll. Just how many people died in the carnage? The government has for decades stuck with the figure of 57 dead, but this figure has no basis. No names or any other details of the deceased were given. The Etemesi Report, which was written under circumstances that guaranteed no independent judgment, arrived at this figure by adding up figures from various sources. According to the DSC, 29 people died at the Wagalla Airstrip. It was confirmed that 15 bodies were buried at Sister Annalena Tonelli’s compound. Sister Annalena allegedly left 12 bodies in the bush. One person died in the hospital and was buried in the public cemetery. These different numbers were added up to come up with the official death toll. The government’s own report admits that the confusion that reigned makes it impossible to know what happened at Wagalla Airstrip in February 1984.

When hope departs from a heart, only darkness remains, and where once a bright future promised, nothingness abides. The psychological scars caused by the absence of all the men in one’s family run deep. But the worst scars of all are the ones left when a community that once believed in justice and the truth is for decades denied them.