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The Phenomenon of Shifting Frontiers

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That the imperial powers created borders and frontiers which did not previously exist in Africa is a myth of recent creation often perpetuated by Euro-centric writers. Borders and boundaries had existed over time-both natural and man-crafted frontiers-the latter extended or curtailed by invasions, migrations, struggles for ascendancy and opposition to these. Frontiers shifted according to the strength or weakness of forces against those on whom the newcomers encroached. Internal upheavals also affected them as well as external incursions, among which were those of the Turks, Egyptians, Arabs and the Portuguese in the 16th century, long before the 19th century scramble for Africa. However, in this region of Africa, known as the Horn, Ethiopia had emerged as the dominant power in the Horn prior to the European arrival in the 19th century. The unification efforts of the Emperors Tewdres and Johannes IV had floundered with their deaths, but Menelik II continued the centralizing and expansionist efforts bringing under his hegemony people like the Somalis, Danakils and Bani Ami among others whose religious persuasions diverged from those of Ethiopia. These Islamic people fought Christian Ethiopia and the religious aspect of the confrontation sharpened the conflicts. Thus, even power confrontations were given the veneer of religious conflicts, a cast of mind which has survived into the present and of which the Somalis have made so much. The Kenya-Somali border with which this paper is concerned is not an isolated entity, both countries sharing before and after the European partition of Africa (as they still do) common borders with Ethiopia, Somaliland, Uganda and the Sudan. These regions experienced trans-frontier movements before and after partition sometimes intermittent, and at other times if not frequent movements of nomadic people. These were later to be reflected in the imperial powers, formulation of policies and especially in terms of the Northern Frontiers of Kenya and Uganda (in Kenya the NFD). The movements in themselves gave rise to a phenomenon of shifting frontiers. So African nomadic peoples, sovereign territories and imperial ascendancy, all contributed to this phenomenon. Treaties, Protocols, and Exchange of Notes as well as delimitation and demarcation Commissions of the imperial powers and Ethiopia, all contributed to the forging of boundaries which the African people inherited after the second World War and when they attained political sovereignty. The Anglo-Italian Protocol of 1891 which enabled both countries to define their spheres of influence in eastern Africa set the pattern for the Treaty of 1924 by which a portion of Kenya named Jubaland was ceded to Italy and later became part of Somalia. Frontiers continued to shift throughout the colonial period and often these frontiers were shifting human frontiers. But the official perceptions of the Somalis in this frontier region of Kenya and emphasis on their being different from others, assisted in the formulation of the Somali-received tradition of themselves as a people distinct from other Africans in the zone-a fact further encouraged by British government spokesmen such as Ernest Bevin after the second World War. Despite these British colonial attitudes to the Somalis, as with other African peoples, they mirrored ambivalence thus perceiving them as people with sterling qualities and equally visualizing them as a nuisance. This was seen in the manner in which the Somalis were allowed to pay a "non-native poll tax" only to be classified as "natives" ten years later.

Affiliations: 1: Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Avenue, New London, Connecticut 06320-4196, U.S.A.


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