During the Middle Ages, Kismayo and the surrounding area known as Jubaland were part of the Ajuran Empire, a Somali sultanate that ruled over large parts of the Horn of Africa and dominated trade in the Indian Ocean.
The Ajuran Empire had a strong, centralised administration and aggressive military strategy, which enabled it to resist an Oromo invasion from the west and a Portuguese incursion from the east during the Gaal Madow and the Ajuran-Portuguese wars.
Trading routes dating from the ancient and early medieval periods of Somali maritime enterprise were strengthened or re-established, and foreign trade and commerce in the coastal provinces flourished with ships sailing to and from many kingdoms and empires in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, Middle East, North Africa and East Africa.
The kingdom left an extensive architectural legacy, being one of the major medieval Somali powers engaged in sophisticated castle, fortress and various other genres of architecture.
Many of the ruined fortifications dotting the landscapes of southern Somalia today are the handiwork of Ajuran engineers, including several pillar tomb fields, necropolises and city ruins built in that era. During the Ajuran rule many people in the southern part of the Horn of Africa converted to Islam due to the theocratic nature of the government.
As the only hydraulic empire in Africa at the time, the Ajuran monopolised the waters of the Shebelle and Jubba Rivers. Through hydraulic engineering, it also constructed many of the limestone wells and cisterns of the state that are still operative and in use even today.
The rulers developed new systems of agriculture and taxation, which continued to be used in parts of the Horn of Africa as late as the 19th century. However, due to the tyrannical rule of later Ajuran leaders, multiple rebellions broke out weakening the kingdom which eventually split into several successor states at the end of the 17th century, the most prominent being the Geledi Sultanate.
From 1836, Kismayo and other parts of Jubaland were claimed by the Sultanate of Muscat (now in Oman) and then fell under the Sultanate of Zanzibar when it was split from Muscat and Oman in 1856 and given control of East African territories.
On 7 November 1890, Zanzibar became a British Protectorate and on 1 July 1895 Zanzibar ceded all of its coastal possessions on continental East Africa to Britain. Together with the Zanzibar Sultanate’s other former possessions in the area, Jubaland became part of the British East Africa Protectorate.
The ascendancy of the Harti merchant community crystallised under British rule becoming the first local employees of the administration and emerging as a new educated, urban professional class.
In 1925, the Harti and Ogaden communities reached an agreement for the partition of Jubaland under the mediation of the British. Unfortunately, each community had a different understanding of the partition.
According to the Ogaden, the pact gave their Sultan Ahmed Magan control of Jubaland at large. The Harti maintained that the agreement stipulated that part of the city south of the Liboi-Kismayo Road would remain under their control, while the Ogaden, and its Mohamed Zubeir subdivision, in particular, would administer the area to the north of this. The pact also allowed Mohamed Zubeir access to the port.
The territory was soon thereafter ceded to Italy by Britain supposedly as reward for their support during World War I. Kismayo and the northern half of Jubaland were then incorporated into neighbouring Italian Somaliland on 30 June 1926. Britain retained control of the southern half of the partitioned Jubaland territory, which was later known as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) and subsequently renamed North Eastern Province.
It will be recalled that when the nationalist Harry Thuku was arrested in 1922, he was detained in Kismayo as it was then part of British East Africa. Immediately Kismayo was handed over to the Italians in 1926, Harry Thuku was transferred to Lamu.
Under Italian rule, the Harti continued to enjoy their privileged status as the elite. After Somalia’s independence in 1960 and the establishment of a civilian government, the Harti secured all four seats reserved for Kismayo.
Meanwhile, four days before granting British Somaliland independence on 26 June 1960, Britain declared that all Somali inhabited areas of East Africa should be unified in one administrative region.
However, during negotiations for Kenya’s independence, Britain granted administration of the NFD to Kenyan nationalists despite an informal plebiscite showing the overwhelming desire of the region’s population to join the newly formed Somali Republic, and notwithstanding that the NFD was occupied almost entirely by people of the Somali ethnic group.
Although a commission established in December 1962 by Britain reported that 88 of the inhabitants preferred unification with the Somali Republic, Britain did not accede to the peoples wishes, instead creating the North Eastern Region out of NFD on 8 March 1963. In response, the Somali Republic severed diplomatic relations with Britain on 18 March 1963.
Just before Kenya’s independence the British belatedly realised that the new Kenyan regime was not willing to give up the Somali inhabited areas. Britain was thus caught at a crossroads, admittedly of their own making, but it was too late. Led by the Northern Province Peoples Progressive Party (NPPPP), Somalis in the NFD vigorously sought union with their kin in the Somali Republic.
In response, the Kenya government instituted a number of repressive measures designed to frustrate their efforts in what came to be known as the “Shifta” period. Many lives were lost and the government was accused of human rights abuses which it strongly denied.
Although the conflict ended in an uneasy ceasefire, Somalis in the region still maintain close ties with their brethren in Somalia.
It is not all gloom, however, as the Somali community enjoy a virtual dual citizenship through a porous border with Somalia and a thriving business environment not just at the border but also in major towns in Kenya.