Wajir County

Discover Wajir County

Old Colonial Building in Wajir Town.  Photo Courtesy of Wajir Government
Old Colonial Building in Wajir Town.  Image Courtesy of Wajir Government

Brief Overview of County

Wajir County in the northeast corner, bounded by the Kenya-Somalia border in the east, is mainly inhabited by Somali tribes of Ajuraan, Degodia and Ogaden sections among whom the wells and grazing rights are divided. At most times of the year the population is centred on the wells of Wajir, but during and after the rainy seasons the inhabitants, who are nomadic, are sparsely scattered over the whole area. That is to also say, Wajir is broadly an arid region; its north-central region underlain by limestones and the remainder of the area a wide undulating plain. The vegetation is mostly dense low thorny scrub and dry open bush with isolated clumps of trees. “Grey soils carry a similar profile to the limestones, but where black soils occur trees and scrub are often absent and the only vegetation is rough grass”. Thicker scrub with low trees usually follow the dry stream beds.

The defining feature of Wajir County is its perceived and actual separation from the rest of Kenya, which is evidenced in the wide development gap and distance from the rest of Kenya.  Furthermore, the hot and inhospitable nature of Wajir’s climate marked by scotching and torrid heat in the dryer months, and which in Wajir is amplified by the strong reflection of the whitish surface, further widens the dissociation. Wajir is a frontier less travelled and its unfamiliar landscapes, largely marked by endless featureless plains, little-known to the world. The 348 kms journey from Isiolo to Wajir could not be any less difficult, if you consider that Wajir County has only 28 kms of tarmac roads all within Wajir Town and only done in 2013. A trip to Wajir requires a strong-minded intrepid and some finicky driving along an unrelentingly jerky road that’s eager to break most cars.

Wajir Town, its capital and largest town, is considered to be the major business and administration centre of north-eastern Kenya and is connected to Isiolo, Moyale, EI Wak, Malka Murri and Bardera (in Somalia) by road. Propitiously, there is an international airport at Wajir which is the quickest way to get there. Wajir County is a treasure reserve for any history buff, and the nostalgia of the bygone era is almost tangible, awash with relics of the British Empire and those of the corresponding battles with Italian-Somalia. Then, there’s the rich history of the Somali People with their stirring culture and good humour; which is the highlight of Wajir (pronounced as Wajier by the locals). Livestock production is the backbone of the county’s economy with over 80% of the inhabitants directly or indirectly deriving their livelihood from livestock: of camels, cows, and goats.

Salient Features of Wajir County

  • County Number 08
  • Area – 56,686 km2
  • Altitude – 150 to 460 ms
  • Major Towns – Wajir, Habaswein, Tarbaj
  • Borders – Mandera, Isiolo, Marsabit, Garissa

Brief History of Wajir County

The instability of Wajir for generations was periodically plagued by instabilities along the Kenya-Somalia border, complex tenor of state failure, and communal violence among the resident Somali clans. And to fan the flames, the Northern Province (which Wajir is quintessentially part of) became a closed district under the Outlying Districts Ordinance, Proclamation No. 89, of 1925. To redress the segregation, the Northern Frontier District (NFD) sought to secede from Kenya in 1950. This did not sit well with the newly independent Government of Kenya, and in many ways coaxed the esoteric Shifta Wars of 1960’s and 70’s. That led to even further marginalization of the NFD for decades. After the Shifta Wars drew to a dull close, the clans and sub-clans of Wajir became the new cleavages of social tension and conflict, with each clan waging at least one historic affray. Amidst all their conflicts, the Somali People of Wajir established singular and customary ways to resolve conflicts. In the 1990’s, a collection of local non-state actors uniquely led by a women’s market group created an umbrella movement that came to foster a decorous sort of peace and security across the entire Wajir.

View of Wajir Old Town.  Photo Courtesy of Wajir Government
View of Wajir Old Town.  Image Courtesy of Wajir Government

Places of Interest in Wajir County

1. Lake Yahud

As Wajir turned a new leaf after decades of dissent and unrest – with the last major dust-up passing off in 1994 as the Ajuraan and Degodia came to blows – so did its security and governance, as well as that of much of Northern Kenya, improve dramatically. Similarly, Wajir Town steadily flourished as a hub that connected northeastern Kenya. And nowhere is this headway better exemplified than at the modern Wajir International Airport that’s in direct communication with JKIA in Nairobi, and other airports. It was built between 1977-1978 by the HZ Israeli Construction Company. On September 7th, 2007, Wajir Airport was commissioned – to officially accommodate both passenger and military flights. One of the rare and interesting changes to the landscape after its construction was Lake Yahud, a permanent lake located in the periphery area of Wajir Town that is cordially described by the locals as “the primitive Jewish Lake that never lacks water”.  Lake Yahud was formed as a result of quarrying for materials for construction of Wajir Airport in the 1970’s.  Once this massive quarry filled with water the lake formed and named “Yahud” after an affable Jewish contractor at the airport.  Lake Yahud is located 5 kms east of Wajir Town near Wajir Airport.

2. Wagalla Monument

The Wagalla Monument commemorates the 4-days massacre of February 10th, 1984, which unravelled at Wajir Airport and one of the most gut-wrenching and eerie episodes in the history of Kenya.  Wagalla Massacre set off as a remedial effort to disarm the fierce Degodia Clan as a way to mitigate the perpetual and ever-greater clan related conflicts which were spiraling out of control.  After the initial plans failed, thousands of people were delivered to Wajir Airport, mainly from Degodia Clan, where they were kept hungry for days on end and ordered to strip naked and lie on the scorching-hot ground.  On February 10th, 1984, all hell broke loose when the government forces opened fire at Wajir Airport.  The official Government report claimed that only 54 people died. The natives claim as many as 5,000 lost their lives. Perhaps the transformation in governance and security at one of the most previously insecure, ungoverned, and impoverished zones in Kenya was a state failure, or perhaps the long period of emergency rule had inclined the callous action, or, it may be that, the actions to reclaim control over the territory were altogether misjudged. What is certain is that the Wagalla Massacre had spooked the nation to no end. Wagalla Monument, at Korahey in Wajir Town, unveiled on February 14th, 2014 to mark its 30th anniversary, has the names of 482 victims engraved on marble and pasted on a wall. The names were retrieved from the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report. To date, survivors and families of victims meet here each anniversary to renew their resolve to seek justice. “The only tangible milestone the suffering families have achieved so far is the acknowledgment, through the TJRC Report, that the Wagalla Massacre was drafted and executed by their own government.”

3. Old Town Wajir

The British colonial enterprise arrived at Wajir somewhere around 1905 to an indignant welcome by all the factions of the Somali clans. Rather nonchalance about the ongoing differences of opinion among these clans, they opted to arm some and suppress others, and leave the outcome of it to fate. Henceforth, they sympathized with the Ajuraan, who considered themselves to be the “original” inhabitants of much of the land, and enjoyed protected access to Wajir-West under the British colonial system. Exacerbated by the firepower provided by the colonial forces and changing clan demographics arising from the Somali Civil War, this led to endemic tensions among the three big clans (Ajuraan, Degodia and Ogaden) over rights to pasture and wells. In any case, they themselves (the British) were entangles in an awkward fall-out with Italian-Somalia (Jubaland) having revised the boundary of Kenya to include the Northern Frontier District, and what the Italians rightfully regarded as being ‘annexed’ from their territory.

In a looming showdown with the Italians, the British officially established Wajir Town around 1912 to serve as the colonial headquarters.  Only two other towns in Kenya were established prior: Malindi and Old Town Mombasa. Wajir Town was primarily a military outpost just round the corner from the boundary with Italian-Somalia. In due course, an installment of small wars between the British and Italians ensued between 1920’s and 1930’s. At the last, in 1940, the British forces embarked on an all-out encounter to divisively expel the Italians, in a war climaxed in the spectacular showdown of aerial military strength on September 19, 1940, near Fort Elwak (176 kms northeast of Wajir Town). The rich history of Old Town Wajir as a military base can still be seen in the numerous old war bunkers, tunnels, wells and cells from the British Empire Era. Wajir Town, and Wajir County in general, has withered its fair share of dark times of war arising from colonial brutality, clan conflicts and even regional wars. But, the people of Wajir are stout and undaunted by its past. Today, Wajir is a peaceful little town.

Northern Frontier Province - The Kenya That was never Kenyan.  Courtesy
Northern Frontier District: The Kenya That was never Kenyan. Image Courtesy

4. Orahey Wells

There are one or two interesting interpretations and insights offered regarding the origin and operation of the ancient Orahey Wells at Old Town Wajir. Some of the locals suggest the original Orahey Wells date back over 1,000 years, when “Queen of Sheba” (the monarch mentioned in the Bible and then in later works who travels to Jerusalem to experience the wisdom of King Solomon) watered her herds of camels here. In his chronicles of Wajir, or the country between the Juba River and Lake Rudolf, Lieutenant L. Aylmer, in 1911, described the area as having numerous wells cut straight down in solid rock and deduced correctly that a more industrious tribe than the present inhabitants was responsible for the digging of the wells. In 1912, C.W. Haywood on his voyage from Kismayu to Meru, in an effort to discover whether the Ewaso Nyiro flows out of the Lorian Swamp, passed through Wajir and described the wells there as being only about 6 ft. deep and dug in “a kind of grey sandstone”. Then and now, Orahey Wells are strategic in the migration routes of the nomads, and a germane interest for visitors to Wajir. The latter-day Orahey Wells were sunk in the early 1970’s by the Italians Prisoners of War, and these helped develop Wajir Town.  Orahey in Somali means “place with a lot sun” and the Orahey Wells are their vital lifeline.

The queen is first mentioned in I Kings 10:1-13 and in II Chronicles 9:1-12 in the Bible, then in the later Aramaic Targum Sheni, then the Quran, and finally the Ethiopian work known as the Kebra Negast; later writings featuring the queen, all religious in nature, come basically from the story as first told in the Bible. There is no archaeological evidence, inscription, or statuary supporting her existence outside of these texts. – The Ancient History Encyclopedia

Wajir Town developed due to existence of Orahey Wells. Published by NMG

5. Orahey Bunkers

To others, the term Orahey also means “hot open fields” with reference to the open fields near Old Town Wajir and the centre of activity during colonial rule in Wajir.  These windswept fields, where the communal Orahey Wells abound, are scattered with a handful of Italian built bunkers and derelict British Empire defensive structures.  Also seen at Orahey are intricate systems of trenches, gun turrets or wingers and bunkers used by the Italians and British during WW II.  Also of interest near Orahey Bunkers are some of Wajir’s oldest buildings which include Wajir Museum, the old houses built by Italians, an old court house and the old Mosque, all which help connect trippers to Wajir’s long amusing history.

6. Fort Wajir

Currently made use of as the main prison and which it is said no prisoner has ever escaped, Fort Wajir is a prototypical historic landmark of Old Town Wajir.  After reclaiming the NFD, the expansive ‘Somali country’ formerly ceded to the Italians, the British decided to consolidate their power in northeastern Kenya by keeping a permanent garrison in order to ensure continued control on their dominions. In addition to this heavily fortified fort with elaborate outworks and moats to counter the aggression of the Italians, the British also kept a garrison at Fort Elwak originally built by the Italians. Both these forts near the border with Somalia were the first line of defense for the British. Fort Wajir, garrisoned by the 3rd and 5th Battalions of Kings African Rifles, was an epicenter of many small wars with the Italians who liked to test the resolve of the British.  In 1940, Fort Wajir was bombed repeatedly but held its walls on every encounter issued. 

7. Wajir Museum

In 1940, during the Italian invasions, Wajir Town was momentarily evacuated. Both parties (Italy and Britain) were fervent on owning the land rights of Wajir because of its treasured Orahey Wells which are the only permanent source of water north of the Ewaso Nyiro – at Habaswein 106 kms south. The British had officially occupied Wajir in 1912 to prevent Boranas and other tribes from being driven away from these wells. “In 1921 the military took over the administration of the district until September 1925, and then reverted to civil administration in 1928, the border being shifted north of Modo Gashe to the line of Ewaso Nyiro and Lake Dera. Until 1917, Wajir was a sub-district of Bulsesa. In 1918, Wajir became a district of its own”. Contained at one of the oldest buildings in Wajir Town, Wajir Museum caches the eccentric history of Wajir County and that of the Somali Clans. The Museum was officially open on April 19th, 2011, with an objective to offer a glimpse of the rich cultural, historical and natural heritage of Northern Kenya and its interaction with the world. It houses a gripping display that reflects on the history, traditions, and customs of the Somali clans of Wajir.

8. Wajir War Cemetery

The small Wajir War Cemetery containing only two graves is a pale shadow of the far-reaching history of wars witnessed in Wajir. It contains one of the two graves that was brought in during 1929 from Rhamu, 318 kms further North. The cemetery is attached to a Government station (formerly known as Archer’s Post) set close to the boundary of Italian Somaliland (Somalia). It is open daily.

9. Esspresso Royale

Opened in 2016 as Wajir Town’s utmost coffee house, the energetic and buzzing Esspreso Royale Bistro, patronized by both local and trippers to Wajir Town, is best known for its live roasting and artisan coffee. The modest, design-led rustic bistro also offers a shelter from the sweltering heat and within an ambient and restful spot from where one can learn and experience the Somali’s cultures up-close.  The atmosphere at Esspresso Royale Bistro is friendly and communal, and has become the headliner establishment in the fast-expanding Wajir Town. 

10. Wajir Slaughter House

It is unlikely with anyone travelling to Wajir County to have as an object of the journey a visit to a slaughter house, however livestock business is big business in Wajir County.  In fact, it is the only business in Wajir County. The economy of Wajir County is centered on pastoralism, organized in herding groups called ‘rers’ with each consisting of between five and twenty households.  The state of art Wajir Slaughter House, commissioned in 2017, is the epicenter of activity in Wajir Town which has an estimated 1 million animals of mainly camels. It may be of interest for callers to Wajir Slaughter House, specially those who have the stomach for it, to see the hard line negotiations at the animal market, or, better still, sample some of the camel meat which in Wajir Town is a top-rated delight.

11. Shaletey Caves

Although their exact location is still little-known and a moving target going by available information, the original use of the Shaletey Caves in Wajir South is widely thought as an abode for the clan elders who resided and governed from these caves. During the British Era, the Shaletey Caves were a strategic military disposition for the expeditions, both for British Empire Forces and the Italian Legions based over the border in Somalia. After the warfare and colonial regime subsided, the natives began to tour Shaletey Caves to uncover how these were formerly used by both tenants and have since been listed as historic landmarks. 

12. Groso Griftu Pastoral College

Another interesting attraction near Wajir is the Groso Griftu Pastoral College. To encourage and trade-off new skill with indigenous know-hows, with the aim to enriching both traditional and modern live-stocking, Groso Griftu Pastoral College (GPTC) was established 1968 about 27 kms west of Wajir Town. “Since its inception, GPTC has trained over 27,000 pastoralists and agro-pastoralists on diffrent courses ranging from livestock husbandry, agri-business skills and disease identification” – NFD Dispatch. This is reached via C80 Wajir-Moyale Road for 15 kms then via an all weather road to Griftu Town and Griftu College.

Spatial Location of Grosso Griftu College in Wajir County
Spatial Location of Grosso Griftu College in Wajir County

13. Malabar Hill

At Bute, on the 256 kms northwesterly trending road from Wajir to Moyale, 48 kms from Wajir Town, there’s a spectacular landform that breaks the routine of the plains. I km from Bute Town, there is the unique attraction of Lion Hill also known as the Malabar Hill. The hill itself, reached on a walking trip from Bute, is sacred to the communities living around it and has shaped their beliefs, and, in somes cases, been a possible aid to shape conduct. Even from a distance, the legend of Lion Hill is quite canny, undoubtedly resembling “a lion with a wide open mouth”. This has buff cultural significance for the native communities of Bute. As it goes, mothers of young school going children years-on have spurred good conduct in their children with the threat of throwing them into the gaping mouth of Lion Hill.  Call it myth, but the children at a school at the foot slopes of Malabar Hill are eternally convinced of its olden legend.  Plans are underway to establish Lion Hill as a National Reserve and to construct an enclosure-fence.

14. Mansa Guda Formation

These form a series of eroded down sandstone hillocks and distinct ridges in the northeast part of Wajir County, and trend westerly from near El Ben to Moyale. The sandstones are thin in the south, where they disappear under the grey soils, but thicken to the north-east where they become conglomeratic. Mansa Guda is geologically defined as sandstone-conglomerate beds at the base of the Jurassic limestones. Joseph Thompson, on his 1960 expedition of this region, compared the Mansa Guda Formation with the Adigrat Sandstones of Ethiopia. Similar sandstone ridges occur along the 30-metre terrace of the Daua River. Extensive continental erosion over millennia gave rise to the formation of the wide deep valley west to south of Mansa Guda Formation. El Ben is 67 kms north of Wajir.

15. Lorian Swamp

The Ewaso Nyiro River runs for over 450 kms before it finally reaches the lofty bed of reeds nearby Habaswein in the southeast corner of Wajir County, simply known as Lorian Swamp. The 151 km2 Lorian Swamp, which means ‘swamp’ in the native Laigop dialect, was first cited by William A. Chanler and Ludwig Von Hohnel in 1898, who detailed it as “of a great extent filled with high reeds.”  The lengthy Ewaso Nyiro River drainage, which also includes the Lorian Swamp, is a critical life-line in Garissa County. Little is known of the Lorian Swamp due to the hostile terrain and inaccessibility despite being one of the largest wetlands.

View of the Wagalla Monument.  Photo Courtesy of Wajir Government
View of the Wagalla Monument. Image Courtesy of Wajir Government

Geography of Wajir County

Generally speaking, Wajir County is a featureless plain which lies between 150 metres and 460 metres above sea level. The plain rises gently from the south and east towards the north rising from 150 metres at Buna to 460 metres at Bute and Gurar at the foothills of Ethiopian highlands. The highly seasonal Ewaso Nyiro River and Lake Yahud are its only notable water sources, and is prone to seasonal flooding during the rainy seasons which is a mixed blessing for the people of Wajir. While this renders its roads impassable, these thrive seasonal pasture that serve as grazing areas during dry season and paddocks for cultivation during rains. Major swamps are found at Lagboghol and Habaswein.

Land Use in Wajir County

Majority of the people practice nomadic pastoralism and a large portion of the land is utilised for grazing. There are however few farmers who are practicing small-scale farming.  And excepting the small area covered by Wajir Town, the entire Wajir County is categorized as communal trust land. The land is mostly used communally for pastoralism and it is communally owned. Recently, some small areas have been put exclusively under farming by individuals and groups. 

Highlights of Wajir County

Wajir County has rich culture, wildlife and landscape features that include Lake Yahud and Malabar Hill. Tourism has been boosted by Wajir Airport. There are no game reserves or game parks in Wajir. However, KWS is ensuring safety and protection of the wildlife in their current habitation outside any protected area. The key sites of interest are its historic sites including Wajir Museum, Wagalla Monument, Orahey Wells, British Era war bunkers, and the Old Court building.

Population in Wajir County

Wajir County according to the (2009) Kenya Population and Housing census had a total population of 727,965, which was projected to reach 852,963 in 2017.  The county has an annual growth rate of 3.22% which is higher than the national population rate of 3.0%. Population density is 13 persons/km2.  Wajir East, which hosts Wajir Town, is the most densely populated with a population density of 31 people/ km2.  Wajir South has the lowest density of 7 people/km2.

View of Groso Griftu Pastoral College.  Photo Courtesy of Wajir Government
Groso Griftu Pastoral College.  Image Courtesy of Wajir Government

Airports in Wajir County

Wajir County has an international airport set at Wajir and seven other airstrips found at Habaswein, Khorof Harar, Wagalla, Buna, Bute, Tarbaj, and Diff areas.

Roads in Wajir County

Wajir County has a total of 440 kms of gravelled roads, out of 5,280 kms road network. The rest of the roads are earthen and unclassified. The county has only 28 kms of tarmac road in Wajir Town. Efforts are ongoing to lay more bitumen.

Climate in Wajir County

Wajir County is a semi-arid area and rainfall is usually erratic and short making it unfavorable for vegetation.  The average annual temperature is 29°C with the average monthly temperatures rarely going beyond 35°C. The warmest months are February and March with an average of 36°C while the coolest months are June to September, averaging about 21 °C. Rainfall over the entire region is low.

Wajir County Distance Chart
Wajir County Distance Chart

View of camels trekking near Wajir Town. Photo Courtesy of Count Online
Camels trekking near Wajir Town. Image Courtesy of WkiMedia

National Monuments in Wajir County

There are no designated national monuments in Wajir County

Map of Wajir County

Wajir County Map