Chapter 1 – A Nation In Search Of A State: The Somali Mystique Of Unity

Trying to understand ‘the Somali’ means reverting to 19th-century political philosophy. Many words—nation, country, state, people, tribe, territory, borders, sovereignty—which were later used more and more contradictorily were defined in their modern sense between 1789 and 1871, by Europeans.[3] But after Europe progressively took over the world between 1885 and 1914, it exported its legal and geopolitical definitions worldwide, in the knapsacks of its soldiers. Later, after 1945, when the triumphant Europeans were pushed aside politically by their former subjects who regained a relative autonomy,[4] this abstract vocabulary became the building blocks for the new world order set up with the creation of the United Nations. The post-1945 model, into which all colonized people would soon be inserted, was that of the post-Renaissance European model, systematized in 1648 after the first great European civil war.[5]

But of the new states emerging from the ‘decolonization process’, how many could readily fit into the proposed model? Many, but not all. And the degree of adaptability of these new entities to the Procrustean bed offered them would vary from quite high (the native states such as Morocco or Thailand that predated the European conquest) to moderate, for some culturally homogeneous territories in Africa or the Arab world. Some were highly problematic for political reasons, like Spanish Sahara, South Yemen or Eritrea. Colonies of the Soviet Union (USSR) were not eligible for nationhood as they were supposed to be part of a new form of supra-national political entity, a Union of Socialist Republics. Most of the others were arbitrary pieces of territory delimited by half-forgotten colonial arrangements. Finally there was the absolute square peg in the round hole, the Somali world. The Somali nation or people, which had had a long and strongly defined existence, were probably the human group that could be considered the most inimical to defining itself in terms of the raw material of an emerging nation-state. Why was this?

The Country That Does Not Exist A History of SomalilandThe Somali social organization

The natural environment of the Somali people is probably one of the harshest existing anywhere on Earth and over the centuries it had fostered a very original form of social organization, the clan system. Most books about Somalia start with an introductory chapter on that topic, which varies from interesting to superficial. There is no reason to repeat another one here, especially as we have the work of I.M. Lewis as a basic guideline.[6] Lewis was challenged on points of detail by other anthropologists but his vision remains canonical to this day. What he described—and showed operating—was a gigantic puzzle of imbricated, interpenetrating and overlapping social units (tol, translated for lack of a better term as ‘clan’; but there are others such as qabila, jilib, all with slightly different connotations and no agreed meaning), making a huge human mosaic that anthropologists define as ‘a system of agnatic[7] kinship’. The Somali, who tend to have a preference for strong individualism, often discuss the name or nature of the sub-units composing the mosaic. But they seldom discuss the relevance of the whole.[8] In this case, the meaning of the word ‘clan’ has to be taken in a strong sense. It is not some kind of loose grouping of people with like-minded interests. Nor is it the grouping of animist cults of people who are supposed to be descended from a mythical animal ancestor (the fish clan or the locust clan). It is a fantasized form of genealogy whereby a mythical human common ancestor—and his subsequent descendants—have created a ‘total lineage’ system binding strands of human beings into forms of agnatic solidarity that compete with each other.


This ‘clanic’ system is very different from tribalism. Tribes (‘ethnic groups’, if we defer to the proper, politically correct vocabulary of the early 21st century) are in fact small nations. They have many of the characteristics of nations, such as a common language, a historical memory, at times forms of positive and negative racism, a shared territory, often strongly defined cultural traits that set them apart from their neighbors; and before the introduction of monotheistic religions, they had tribal cults (called ‘animism’ in older ethnological books) that defined a specific religious view of the world. But none of that is true of clans. Clans are social sub-units that are not cultural, linguistic or religious. All Somali have the same culture, the same language and the same religion, both originally before Islam came and later within the boundaries of the Muslim worldview. Clans are the segmentary sub-units of a broader unified culture. In common speech (and this is particularly the case in Djibouti where the French language has had a strong invasive impact on the local Somali culture), the Somali themselves speak of their clans as ‘tribes’ and talk of ‘tribalism’ instead of clannism. This is incorrect but still commonly used in ordinary speech.

But why did this very peculiar social structure develop initially within a broad human group? We can only guess. In a large ethnic group such as the Somali the problems of priority, sharing (or grabbing) limited resources, fighting or cooperating were primordial. Pasture, wells, women and cattle were essential factors in group survival. Rules had to be developed to define how to deal with them—and with the violence that went with the conflicts they bred. The vast Somali nation chose to parse the ties of solidarity or dislike along the lines of a fantasized genealogy. In an environment where year-round drought tended to scale all nomadic human contacts either up into cooperation or down into conflict, belonging to a clan was a guarantee of support, a pooling of resources, an alliance against enemies and a reference point to deal with the consequences. It was the nomad’s marker, his identity badge, his insurance policy.[9] Clans intermarried, traded with each other, fought, stole each other’s camels, wrongfully occupied their neighbors’ water holes, evacuated them when circumstances drove them out, and, in all cases, behaved as a solidarity group, for better or for worse. This was the framework of their world.

In such a world the state was not only something irrelevant, it was an annoyance and, at worst, an instrument for obstruction and oppression. It was something for sedentary peasants (such as the Abyssinians) or trading city-dwellers (such as the Turks). In any case it was something only fit for inferior people who were the subjects of a ruler. The Somali were not subjects and they had no rulers. They were free and their clans were the physical embodiments of that freedom. The Somali bush was like the sea and the camel herders were its sailors. In the pre-colonial world, their fellow nomads were the Nilotic Africans, the Sahelian Tuareg, the pre-Islamic Arabs or, very far away, the Mongols and the Plains Indians of North America. None had a state and none wanted one. When a state came, it was foreign and it was immediately perceived as an imposition. On the coast of the Indian Ocean, the inclusion of the Somali harbors in the Swahili long-distance trade between Africa and Asia gave birth to maritime ‘Somali’ city-states. In fact these trading cities were multicultural and the Somali were only one segment of the population. The rest were mostly Swahili and Arabs, with black Africans, Egyptians, Persians and probably a smattering of Europeans (Byzantines) and Asians (Indians, Malays) as subjects. Their ‘rulers’ were a cross between traders and soldiers of fortune and were called by the Arabic title ‘Sultan’. But these were not really ‘states’ since their territory barely spread twenty miles inland. Some sultanates later took root locally and became more ‘Somali’ in the 19th century, but their territorial influence never spread very far from the coast.[10] Why was there such incompatibility between the clan system and the state? First of all, the basic Somali culture was nomadic, i.e. a culture of movement where the accumulation of economic surplus value was unlikely. ‘Wealth’ meant a lot of camels and since camels eat grass, only a limited number could be kept at any given place at the same time without reaching a dangerous level of overgrazing. Settled people were foreigners, or at least their mode of living was foreign, and even Somali who were city-dwellers lived like foreigners and were seen as foreigners. The clan was adapted to camel nomadism but it was dysfunctional for settled commercial living. It was designed to give a man support in his herder’s life, to guarantee that he would never be alone and to provide him with automatic allies. In order to root this genealogical network into flesh-and-blood people, children started to learn their family tree as soon as they could talk and began to memorize it at around the age of three. They learned it from their mothers, by heart.[11] Within that sphere, every man was just as good as any other, there were no born leaders and there were no born servants. It was rough and hard to master, but it was also fiercely egalitarian and democratic, almost to the point of anarchy. In many ways, it divided the world into friends and (potential) foes. But it was a poor predisposition for the hierarchy, organization, specialization and authority of a state structure. As a result the Somali never developed one in the full sense of the word, and this at a time when Europe was bristling with increasingly imperialistic states. The face-to-face encounter was going to be unfortunate.

The Somali and the outside world: An unhappy misfit

Nobody wanted to colonize the Somali-populated areas, which had almost nothing to offer that could be looted or exploited. As a result, the reasons which led to foreign occupation were exogenous. The first European power to enter the Horn was France when, after the 1859 murder in Tadjourah of one of its citizens, the merchant Henri Lambert, Paris dispatched a small mission. Actually, the real motivation of that power encroachment had little to do with the Somali region and everything to do with the occupation of the harbor of Aden, at the tip of Arabia, by British forces in 1839. Aden had practically no local food supplies and the British began crossing the Red Sea to purchase sheep on the Somali shore. During the first half of the 19th century, a French presence had been dominant in Egypt and Napoleon III had recently agreed to support the French diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who started working on the Suez Canal in that same year, 1859. But France had no territorial presence in Eastern Africa and, given the weak state of the Egyptian monarchy,[12] it had to engage in an increasingly tight power struggle around the canal. The future of an independent Egypt looked increasingly doubtful and Paris wanted to check British expansion in the Red Sea. All the more so since Italy, the youngest of the European nation-states, wanted to acquire what was at the time a badge of membership in the Great Powers club, a colonial empire. It had already begun by annexing the northernmost region of Ethiopia, Eritrea. From there its ambitions were growing apace along the Red Sea shores. The motivations and expansion scenarios of the other powers were equally varied. Between 1884 and 1889, the north-east African colonial race evolved thus:

  • France occupied a small colonial outpost at Obock on the northern shore of the Gulf of Tadjourah.
  • The British started buying shares in the Suez Canal Company after the defeat of the French Army in the war with Prussia in 1871 destroyed French imperial ambitions in Egypt.
  • The Ethiopians, who feared that the European expansion might be aimed at colonizing them, occupied the Somali-populated Ogaden region in 1887 to prevent either the British or the Italians from doing so.
  • The British started to occupy the Somali shore across from Aden in 1888 to feed their Aden colony.
  • The Italians occupied the Red Sea shore southwards from Massawa, with British encouragement. By reaching southern Dankalia, the Italians blocked the French expansion northwards, catching French Somaliland in a vice between their colony of Eritrea and British Somaliland.
  • By 1889, the whole of Somali territory was in European or Abyssinian hands. The ‘statist’ societies had crushed the non-state one.

Did it mean that those foreigners had ‘occupied Somalia’? Definitely not, since such a country did not exist and had never existed. But did it mean that they had colonized the Somali people? Of course yes, and the Somali felt it keenly. And this is the origin of the present paradox we are beginning to examine. As discussed earlier, the Somali social model is clanic, i.e. non-hierarchical, non-state-oriented and democratic to the point of verging on anarchy. But it is also highly conscious of itself, highly conscious of its specificity and of its cultural unity; it is proud and easily offended. After a decade of growing occupation, it began to realize that an ironclad network of culturally foreign invaders, who looked at the Somali mostly as a nuisance, had locked the space and its uses in ways that were basically inimical to it. Worse, those foreigners were so deeply involved in their own statist power games that they devoted much more time undercutting each other’s strategies than being nasty to those they had colonized. This was the ultimate insult. The Somali began being conscious of themselves as having been dismembered without even having the time to state their existence in the new ‘modern’ paradigms that the foreigners had brought along with them to define the conditions of a legitimate international existence. The Somali non-state had been surgically erased because it had no territoriality or forms of identifiable governance; it only had a culture, at a time when that word had not yet acquired the high status it has today and at a time when ‘native cultures’ were seen as quaint and barbaric. ‘Culture’ of the lower races had a low status and could not be considered as a political base for a state. So the Somali non-state had lost the territory that belonged to it but that it never ‘controlled’, and had seen it pass into the hands of those who now controlled it without ever having owned it.

In any case, what was that territory? By 1889 it was cut into five different pieces belonging to four different foreign powers. None of the pieces was geographically coherent. None was clanically solid. But they were each a part of something that had no name although it had a strong presence. This was the heart of the matter: could the consciousness of existing be enough even if this existence was labelled with the wrong stamp? Was the unity stamp more important than the variegated realities it covered? Being culturally Somali was real even if this reality was wrapped up in the wrong package. But then, what should the package be? Hence the reason for the greatest living Somali writer, Nuruddin Farah, to call his most famous novel Maps.[13] The interplay between culture, state governance and geography has been at the heart of the Somali tragedy from the day that the people came into contact with statist societies. But since Somali are fast learners, they quickly developed a reactive form of protection by creating and fostering their own nationalism.[14] As we will see, this complicated the problem rather than contributing to solving it. But ‘nationalism’ was a trendy catchword; and when it developed during the late colonial period, since it had no history, tradition or past state existence, it had to play to the hilt the one trump that nobody could deny: its cultural homogeneity. As a result, this cultural homogeneity began to grow into a kind of quasi-mystical political view, the bonding and unification of the various separated Somali-populated territories, called pan-Somalism and embodied in the Greater Somalia concept, becoming almost an article of faith. There was a Côte Française des Somalis, a British Somaliland, an Ogaden province which was fictitiously considered to be ‘an integral part of Ethiopia’,[15] a Somalia Italiana which the 1941 defeat of Fascist Italy turned into a UN trusteeship that was leased back to the former colonial master in 1950 and, finally, a piece of Somali territory added to the Kenya Colony in 1926 after negotiations with Mussolini which went under the name of the Northern Frontier District (NFD). All this was supposed to be ‘Greater Somalia’, thrust into existence by a culture which was fantasized as a monolith but which splintered before it was even born due to clanic division. This resulted in a kind of cultural schizophrenia in which unconditional unity was raised to the level of a supreme ideology while everyday life remained, as it had always been, driven and organized by splintered clan behavior. When Ali Jimale Ahmed dared call an analytical book The Invention of Somalia, he breached the new modern taboo,[16] which could be articulated thus:

  • There was, and there had long been, a coherent nationalism in Somalia.
  • The Somali were a separate race.
  • Somali were not ‘negroes’ but ‘Arabs with a tan’.[17] Ali Jimale had the courage to note that the common use of a word like jareer (kinky hair) to talk about black Africans pointed to a native racism, which had developed independently of the Europeans.[18]
  • Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, the anti-foreign leader of the late 19th century, had been a proto-nationalist.[19]
  • Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there was a national oral literature[20] which was the linguistic underpinning of nationalism.

Jimale’s challenge to that dominant historical and cultural creed was launched prior to the 1991 disintegration of Somalia, but when the disintegration did happen, it brought a strong reinforcement to his maverick approach. The problem was what Basil Davidson aptly called ‘the curse of the nation-state’,[21] and its application to a (too) clever culture which was more than willing to bend over backwards in order to fit the European Procrustean bed. The Somali not only invented their nationalism but they inflated it, calling for the ‘reunification of all Somali territories’ (which had never been unified) and the ultimate creation of a ‘Greater Somalia’. The problem was that this ‘Greater Somalia’ would have to be cobbled together from various external sources in its freedom drive and then kept together with its clanically fragmented common ground lest it exploded. This was why, of all the existing African states, Somalia was the only one to refuse to sign the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Charter in May 1963. The reason was article 4b, which enshrined respect for the borders resulting from the colonial division of the continent; this was unacceptable to the Somali, who, at the time, were in the process of uniting two of the five pieces of their mystical ‘Greater Somalia’, British Somaliland and Somalia Italiana. For Somali nationalists, the three other pieces all had to come together in due course.

The hazardous road towards Greater Somalia

From Côte Française des Somalis to the Djibouti Republic

The four colonial powers had very varied policies and attitudes towards their Somali dominions. The French were, in a way, the most straightforward because, after they built the Suez Canal and then lost the race for controlling it, they largely gave up interest.[22] Even during the two world wars, their ‘fortress’ and ‘impregnable maritime base’ played no role at all. It was only during the French war in Indochina (1946–54) that it briefly acquired some use as a transshipment and refueling harbor. Strangely enough, France was to be the last European power to release its piece of Somalia. The reasons were not geopolitical, but sentimental and financial. Sentimentally, Djibouti was one of those romantic places in the French colonies, the kind of ‘Beau Geste’ territory with French Foreign Legion outposts ready for filming a Jean Gabin or Gary Cooper movie.[23] Practically all French writers who dealt with the colonies went through Djibouti and wrote something about it. At the other end of the spectrum, Djibouti was also a juicy plum for the posting of French Army personnel.[24] Ever since France lost the war in 1940, it had a problem with its army: the split between Vichy and de Gaulle leading to an undeclared French civil war, then later the Dien Bien Phu defeat (1954) and finally the Algerian crucible. This saw a coup overthrowing the Paris government and the return of de Gaulle to power on the back of an army that later mutinied against him and tried to kill him when he decided to leave Algeria anyway. Djibouti was a safety valve for the French Army, a place to play, to bask in romantic memories and to make money. The special bonuses given to the officers and men were comfortable and, added to a bit of ‘creative’ procurement or real estate manipulation, could considerably improve retirement conditions.

As a result Paris, which did not want to aggravate its army, stayed on in Djibouti till 1977, more than fifteen years after it had left its other African colonies. The belated decolonization process was a kind of stop-go process, with tame elections and polite political debates alternating with periods of terrorist attacks, riots, kidnappings of children, and the probable assassination of the main pro-independence leader, Mahmood Harbi.[25] This led to the independence of a half-Somali, half-Afar territory on 27 June 1977 and the setting up of a one-party state on the African model prevailing at the time The new state was an extreme example of the ‘Françafrique’ model and remained for years overly militarized as a French Army base, even earning in French politics the nickname of ‘the Khaki State’. Apart from that niche situation in postcolonial politics, the Djibouti Republic disappeared from the political record and became a place that figured only in maritime statistics.[26]

British Somaliland

British Somaliland was the most uncomplicated and peaceful of the Somali territories, even though it did not start that way. As discussed, the British presence in Somaliland was an offshoot of the occupation of Aden on the other side of the Red Sea. London first occupied the African shore purely to obtain meat—the famed berberawi fat-tailed sheep—and then later, when ‘east of Suez’ became the byword for Empire, it turned into a (minor) link in the imperial chain connecting India to the metropolis. The occupation was at first difficult since some of the local clans—mostly Ogadeni and Dhulbahante—supported a religious fiki (preacher), Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, nicknamed ‘the Mad Mullah’. But the British relied on the support of the Isaaq clan family, which was strongly opposed to the Ogadeni and the Dhulbahante. The war started in 1899 and lasted till the Sayyid eventually died of the Spanish flu in 1920.[27]

After such a stormy beginning, it is remarkable that the further history of the Protectorate was of such dullness that its history was not written as a coherent chronicle till very recently.[28] The author, very sensibly, decided to start his account in 1920, when the Darwish war had come to an end. And the next forty years, with the brief interlude of the Italian occupation (1940–1), saw the deployment of an original colonial policy. It was original but simple: do as little as you can and do not stray far from what seem to be the most logical decisions given the local conditions. Therefore, the British in Somalia, contrary to the French, the Italians and even the Ethiopians, never tried to improve the Somali or even get them to conform to any preconceived notion that would be foreign to them and their culture. The writer Gerald Hanley, who had served in the King’s African Rifles during the Somalia Italiana 1941 campaign, reports a remark from his native adjutant whom he asked what would be his ideal political condition after the war: ‘I want to be well-governed … and to be left alone.’[29] In British Somaliland during the colonial years, the British almost achieved that prodigious policy paradox.

How did the British achieve that near-perfect handling of the difficult Somali? Mostly by harmonizing their concept of British common law with the Somali customary law called Xeer. The British Somaliland administration was the Cinderella of the British Empire, with the lowest pay scale of any territory for its employees. But its minimalist administration was conducted in line with the most essential element of Somali culture, its clanic laws. They were tol wa tolaane, the tie that binds, the very stuff of Somali social cohesion, a form of harmony that came from conflicts squarely faced and from justice well administered. So it is not surprising that the first Somali political party, the Somali Youth League (SYL), although created in Mogadishu, was born in 1943, during the period of British occupation and of British political influence. Four of the five clan families were represented among the members of the initial party directorate and they duly refused to disclose their clan memberships. In a way this was a triumph for British political universalism locally applied but it was short-lived. Since the SYL was largely ‘southern’, it created a British Somaliland branch called the Somali National League (SNL) in Hargeisa. Within a year, SNL and SYL were at daggers drawn because SNL was essentially Isaaq while SYL had a majority membership made up of Darood and Hawiye. They were already far from the initial anti-clanic impulse of the first SYL.

Ex-Somalia Italiana

Italy had to undertake a complex procedure of indirectly decolonizing its part of the Somali territories. This was because it lost them militarily as early as 1941 and because it was embroiled in the incredibly complicated process of trying to deal with the colonial empire of a country which had started the war as an Axis partner and finished it as a second-tier member of the victorious Allies.[30] Italy had been officially eliminated immediately after its 1941 military defeat. But it returned through the back door in April 1950 when, as a result of a UN resolution, the former Italian colony was handed back to its former masters under the name of Amministrazione Fiduciaria Italiana della Somalia (AFIS). Like those concerning Libya and Eritrea, this UN decision was a mistake. Colonialism had played a very different role for Italy from that of the French or the British. In the years between its birth and the beginning of the First World War, Italy felt weak and newborn in a world dominated by older and stronger European powers. Italy did not so much want to benefit from its domination but wanted first and foremost to feel it was respected. Colonization, contrary to what it meant in Paris or London, was needed in Rome for existential reasons.[31] This resulted in Italian colonialism being economically illogical (it was driven by prestige, not profitability), culturally self-centered and too militarily conscious. This unstable state of affairs was not improved by the advent of Fascism in 1922. A quick survey of Rome’s three colonies showed that, apart from Eritrea, la colonia primogenita (the first-born colony), the two others were colonies in name only. A pre-1922 survey showed that barely half of Somalia Italiana’s theoretical territory was actually controlled by Italian military power.[32]

Mussolini decided to retake full control of the whole territory, and the man he chose for this task was the extremely brutal Cesare Maria de Vecchi, a founding member of the Fascist Party and a leader of the March on Rome. He was Governor from 1923 to 1928 and launched the (re)conquest of the northern protectorates of Obbia and the Migiurtina, where he tried to develop ‘a truly Fascist colonization system’. His policies still have consequences today inasmuch as he eradicated the elders (Garad, Nabadoon), who were the peace agents, because they stood in the way of direct, vertical, authoritarian administration. Since the Somali had been perennially at war, they had a long experience in peacemaking, even if Somali peace was, by definition, something temporary. But De Vecchi annihilated the men who were the potential peacemakers because all he wanted was a victorious war. And, even worse, he disenfranchised them even in the areas that were outside the zones of military operations.[33] In the end, even Mussolini got tired of his violence and brought him back to Italy, commenting: ‘Questo uomo ha una fama di macellaio’ (This man has the reputation of a butcher).

This is one of the reasons why bringing back the men who had been associated with such a ‘colonial’ regime was, to say the least, imprudent for the UN after 1950. Even if they had not been personally responsible for violent excesses, such men shared the same values and the same worldview. They were used to operating in the Somali world against the Somali and they dispensed with everything the Somali had developed over the centuries that enabled them to deal with the most difficult and questionable aspects of their culture, such as war and clannism. Right up to the end of the period in 1960, AFIS officials kept dealing in an obsolete rhetoric which sounded like something carried over from the 1920s into the contemporary world. It was one of the main features that differentiated the southern Italian territories from British Somaliland and that later helped to explain both the failure of unity in 1960 and the rebirth of Somaliland in 1991.[34]

Kenya’s Northern Frontier District

This territory was a by-product of a late colonial readjustment. In 1926, in order to please Benito Mussolini and reward Italy for siding with the Allies in 1915, the British government decided to assign a part of the north-eastern region of Kenya to Italy. What remained on the British side became the so-called Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya and, in 1960, when Great Britain was about to grant independence to British Somaliland, London made an official declaration calling for the unification of all Somali-speaking territories.[35] The 1960 declaration was the hurried expression of an intention to fulfil the promise of 1946. But in the meantime the situation of Britain had changed considerably, from that of a ‘great power’ emerging victorious from the Second World War, to that of an exhausted imperial power now in global retreat all over its former Empire. This meant that decisions taken did not belong exclusively to the British themselves but had now to be shared with the emerging ‘native’ governments. And these soon displayed imperialisms of their own, which neatly fitted into those of the departing colonialists, ‘African unity’ notwithstanding. During the Lancaster House conference of 1962, Jomo Kenyatta gave strict instructions to the Kenyan delegation not to agree to any partition of territory and any cession to the newborn Somali state. But the British organized a referendum anyway and the NFD ‘split from Kenya’ came way ahead of the ‘stay in Kenya’ option in the referendum results. Since it was too late to include the results of the referendum in the Lancaster House debates,[36] Kenya became independent with its 1926 boundary. An insurrection immediately broke out. Called the Shifta[37] War, it was to last till 1967 and cause great violence in north-eastern Kenya, where thousands of civilians were murdered by the Kenyan Army under the guise of counterinsurgency operations. This was the situation denounced by the British anti-colonial author Lord Lytton.[38]

The Ethiopian Ogaden province

This last colonized part of the Somali territory was special in that its colonizer was not European. The conquest of the Ogaden started after the battle of Chelenqo (6 January 1887) in which the Kingdom of Shoa occupied the Sultanate of Harar. This occupation was peculiar in that the occupying power was not ‘Ethiopia’ but one of its sub-states. Shoa, under King Menelik, was a feudal vassal state of Abyssinia, which was ruled at the time by Negus Negussie Yohannes IV, King of Tigray. Why did Menelik pursue an independent military conquest of a neighboring Muslim statelet? The reason was that Egypt, the regional hegemonic power which had occupied Harar for the previous ten years, was in a crisis and had been compelled to abandon it. Egypt was a subunit of the Ottoman Empire and, since the conquest of the Sudan in 1821, had built a large African empire of its own, independent from Istanbul. This colonized territory broke out in rebellion in 1880 and Egypt, which had overspent its imperial resources in accelerated modernization,[39] found itself sandwiched between an exploding military budget and an overstretched debt crisis. It was forced to shrink and abandoned many occupied territories, among them Harar and its Somali hinterland. Given that this was taking place shortly after the Berlin Conference, at a time when European imperialism was rabidly on the rise, the Egyptian withdrawal had to be replaced by somebody else’s expansion. There were plenty of potential takers: Great Britain, France and Italy in the first rank, followed by less likely outsiders such as the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Russia. Abyssinia, which was first at risk, was unable to react because its political core, Tigray, was threatened from Eritrea by the Italians and from Sudan by the Mahdists. Emperor Yohannes thus had his hands full. But not so Menelik, the King of Shoa, who let Yohannes take the brunt of other threats and kept a large, well-equipped standing army of 20,000 men for his own use.

Menelik invaded the Harar Sultanate in order to prevent a European (or Ottoman) move from the Red Sea coast. He was extremely lucky in having a remarkable general, Ras Makonnen, who took part in the conquest and then was made Governor of the new territory. Almost immediately (1888), Makonnen started to push southwards and eastwards, to expand Shoan and later Ethiopian rule.[40] Harar, and its loose vassal of the Ogaden territory, had no clear boundaries. Makonnen knew that his main task was to control at least superficially the area but, even more, to push Ethiopian domination as far away from the Abyssinian Highlands as it was possible, and so as to keep the European imperialists at bay. The French were not much of a problem—they had no real ambitions away from the Red Sea coast and preferred commerce[41]—but both Italy and Great Britain were the main dangers. Given their lack of central political structure, the Somali were seen as relatively easy to control. The Ogaden was used as a buffer territory giving strategic depth for the protection of what was truly Ethiopian: the Highlands. Consequently, what mattered for Addis Ababa was not ‘colonization’ but securitization. There was nothing to exploit in Ethiopian Somalia; it was only a protective space. The Italians eventually invaded it in 1935, but after Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia had been freed from Mussolini’s armies by the British in 1941, it had a difficult time freeing itself from its liberators when they almost started colonizing what they had just liberated. In order to do that, they used the Somali territory as a hinge to close a door on the east, staying for thirteen years after the war, till their evacuation of the Hawd in 1954.[42] Twice again—in 1964 and 1977—Ogaden became a battlefield, but this time the ‘invaders’ (liberators?) were Somali. In all these years, Ethiopia never looked at the Ogaden for itself and in itself, but always considered it as some kind of prosthesis strapped to its side, enabling it to extend its protective reach far away from its ‘real’ borders.

* * *

What did all this mean for the Somali world at the end of the colonization period? Actually, a great deal of confusion. ‘The Somali world’ was an existential experience, not a nation-state ready to spring up as soon as the colonizers withdrew. It was a living experience but a very strong one indeed. Its problem—and its resulting myth-making—was its division between five separate locales. This splintering was quite real and its reality became an obsession among its subjects. Given the deep feeling of cultural unity between all Somalis and the massive alienation caused by colonial rule, it was that manipulation by the colonizers which in itself was seen as the major problem of the Somali world. Let us unite and the land of milk and honey will open its wonderful vistas to our eyes. ‘Unity’ was not seen as a target with its difficulties and its doubts, its imprecise hopes and foggy horizons. Unity was all good, it was the magical antidote to colonial humiliation, the shining star at the end of the road. The disunity factors, be they clanic politics, regional differences or the impact of many years of dissimilar foreign administrations, were all neglected in the enthusiastic road towards the national ideal.

The year of reckoning was 1960. In its first piece about Somalia, the future Africa Confidential rhapsodized: ‘On July 1st Somalia will join the ranks of the newly independent African nations, much better prepared and equipped for independence than most of them … No internal tensions, no foreign influences … intertribal [sic] clashes which used to result in hundreds killed, are a thing of the past.’[43] In hindsight, this upbeat diagnosis is easy to criticize. But we need to keep the then unseen heart of the problem clearly in sight: the contradiction between the territory and the state, the cleavage between the clans and the nation. Foreigners implicitly agreed with the Somali themselves in regarding the name ‘Somali’ as a kind of magical unity-maker, the ‘natural’ root of a nation-state. The only problem seemed to be how to disentangle the overlapping foreign imperial markers. The Africa Confidential article stated: ‘At the Somaliland Conference taking place in London this week, the Secretary of State has a difficult problem … concerning the amalgamation [of Somalia and Somaliland].’ Fifty-eight years and hundreds of thousands of dead bodies later, a series of conferences have not yet managed to solve the ‘difficult problem’. But they are still trying, albeit with much diminished enthusiasm.