Chapter 8: Nationalism And Politics In British Somaliland from the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa – The Horn of Africa can be thought of as a triangle, whose up-tilted eastern point extends so far into the Indian Ocean that it is approximately due south of Tehran. The “Horn,” of course, is not a definite territorial jurisdiction, but for the purposes of this book, we define it arbitrarily (but conveniently) as the region inhabited mainly by Somalis.


Chapter 8: Nationalism And Politics In British Somaliland

From the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa

Somali Nationalism International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of AfricaSaadia Touval

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts • 1963

The nationalist movement developed more slowly in British Somaliland than in the trust territory of Somalia. The reasons were that British Somaliland was behind Somalia in economic and social change and was less subject to external influences. Incipient nationalist organizations had existed in the Protectorate since the early 1940s, but no mass-supported nationalist movement emerged there until the late 1950s.

The slow rate of economic and social progress in British Somaliland during sixty years of British administration is to be attributed in large measure to the territory’s poverty in natural resources. Opportunities for developing agriculture or industry are not favorable, and the territory barely provides subsistence for a population of 650,000, nine-tenths of whom are nomads. British Somaliland was believed to be poorer than the neighboring Italian Somaliland. The Italians viewed their Somali colony as a territory to be settled by immigrants from Italy, and to be developed by them; and, as a result of public works projects and private enterprises there, the local Somalis were more exposed to Western ways than the inhabitants of British Somaliland. The British never attempted to settle in their Somali territory, for their interest in it was purely strategic. Since the territory could serve strategic purposes regardless of its state of development, the British government had no incentives to initiate economic or social undertakings. The territory’s protectorate status provided a convenient justification for the absence of such an initiative.[1] Development projects were started in the Protectorate only in the 1950s, and they appear to have been prompted by the belated political awakening in the territory.


As already mentioned, the sluggishness of education had retarded the awakening of political consciousness. The literate middle class is still very small, and consequently, the number of people capable of organizing and sustaining a modern political movement is limited.

Tribal feuds, which appeared to be more widespread in British Somaliland than in Somalia, powerfully inhibited the development of Protectorate-wide political movements. British Somaliland, poorer in water and grazing resources than Somalia, saw more conflicts between tribes competing for the scarce resources, upon which their existence depends. Antagonisms are still intense. Moreover, the population is remarkably attached to traditional tribal customs. All these tendencies inhibit the development of cohesive forces and modernist secular-nationalist organizations.[2]

The emergence of a nationalist movement in the face of such difficulties was largely due to external influences (as in the rest of the Horn), though these were not as intense as in Somalia. The placing of all Somali territories under the British Military Administration after the war, resulting in the intensification of interterritorial contacts—official, commercial, and personal, had made a strong impression on the population of the Protectorate. British Somaliland, unlike its Italian counterpart, faced no question about the territory’s government after the war. No outside commissions of the investigation came inquiring about the wishes of the population. Nevertheless, people in the Protectorate were interested in the negotiations on the future of Somalia, and especially in the British proposal for the unification of Somalia, British Somaliland, and the Ogaden under British trusteeship. Subsequently, the assertion of nationalist feelings in Asia and the Middle East, and especially in Muslim countries, made a great impression; the Protectorate’s close contacts with Aden and the Arab world facilitated the spread of information about such developments.[3]

But the most important spur to political interest in British Somaliland was the return of the Haud to Ethiopian administration in 1955. The story of those controversial territories will be told more fully in our chapter on border disputes. Only a few facts are needed here. The Haud territories are the rich grazing grounds on the Ethiopian side of the border. Half the population of the Protectorate depend on them for livelihood. After being under the jurisdiction of the British Military Administration during the war as part of the “Reserved Area” in Ethiopia, the territories were retained by the British until after a new Anglo-Ethiopian agreement was concluded in November 1954. Their transfer to Ethiopia aroused excitement throughout the Protectorate. Until then, interest in politics had been confined to the small urban population and educated elite; now it spread to the nomadic tribes of the interior. In February 1956, Michael Mariano, one of the foremost nationalist leaders at the time, said in a broadcast over the Hargeisa radio that what the Somalis of the Protectorate had regarded as a “great calamity” might in the long run, because of the great political awakening it had caused, be their “greatest blessing.”[4]

The first political organizations set up in the Protectorate after the military campaigns of the Second World War were branches of the Somali Youth League (S.Y.L.) from Italian Somaliland. These were followed in 1945 by the establishment, through local initiative, of the Somali National Society. During the next few years, the Society merged with some of the political clubs which had been active in the Protectorate since 1935 and gradually evolved into a new organization, which in 1951 took the name Somali National League (S.N.L.).

The political programs of the two parties, S.Y.L. and S.N.L., were fairly similar. The S.Y.L. program was essentially the same as that of the Somalia S.Y.L., that is, the independence and unification of the Somali people, the cessation of tribal feuding, and the encouragement of economic, social, and political development. The S.N.L. program emphasized the same goals.[5] The main difference between the parties was in their tribal bases. The S.Y.L. derived its principal support from Darod tribes (Dolbahanta and Warsangeli) and the S.N.L. drew its main support from the Ishaq tribes. To the extent that there was competition for political support between the parties, the S.Y.L. was at a considerable disadvantage because of its links with Mogadishu, whereas the S.N.L. was viewed as a truly indigenous organization. Both parties were limited to the principal towns and administrative centers; neither had much support among the population in the bush.

The Haud question prompted the existing political parties, which hitherto had exerted little influence, to combine and jointly press for the reversal of the Anglo-Ethiopian agreement restoring the Haud to Ethiopia. A new organization, the National United Front (N.U.F.) was formed for that purpose in 1955. The Front was at first a convention of associations and provided a framework for cooperation among political parties and other organizations, such as the Somali Officials’ Union, which represented the civil servants. However, the parties’ cooperation was short-lived, and they soon reverted to independent action. This reversion has been attributed to the Front’s failure to attain its avowed aim of returning the Haud to the Protectorate. Probably a more important reason for the parties’ withdrawal from the Front was the age-old problem of tribal rivalries.

As the S.N.L. and S.Y.L. withdrew, the National United Front gradually evolved into a political party in its own right, deriving its principal support from the Habr Toljala, a branch of the Ishaq. But it never succeeded in broadening its basis. Its inability to turn into a mass party was due in large measure to the fact that its most prominent leader, Michael Mariano, is a Christian. This appears to be a great liability in a country in which the nationalist movement is so closely linked with Islam. Mariano’s great service to Somali nationalism is acknowledged. He was one of the founders of modern Somali nationalism in the 1940s. In the late 1950s, however, in comparison with the militancy of the S.N.L. leaders, Mariano appeared to many Somalis as excessively moderate.

A fourth party appeared on the British Somaliland scene early in 1960. Its founding was prompted by the forthcoming February elections to the Legislative Council. The new organization, the United Somali Party (U.S.P.), was a coalition of the minority tribes: the Dolbahanta and Warsangeli (Darod) in the eastern part of the Protectorate, and the Issa and Gadabursi at the western end.

The results of these general elections seem to indicate that the votes were not divided along the clear lines of principal tribal divisions. (See Table 5.) It appears that the political loyalties of certain sections and clans are not always the same as those of the majority of the tribe. In these elections, the support of the Habr Toljala was divided between the National United Front and the S.N.L. Also, sections of the Dolbahanta and Warsangeli voted for the S.Y.L., though the majority of these tribesmen supported the United Somali Party. The discrepancy between the number of seats a party won and the number of votes it received stems from the division of the territory into constituencies which resulted in the wastage of a large proportion of the votes cast for the National United Front and the S.Y.L. The only Front candidate to win a seat was Michael Mariano. The S.Y.L., which for this election allied itself with the Front, failed to return a single candidate.

The political competition of the parties and the tribes did not prevent the nationalist leaders from cooperating for their commonly shared objectives; for the political parties still had similar programs. They all agreed on the fundamental nationalist goals of independence and unification.

TABLE 5 Results of February 1960 General Elections in British Somaliland

TABLE 5 Results of February 1960 General Elections in British SomalilandThe Pan-Somali goals of the Protectorate parties were essentially the same as those of the Somalia parties, except for a slight, but nevertheless significant, difference in emphasis. The Somalia parties’ Pan-Somali aspirations were directed primarily toward the Ogaden, largely because of the division of the Marehan and Mijertain tribes, important sections of which live in Ethiopia. The aspirations of the Protectorate parties were directed first toward some form of unification with Somalia. Demands for the Haud were and remain annexationist rather than Pan-Somali in character. They were prompted by immediate and vital interests in the grazing areas on which half the population depends, rather than by nationalist ideals. The rest of the Ogaden was not particularly coveted by the Somalis of the Protectorate and was regarded only in the context of a distant ideal of a “Greater Somalia.” Their absence of fervor in claiming the Ogaden was probably the result of the frequent clashes between the Ogaden tribes and the British-protected tribes in the common grazing areas of the Haud. These clashes have apparently produced strained relations and an awareness of a conflict of interest between them over the grazing areas.

The political awakening that followed the return of the Haud to Ethiopian administration in 1955 accelerated the progress toward self-government in the Protectorate. Some of the early measures for self-government had been taken on the initiative of the British authorities before the development of nationalist demands. An Advisory Council was appointed on a tribal basis in 1947, its main purpose being “to stimulate the interest of the people themselves in the administration of the country and in the collection and expenditure of public funds.”[6] In 1951, the government established the first district advisory councils. Town councils, responsible for the collection of local revenue and for the administration of services, were introduced in 1953, but met with some opposition, apparently be- cause of the unpopularity of taxes. The first Legislative Council, with six unofficial members, all appointed, came into being in 1957.

The growing political agitation in the territory prompted the British government to introduce a new constitution in 1958. Constitutional reform was not an easy task to accomplish. In the towns, political consciousness was widespread and the parties were the most influential political factor. In the bush, the new political organizations had often to compete for influence with the tribal elders. The absence of a sufficient number of educated people qualified to assume executive responsibility was another obstacle. The Commission of Inquiry into Unofficial Representation on the Legislative Council estimated that there were only eight persons outside the civil service whose ability to use English was up to the secondary school level; there were about thirty whose ability was up to the seventh-form level. The 1958 constitution provided for an increase in the unofficial representation on the Legislative Council; and, for the first time, these unofficial members were to be elected. But, because the new constitution failed to provide for a Somali majority in the Legislative Council, the S.N.L. boycotted the 1959 election. Nevertheless, nationalist politicians did get a taste of the system; for a number of prominent National United Front and S.Y.L. members were elected.[7]

Pressures for more rapid progress toward self-government now were mounting. In the course of 1959, the Protectorate government introduced a new constitution providing for an elected majority of unofficial members in the Legislative Council, and a majority of elected Ministers. The general elections already mentioned were held on the basis of universal adult male suffrage on February 17, 1960. Not only were thirty-three Somalis elected to the Legislative Council, but four Somali members received ministerial posts for the first time.

On April 6, the new Legislative Council adopted a motion calling for independence and union with the trust territory of Somalia as soon as Somalia became independent on July 1, 1960. A constitutional conference, hastily convened in May, agreed on a date for independence and upon the arrangements to accompany it. The Protectorate came to an end on June 26, 1960.[8] Thus, approximately four months after the assumption of ministerial responsibility by Somali political leaders, British Somaliland became an independent state. As planned, it united on July 1 with the trust territory of Somalia to form the Somali Republic.


[1] For a vivid though fictional account of policy considerations regarding Somaliland, see Margery Perham’s novel, Major Dane’s Garden (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926).

[2] Lewis, “Political Movements,” pp. 348-349.

[3] Somaliland Protectorate 1949, p. 3; Somaliland Protectorate 1950-1951, p. 3.

[4] Quoted in Africa Digest (London), vol. Ill, no. 7 (March-April 1956), p. lì. On the spread of political interest, see Lewis, “Political Movements,” p. 351n.

[5] Lewis, “Political Movements,” p. 255.

[6] Somaliland Protectorate 1948, p. 32.

[7] Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fifth series, vol. 596, col. 532 (Nov. 27, 1958); Commonwealth Survey (London), vol. 5, no. 8 (April 14, 1959), pp. 355-356; Somaliland Protectorate 1958-1959, p. 6. See also Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Unofficial Representation on the Legislative Council, Hargeisa, June 1958 (mimeo.).

[8] Commonwealth Survey, vol. 5, no. 16 (Aug. 4, 1959), pp. 702-703; vol. 6, no. 6 (March 15, 1960), pp. 271-273; vol. 6, no. 9 (April 26, 1960), pp. 402- 404; British Colonial Office, Report of the Somaliland Protectorate Constitutional Conference (London: H.M.S.O., 1960), Cmd. 1044.

To be continued …..

About This Book

In this first book on the emergence of Somali nationalism, Saadia Touval draws on extensive research and firsthand knowledge to explore the complex and dangerous situation in easternmost Africa. He describes the land and people, the spread of Somali tribes with their Moslem culture, the arrival of Europeans during the nineteenth century, the development of national consciousness, politics in the new Somali Republic and French Somaliland, problems presented by the Somalis of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the overriding question of boundary lines. Finally, he discusses the prospects for a peaceful solution.

About the Author(s)

Saadia Touval lectures on Political Science and African Politics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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