Chapter 10: The Politics Of French 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 10: The Politics Of French 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

French Somaliland, unlike the Somali Republic, has an ethnically mixed population. Its lack of homogeneity has greatly influenced the trend of local politics; and so has the distinct character of Djibouti’s economic life.

The name Somaliland is misleading for this little territory of 67,000 population. Although the Somalis are the largest single group, they are a minority of the inhabitants. They number approximately 29,000—of whom some 25,000 are indigenous and 4,000 are immigrants from neighboring territories—and they constitute 43 percent of the total population. The Danakils number approximately 27,000 and comprise 40 percent of the total. The rest of the people, about 11,000, or 17 percent, consist of immigrant communities of Arabs, Indians, and Europeans.[1]


Somalis and Danakils are similar in some ways. Both lead a pastoral life, adhere to Islam, and are believed to be descended from the same Hamitic stock. But they also differ. They are geographically separated, the Somalis inhabiting the southern third of the territory and the Danakils the northern parts. There is very little intermingling. They speak different (though related) languages. Most important of all, each group considers itself a separate community and is conscious of its own special identity.

Next to ethnic composition, the strongest factor in the trend of local politics is the economics of the territory. Much of the population is nomadic, but nearly half is concentrated in Djibouti, a busy port whose economy is wholly geared to international commerce. Djibouti is connected by a railroad with Addis Ababa and provides Ethiopia’s principal outlet to the sea.

Although the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab, now parts of Ethiopian territory, handle an increasing proportion of Ethiopian foreign commerce, Djibouti, because of its rail link with the interior and its modern installations, still handles over 50 percent of it. Ethiopian transit trade makes up between 70 and 75 percent (by value) of the traffic through the port of Djibouti.[2] The urban population is fully aware of the importance of international trade for its prosperity and of its economic interest in continued good relations with Ethiopia.

Moreover, Ethiopian dislike for the “Greater Somalia” ambitions of the Somali nationalists is well known. Djibouti’s dependence upon Ethiopian trade makes it highly vulnerable to pressure, which could be exerted through the diversion of trade to Assab and Massawa. Already, the competition of the newly constructed Ethiopian port of Assab is keenly felt.

The commonly accepted generalization that the growth of nationalist movements is directly related to economic development and the accompanying social change, did not hold true in French Somaliland (as it did not in the Somali Republic either). Despite the relatively high level of urbanization, political pressures began to build up in the territory only in the 1950s, mainly as a result of external influences rather than internal developments.

The territory’s constitutional progress was initiated by the French government after the Second World War. A Representative Council was established in the territory in 1946. Its functions involved voting on the budget and approving public works projects, administrative measures, and the like. The Council was composed of two sections of ten members each, one representing the French community, the other the indigenous population.

Six of the representatives of the indigenous population—two Somalis, two Danakils, and two Arabs—were elected through separate electoral colleges, by restricted electorates. The four remaining indigenous members were chosen by the governor from lists presented by the Chamber of Commerce, professional groups, and trade unions. The territory sent a deputy elected in popular elections to the National Assembly in Paris and sent delegates chosen by the Representative Council to the Council of the Republic and the Assembly of the French Union.[3]

The constitutional reforms introduced in French Overseas Territories by the loi cadre of 1956 brought about changes in French Somaliland. A new constitution promulgated in 1957 provided for the establishment of a Territorial Assembly elected by a common roll of voters, and the extension of suffrage to all adult males. In addition, it established a Council of Ministers, to be presided over by the governor (a Frenchman), with the leader of the majority group in the Territorial Assembly serving as vice-president.

The election to the new Territorial Assembly was won by the Union Républicaine, led by Mahmoud Harbi, an Issa Somali. The party received support from all communities, and for a while skillfully managed to balance the diverse interests of its supporters. The Council of Ministers was composed of four Somalis, two Danakils, one Arab, and one European. Mahmoud Harbi duly became vice-president of the Council and also served as deputy in the French National Assembly.

Another Somali, Hassan Gouled, was chosen to represent the territory in the Council of the Republic. The representative in the Assembly of the French Union was a Danakil. The fact that the Somalis’ share in the government and among the representatives sent to Paris was larger than their share of the population reflected their greater political sophistication as compared to the Danakils.[4]

Although the territory experienced some political unrest, caused by the growing force of Somali nationalism in Somalia and British Somaliland and by nationalist propaganda from the Cairo radio, the situation remained relatively calm until 1958. The calm was broken by the referendum on the proposed constitution of the French Fifth Republic held in September of that year. The referendum was the occasion for the introduction of Somali nationalism into local politics.

The choice in the referendum was presented as between continued association with France (“yes”), and independence with the object of joining a “Greater Somalia” (“no”). The campaign aroused great controversy among the Somalis, and also stimulated political interest among the Danakils, up to then not politically minded. Mahmoud Harbi campaigned against the constitution on a Somali nationalist platform, arguing that continued association with France would hinder the territory’s joining a Greater Somalia. Hassan Gouled campaigned for a “yes” vote.

The “yes” forces won handily; 75 percent of the votes cast were in favor of the new French constitution and of the continued association with France.[5] These “yes” voters amounted to 55 percent of the total registered electorate; 18 percent of those registered voted “no,” and 27 percent of them did not vote. Here are the results:

Total registered voters 15,833

Total votes cast                 11,579

Valid votes cast                 11,512

Yes         8,661

No          2,851

As for the distribution of the vote, it appears that a very high proportion of those registered who did not cast their ballots were Somalis. Of those Somalis who voted, the majority voted “no.” The Danakils and Europeans voted almost unanimously “yes.” Thus, the over-all majority which voted for the constitution was made up of the Danakils, the Europeans and other communities, and a minority of the Somalis.

Mahmoud Harbi, despite the defeat of his views in the referendum campaign, was confirmed in office as vice-president of the Council of Ministers by the Territorial Assembly but was suspended on October 2 by the governor. This brought on a political controversy in which the Union Républicaine disintegrated. New elections then had to be held, and a number of new parties sprang up; indeed, seven parties won seats in the new Assembly.

The elections, held in November 1958, were the occasion for leadership contests within both the Somali and the Danakil communities. Among the Somalis, Hassan Gouled was competing with Mahmoud Harbi. Among the Danakils the contestants were Mohamed Kamil and Abu Bekr. The voters were divided in accordance with their tribal (lineage group) allegiances. The contests resulted in the formation of two competing Somali-Danakil coalitions: Hassan Gouled allied himself with Mohamed Kamil, and Mahmoud Harbi with Abu Bekr. The Hassan Gouled-Mohamed Kamil coalition won the elections, mainly, it seems, because of Danakil and European support. The majority of the Somalis seem to have supported the Mahmoud Harbi-Abu Bekr bloc.

Hassan Gouled now became vice-president of the Council, while Mahmoud Harbi went into voluntary exile to Cairo and later established headquarters in Mogadishu. Mahmoud Harbi was killed in an air accident in October 1960 when returning from a visit to Eastern Europe and China.

In April 1959, Hassan Gouled was elected deputy to the French National Assembly, whereupon he resigned his post as vice-president of the Council.[6] A Danakil, Ahmed Dini, took his place and retained the position until June 1960, when he was ousted as a result of a political revolt among the members of the Territorial Assembly led by a young Danakil by the name of Ali Aref Bourhan.

But this 1960 contest was fought mainly on a personal, not a nationalist, basis. Indeed, with the passing of the excitement caused by the events of 1958, political life in the territory had resumed its former character of small-town, parochial rivalries. During the 1958 campaigns on the referendum and the membership of the Territorial Assembly, the Somali nationalist issue had become superimposed on the traditional pattern of personal and clan rivalries. However, the nationalist agitation gradually subsided, and the political parties that had been formed to contest the 1958 elections soon fell apart. Personal and clan jealousies regained their pre-eminence as political issues.

Why did the politics of French Somaliland resume their essentially parochial character instead of erupting into a violent conflict with Somali nationalist claims as the dividing issue? Common sense suggests that the small size of the population, 67,000, is partly responsible. Political contests normally take place within the ethnic communities, 29,000 Somalis and 27,000 Danakils.

Djibouti, the political and economic center, has a population of 31,000. Individual rivalries which develop within such limited circles, where a large proportion of the population is personally acquainted with the contestants, are not easily presented as great ideological or constitutional issues, as they might be before bigger and more diffuse political audiences. Clans rally around their leaders and take positions on the basis of traditional relationships with other clans, or on the basis of the personal appeal of the political aspirants.

Perhaps one of the causes of Mahmoud Harbi’s failure was his personality. He was regarded as clever, but not wise, possessing a dictatorial manner which alienated many supporters. His political past was an unstable one. While a member of the French National Assembly he shifted political allegiances a number of times, thus acquiring an opportunistic image which hindered him in his attempt to appear as a dedicated fighter for nationalism. He gathered considerable support, but his personality prevented him from becoming the generally acknowledged nationalist leader he aspired to be.

The development of a modern nationalist movement in the territory has also been hindered by the special characteristics of the Somalis there. The indigenous Somali population belongs to the Issa tribe, which is renowned for its separatism.[7] To be sure, the Issa are divided between French Somaliland (about 25,000), Ethiopia (between 50,000 and 100,000), and the Northern Region of the Somali Republic (about 55,000), and they would like to be rid of the alien governments and the interposing boundaries. But their primary concern is the unification of the Issa; the unification of the rest of the Somalis is of only secondary interest.

Issa separatist sentiments have led to an attempt to form a political movement. In September 1960, Issa tribal leaders and politicians met near Zeila and issued a call for the establishment of an Issa state. Presumably, they intended this state to be associated with the Somali Republic; however, the form of this association was left ambiguous.

The conference resolved to convene regularly in the future and to establish a fund for the purpose of furthering Issa political aspirations. It is unlikely that Issa separatism will develop into an influential political force. Pan-Somali nationalists, the French authorities, and Ethiopia—all oppose it. But whatever the outcome of this attempt to form a political movement, Issa separatist tendencies will continue to exist and may hinder the spread of Pan-Somali organizations.

These inhibiting factors notwithstanding, the potential impact of Somali nationalism upon the territory is evident in all spheres of public life. Somali nationalism, though not a burning issue in the early 1960s, could become so at any time and was therefore very much on the minds of people in the territory—the politicians, the business community, and the French officials.

Even Issa separatism could be considered as essentially an expression of Somali nationalism, and its assertion was an indication of the political unrest among the Somali population. This unrest is kept alive by events in the neighboring territories, by agitation from the outside, and also by local grievances. There is a strong desire for greater educational opportunities and for more rapid economic development, and the French administration is criticized for lack of initiative in these spheres.

When Somali nationalism became an important political factor in the territory, one of its main effects was upon the Danakils, who have become sensitive about the Somali primacy, and have begun to claim what they regard as their rightful place in the government and in economic life. The French authorities seem to have recognized the validity of Danakil grievances and have been attempting to maintain a balance between the two groups. The local trade unions have begun insisting upon strict parity between Somali and Danakil employees.

The Somalis protest that Danakil claims have been inspired by the French authorities because the French would like to see the Danakils become a counterforce to Somali nationalism in the territory. Be it as it may, the Danakils are becoming increasingly conscious politically and are opposed to the Somali nationalists’ attempts to shape the political future of the territory. The rivalry between the two groups is growing, and will in the long run greatly complicate the political situation in the territory.

What is the political future of French Somaliland—a barren and arid territory a little larger than Massachusetts, constituting a vital outlet to the sea for Ethiopia, furnishing a valuable base for the control of sea communications between Europe and the Indian Ocean, and inhabited by two rival ethnic groups of approximately equal size?

For the foreseeable future, it will probably remain associated with France in one form or another. To be sure, the nature of French interest in the Horn of Africa has changed since the nineteenth century. As we have seen, the establishment of the French colony was motivated primarily by the need for a naval supply station on the route to Indochina, and in the 1890s the colony played a significant part in the rivalry with Britain over influence in Ethiopia and the control over the sources of the Nile. The French are no longer in Indochina.

Even so, the strategic value of French Somaliland as a sentry at the entrance into the Red Sea and as the terminal for the Ethiopian rail link remains considerable. The determination of the French to safeguard their position in the territory was emphatically stated by General de Gaulle during his short visit to Djibouti in July 1959. In an address before a gathering of local notables, the General said:

The present, and even more the future, make Djibouti and the entire Coast exceptionally important. You understand the reasons, which are political—and I do not shy from the word—but which are also economic and humanitarian. A number of things depend on what will happen here in this territory, among them the influence of France. I am, as is France, particularly aware of what happens here. With you, we have made, and we shall make progress.[8]

General de Gaulle further declared that “whatever may happen to others, France will not relinquish its humanitarian task” in the territory. Empires, however, are not eternal. Sooner or later, circumstances are likely to arise under which France may consider it advantageous to divest itself of its direct responsibility for the territory.

If and when this occurs, French Somaliland is unlikely to become an independent state. Even assuming that the economic difficulties could be overcome, the political obstacles to such a solution seem decisive. Cooperation between Somalis and Danakils, which would be a prerequisite, would be unlikely. Moreover, the territory’s importance for Ethiopia and its strategic location renders its ability to sustain its independence highly questionable.

A more realistic expectation regarding the territory’s future is that it will be annexed to Ethiopia, or conceivably, partitioned between Ethiopia and the Somali Republic. It would seem idle to speculate about how this might happen. Much would depend upon the circumstances of French departure, upon the internal situation in Ethiopia, and upon the involvement of other international factors. However, one must bear in mind Ethiopia’s historic drive toward the sea, its aversion to foreign influence along its borders, and most of all Djibouti’s supreme importance for Ethiopian trade.


[1] Figures based on Guide Annuaire de la Côte Française des Somalis, 1959 (Jibuti), p. 36.

[2] See L’Afrique Française (Paris), May-June 1956, p. 114; Ethiopian Economie Review (Addis Ababa), June 1960, p. 79; Guide Annuaire de la Côte Française des Somalis, 1959, pp. 141-145.

[3] H. Deschamps, Côte des Somalis (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1948), pp. 61- 62; J. Chatelain, “L’Application des dispositions constitutionelles relatives à l’Union française,” Revue Juridique et Politique de l’Union Française (Paris), vol. I (1947). Ρ· 401.

[4] Lewis, “Political Movements,” pp. 345-346; A. A. Castagno in Africa Special Report, December 1958, pp. 11-12; Africa Digest (London), vol. 5 (1958), pp. 183-184.

[5] Sources of figures in this paragraph: Chroniques d’Outre-Mer (Paris), November 1958, p. 40; Chroniques de la Communauté (Paris), May 1960, p. 30.

[6] He was elected on the Gaullist list of the Union pour la Nouvelle République.

[7] Lewis, “Political Movements,” p. 345.

[8] T h e expressive French text, as it appeared in Le Monde (Paris), July 5-6, 1959, follows: “Il y a le présent et il y a surtout l’avenir, qui donne à Djibouti et à l’ensemble de la Côte un intérêt exceptionnel. Vous en comprenez les raisons, qui sont politiques—et je tranche le mot,—mais qui sont aussi économiques et humaines. De ce qui se passera ici, sur ce territoire, dépend une quantité de choses, dont le rayonnement de la France. Je suis, et la France est, particulièrement conscient de ce qui se passe ici. Avec vous nous avons fait et nous ferons davantage.”

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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