Chapter 9: The Problems And Politics Of Unification 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 9: The Problems And Politics Of Unification

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

In this chapter

The unification of British Somaliland and the trust territory of Somalia created problems—economic, political, and administrative. These problems arose despite the underlying conditions in the two territories favoring unification, that is, the common language, culture, and religion, and the almost unanimous support for unification among the articulate persons of the two territories.

Seventy years of British and Italian rule had imparted to each territory a distinct character and accentuated whatever regional differences might have existed before. The nomadic tribes had been influenced by the British or Italians only to a very limited extent, and the nomadic population had remained culturally homogeneous, but a cultural gap had developed between the new urban elites in the two territories. Besides, different economic, political, and administrative patterns had developed. A successful and lasting union required that the two territories become more closely integrated in those respects.


The problems facing the new unified state do not detract from the advantages and desirability of the union. The prospect at this writing is that in the course of time, the constitutional act of unification will be consummated by actual integration; and on that assumption, it can be said that there are considerable political and economic benefits to be derived from the union. For one thing, it seems to be a modest step toward diminishing the danger of the balkanization of Africa and its attendant political instability. Furthermore, considerable economies can be derived from merging the apparatus of government; these are particularly significant in view of the relative poverty of the region in natural resources. Unification also greatly facilitates the planning and execution of development projects, which are essential for the ultimate prosperity of the region. Most programs for the alleviation of the harsh living conditions of the nomadic population of the north envisage the resettlement of a portion of these nomads in the agriculturally more promising southern regions.

For the very reason that the union seems to offer important benefits, the problems it faces require careful examination.


The possibility of territorial unions in the Horn of Africa has been widely discussed since the inception of Somali nationalism in the 1940s. It may seem strange, therefore, that the unification of Somalia and British Somaliland was carried out without adequate preparation. It seems that the British, the Italians, and the United Nations (under whose auspices the trusteeship over Somalia was exercised) viewed it as an eventuality for which they would prefer not to share responsibility. To be sure, the British government declared in February 1959:

Her Majesty’s Government is aware of the desire expressed by many Somalis of the Protectorate that there should be a closer association between this territory and Somalia. If therefore, when Somalia has become independent, the Legislative Council of the Protectorate formally resolves that negotiations with the Government of Somalia be instituted to determine the terms and conditions on which a closer association of the two territories might be achieved, Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would be ready to transmit this resolution to the Government of Somalia and enquire whether that Government would be willing to enter into negotiation. If so, Her Majesty’s Government would arrange for negotiations of a suitable nature to take place.[1]

It is unlikely, however, that the British government desired to become involved in these negotiations. Britain, Italy, and the United Nations all appear to have considered their responsibility limited to preparing their territories for self-government.

Be that as it may, unification caught all concerned by surprise, and very little time was available for any preparations. This undoubtedly handicapped the smooth functioning of the administration and may have produced an element of political strain in the early months of independence. Yet it might be argued that, had preparatory negotiations been held, they would have led to the crystallization of diverse interests and thus inhibited unification.

Union suddenly became imminent in the spring of 1960. In British Somaliland, the Somali nationalists who now found themselves a majority in the Legislative Council had repeatedly declared their dedication to the early independence of the Protectorate and its unification with Somalia. They felt themselves under political pressures because of their promises. But this was not the only reason for the big rush. The feeling of urgency stemmed in part from apprehension that if the Protectorate’s independence were delayed much after that of Somalia, the Protectorate Somalis would be regarded as “younger brothers” by their brethren to the south. Consequently, they would have been at some disadvantage in applying for unification later on. Thus the political leaders, in their resolution of April 6 in the Legislative Council, declared

That it is the opinion of this House that practical steps should be taken forthwith for the immediate unification of the Protectorate and Somalia; that prompt action is essential to achieve this most cherished aim, and can be fully justified by the special importance which popular feeling in this country attaches to its early achievement; that bold and definite action be taken and that the date of our independence and unification with Somalia must be 1st July 1960, the date when Somalia will attain its full freedom.[2]

The British government was most accommodating to the Somali views. It had apparently reached the conclusion that the primary British interest of safeguarding sea communications through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean would be served better by preserving Somali friendship and goodwill than by retaining possession of the territory in the face of Somali opposition. To postpone the date of independence by one or two years did not seem to make any basic difference with respect to the territory’s readiness for it. On the other hand, any attempt to delay independence after the Somalis had asked for it would have only generated bitterness and misunderstanding.

Having received the British government’s agreement in principle for the independence of British Somaliland on or about July i, 1960, the Somali leaders were confronted with the task of negotiating the details of unification with their counterparts in the trust territory of Somalia. A conference was held in Mogadishu in the middle of April. The conference agreed that after the two territories attained independence they would be united “under one flag, one president, one parliament, and one government.” It also agreed that the central governmental institutions of the new republic would be a presidency, a council of ministers, and a legislative assembly; that the constitution of Somalia would serve as the basis for the constitution of the new republic; and that the administrative, judicial, and economic systems of the two territories would function separately until provision was made for their integration. It was envisaged that each territory, upon becoming independent and prior to the unification, would conclude a separate agreement with the respective administering power regarding the transfer of authority, and regarding economic aid, and other arrangements.[3]

On July 1, the legislatures of the two newly independent states met at Mogadishu in a joint session and proclaimed the establishment of the Somali Republic. The republic was declared a unitary state, consisting of two regions, the Northern and the Southern, corresponding to former British Somaliland and the former trust territory of Somalia, respectively. The two legislatures merged into one and became the National Assembly of the Somali Republic. On the same day, the Assembly elected Aden Abdulla Osman, a prominent leader of the S.Y.L. and former president of the Legislative Assembly of Somalia, as president of the republic. The Assembly also resolved that a referendum would be held within one year to ratify the new constitution.[4]

The election of the president seems to have been agreed upon in advance, and it proceeded smoothly. But the formation of a government, and elections to certain other offices, apparently encountered political difficulties and required time. Thus, the president of the National Assembly was elected on July 7. The post was filled by Jama Abdullahi Galib, a member of the S.N.L. (Somali National League) from the Northern Region. The formation of the government required prolonged negotiations. Two issues had to be resolved. First, the relative share of each region in the executive offices had to be agreed upon. Second, the political plums had to be distributed among various sections within each region. A complicated political struggle ensued within the S.Y.L., as a result of which Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, the leader of the opposition group within that party in the Southern Region, was nominated Prime Minister. Another prominent member of the opposition group within the S.Y.L., Abdirazaq Haji Hussein, became Minister of the Interior. The former Prime Minister of Somalia, Abdullahi Issa, became Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Northern Region received four ministerial posts out of fourteen. Among them were the posts of Deputy Prime Minister, assumed by Abdi Hassan Boni of the United Somali Party, and Minister of Defense, filled by Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, the leader of the S.N.L.

The newly formed government was charged with the central direction of the affairs of the republic. However, at this initial stage, unification did not proceed much further. As planned beforehand, the separate administrative, judicial, and economic systems of the two regions remained intact. A special committee, aided by experts provided by the United Nations, was charged with proposing measures for accomplishing the integration of the two systems.


Amalgamating different administrative, judicial, and economic systems is difficult at best; and in this case, it is complicated by the size of the territory and the inadequacy of communications. It is not only that the distance between Mogadishu, the capital of the republic, and Hargeisa, the administrative center of the Northern Region, is about 530 miles. For many months after unification there was no direct telephone link between the two towns and there were only two flights weekly between them. The roundabout trip by automobile—staying in Somali Republic territory and bypassing Ethiopia which sits athwart the direct land route—required about three days, except during the two rainy seasons each year, when the roads were frequently impassable.

Another complication is a linguistic one. As already noted, Somali is only a spoken language. Each region had been using a different written language: English in the Northern and Italian in the Southern. Some of the ministers from the Southern Region had learned English at the time of the British Military Administration, but only a few of the civil servants were bilingual. As a result, most civil servants in one region could not communicate in writing with those in the other. Letters, memoranda, and other documents were not understood from region to region. Competent interpreters were scarce; therefore these hurdles have been difficult to overcome, pending the adaptation of the Somali language to administrative purposes.

If the written languages used by the two civil services differed, so did their standards and terms of employment. Civil servants in the Northern Region, because of the slower rate of Somalization there, had had less experience in senior posts; yet they appeared, on the whole, to be better trained than those in the Southern Region, and indeed were a highly professional, nonpolitical corps. The civil service in the Southern Region was deeply involved in politics, and there have been reports of corruption. In many cases, the civil servants of the Northern Region received higher salaries than their counterparts in the Southern. Any attempt to unify the services would presumably have to be achieved within the framework of the unification agreement whereby government employees in each region were to continue in the service of the government of the Somali Republic “under conditions no less favorable” than those they had enjoyed prior to unification. The legal situation in this respect was unclear since the agreement received formal legislative approval prior to unification in the Northern Region, but not in the Southern Region.

A different set of problems arose in connection with the judiciary. The legal system in the Northern Region was based on the English common and statute law, upon the Indian Penal Code, and upon Somali custom. Matters of family concern were administered in accordance with Islamic law. In the Southern Region a different system based on customary law and on Islamic law had been established. Unification did not impose any great difficulties upon the administration of justice at the lower level, but it raised questions with regard to the operation of the higher courts. Before unification, appeals against decisions of the High Court of the Somaliland Protectorate were referred to the Court of Appeals for Eastern Africa in Nairobi. The trust territory of Somalia had its own appellate arrangements.[5] Pending the introduction of a uniform legal system, it was necessary to establish separate sections of the supreme court of the Somali Republic to deal with cases from the two regions.

There were also problems in connection with merging the police forces and military establishments. Those in the Northern Region were British-trained and used British equipment. Those in the Southern Region were Italian-trained and used Italian equipment. The Somaliland Scouts, the military force in the Northern Region, retained British officers in command positions for the first six months after independence,[6] while in the Southern Region the Somali National Army was commanded by local Somali officers. Both establishments retained foreign advisers in a technical capacity. With the formation of a central government, both of the police forces had come under the authority of the Minister of the Interior, and both of the military establishments had come under the Minister of Defense. But no unified police command nor unified military command was immediately established. Unified commands were planned, but, because of the variety of equipment and traditions, actual amalgamation of the forces would take a while to accomplish.

In the economic sphere, unification raised questions with respect to trade patterns, customs, tariffs, and currency.

The economies of the two territories were competitive rather than complementary. Their principal resources were the same: camels, cattle, hides and skins, and other animal products. The Southern Region exported bananas—to Italy, where they were needed, not to the Northern Region. The Southern Region also produced some grain and sugar cane, which could be used in the North, but these did not suffice for internal consumption and were not normally exported. At the end of the 1950’s less than one percent of the value of Somalia’s and British Somaliland’s foreign trade was with each other, thus:

Of Somalia’s exports, 0.8 percent went to British Somaliland.

Of Somalia’s imports, 0.8 percent came from British Somaliland.

Of British Somaliland’s exports, 0.1 percent went to Somalia.

Of British Somaliland’s imports, 0.2 percent came from Somalia.

Most of Somalia’s foreign trade—77.1 percent of its exports and 51.1 of its imports—was with Italy. Similarly, more than half of British Somaliland’s foreign trade—55.1 percent of its exports and 54.9 percent of its imports—was with its sister countries in the British Commonwealth.[7]

Unification is not likely to have a major early effect on trade patterns. For example, bananas accounted for an average of 60 percent of the annual value of Somalia’s exports between 1953 and 1959; almost all of these bananas were sold to Italy through the Italian state banana monopoly, and this arrangement was continued after the unification as part of Italy’s contribution of economic aid.[8] British Somaliland, as the Northern Region of the new republic, is no longer in the British Commonwealth, but the United Kingdom and India could be expected to remain major suppliers. Moreover, British Somaliland’s chief customer, buying approximately half of its export goods, was Aden; and this export flow, consisting mainly of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, was not likely to be greatly affected by the termination of Commonwealth membership.[9]

In the long run, more internal trade will probably develop between the Southern and Northern Regions. When the development projects planned for the area between the Juba and the Webi Shebeli are completed, it is possible that the Southern Region will become able to supply grains and sugar to the North. For the next decade, however, if not longer, trade between the two regions is likely to remain small. The only short-range commercial benefit of the merger was that it facilitated transit trade, which is particularly important for the Mijertain. A considerable proportion of the imports to this province, and also some of its exports, have traditionally moved through the ports of British Somaliland.

Differences in tariff levels also caused difficulties. To reach uniformity it appeared desirable to raise the lower rates of British Somaliland to the level of the tariffs in Somalia. The alternative of reducing the Somalia tariffs would have deprived the government of an appreciable portion of its revenue. Yet, increasing the tariffs of British Somaliland would have brought about considerable in- creases in the prices of foods, gasoline, and fuel oil, which could have caused political repercussions. While a solution was being sought, different tariffs remained in force, and the movement of goods between the regions was still subject to payment of duties a year after unification.

The unification of currencies also required time. The currency in circulation in the Northern Region was the East African shilling, linked to the pound sterling. In the Southern Region it was the somalo, linked to the Italian lira. At the time of independence a central bank, empowered to function also as an issuing bank, was established. However, until a uniform currency could be worked out, restrictions on the movement of monies between the two regions remained in force. Thus, many months after formal unification had taken place, the free movement of goods and services between the two regions remained inhibited.


Finally, the unification of the two territories raised a number of intriguing questions regarding the future political evolution in the new state. The political groups which had enjoyed a leading position in their respective territories agreed on unification under terms which necessarily led to a diminution of their own influence. For example, it was undoubtedly obvious both to the Ishaq in the North and to the Hawiya in the South that their relative weight and political influence were bound to decline if the two territories were merged into a unitary state. Table 6 tells that story at a glance. Assessed in the light of normal considerations of political interest—namely, that groups normally strive to preserve or increase their influence—the decision to form a unitary state, therefore, seems surprising.

TABLE 6 Tribal  Composition  of  Somalia,  British  Somaliland, and  the  Somali  Republic 

TABLE 6 Tribal  Composition  of  Somalia,  British  Somaliland, and  the  Somali  Republic The decision is explainable by the political leaders’ commitment to nationalist ideals. Nationalism is an ideology inspiring people to identify themselves with a nation “most intensely and most unconditionally . . . even to the extent of being prepared to lay down their lives for it . . . “[10] The fervor of nationalist zeal fluctuates. At times, its intensity is such that other interests which normally determine political behavior are overridden. It seems that such a situation existed at the time that the terms of unification were agreed. One would be incorrect in concluding from this that the ordinary standards of politics are no longer important in the Horn, or that tribalism and personal ambitions no longer flourish. The political struggle over the relative share to be held by different groups in the first government of the unified Somali state indicates that these factors continued to play a role in Somali politics.

When the formation of a unitary state disturbed the political balance that had existed in each of the two territories, changing the relative weight and influence of different tribal groupings, a realignment of political forces seemed likely. Tentative moves were made in two directions: one, toward consolidation of the political parties of a single region, and the other, toward a regroupment cutting across regional lines.

There were grumblings of discontent in the Northern Region in the months following unification. Their main cause seems to have been the economic decline experienced in the region as a result of the exodus of British and other expatriate staff members and the transfer of political and governmental activity to Mogadishu. Although the number of people involved in both movements was not large, their effect upon the North seems to have been considerable. The economic decline brought suggestions for a merger of the political parties of the region in order to form a strong common front capable of defending the region’s interests.

A first step in that direction was taken in September 1960 with the merger of the Somali National League and the United Somali Party—the S.N.L. and U.S.P. Very like two New York banks which merge but hang on to both their names, the amalgamated party assumed the name Somali National League United Somali Party (S.N.L.U.S.P.).[11] The merger was followed by negotiations for a possible inclusion of the National United Front in the new grouping, which was thus supposed to assume a truly regional character. This alignment did not fully crystallize. Other possibilities were considered as well. A number of political leaders were opposed to the formation of a regional party because they viewed it as inhibiting the integration of the two regions and as detrimental to national unity. They preferred a regrouping cutting across regional lines.

One basis for such a regrouping could be tribal affinity, namely bonds of kinship between Northern and Southern tribes. At one time, prior to the S.N.L.-U.S.P. merger, the possibility of forming a joint party of the Ishaq (S.N.L.) and the Hawiya was contemplated. This would have presumably involved a split within the Somali Youth League (S.Y.L.). The plans were abandoned because such a merger would have laid itself open to charges of tribalism, which had been pressed in the past against the Hawiya S.Y.L. leaders by the Darod wing of that party.

A North-South grouping on the basis of affinity in political outlook was also considered. As already indicated, differences in political outlook have recently begun to develop among parties. Thus, the tendency toward extremism which has at times been displayed by sections of the S.N.L. suggested certain similarities in outlook with the Greater Somalia League (G.S.L.). The pro-Western attitudes of the National United Front (N.U.F.) were close to the points of view of both the S.Y.L. and the Somali Independent Constitutional Party (H.D.M.S.).

The state of flux of Somali politics in the period following unification was reflected in the referendum on the constitution and the subsequent election of the president of the republic.

The referendum held on June 20, 1961, turned into a vote of confidence in the government. In the republic as a whole, 1,760,540 votes were recorded in favor of the constitution, and only 182,911 against it. Among the parties which expressed their lack of confidence in the government by campaigning against the constitution were the principal opposition parties in the Southern Region, the Greater Somalia League, and the H.D.M.S.; meanwhile in the Northern Region, the main opposition came from the S.N.L.U.S.P., which had been formed by merger the preceding September, and whose leaders were members of the government.

In the Southern Region, the “no” vote was reported as 128,627, and the “yes” vote was reported to be a resounding 1,711,013, considerably higher than the estimated total population of the Region.[12]

In the Northern Region, participation in the referendum was relatively small. But, of those who participated, a majority voted against the constitution. The vote was reported as 54,284 against and 49,527 for. This result reflected the widespread discontent in the Northern Region over the economic decline there, and over the growing political influence of Mogadishu. It also reflected the gap which had developed between the party organizations and the region’s representatives in the National Assembly and government. This gap was in part the consequence of the rules adopted by the parties in the Northern Region barring members of the National Assembly from holding office in the party executive.

Discontent in the Northern Region continued to manifest itself in the months that followed. On December 9, 1961, a group of junior officers tried to seize power in Hargeisa with the object of effecting the secession of the Northern Region from the Somali Republic. Their attempt was poorly organized and apparently did not enjoy popular support, as it was quickly suppressed. In October 1962 another crisis ensued, resulting in the resignation of the Northern Region ministers from the government. A few days later, the Northern Region deputies walked out from a session of the National Assembly and threatened to boycott the legislature. These periodic crises did not assume the character of a clear-cut North-South confrontation, as factions of the Southern Somali Youth League, Greater Somalia League, and other opposition groups occasionally sided with the northern politicians. The divisions within the S.Y.L. remained strong. Thus, the party had been deeply split in the presidential election taking place after the referendum of June 1961. President Aden Abdulla Osman was reelected by the National Assembly, but only on the third ballot, and by a narrow margin, over Sheikh Ali Giumale, one of the leaders of an opposition faction within the party. Despite the heated election dispute, Sheikh Ali Giumale was at first retained in the government as Minister of Health and Labor; but he was forced to resign in December 1961.

Clues that might help us predict the future course of Somali politics are scarce. It appears that tribal divisions and differences between the North and the South will continue to play an important role for many years. But perhaps even more important is the aspiration for the broadening of the union to include the Somali populations of French Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Kenya.


[1] Policy statement issued by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, at Hargeisa, Feb. 9, 1959. For text see Commonwealth Survey (London), vol. 5, no. 4 (Feb. 17, 1959), pp. 178-179.

[2] Quoted in Somaliland Protectorate 1958-1959 (issued at London in 1960), p. 4. On the political atmosphere at the time see Sir Douglas Hall, “Somaliland’s Last Year as a Protectorate,” African Affairs (London), January 1961.

[3] For the communiqué issued at Mogadishu on April 16, 1960, see The Times (London), April 18.

[4] Corriere della Somalia (Mogadishu), July 2, 1960.

[5] For details on the different legal systems, see Somaliland Protectorate 1957-1958, pp. 29-32; and Rapport sur la Somalie 1956, pp. 25-28.

[6] Great Britain, Agreements and Exchanges of Letters between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Somaliland in Connexion with the Attainment of Independence by Somaliland (London: H.M.S.O., 1960), Cmd. 1101.

[7] All these figures are percentages of total value, annual averages, 1958 and 1959. From Rapport sur la Somalie 1959, pp. 238-245, 250-255; and Somaliland Protectorate 1958—1959, pp. 19-20.

[8] Banana export data from Rapport sur la Somalie 1959, pp. 256-257. Also, on the banana trade and Italian subsidies, see M. Karp, The Economics of Trusteeship in Somalia (Boston: Boston University Press, 1960), pp. 154-159.

[9] For details on British Somaliland’s foreign trade see Somaliland Protectorate 1956-1957, pp. 15-17; and Somaliland Protectorate 1958—1959, pp. 17-21.

[10] Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 95.

[11] Somaliland News (Hargeisa), Oct. 3, 1960.

[12] The source of these figures, and of those for the Northern Region, is Agence France  Presse,  June  28,  1961.  The  1,711,013   figure can perhaps be explained by the difficulties involved in counting votes in tribal areas where the voting was by acclamation, and by the tendency of tribes, in reporting the vote, to exaggerate their numerical strength.

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.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

The book is worth buying: Available from De Gruyter

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.