This is Chapter 3: The Somali Nation – 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 3: The Somali Nation

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 political problems of the Horn of Africa revolve around the Somali claim for “national” unification and the establishment of an independent Somali “nation-state.” The underlying assumption of these claims is that the Somali people constitute a distinct “nation” entitled to a separate existence and to rights and duties similar to those of other nations in the world.

This assumption requires examination. Surely, it would make little sense to discuss Somali nationalism if there were nothing approaching a Somali nation to sustain it. Moreover, the assessment of the prospects of Somali nationalism depends, among other factors, upon the cohesion and sense of purpose of the nation it claims to represent.


In setting out to discuss Somali nationhood, one encounters a basic difficulty regarding the criteria to be applied. The question of whether the Somalis can properly be regarded as a nation hinges necessarily upon the question of what is a nation. The problem of nationality has been discussed by numerous writers. No rigid definition of a nation seems possible.

There are, however, a number of attributes usually associated with nationhood. These have been variously defined, and their essentials may be restated briefly. Nations normally are supposed to have a common language, to be associated with a certain territory, and to have a common culture, history, and tradition.

Often nations are also bound by common racial origins and practice the same religion.1 If these criteria are used, there seems to be a strong case for considering the Somalis a nation.

The first criterion—a common language—is clearly met in the Somali case. To be sure, there are differences in dialect, but these do not prevent Somalis from understanding one another. Their common language not only facilitates communication among them but also differentiates Somalis from their neighbors who speak different languages.

The Somalis meet also the second criterion—association with a certain territory. The Somalis have lived throughout their recorded history in the Horn of Africa. The exact limits or boundaries of Somali territory are subject to dispute and are indeed difficult to establish because of the Somalis’ historical expansion. Their claims to portions of northern Kenya are frequently countered by the argument that the Somali occupation of the area began only sixty years ago. Yet, although the limits of Somali territory are uncertain, their association with the region of the Horn is not questioned.

The nomadic way of life and the pastoral economy are common to most Somalis with the exception of the Sab agriculturists. Other cultural traits and customs are shared by all, including the Sab. Moreover, there is a rich literature transmitted orally which, significantly, does not display sharp regional characteristics. For example, many of the poems composed by Mullah Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan are well-known throughout the territory.

Common traditions and history are a strong unifying force among the Somalis. Their belief in common descent and their traditional genealogies foster a sense of unity. They also share traditions about their history, in which the wars against the common enemies, Christian Ethiopia and pagan Galla tribes, play a prominent part.

The fact that the Somalis are of one race and differ racially from some of their neighbors also tends to foster a sense of unity among them. Indeed, the Somalis can be termed race-conscious and affected by a sense of racial superiority, directed mainly toward Negroid Africans.

This attitude stems probably from the fact that when the Somali tribes migrated southward, they encountered many Negroid agricultural communities which became subject to the conquering Somali tribes. Furthermore, Somalis were slave owners until the early part of this century, and their slaves were generally Negroid people.2

Until recently Somalis have generally objected to being regarded as “Africans,” because the term to them implied subject Negroid peoples. Their sentiments on this point are illustrated by the 1944 mutiny in the Somaliland Camel Corps, which was a locally raised force in British Somaliland. The uprising was caused by dissatisfaction at the unit’s being treated as an African rather than an Asian unit.

Another illustration is the campaign of Somali immigrants in Kenyan towns in the 1950s to be classified as Asians rather than Africans.3 Only recently, with the growing political importance of Africa, have there appeared signs of a change in this attitude, though the feeling remains strong in north Kenya where Somalis border upon Bantu and Nilo-Hamitic tribes.

Another bond unifying the Somalis, which at the same time differentiates them from their neighbors, is the Somalis’ practice of Islam. Moreover, various religious authorities and Sufi (mystic) orders have traditionally endeavored to eradicate tribal divisions prevalent among the Somalis, by emphasizing the common religious link. The tribal barriers remain; but the sense of Islamic unity is nevertheless pervasive.

Although according to the aforementioned criteria, there would seem to be a sound basis for regarding the Somalis as a nation, it is nevertheless difficult to conclude, solely on the grounds set forth above, that the Somalis are actually such. A nation is not merely a group of people who possess certain characteristics in common.

In addition, it is a group of people who constitute a society and communicate with one another on matters of common interest. The common characteristics outlined above are merely general conditions facilitating national integration and the spread of national solidarity. A useful indicator of whether integration is taking place, or whether it is possible at all, is the state of communications within the society.

The extent and character of communications among the Somalis is a subject requiring further research. But a few general observations are in order.4

The flow of information among the people is obstructed by the large size of the territories inhabited by the Somalis and the relatively undeveloped state of technical means of communications.

The distance from Kenya to Cape Guardafui is over 1100 miles. The air distance (over Ethiopian territory) between Mogadishu and Hargeisa is 530 miles, and by land, the trip takes three days. Roads are generally bad, and during the rainy seasons are often impassable. Air communications are infrequent; at the end of 1960, there were only two scheduled flights per week connecting Mogadishu and Hargeisa. Telephone and telegraph facilities are not widespread. The exchange of letters is hampered by the low literacy rate and the absence of a commonly accepted Somali script.

The circulation of newspapers and other printed matter is limited for the same reasons. The number of radio receivers in proportion to the population is low in comparison to Western countries. Furthermore, the structure of the economy is such that it does not require extensive communications. The great majority of the population are largely self-sufficient and require only a very limited range of outside products, such as cloth, coffee, and sugar. Their participation in the market economy, mainly through the sale of cattle, is still very limited. Services, such as skilled craftsmanship, are performed by associated sab tribes and do not require wide intercourse with distant centers.

Yet this description of the state of communications is incomplete. Any conclusions drawn on the basis of the normal indicators of communications, such as statistics on mail, telephone, telegraph, the number of radio sets, or motor vehicles per capita, implying a very low incidence of communications, are misleading. The Somali way of life and social habits provide alternative avenues of communication, the effectiveness of which is indeed surprising.

The real state of communications is reflected in the similarity of interests and responses that can be encountered among Somalis throughout the Horn. They are aware of developments in the neighboring Somali territories and like to discuss them. Events in the world at large are also a subject of interest. The relatively high degree of political sophistication in the otherwise primitive environment stems in part from the Somalis’ fondness of foreign travel and adventure.

It is not uncommon to encounter Somalis who have seen much of Europe and America traveling as seamen and have lived in Marseilles, London, or New York for a few years before returning to their tribes in the interior. The stories of returning travelers undoubtedly have a certain educational effect and tend to arouse interest in the world at large.

How is current information communicated through this large and underdeveloped territory? The relatively high degree (by African standards) of urbanization among the Somalis may provide a partial explanation; for communications within urban societies are normally intensive. The political activity takes place mainly in the towns, and as we have seen, 14 percent of the Somalis live in towns of 5,000 inhabitants or more. Besides, close links are maintained between individuals in towns and their tribesmen in the interior. Most Somalis are illiterate, but the word is passed orally by traveling relatives and tribesmen.

The functioning of communications among the non-urban population could provide the subject of a fascinating study. Some of the elements of this communication network seem quite evident and can be outlined here. The fact that Somali society is largely nomadic is a very significant factor. The nomadic way of life requires seasonal migrations which sometimes extend over considerable distances. Tribes often move a hundred miles in search of grazing.5 Wells and grazing areas are not under exclusive ownership or control of individual tribes but are normally shared by clans from different tribes. They provide convenient meeting places and an opportunity for the exchange of news and gossip for people who during certain seasons live hundreds of miles apart.

The relative scarcity of radio receivers in relation to the population may also be deceptive. A radio receiver serves a much larger group of people than it normally does in Western countries. Moreover, battery-operated radios, which can be used even in the bush, are increasingly becoming available.

There are, nevertheless, obstacles inhibiting the cohesive forces of national integration. Foremost among them are tribal rivalries and antagonisms. These vary with time and place and are not always politically significant. They stem in part from traditional attitudes, and in part from the realities of the struggle to survive through the dry seasons.

The most profound cleavage in Somali society, between the Samaale and the Sab—between the nomadic and the settled agricultural tribes—has found political expression in the party structure. The agricultural tribes have largely confined themselves to the support of their own party, the Hizbia Dastur Mustaqil. Rivalry between Darod and Hawiya in the Southern Region of the Somali Republic and feuding among the tribes of the Northern Region are also fraught with political implications.

The political parties recognize this obstacle to their nationalist goals and have engaged in a sustained effort to help settle disputes peacefully and stop tribal feuding.6 In this they have been partly successful.

Despite rivalries, feuding, and tensions, the tribes have supported the nationalist aims of their leaders, and although tribal tensions inhibit the spread of national solidarity, they do not constitute an insurmountable obstacle to it.

A definitive evaluation of the relative weight of the divisive elements as compared to the unifying forces operating in Somali society does not seem possible. Intangibles such as “will” and feeling of “common destiny” seem crucial to such an evaluation. Tribal antagonisms do not preclude a will to unite or a feeling of common destiny.

Perhaps some indication of the degree of cohesiveness and unity is reflected by the fact that all tribes and segments consider themselves ultimately “Somali.” If nothing else, then tribal genealogy reminds them of it. The individual’s primary loyalty is to his “dia-paying group”; but when relating himself to a wider grouping, it is the tribe and ultimately the rest of the Somalis to which he feels attachment.

Admittedly, the process of national integration has hardly begun, and a great deal remains to be accomplished before the Somalis constitute a nation in the Western sense. However, in the African context, the Somalis are a rare case of a homogeneous ethnic group, inhabiting a large territory, and united by culture, religion, and tradition. Their sense of unity was not effaced even by the divisive impact of alien rule.

Although their claim to nationhood may be open to challenge, the political movement claiming to represent Somali rights, aspirations, and interests—in other words, “Somali Nationalism”—is unquestionably important enough to deserve careful study.

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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  1. See Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 89-187. See also Nationalism, a report by a study group of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. xx.
  2. Lewis, Peoples, pp. 127-128; E. S. Pankhurst, Ex-Italian Somaliland (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), pp. 72-81.
  3. Lieut. Col. H. Moyse-Bartlett, The King’s African Rifles (Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1956), pp. 577-578; Lewis, “Political Movements,” p. 254.
  4. For a systematic study of the role of communications in the formation of communities and nations, see K. W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication (Cambridge, Mass., and New York: M.I.T. and John Wiley & Sons, 1953).
  5. See J.

    A. Hunt, A General Survey of the Somaliland Protectorate 1944-1950 (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1951), pp. 156-158.

  6. A particularly serious clash occurred in December 1957. See U.N. Advisory Council 1957-58 (U.N. Doc. T/1372), par. 32-33. One of the basic aims of the Somali Youth League (S.Y.L.) was to put an end to tribal feuds; see Four Power Commission, sec. II, chap. 4, app. P. 89

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