By: Mohamed A. Suleiman
A few weeks ago several Somali-oriented websites, including Hiiraan Online, Waridaad, and Awdal News, posted an opinion article that I wrote which was entitled: “Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar’s Crusade Against Somaliland Should Stop”. The article appears to have touched a raw nerve with people on both sides of the so-called Somaliweyn debate. It appears to have rekindled an interest in a debate that Somalis should have had a long time ago; a debate that should have brought closure to the myth that there was something called Somaliweyn. Those of you who read the comments that it generated would attest to the fact that it brought feedback from the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. The insults and the diatribes that were exchanged are a clear indication that some Somalis are not ready for a healthy, sophisticated, and honest discourse. A debilitating tribal dogma that dictates one’s allegiance to kinship rather than to the principles of reason appears to be holding us back even in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, as a follow-up to my article, I will argue in the following pages that the notion of Somaliweyn, if it indeed ever existed, died with the Berlin Conference of 1884 in which the European powers partitioned Africa. In the end I will make a clear case for Somaliland’s assertion of self-determination and that Somaliland should not be a sacrificial lamb for a Somaliweyn that had been long gone.
Somalia’s Colonial History
Somalia’s troubles started a long time ago. Its misfortunes could be traced back into the late 19th century; to Berlin and that infamous conference where the Europeans partitioned Africa. No other entity on the continent of Africa had suffered the same kind of fate that befell on Somalia. Had it not been in that little strategic corner where the Gulf of Aden meets the Indian Ocean, Somalia would possibly have been spared the permanent damage that still haunts it today.
For hundreds and even thousands of years, the Somali people lived harmoniously in the Horn of Africa without the limitations imposed by artificial boundaries and demarcation lines. The majority led a very simple nomadic life and they managed their affairs through an indigenous system of governance; the system that was so eloquently termed “Pastoral Democracy” by the renowned British anthropologist, I M Lewis.
As luck would have it, the evil axes of the colonial powers mercilessly fell on Somalia. Despite the courageous resistance that the Somali people put up, several colonial administrations took hold on Somalia’s soil. This first contact between Somalia’s pastoral democracy and what is known as the western democracy marked the beginning of the end of the traditional way of life that sustained the Somali people for hundreds of years. And as if they didn’t do enough damage when they carved the Somali territory into British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, and French Somaliland, they handed big junks of Somalia’s land and people to two neighboring countries. The Northern Frontier District (NFD) went to Kenya and Haud and the Reserved Area went to Ethiopia. This essentially heralded the beginning of an unprecedented era where an African country colonized another African country.
Needless to say, the Somali people fought the colonialists gallantly. They resisted the enticements and the temptations of the material rewards that the colonialists promised. They held on to their high moral ground that emulated from the noble teachings of their Islamic faith. The British Empire had learned this the hard way. The 21 years long war that Sayid Mohamed Abdulla Hassan and the Dervishes waged against the British in the early part of the twentieth century ended only when Britain for the first time in history deployed fighter-bombers in Sub-Saharan Africa and bombarded the fortified compound of the Sayid in Taleeh.
In the year 1960, the so-called year of African Independence, the Somali people finally freed themselves from two of the European colonizers, namely the British and the Italians, and the Somali Republic was born. The French held on to French Somaliland to the disappointment of everyone who cared about the unity of the Somali territories. NFD and the Haud and Reserved Area were permanently annexed by Kenya and Ethiopia respectively.
There are a number of key questions that need to be posed here so that we could shed some light as to why the colonialists did what they did to the Somali people. Why were Kenya and Ethiopia rewarded with big junks of Somalia’s land? How did these two countries differ from Somalia in their relationship with the colonialists? Were there ideological and religious wars that were being waged then which are similar to the one that we are presently witnessing?
It is a historical fact that, while the colonial powers were looking for raw materials, they also harbored some ulterior motives, particularly when it came to the African continent. It is a well-known fact that they wanted to build their churches and spread the Christian faith. They employed various missionary societies to accomplish this goal. While the Kenyan and Ethiopian societies who subscribed to indigenous types of beliefs succumbed to the perceived universality of the Christian faith, the Muslim people of Somalia resisted and fought against any attempts by the colonialists and the missionary societies to inculcate any religious beliefs that were contrary to the teachings of Islam. The steadfastness of the Somali people when it came to their faith in Islam alarmed the colonial powers and subsequently led to the partition of the Somali territory into five different parts. Essentially, they did not want to see a vast Islamic state flourish in that strategically important part of the Horn of Africa.
The Colonial Legacy
Even after independence and the union, what happened to the Somali Republic can be traced back directly to the legacy that was inherited from the colonialists. The fact that the two regions that formed the union experienced different colonial administrations made the process of national cohesion and unity very complicated. As Keith Watson (1982) wrote about those who became leaders of the newly independent African states, “the so-called elites who were trained by the colonial administrators became more westernized in their manners, behavior, outlook, interests, and style of living and as a result, once in the seat of power, became more colonial in their attitudes than were the colonialists”.
Somalia’s experience was no exception. The greed, the corruption, and the kowtowing to the former colonial masters that the leaders of the new nation engaged in dashed the dreams of the Somali people. Problems of national integration immediately started to surface as the south and the north followed two distinctive separate administrative systems. In fact, right from the get go, feelings of alienation and resentment were felt in the north and the union was seen as nothing less than a wholesale affair. The climax of the bitterness and dissatisfaction that was building in the north early on was the attempted coup of December 1961 in which a group of army officers from the north rebelled in disgust because of the treatment they received in the new national army.
Therefore, while the Somali Republic became politically independent, the colonial legacy persisted in all aspects of social, political, and economic life throughout the first decade of independence.
One interesting note that should not be forgotten is the fact that, as corrupt and as misguided the government of the new Republic was, the Somali people did not give up on the notion of greater Somalia (Somaliweyn). The 1964 war between Somalia and Ethiopia was a clear testimonial to that effect.
After the 1964 war with Ethiopia, efforts by the Somali government to unite the Somali territories continued at a much slower pace. The Northern regions (now Somaliland), because of their geographical proximity to Djibouti and because they always felt very strongly about Somali nationalism, continued to follow what was happening in the French Somaliland with interest. During the referendum campaign of 1967 in which the people of Djibouti were to decide whether the territory remain a French colony or whether to unite with Somalia, Radio Hargeisa used to blast extremely nationalistic messages that were designed to entice the people of Djibouti to say ‘yes’ to Somaliweyn. Some of the lyrics that were part of the songs that were continuously broadcast over Radio Hargeisa included: “Jabuutay ka soo hoyo hororkiyo waraabaha; hogbaa idiin daboolani intaydan ku hoboq odhan”. It also included this: “ Waar ujeestay, waar ujeestay waa Jabuutoo jidkii gobannimo ku joogtee.” While Radio Hargeisa and the people of the North were engaged in this campaign to bring Djibouti to the fold, the brothers in the Southern part of country were oblivious to what was going on. The majority may not even have understood what those lyrics meant.
Much to the disappointment of everyone who cared about the unity of the Somali territories, the people of Djibouti opted to stay under the French Colonial administration in that referendum. Soon after the referendum was lost, I remember the people of Somaliland expressing their outrage in demonstrations. I remember the women of Somaliland wearing white bandanas (weer cad), a symbolic expression that something very grave had happened.
While the decision that came out of that referendum made a dent on the collective psyche of the Somali people, the disenchantment and the disenfranchisement that ensued led to another serious and darker chapter in our history.
When the military coup of the 1969 took place, every fair-minded citizen of Somalia would concur that Somalia was ready for a change. Where opinions differ substantially is whether the change that we got was the kind of change that we needed. The attempted infusion of what was called “scientific socialism” to a predominantly Islamic society laid the foundation for the unspeakable horrors that the Somali people endured. The rejection of the Islamic way of life that sustained the Somali people for ages and the embracing of doctrines that were completely alien to them is the only plausible explanation to the calamity that has befallen on the Somali nation.
Like many other countries in the developing world, Somalia fell victim to the manipulation of the east-west alliances. The cold war ideology that prevailed at the time and was tied to the development aid provided by the two blocs led to Somalia’s eventual demise. Somalia ended up serving the interests of foreign powers instead of taking care of its own.
One possible exception to the legacy of the misguided totalitarianism of Siyad Barre’s regime could be the 1977 war and the failed attempt to liberate the Somali territories that were annexed by Ethiopia. However, there is no consensus on this one issue as well, since many Somalis believe that the general had ulterior motives when he declared the war on Ethiopia.
One thing that every Somali knows for sure is the fact that the ramifications of the 1977 war are what Somalia is still reeling from. Immediately after the war ended, the attempted coup of 1978 precipitated the Somali problem as this era marked the polarization of the Somali people into tribal groups in a very profound way. The creation of the Somali Salvation Front (SSF), later the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), which was for the most part a clan-based entity heralded a new era in our history where tribal-based politics took precedent over nationhood and nation building. These divisions along clan lines became even more pronounced when Siyad Barre’s regime engaged in collective punishment and civilian populations in the Mudug region were subjected to a brutal crackdown because of their affiliation with the SSDF.
Another interesting development that was largely overshadowed by the Somali-Ethiopian war emerged in 1977. The people of French Somaliland (now the Republic of Djibouti) decided this time to rid themselves of the French Colonial Administration. On June 27, 1977, Djibouti declared its independence from France. But to the dismay of everyone who cared about the unity of the Somali territories (hence Somaliweyn), Djibouti exercised its right to self-determination and the Republic of Djibouti was born. As disappointed as many people may have been, no one made a fuss about it and no one lifted a finger to do something about it. In fact, the prevailing theory at the time as to why Djibouti decided to choose the path that it chose was the fact that the people of Djibouti were convinced that the union with the south didn’t work out for Somaliland. Basically it was a case of “isha Cumar ka laalaada ayaan arkaa”.
The misgivings and wrong doings of the military regime, with Siyad Barre at the helm, led to the further disintegration and devastation that the Somali people suffered. The marginalization and brutality that the citizens of the North experienced in the hands of the government precipitated the creation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) early in the 1980s. The SNM, which started as a resistance movement suddenly developed into a full-scale liberation organization because of the unbearable conditions and oppression brought on by the government on the citizenry of Somaliland. The atrocities that were committed there are vividly engraved in everyone’s psyche. The mass murders, the lootings, the rape of girls and women, the killing of innocent children are all crystal clear in everybody’s mind. The bombing raids carried out by mercenaries on Hargeisa and vicinity and other towns, including refugees who were fleeing the onslaught, will forever be difficult to shake. The roundup, the incarceration, the summary executions of scores of intellectuals and leaders, simply because they belonged to a distinct social group, could never be erased from memory.
Against all odds the SNM inflicted a serious damage on the military infrastructure of Siyad Barre’s regime. At the same time the United Somali Congress (USC), which was formed in the south to counter what was perceived to be the Darodization of the Hawiye territories, was gathering steam and exerting pressure on a progressively weakening regime.
The Collapse of Siyad Barre’s Regime
Early in 1991, Siyad Barre’s forces were simultaneously driven out of Somaliland and Mogadishu. While Somaliland embarked on a long road to reconciliation and reconstruction, Mogadishu and the south on the other hand had engaged in a vicious cycle of revenge killings that are comparable only to the infamous massacres that took place in Rwanda between the Tutsis an the Hutus. This marked the beginning of all but Somalia’s certain death, and by proxy the death of the so dear Somaliweyn.
If one wants to see the gravity of the situation, one should just look at what happened to Mogadishu, the beautiful city that was nicknamed The Pearl of the Indian Ocean. One should look at the diaspora; listen to the heart wrenching stories of the hundreds of thousands who are languishing in refugee camps; look at the millions who are internally displaced; look at the thousands who perished in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea while trying to reach safer grounds; look at the women who met rape in what they thought was a sanctuary in a Muslim country, Yemen; look at the hundreds of thousands who were killed or maimed; look at the depletion of the country’s natural resources; look at the once pristine shorelines that have been converted to toxic waste dumps; look, and look, and look.
The Puntland Phenomenon
It will be foolhardy to leave the reader with the impression that the Somali people do not bear some responsibility for what happened to the ever so illusive Somaliweyn. The creation of the enclave Puntland, which typically resembles the tribal homelands that existed in South Africa for the Black South Africans during the apartheid era, has further fragmentalised whatever was left of Somaliweyn. What bothers many people first and foremost is the fact that the name was stolen from the archives of a historical treasure that is commonly shared by all Somalis that dates back thousands of years.
It is hard to fathom that there are people in this world, in the 21st century, who still so aptly desire to subscribe to tribal doctrines and affiliations. Unfortunately, Puntland’s foundation is solidly built on this premise. The enclave’s existence is neither based on territorial nor any other geopolitical consideration. In its on again off again conflict with neighboring Somaliland, the successive Puntland leadership always maintained that territorial boundaries didn’t mean anything to them so long as members of a specific clan group live within the borders of Somaliland.
Besides the polarization of the Somali people into tribal groups, there are also many other ills that the so-called Puntland Regional Authority added to the already perilous situation of the Somali people. The enclave has become a haven for all kinds of illegitimate activities: from human trafficking, trading in narcotics and animal species that are facing extinction, to issuing illegal licenses for fishing, mineral exploration and dumping toxic waste in the Somalia proper. Nothing is more heartbreaking than to witness the human cargo that traffickers from Puntland dump into the Gulf of Aden and the hundreds and possibly thousands of people who lost their lives as a result.
The Transitional Federal Government (TFG)
When Somalia descended into anarchy following the collapse of Siyad Barre’s regime in 1991, the international community largely watched from the sidelines while the Somali people and their land disintegrated into the mess that we are witnessing today. Apart from the ill-fated intervention by the UN and U.S. in the early 1990s, no serious attempt has been made by any regional or international body to bring peace and stability back to Somalia. The African Union (AU) and the Arab League (AL) have particularly failed to take initiative and leadership in this regard. The Somali citizenry on the other hand had attempted on numerous occasions to bring about stability and reconciliation back to their land. Fourteen different attempts were made, but they all failed because of the diverse, competing and often conflicting agendas of the stakeholders. This was coupled with the continued intervention and meddling of foreign powers into Somalia’s internal affairs. Then along came the Kenya conference.
Without looking at the history of the Horn and the geopolitical issues that flame the crisis that Somalia is reeling from, the international community entrusted Somalia’s deliverance with the so-called Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a few loosely assembled Horn of Africa states that epitomize all forms of human misery.
As you all know some of the countries that make up IGAD include Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti and the one thing that these countries have in common is the fact that they perceive the establishment of a strong national government in Somalia as contrary to their territorial, political, and strategic goals. As you may well recall, Daniel Arab Moi, the former president of Kenya who was on a speaking tour in the United States a few years ago, had so bluntly contended in a major policy speech at George Washington University that a strong national government in Mogadishu is not in the best interest of Kenya. The authorities in Ethiopia and Djibouti are rife with similar sentiments and perceive the creation of a strong national government in Somalia as a threat to their national interests. In fact, the prolonged the conflict in Somalia the more that these countries could capitalize on the misfortunes of the Somali people.
Two of those many reconciliation conferences stand out: The Arta Initiative that resulted in the Transitional National Government (TNG) and the Nairobi Conference that resulted in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The majority of you followed these two separate initiatives very closely and it is not worthwhile to delve deep into how their outcomes unfolded. It is worth noting, however, that Somaliland was not party to either of those two conferences. Yes, there were some individuals who hailed from Somaliland who participated in both conferences, but those were few individuals who burned bridges with their Somaliland compatriots. And yes it was a common knowledge that, for the most part, the conference drew participants from a bunch of like-minded crooks, warlords, ragtag remnants of Siyad Barre’s regime, and outright opportunists who went there to capitalize on the misfortunes of the Somali people.
The sub-regional, regional, and international organizations that sponsored the Nairobi Initiative pretty much knew who the troublemakers were during the long drawn conference at Megabathi. They had all of them under one roof on several occasions. If the international community were really sincere about restoring hope to Somalia they would have rounded up the warlords, the warmongers, and the demagogues that have been terrorizing the Somali people over the past fifteen years. They would have shipped them to The Hague and tried them for crimes against humanity. On the contrary, they rewarded them with luxurious accommodations and provided them with stipends, and eventually appeased them with illegitimate cabinet nominations. To put it mildly, the international community danced to the tune of the warlords.
What is so scary however is the fact that the person who is at the helm of the TFG, Abdullahi Ahmed Yussuf, is a ruthless dictator and the former architect of the Puntland Regional Authority, a tribal enclave that was built solely on chauvinistic sentiments. It defies logic to even entertain the thought that someone whose principal allegiance is to a tribal group can in fact now be aspiring to become the legitimate president of a country that he helped dismember. Instead of leading by example and bringing his own creation (Puntland) under the TFG authority, he reassigned the enclave to carry out all the dirty work for him. Rumor has it that he is also behind the creation of the newly minted enclave of Galmudug.
It is worth mentioning that the so-called prime minister of Somalia, Ali Mohamed Gedi, just immediately after Abdillahi Yusuf handpicked him, declared in his first interview with the BBC Somali Service that the TFG would not open any discussions with either Ethiopia or Kenya on the question of the Somali territories that were annexed by these two countries. This is a clear indication that the notion of Somaliweyn has been forsaken.
Today, the fate of the TFG is a common knowledge. Although the international community continues to legitimize the illegitimate, nothing appears to be working for the so-called transitional government. The recent creation of the new enclave, Galmudug, is indicative that Southern Somalia is being fragmentalised even as we speak. Other enclaves that are rumored to be in waiting include Jubbaland, Hiiraanland, and possibly others. This fragmentation that is occurring in the south, coupled with the arrogance with which the people of Somaliland were dealt with, will only add to the steadfastness with which the people of Somaliland declared and pursed their indelible right to self-determination.
My humble attempt to chronicle all but the certain death of the Somali nationhood (Somaliweyn) will hopefully allow you to connect the dots and give you a sense of closure as to what went wrong. It will hopefully allow you to do some reflection and help come to an understanding that the old dear Somaliweyn is as illusive today as it has ever been. Our nationhood suffered its first blow in Berlin in 1884; a major blow was dealt to it when big junks of our territories were handed to Ethiopia and Kenya; a glimmer of hope was injected into it when the Somali Republic was born in 1960; a breath of air was infused into it during the 1964 war; hopes were dashed when Djibouti decided to remain a French colony in the 1967 referendum; a sense of optimism was felt during the 1977 war; a vital blow was done when Djibouti gained independence and decided to become a separate state; the unspeakable horrors that followed the coup of 1969 polarized the Somali people into regional and tribal camps; the hell that broke loose in 1991 and the superficial creation of the TFG in 2004 marked the final nail in the coffin.
It will take Men of faith, principle, action, and goodwill to resuscitate the good old dear Somaliweyn. The armchair politicians and the spin-doctors had run out of steam. In the meantime, the old universal motto of the right to self-determination should take precedent and Somaliland should not be the sacrificial lamb of a nationhood that had long ceased to exist. Our attitude to Somaliland should therefore be that of: ‘live and let live’.