Somali Take-off

The Economist, February 27th 1960

The Somalis, too, will soon be faced with the task of running their own affairs—and getting on with their neighbours

A GALE of constitutional change is blowing through the Horn of Africa. On February 17th, British Somaliland had a general election, the second ever held in the protectorate, and a party of swift change won a decisive victory. Elected Somali members now dominate a Legislative Council that three years ago did not even exist. The timetable for independence has been written in New York, not in Whitehall. In 1950, the United Nations set a term of ten years on Italy’s trusteeship of Somalia, and in June the Italians make their unreluctant exit. The British can only follow. The Somalis are determined that they should go, and there is indeed no earthly reason for hanging on—beyond responsibility for what is left behind.

Somalia and Somaliland start off with roughly the same disadvantages; both are harsh, hot lands of sand and rock without water, known mineral wealth, industry or anything else that makes life easy. But the Italian trust territory has had a clear political lead over the protectorate for which, indirectly, it can thank Mussolini and his imperial dreams. The British military caretakers who took over Somalia during the war exerted themselves to decontaminate the territory from fascist influence by an educational programme that was considerably ahead of anything suggested for the protectorate. Then the Italians came back, uncluttered by other colonial commitments, and more immediately aware than the British that they were working to a fierce timetable.

Somalia has virtually governed itself since 1957. Its several political parties and the maze of their tribal ramifications promised a situation of singular confusion. But the Italians, keeping democratic scruples under strict control, picked their man and stuck to him. At the general elections last year, the Somali Youth League, led by Mr Abdullahi Issa, won 85 of the 90 seats, two-thirds of them unopposed because of the “regrettable technical errors” of their opponents.

The protectorate’s election last week was not distorted by any such technicalities, but the result was hardly less conclusive. The Somali National League (SNL) has won 20 of the 33 seats available; the Somali United party, a new group that shortly before the elections joined forces with the SNL, has won 12 seats. This leaves the National United Front, which won most of the seats in last year’s rather timid attempt at elections, and whose members the British authorities were seriously coaching in the arts of government, with only one seat, although it got nearly a third of the total votes cast. The victorious SNL, led by Mr Mohammed Egal, is the party loudest in its demands for quick independence (it boycotted the earlier elections) and its victory is being proclaimed by Cairo radio as a smack in the eye for imperialism. But the decisive factor in the election was probably not so much the party platforms, which were all much of a muchness, as the complex inter-play of tribal, sub-tribal and family loyalties.

All the parties agreed that the protectorate should join up, sooner rather than later, with Somalia. Mr Lennox-Boyd foreshadowed this last year when he promised British help should the protectorate seek some form of “closer association” with Somalia. Possibly when the time comes the two sides will be less keen than they are now on a complete union and more in favour of some kind of federative solution. The SNL is not on particularly warm terms with the Somali Youth League in Somalia, while for its part, the government at Mogadishu may cool towards the idea of straightforward fusion. At present Somalia’s government is picked from members of the Hawiya tribe—an ascendancy that is unjustified numerically, and would be very hard to maintain if a deluge of protectorate Somalis were to join forces with the opposition. Then comes the question of Commonwealth membership. For the commonwealth club to refuse this British territory admission would seem unlikely; but there is no certainty that the new member would be invited to bring a guest.

THE challenge is how either state, together or separately, will be able to pay its way. The World Bank has calculated that Somalia will need $6 million a year of outside help if it is to manage at all. For a time, this much is assured. The Italian government has promised $3.6 million a year for the years immediately following independence, and the Americans are expected to find most of the balance. Bananas are Somalia’s only export and even they are not grown competitively; about half Italy’s aid consists of the government’s handsome subsidy on Somali bananas, supported by a generous quota; these arrangements are guaranteed for the next four years. This is not entirely quixotic; the Italian banana-growers in Somalia, most of whom settled there in the nineteen-thirties, have a significant voice in the ruling party in Italy. But against them, the Italian left-wing parties have always contended that Rome should spend what money it has to spare on its strident problems nearer home. After 1964, Somalia certainly cannot count on Italian aid continuing on its present scale.

The protectorate needs less money than Somalia, because it is more backward and has about half as many people; otherwise it has roughly the same difficulties and no banana industry. Its exports are livestock and skins; both have done fairly well in the last few years, but one bad drought and Somaliland’s exports go by the board. There is a seepage of oil that gives the Somalis hope and a dressing for their camels’ saddle sores, but little else. Plans for mineral development are in the air, not on the ground. The British Government hands out £1.3 million a year, half of which is used to balance the budget and half for development and welfare.

The impossibility, even by expensive hothouse methods, of quickly raising a Somali professional and administrative class in the protectorate has meant that a substantial proportion of the development and welfare grant is held over from year to year. Students with the minimum qualifications are now being bundled off to Britain for further education; in 1959 the Colonial Office gave 60 scholarships, three times as many as in 1956. The nomad existence and deeply suspicious attitude of most Somalis provide excuses for Britain’s late start, but these do not mitigate the stark difficulty of building on little or no foundation.

OVERSHADOWING all these problems is the question of Ethiopia’s attitude towards its young, noisy, and weaker neighbours. Somalis are flagrantly calling down trouble upon themselves by the clamour for a Greater Somalia; the union of all Somali-speaking people in Somalia, Somaliland, French Somaliland, Kenya—and Ethiopia. The Pan-Somali movement is led from Mogadishu by an exile from French Somaliland, but all Somali politicians automatically include it in their creed. It gets a certain support from Cairo, although the Egyptians themselves are shaky about what sort of trouble they are trying to stir up for whom in the Horn.

Even if Somali politicians are now only playing lip service to irredentism, the fact that they have committed themselves to wooing and subverting the Somalis in the Ogaden invites Ethiopian retaliation. Addis Ababa, already seriously concerned about the succession to the throne and running an empire that could be knocked apart by one good blow, is in no mood to wait and see what its neighbours are really up to. When in September, 1958, French Somaliland held its referendum, the Ethiopians showed their teeth—and the determination not to lose the right of access to Djibouti—in moving their troops to the frontier. In the event, French Somaliland, whose population is evenly divided between Somalis and Danakil, voted heavily in favour of continued attachment to France.

Ethiopian suspicions and Somali ambitions have killed all hope of settling the immediate frontier issues. The border between Ethiopia and Somalia runs roughly down the middle of a hundred-mile-wide strip that each side claims. Mr Trygvie Lie was recently appointed by the United Nations to try his hand at mediation, but like others before him had to acknowledge defeat. On the protectorate frontier, the ceaseless quarrels over Somali grazing rights in the Haud can only grow more passionate with the departure of the British. When in 1897 the British Government signed away the Haud, its mind was on other African troubles; the protectorate inherits an overwhelming grievance.

Both Somalia and the protectorate face a horribly difficult infancy as independent states. But what both must get in their heads is the loneliness of their position if they try Ethiopia too far. None of the western powers will have any interest in supporting a Somali campaign against Ethiopia. The Somalis, who dislike all foreigners, but Ethiopians most of all, must, to survive, practise unnatural restraint.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited, London, February 27th 1960