For most Somalis, one country, Britain, has set herself apart from the rest of the West for its historical and continuing policies which they consider as inimical to their nation. Somalia’s neighbours, Ethiopia and Kenya, have been the main beneficiaries of Britain’s perceived antipathy towards a united Somali nation and their aspirations for Greater Somalia. Britain is not solely responsible for the curve-up of their homeland. Other European predators took part, each vying for their share of the spoils of the partition of Africa. Where most Somalis feel it wronged them more than the others is what it did with the parts it got, and what it is doing to present day independent Somalia to unravel its unity.
When it comes to Kenya and Ethiopia, its main beneficiaries at the cost of Somalia, the former was a colony set aside for British settlers and their interest drove British policies towards Kenya. Rather than antagonize the Kenyans and risk that interest, the Somali NFD region was left as part of Kenya after independence in 1963 after Britain reneged on its pledge that they will be allowed to join Somalia rather being part of Kenya if they so choose, which they did through a plebiscite.
When it comes to Ethiopia, Britain’s attachment goes back centuries when it was a smaller highland Christian kingdom known as Abyssinia. Playing on that sentiment for his country, Emperor Menelik appealed to the Europeans partitioning Africa that his kingdom was a Christian Island surrounded by an ocean of hostile Muslims and needed to expand to the east for the sake of saving the religion. In response, Britain let him occupy in 1896 a large portion of the Somali homeland (Ogaden) and worse was to come.
Again in 1954, it gave Ethiopia the Haud and Reserved Areas (followed by the NFD to be given to Kenya). All these successive gifts were handed over the heads of the Somali people and in contravention of the protectorate treaties Britain signed with the Somali clans in exchange for ruling their lands. As the 1897 Anglo-Ethiopian treaty stated, all this territorial generosity was justified to “strengthen and render more effective and more profitable the friendship between the two kingdoms”.
Despite the injustices of the past, Britain did give independence to its Protectorate easily than most expected. This was not altogether out of kindness but due to the dictates of the times. Britain’s prime minister in 1960, Harold Macmillan, sounded the wake-up call for all European colonisers that “the wind of change” was blowing throughout Africa, heralding independence to the African continent and he had to heed his own warning. Secondly, it was because the Somali clans, hitherto divided, were for the first time united on one thing: immediate independence from Britain in order to unite with their sister, Italian Somaliland. It granted independence smoothly and without any bitterness on either side.
Britain’s subsequent relations with the emergent independent Somalia prior to the collapse of the Somalin State in 1991 had two parallel dimensions. First, it was fully aware of the threat Somali irredentism posed to Kenya and Ethiopia in pursuit of Greater Somalia and for that reason was adamant not to give the country arms for its fledgling army other than small arms for its police force. This de facto British arms embargo on the young Republic from the outset, also followed by other western countries (maintained to the present day), was the catalyst that forced Somalia to seek Soviet military aid if not alignment.(Indeed, history could repeat itself).
Other than keeping Somalia unarmed, Britain otherwise sought deep friendly relations with the Somali Republic, and its main interest was not so much the north, unlike now, but the South where the seat of the government is, and the majority of the population of Somalia live. Britain was very successful to have replaced Italian influence in southern Somalia, in particular Mogadishu, in such a short time. It was helped by a number of factors: the south’s painful experience with Italian colonialism, the limited influence of Italy and its language in the world, the appeal of the Anglo-Saxon pop culture among the young, the attraction of the English language as the undisputed lingua franca of the world, and more importantly the pull of BBC Somali Service, with its reach, prestige and popularity in the Horn unmatched by no other broadcaster. It was clearly targeting southern Somalia. I recall as a freelancer with the Service, in the early 1960s, how it was at one time entirely staffed by southern announcers, indicative of Britain’s interest to win over southern Somalia.
One would have thought that Britain would build on its achievements in Somalia. Paradoxically, that promising prospect was rashly ditched pursuant to the proclamation in May 1991 of the secession of the northern regions of Somalia (former British part) by the one-clan rebel militia, the SNM. Britain saw the secession as a return of her baby back to her fold. Though professing to support Somalia’s unity, sovereignty and territorial at the international arena to be politically correct, it has otherwise thrown its weight behind what the rebels have renamed as Somaliland, a defunct name since the union of the two territories in July 1960.
A recent e letter, dated 27 October 2021, from the UK Minister for Africa at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to a member of Parliament as to why Britain does not recognise Somaliland contains the duality of being politically correct but also pro-actively for Somaliland. His response is that, like the rest of the international community the UK “Does not recognize Somaliland as an independent State”. But the sting is in the tail when he adds that the UK, “nevertheless maintains permanent diplomatic presence in Hargeisa and UK assistance is significant”. In a nutshell, the UK treats Somaliland as a de facto separate country from Somalia. Sadly, it does so often with the acquiescence of the leaders of the federal government, which can only further encourage Britain on its chosen path. The greater danger to Somalia is that Britain, as we see, has networked if not institutionalised its Somaliland mission through various forums
Somaliland’s International Partners (IPs)
Some of Somalia’s international partners (IPs) have diversified themselves to a sub-group led by Britain calling themselves “Somaliland’s partners”. They openly engage in bilateral relations with what is technically part of Somalia over the head of the central federal government – something no truly sovereign government would not normally accept but then Somalia is treated for what it is and not what it claims to be.
The current Minister of Planning, Gamal Mohamed Hassan, himself a northerner, has at one time plucked up the courage to demand that all aid to the enclave, like that to the rest of Somalia, be challenged through his ministry to ensure coordination and regional equities, a reasonable demand one would have thought, But Somaliland’s IPs would have none of it, and that was the end of the story. And if they continue to have their way, that road would ultimately lead to recognition.
The Arms Embargo, Its Genesis and Purpose
What sustains the secession is not only the favourable way the IPs deal with the secessionist enclave but the parallel way they weaken Somalia militarily to ensure it does not pose any threat to the enclave. The 1992 UN Security Council (UNSC) arms embargo on the country was rightly in response to the devastating civil war and the consequent catastrophic humanitarian situation prevailing at the time. The civil war however was over by 1994, such that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) had removed Somalia from its list of major armed conflicts and that has been its position since then. And yet, apart from minor tinkering here and there, this embargo is regularly renewed at the UNSC nearly 30 years after its was first imposed on Somalia. What this means is that the arms denial by the West after independent to safeguard neighbouring countries is extended willy-nilly into a UN arms embargo to protect the secessionist one-clan enclave.
Unless Somalia is being vindictively punished for being their bete noire, one has to ask why the embargo is maintained when its original purposes has long ago elapsed, and when it is at peace with itself (apart from Al Shabaab terrorists) and no threat to its neighbours but itself their victim. The answer can only be that the embargo serves an instrument to deter Somalia from bringing its rebel enclave to heel.
Support for the secession will only destabilise Somalia and the Horn
As the former colonial power should be aware of, there are five main clans in its former territory, namely the Issa and Gadabuursi in Awdal region in the west next to Djibouti, followed by the Isaak clan in the North West region around the principal towns of Hargeisa, Berbera and Burco, and finally the Dhulbahante and Wawangeli clans in Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) regions in the north east. Only the Isaak, and not all of them at that, are now supporting the secession.
The rest of northerners, representing are unionists, The Issa and Gadabuursi, being on the distant periphery of Somalia and disjointed from Mogadishu, chose to live with their occupation until liberated or the secession defeated from elsewhere, more likely by the SSC regions. The Warsangeli and Dhulbahante have kept the secession at bay for more than 30 years. Except for few SNM militia outposts around the capital of Sool, Lascanod, the rest of the SSC regions are free. They are undefeatable.
When all the other clans and regions of northern Somalia are unionists, it is a delusion that a one-clan secession supported by Britain and its IPs partners can be forced down their throats. It is a fool’ s errand, metaphorically speaking. All they achieve instead is to destabilise not only Somalia but the wider Horn of Africa.
Somaliland’s exaggerate ed enduring historical link with Britain
The British minister for Africa, quoted earlier, referred to the enduring historical link with its former territory. The reality is otherwise. The British ruled Somaliland from 1884 to 26 June 1960. One has to scratch one’s head hard and think what was the heritage it bequeathed to Somaliland at independence: a two.-kilometre long one -lane tarmac road in the whole country that run from the centre of town to the colonial administration offices. Such was the scarcity of development it was all the same the pride of Hargeisa; an inconspicuous small church discreetly kept out of the way lest it offended the sensibilities of some onlookers, a small cemetery for dead British war veterans,; and one small hospital. And outside Hargeisa, a small secondary school in Amoud, Borama, established in 1954. Its total student intake in 1960 was less than 100 for the whole country (I was in the second form to graduate in 1958 and our class was only 12).
When the British finally packed their bags and left with that dismal record behind them, their departure made little difference to most of the local population. Roughly, over 90 percent of the Somali people beyond Hargeisa might not have seen a European let alone deal with them. The odd British officials in the territory (perhaps around 100) were mostly based in the capital Hargeisa. Almost all single, their social lives after work were confined to congregating on the Hargeisa European club in the evening and drown their drab dreary lives in booze (no cinemas, no theatres, no sports, no female company). Culture and religion kept the Somalis away from socialising with their rulers. Apart from fanatical colonial fans like Dr Adna Aden, those dwindling survivors from that era, like this writer, are more swayed by what Britain did since independence.
Britain’s influence grows in Somalia despite itself
What many Somalis find it difficult to understand is why Britain would be uncharacteristically so imprudent and put all its eggs in a small one-clan enclave in the north when secession is doomed despite its overt and covert support for it? And why make that risky gamble when the rest of Somalia, and indeed the whole Somali Peninsula, has become a fertile breeding ground for British influence? That influence, disseminatedby the BBC, the force of the English language as a medium of instruction and communication, the media, etc, has been mushrooming in the rest of Somalia since independence and continues unabated.
But it is the Somali diaspora in Britain that are now an important vehicle for spreading British influence. More than any other country in the world, Britain was the most generous to welcomes to its shores hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees running away from civil war in their country, the overwhelming majority of them from southern Somalia, and also from the unionist regions in the north (SSC and Awdal). Some return for good, others stay for a while. But they all bring something from their adopted or host country: investment, transfer of technology, know how, skills, educators, and in the process create thousands of jobs. They are the main source for what socio-economic development is taking place in the capital which could be extrapolated to other towns, small or big, in Somalia.
That is not all. The returnees bring in person British identities – the English language and British football mania.. Long gone are Italian days and ways in Mogadishu. This is what Britain should be rightly proud of and build on rather than extolling a bleak colonial past.
And yet, Britain is on a different self-defeating course. On the one hand, its aim is to have its way in Somalia, and at the same time have Somaliland as a separate country, judging by its actions. Clearly, it wants to have its cake and eat it. It is untenable and it can only fall between stools, ending up antagonizing the rest of the Somali nation without getting anywhere with its Somaliland pet project.
Britain needs to reset its myopic distorted vision beholden to one clan and see the wider picture where its interest is better served. That is the wish of all those who deeply value good relations between Britain and Somalia for the benefit of both.
By Osman Hassan
email: osman.hassan2 @gmail.com
Osman Hassan is a seasoned journalist, L.S.E. Graduate, Forme staff BBC Somali Service, and UN staff member. Mr Hassan is also a regular contributor to WardheerNews.