Somalia: Who Owns What? 1963
Laaska News Feberuary 24,2011
Friday, Mar. 22, 1963It was 9 o’clock on a hot, equatorial night, and the locals were living it up outside Passoni’s Grocery Store on the potholed main drag of Mogadishu, capital of Somalia. Italian Settler Passoni, an enterprising sort, was raffling off boxes of groceries. Suddenly, a news bulletin from neighboring Kenya blared from a radio in a bar next door. An instant later, the guttural twitter that is the Somali tongue became an ominous muttering, and the crowd of 500 was on the rampage. Stoning cars, the Somalis marched to the British embassy, touching off three days of shouting, window-smashing riots.
Matter of Heritage. What set off the explosion was announcement by British Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys that a slice of scrub and sand which borders on Somalia would be made one of seven provinces of Kenya, which is due to get independence next year (TIME, March 15).
As it happens, Kenya’s northeast has long been a favorite squatting ground for nomadic Somali tribesmen, who herd their camels and goats back and forth across the Horn of Africa without heed to national borders. Fiercely independent, the illiterate Moslem tribesmen fight savagely among themselves for grazing land, for this is the possession they hold most dear.
A proud people, tall, lithe’ and fine-featured, the Somalis are Hamitic in origin, descended in part from 7th century Arabs who crossed into Africa from Yemen. Forever vain about their heritage, they are also accustomed to having their own way.
The Somalis began running into the stubborn objections of others shortly after Somalia (pop. 2,000,000) won independence in 1960 and began building a nation out of former Italian Somalia and British Somaliland.
Emperor Haile Selassie coldly said no to Somalia’s insistence on annexation of an Ethiopian border area containing 1,000,000 Somalis. France likewise refused to give up French Somaliland, where 600,000 Somalis live.
And though the bleak, barren slice of territory inside Kenya harbors 200,000 Somalis, Kenya’s black nationalist leaders, led by ex-Mau Mau Chieftain Jomo (“Burning Spear”) Kenyatta, have always vowed that loss of their northeast corner would mean war with their own black Rendilles, who cover themselves with feathers; with their Turkanas, who wear little except mud hats; and with the Marilles, who wear only rifles. Thus, Britain’s Sandys was bound to make enemies —and to risk violence—no matter what his decision about Kenya’s frontier.
Spearing the Commissioner. No Somali saw it that way. Mobs surging through Mogadishu’s heat (100° plus) had to be broken up by mounted police swinging long batons; before the disturbance was quelled, some 500 people were arrested.
In Hargeisa, the onetime capital of British Somaliland, crowds stoned British homes and cars, attacked the British consulate. Presumably because of Britain’s close ties to the U.S., newly arrived U.S. Ambassador Horace Torbert was stoned out of the town of Galcaio, his Land-Rover narrowly outdistancing a mob of 1,000 men, women and children.
In Kenya itself, a Somali tribesman speared a district commissioner, Lieut. Colonel John Balfour, and one mob hauled down the Union Jack.
Restoring internal order with troops.Somalia’s Premier Abdirashid Ali Shermarke called the National Assembly into session, demanded that “relations with Britain be revised.” As the debate droned on, the British hoped that passions might cool. But at week’s end the outraged Deputies voted 74 to 14 to break off diplomatic relations with London, though it seemed clear that consular ties would be retained; such a compromise appeared appropriate in view of the fact that the British were to supply Somalia with $3,600,000 in aid this year.
With a sigh and a shrug, Britain’s Mogadishu embassy began packing up. and in London the British government suggested that it “will at an appropriate time” reconsider the whole Northeast Kenya question.