SOMALIA: Birth Pangs -1959
Laaska News January 13,2011.
Time Monday, Sep. 14, 1959.
High and dry on the sun-blasted northeastern horn of Africa hangs a backward, poverty-stricken strip of land inhabited by leopards, crocodiles and some 1,300,000 camel-and goat-herding nomads. Back in the19th century after the British, French and Italians helped themselves in imperial fashion to slices of the coast bordering Ethiopia, this desert patch was known as Italian Somaliland.
In Mussolini’s heyday it became a bridgehead for his conquest of Italian East Africa. Now after years of somnolence, it is back in the news—once again as a trouble spot. The Italians, who kept postwar control of their onetime colony under a temporary U.N. trusteeship, due to wind up at the end of 1960, have announced that Somalia may become independent any time the Somalis like.
The man who stands to become the father of this unprepossessing new country is handsome young (37) Premier Abdullahi Issa, and last week he was worried as only a prospective father can be. It was not just that the Italian government has been providing half Somalia’s income.
There was also the difficulty that, though camels are Somalia’s chief source of wealth, much of the Somali nomads’ grazing lands lie over the border in Ethiopia. To the frustrated disgust of Somali nationalists, moreover, French Somaliland voted last year to stay in the French Community, and the French, determined to hang onto their profitable Djibouti rail line to the interior, have made common cause with the Ethiopians against the dream of an independent Greater Somalia made up of all the territories occupied by Somali tribes.
Last July President Charles De Gaulle himself stopped off in Djibouti on his way from Paris to Madagascar to announce firmly: “France is here and intends to stay.”
Greater or Little. A leader with a taste for loud ties but moderate policies, Issa prodded the Italians into their promise of early independence. But then Haji Mohammed Hussein, an oldtime nationalist rabble-rouser whose oratory once made Somalis whip off their scarves in frenzy and fling them into the air, arrived back in Mogadiscio from four years’ self-imposed exile as one of Nasser’s Cairo broadcasters.
Almost at once Haji Mohammed formed a Greater Somali League to rival Issa’s Somali Youth League, and charged that Issa favored a Little Somalia, confined to Italian Somaliland, because he feared his Hawiya tribe would be swamped in a state that brought 3,000,000 Somalis together.
On the eve of showdown elections last spring, Haji Mohammed was refused permission to lead a parade of his partisans in Mogadiscio.
“The blood is on the government’s head if blood is spilled,” he cried.
Next day Haji Mohammed was arrested, two of his followers died and 16 more were hurt in rioting.
Peaceful or Violent. In the election, Issa’s forces won 83 out of 90 parliamentary seats. But Haji Mohammed’s oratory had its effects: no Somali politician any longer dared publicly oppose a union of all the Somali people.
Last week, working anxiously to keep Somali scarves on, Issa put through a legislative resolution asking the Italians for independence “as soon as possible.”
He also announced formation of a new Pan-Somali National Movement, with representatives from Somalia, British Somaliland, French Somaliland, and the Somali-speaking provinces of Ethiopia and Kenya—but pledged to seek Somali unity by “legal and peaceful means.” Hard on the heels of these acts, Issa brought Haji Mohammed and 40 followers to trial in Mogadiscio’s white, one-story Court of Assizes, on charge of inciting disobedience to law and stirring up “class,” i.e., tribal, hatred. Two Italians took charge of the defense, because, an official explained, “there are no Somali lawyers extant.”
At week’s end, with things momentarily in hand, Premier Issa prepared to fly to New York to appear before the U.N. in a final effort to press a settlement of his sticky territorial dispute with Ethiopia, preferably through a referendum in the Somali grazing lands. “We are not optimistic,” he said.
“Ethiopia has tried for years to avoid a solution. But it is essential that we have a solution before we become independent.”