French Somaliland: Victory for Trouble
Laaska News June 27,2011
Friday, Mar. 31, 1967(TIME)
Even before the election returns were complete, unruly mobs began to surge through the streets of Djibouti, the sun-bleached and impoverished capital of French Somaliland. Then they heard the news: by a majority of 61%, Somaliland’s 39,000 voters (out of a population of 125,000) had opted to maintain the country’s ties with France, thus defeating a move to independence. Somali tribesmen, who wanted to break away from France, threw up barricades of sidewalk slabs and bedposts, began hurling rocks with the aid of crude slingshots. As their husbands lit oil fires that flashed over the nearby desert sands, statuesque Somali women contorted their faces into snarls at French troops.
Then the automatic rifles of the French legionnaires began stuttering. Bystanders as well as rioters were gunned down, no questions asked. Paratroopers were flown in from France to help, and police helicopters swept down on the crowds, dropping grenades and tear gas into their midst. From every miserable alley came the sound of guns firing, of women sobbing and of curs howling. At least 17 civilians were killed, but not all bodies were found.
Helping Matters Along. The Somali tribesmen, who make up the largest population segment of France’s last colony in Africa, favor independence because they want their fellow tribesmen in neighboring (and independent) Somalia to annex French Somaliland. The trouble was that they were registered to vote in fewer numbers than the Afars, a rival tribe that wants to stay tied to France. Neighboring Ethiopia, which contains large numbers of Afars, backs the tribe’s cause in French Somaliland. More than tribal loyalty is involved: Ethiopia has a sound economic motive in not wanting its outlet to the Gulf of Aden, a 486-mile narrow-gauge railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, to be controlled by the hostile government of Somalia.
Charles de Gaulle ordered last week’s referendum after the two rival tribes rioted in the streets of Djibouti during his visit there last August. De Gaulle sternly warned that French troops would never be committed to preserve “the appearance of a state,” would withdraw and leave Somaliland to civil war unless the voters clearly demonstrated that they wished to remain with France. To help matters along, police rounded up some 6,000 Somali tribesmen in and around Djibouti before the balloting and expelled them to Somalia.
Source of Embarrassment. After gathering the vote he wanted last week, De Gaulle hailed “this renewed contract” and vowed to carry out France’s “mission of liberty and progress.” Somaliland can stand some progress. Practically without an economy and with no natural resources, it is kept going only by French aid ($26 million last year). The French have thus won the right to continue pouring money into Somaliland, but they have also won more trouble than they bargained for. Before the week was out, legionnaires rooted thousands of dissident Somali tribesmen out of their tumble-down shanties in Djibouti and herded them into barbed-wire concentration camps near the Somalia border. Somalia thereupon refused to accept any more deportees, leaving the tribesmen imprisoned in French Somaliland as a source of embarrassment—and potential trouble—for France.