AFRICA is no longer a minor if passionate theme of the Concert of Europe; it commands increasing attention in its own right. As time goes on, the course of African nationalism, and even the direction and pace of economic development, will be determined more and more by agreements and disagreements between African peoples themselves and by the balance of power struck within an African region. The newly complicated rhythms and unfamiliar instruments of inter-African affairs require the student to reach back beyond the partition of Africa to the shifts and accommodations made by the African peoples as they coped with warlike neighbors, new migrations or natural disasters. That is the purpose of this article: to explain the inter-relations of the indigenous peoples of one African region, the Northeast, and the difficulties they have in finding stable arrangements that will give them some sense of lasting security and independence.

In Northeast Africa two great peoples face one another: the Christian Amhara and other peoples loyal to the Ethiopian crown on the one side, and, on the other, the Moslem Somalis, divided by clan but culturally homogeneous. Both have a long history, remembered in song and saga, and occasionally in written records. Each is of mixed descent but today breeds an easily distinguishable physical type. Each has an unmistakable style of life which is well adapted in one case to a mountain environment, in the other to the thorn-bush grazing lands. Much draws them together, for they are twice related, through their common Semitic ancestry in southern Arabia and by intermarriage with the Hamites whom they subjugated, absorbed or decimated in the course of several centuries of successful raiding and expansion. Much divides them, including a record of formidable wars.

In Ethiopia, land tenure is such that war is the most effective way for a man to improve his lot. Among the nomadic Somali, each clan must periodically reassert its power to defend the traditional grazing area and water holes. It must keep itself in fighting trim lest sub-sections split away to attach themselves to more impressive confederacies. In this Malthusian region, then, the choice is usually between internecine warfare and the attempted conquest of neighbors having a different religion and language.

Even the ancient world was aware of the breakup of several empires in this part of Africa. In the thirteenth century, an Ethiopian hymn glorifying a victory identified the Somali as the defeated enemy. In the sixteenth century, the Imam of Harar and his multilingual troops were close to wiping out the Christian Ethiopians. When in the nineteenth century the Europeans came bearing gifts of ammunition to the kings of Ethiopia, the wheel of fortune turned again. Under Emperor Menelik II, the Amhara defeated all that stood in their way and added the large Somali province of Ogaden to the empire. The present Emperor, Haile Selassie I, was bequeathed a long line of triumphs: over the Egyptians in the 1870s; over the Sudanese Mahdists, elsewhere so irresistible; over the Emirate of Harar; and, most significantly, over the Italians at Adowa in 1896.

In the same period, the Somalis swept across the entire lowland area. They were no longer one among many but the only people identified with the arid zone, having driven out all competitors for grazing land and confined the Arabs to the coastal towns.

Even the colonial period brought no enduring peace. Somalia was the theater of preparation for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In 1936, an Italian viceroy was sitting in Addis Ababa, administering a large Italian dominion consisting of Ethiopia and the two old Italian colonies, Eritrea and Somalia. His authority was brief; by 1942 the Emperor had returned from exile. A British military administration was responsible for order in the whole area, including, of course, Egypt and the Sudan.

Today how little of this is left. North of the Kenya border, only British Somaliland remains as a British possession. Britain's authority came to an end in Eritrea and Somalia in 1950. The United Nations, asked by the victorious but disunited belligerents to "dispose" of the old Italian colonies, gave Libya her independence outright, federated Eritrea with Ethiopia and converted Somalia into an Italian Trust Territory for ten years. The Haud and the Reserved Areas were returned to Ethiopia in 1955. In the same year, British troops left the Sudan, which today is an independent republic outside the Commonwealth. As for the remaining British Somaliland with its 65,000 square miles, Mr. Lennox-Boyd, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, has charted its course for the next two years. Promised elections have already taken place, and self-government is scheduled for next year, to coincide with Italy's withdrawal from Somalia. On December 1, 1960, Italy will terminate her stewardship without regret, and the former colony will become an independent republic. But for the 60,000 Somalis living in the northeast corner of Kenya, and the small enclave of French Somaliland, which is hardly more than the port of Jibuti with 65,000 inhabitants, the peoples of the Horn will then be free again to work out their international relations as best they can.


Although inter-African relations have long been governed by outsiders, henceforth there is little constructive that the major powers can do in controlling international affairs within the Horn of Africa. To be sure, the United Nations carries a special responsibility for the Somali area and has an intense though incoherent concern with the central issues which divide Somalis and Ethiopians. There are four principal questions:

1. Where should the international frontiers be drawn?

2. What degree of interference in one another's affairs can be tolerated, particularly where kindred peoples live on both sides of the boundaries?

3. What coöperative regional schemes can be envisaged for the peoples' mutual benefit on such matters as higher education, pest control, soil conservation and the regulation of international rivers?

4. How can regional interests be harmonized with those traditions reaching outside the continent, particularly to the Middle East? The Ethiopian Solomonian dynasty, its religion and most sacred traditions derive from Jerusalem; the Somali genealogies link the people with the House of the Prophet.

What, then, is the nature of the frontier dispute on which the United Nations has passed several resolutions without, so far, making much progress, and what is the likelihood of a compromise? What is the price of a modus vivendi in the Horn, assuming anyone wished to pay it?

The Italians and Somalis have always held that Wal Wal, where the incidents in 1934 were the pretext for war, is part of Somalia; the Ethiopians maintain the contrary and at present the administrative boundary runs east of these wells. More relevant than the convention which set this boundary are the underlying fears on both sides of what internal and external pressures can do in the area.

Take the Ethiopian apprehensions. All agricultural peoples, and certainly the Ethiopians, must carefully watch the nomadic tribes that move around their frontiers. Two-thirds of the Somalis in the Trust Territory are nomadic. What if internal security were suddenly to deteriorate in Somalia? The elections of several months ago were so conducted that the government party, the Somali Youth League, won 83 of 90 seats in the Legislative Assembly, but as yet no government has been formed, because of squabbles among differing clans. What if other countries in pursuit of their own ambitious or historic claims were to move in? With Egyptian garrisons in Eritrea and British Somaliland, one may imagine the nervousness that would prevail in Addis Ababa. Radio Cairo has appealed for Moslem unity in the Horn, as elsewhere. About 65 Egyptian teachers are in Somalia--teaching English, among other things--and scholarships to Egypt for Italian and British Somalis are plentiful. The Egyptian member of the U.N. Advisory Council at Mogadishu was disturbingly active until he was killed under obscure circumstances by a Somali. Are not the Ethiopian headwaters of the Blue Nile a continuous preoccupation of any Cairo government? When the British withdraw from Somaliland, may not Egypt rush in? If Mr. Bevin, as British Foreign Secretary, could espouse a Greater Somalia including the Ethiopian Ogaden, can Colonel Nasser or his successor do less?

Now, however, look at the frontier from the Somali point of view. The total Somali-speaking population numbers less than 3,000,000 and is outnumbered five to one by Ethiopians. Since the days of Menelik, the empire has been consolidating, powerfully assisted by experts from all nations and with gifts from the United States. It has equipped itself with a navy and air force, maintains an officers' school under Indian instructors near Harar, and harbors American troops at Asmara. From the perspective of the Somalis, Ethiopia is a country to be reckoned with. And are not the disputed lands of greater value to nomadic herdsmen than to a settled people on fertile highlands?

The Somali leaders are conscious of the jealousies and internal divisions of their nomadic clans. Even Mohamed Abdallah Hassan al-Mahdi, the Mullah, who resisted the British for 20 years, never rallied more than a part of the whole. Agitation for the association of all Somalis is in part an effort to compose a force that will carry weight. So Somalia's emblem is the five-pointed star, representing the five political entities into which Somalis are split--Italian, British, Kenyan, Ethiopian and French. Yet, united in one state or not, locally the Somalis will continue to dispute over water holes and split up into small factions competing for grazing. Genealogical rivalries are cemented by sectarian disagreements; each clan has periodic scores to settle with its neighbor over stolen stock or some insult. Africa has escaped the rigid caste and class systems of other continents at the price of profound and exclusive blood loyalties.

At present Britain and Italy subsidize the budgets of their respective Somali territories to about 50 percent. Promises have been made to continue some of the aid after independence, and the United States has made a welcome commitment, but these will not bring economic viability. Minerals are improbable, oil even when it is found needs time to develop, agriculture is limited to small pockets and the river banks. Hence the Somalis are left primarily with the sale of their strategic vantage points to foreigners--a commodity that can be a dangerous domestic irritant in a nationalistic era.

That is not all. Nomadic people are most vulnerable when their permanent grazing grounds can be cut off. To avoid this the Somalis gladly accepted British protection in 1884. Notwithstanding this, by agreement with Britain in 1897, Ethiopia obtained the Haud, the winter grazing lands of the Somalis, and the adjoining so-called Reserved Areas, one of the few places where the British Somalis could engage in agriculture. One knows with what vigilance all African peoples regard their land rights; Ethiopian law requires anyone owning land in Ethiopia to be an Ethiopian. When independent, the British Somalis will surely challenge the frontier fixed without their consent as a means of securing Ethiopian acquiescence in Anglo-Egyptian plans in the Sudan. Has not the Sudan abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian agreement of 1929, which distributed the Nile waters without her participation in the negotiations? And has this not met with sympathy in the Western world? If the British Somalis unite with the Italian Somalis as they intend to do, the Haud question will be added to the Somalia frontier dispute, while irredentism will mobilize the Ogaden Somalis to exploit any grievance that can be found. Thus the two frontier questions are intertwined with the demand for a Greater Somalia in accordance with the principle of self-determination. Ancient history, new freedoms and appetites, rival factions, all complicate the negotiations. Yet the collision of interests is by no means hopeless.


Ethiopian policy has attained a welcome flexibility. Under a 1954 agreement, legal cases involving Somalis in the Haud come before a Protectorate Court, not an Ethiopian one, and it is British liaison officers with their police who accompany the nomads back across the frontier. Nevertheless, more phlegmatic peoples than the febrile Somalis would smart under the treaty. This is an African "Polish Corridor." Each year more than a million camels--the bulk of the people's wealth--wander across the international frontier into a foreign land. The Emperor has given instructions that the tribes be sympathetically treated, but it is one thing to decree in Addis and another to enforce such an order in the field. Meanwhile, "Somalization" is going ahead in the Ogaden, where Somali sultans are being drawn into the administration. The process is unlikely to stop there.

On the Somali side, comfort may be derived from various events of the last few months. In both the British and the Italian Somali elections of this year the pro-Egyptian party fared badly. In French Somaliland, the railhead of the principal route to Addis, Mahmoud Harbi, advocate of a Greater Somalia, has been ousted as president of the government. Among the alternatives offered by General de Gaulle in the referendum last September, the Assembly in Jibuti chose to retain the status of an overseas territory; it is thus the only French territory on the African continent which declined the opportunity to become an autonomous republic within the Community (independent Guinea excepted).

In Kenya, the two Somali associations have remained mute on the subject of Greater Somalia. Of course, they expect their status in Kenya to be raised when Somali consuls appear in Nairobi, but they also know that Somali irredentism will be resisted by white and black Kenya politicians alike. Somalis have frequently shown their disdain for the Bantu, have claimed to be Asians, and have even paid the higher Asian taxes. Yet East Africa is a natural place for them to emigrate to, either from the overcrowded Horn or from Aden, where they are limited to 7 percent of the work force in any enterprise. But while Somalis can freely wander without a passport into Ethiopia and Jibuti, they are stopped at the Kenya border. African nationalists as much as white settlers scoff at the notion of giving up any part of Northern Kenya "which may contain oil" and is as much Kenya Lebensraum as a Somali sphere of influence. Somalis are difficult immigrants to assimilate anywhere.

Somali irredentists must face the fact that a Greater Somalia does not in itself bring wealth and peace to the clans, but by adding poverty to poverty, grievance to grievance, may make the much larger country the more difficult to manage. Their cry for union would be rejected by most of the surrounding countries.

There are also, however, advocates of a Greater Ethiopia, who see in an Ethiopian Horn the best long-term hope of peace and economic viability for the whole area. They hold that Ethiopia is the Somalis' natural and possibly only future hinterland, into which they are destined to penetrate deeper and deeper. Ethiopia has undeveloped wealth and requires people. She is considered credit-worthy by the World Bank. All the Somali rivers come from the Ethiopian highlands. As a multi-racial, multi-lingual state (Abyssinia means "mixed") with many religions living side by side without interference, Ethiopia could provide the Somalis with a future. A few educated Somalis share this view, though the solution is wholly improbable.

As things stand at present, the likely compromise on the outstanding issues between Ethiopians and Somalis is rather this:

Somali nationalism has won the right to a separate personality. Fired by the memories of the ancient titanic battles rather than by Egyptian propaganda, fearful that the Ethiopian will menace the nomad's personal sense of independence, animated by a traditional suspicion of low countryman for highlander, of Moslem for Christian, of the roaming herdsman for the tax assessor, of the anarchic clansman for him who pays homage to a crown, the Somali nationalist carries the day when he says: "Lesser differences than these have created demands for separate political entities in Europe."

No economic calculus can determine whether the Somalis would have greater bargaining power as part of Ethiopia or as independent contenders for foreign concessionaires and powers. All outlying areas in Africa complain of neglect in the capital, and one can imagine the grumbling of Somalis if joined to Ethiopia. Nor is it clearly desirable that Ethiopia should embrace more and more Moslem subjects. Neither a Greater Somalia nor a Greater Ethiopia will be the likely outcome, but rather an Ethiopia within her present boundary and, as her neighbor, a loose union between British and Italian Somalis. There will be difficulties enough in achieving this partial goal, embracing two-thirds of all Somalis.

The frontier problems may then slowly fall into place. The King of Norway has been asked by the parties to find a mediator. It is conceivable that the U.N. Advisory Council may have its life prolonged to act as a frontier commission to continue the present administrative frontier. The British Somalis may be relieved of their fear of being denied access to the Haud by giving that area some semi-autonomous status. The present division of sovereignty may yield to an internationalization of the grasslands. International officials, possibly drawn from friendly African states, might provide a less controversial administration of the Haud. The Horn, however, is not an area that likes being hurried or takes kindly to pat and permanent solutions. Too much is in flux to crystallize any one issue. It suits everybody's temperament to keep the pot simmering.

People who do not possess a script (or who reserve it for sacred purposes) incorporate their international settlements in the cake of custom. They rigorously keep to the right of a certain rock or they limit their diet so as to discourage raiding abroad. Covenants, if not openly arrived at, are at least not secret. Every step in a peace negotiation is known to everyone. Pre-literate peoples hear of inter-tribal politics continuously, partly because the terms of agreements must be constantly rehearsed in order to give effect to their injunctions. Political issues are actually more widely known and discussed than is the case in more literate, complex societies. In the Horn one feels one is encountering the quintessential "Political Man," who weighs everything in terms of group power and position. "A Somali knows everything," it is said, and it is true in the sense that all knowledge relevant to the individual or the group immediately becomes public property. Decisions are always collective. Although Ethiopians have been more ready to entrust certain matters to the Crown, yet there, too, politics intrigues everyone. So do the peoples over the border. Each sees the other as possessed of a particular role, as characters in a Greek historical epic.

The peoples of this region see one another as different and therefore as complementary. To the Ethiopian, the restless, driven, luckless Somali is a wily but friendless Odysseus of Africa getting into scrapes but miraculously surviving them. To the Somali, the Ethiopian is seen burdened like Aeneas with some aged father on his back, never sure whether he is already in the eternal city he is destined to found or still within the burning walls of Troy. These people know too much of one another not to feel a kinship or to be aware of their own Janus-headed nature. Increasingly, as contacts become more numerous, a foot is kept in both camps.

Visitors from America and Europe marvel at the freedom given to Moslems in Christian Ethiopia, an intensely theological country in which churchmen can threaten civil war on the question whether Christ is by His nature One, Two or Three. Fanatical though Moslems may be, the majority leader of the British Somalis is a mission-educated Christian, Michael Mariano. Although Ethiopians are traditionally suspicious of foreigners (no doubt with good reason), every ministry is filled with them, and Italians play a respected role in the country.

Although the Somalis have fought bloody wars with the British and have been recently let down by what seems their failure to defend Somali interests, yet the majority party has campaigned for the inclusion of British Somaliland in the Commonwealth and wishes to bring in the Italian Somalis as well. Indeed, the Somalis can be counted on never to turn down an advantageous bargain for the sake of consistency.


Enough has been said to formulate a few suggestions to those in the West who want to shape a constructive policy in Northeast Africa. The usual pleas for financial aid, scholarships and the like need not be repeated. But it is important to emphasize the need to accept the African point of view that these offerings do not incur any obligations on the recipient's part. The West's requirements for bases, for landing rights, for raw materials, are better understood in Africa than is generally realized. Nothing would therefore be more disconcerting than a sudden withdrawal. A burst of philanthropy that is not solidly based on Western interests would arouse suspicions of a deep-seated plot. The British Empire, they have heard, was acquired in a fit of absentmindedness; nothing would undermine confidence more than to dismantle it--or the American position--in a fit of exasperation. Colonialism may fade away, but the interests that brought the colonial powers to Africa remain and must be defended. But the absurd position in which the United States has seemed wholly committed to Ethiopia and Britain to the Somalis must now come to an end.

The cost of defense in this area will rise. Africa has never been cheap for the European powers, and the colonies have rarely been profitable in terms of strict accountancy. The exploitation of Africa has always been matched by a moderate exploitation of the European, and latterly the American, taxpayer. However, Africa has never been as expensive as the Middle East, and it has produced better leadership. Even the opponents of the Emperor must concede that he is a truly good man. In Mogadishu, the president of the Somali Youth League and of the Territorial Assembly, Aden Abdullah, is a sagacious leader who has the respect even of those Somalis who at present will not follow his counsel. In British Somaliland, Michael Mariano is as moderate a statesman as could be found anywhere in Africa.

The Emperor has taken advantage of the estrangement between Egypt and the Soviet Union to announce a visit to Moscow. The visit should not come as a surprise. The Soviet mission to Ethiopia has been a large one; a Soviet information center at Addis has been permitted; and young Ethiopians, even some employees of the Ethiopian Air Lines, a T.W.A. subsidiary, have gone to Moscow. Ethiopia has always balanced rival foreign interests in an effort to neutralize them. Jugoslav engineers act as makeweight to the Italian engineers installing a hydroelectric plant on the Awash River; British firms are favored alternately with Americans; Norwegian military advisors are juxtaposed to Swedish officers. The very subtlety with which national animosities among foreigners are turned to good account shows the acuteness of Political Man in Northeast Africa. Nor could anyone be King of Kings for long or run a Somali party without the utmost dexterity.

To go to Moscow may be for the Emperor risking high stakes. But it should be remembered that unlike the Sudan, there is no powerful Communist-controlled trade-union movement, either in Somalia or in Ethiopia, and no tainted youth and women's organization. The Emperor's trip means also that Ethiopians and Somalis will take alternative sides on the East-West seesaw, neither completely committed nor anyone's pawn. There may even come about an ultimate equilibrium. For at the gates of Aden many nationalisms are jockeying for position and influence. They may cancel one another out in the Horn. Indians and Pakistanis have old trading interests. Persians, Egyptians and Iraqis can find historical precedent for interventions. The peoples of Africa themselves--Bantu, Hamites and Nilotics, now pushed out of the area--may reopen claims. The very multiplicity of nationalisms and crisscross considerations may therefore rekindle in Ethiopian and Somali a sense of kinship and challenge them to find a peaceful accommodation. At least this is as likely an outcome as the more pessimistic prognosis of a "minor Palestine" in Northeast Africa.

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  • LEO SILBERMAN, a British student of Colonial affairs, now at the Research Center in Economic Development and Cultural Change at the University of Chicago
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