Somali vs. Somalian: On The Weaponization Of Identity

We live in a world where identity politics have frequently been a problem and one of the obvious areas where identity politics has helped to lead to the misery of a great many people is the Horn of Africa.  Having long been interested in the tangled politics and identities of this area, I would like to state at the outset that I have a marked bias in favor of the claims of Somalilanders (some of whom appear to call themselves Landers) to have their de facto independence recognized by the global community with all of the responsibilities and blessings that confers.  Be that as it may, this particular post is not about this advocacy [1], but rather about the complications that result from the identity of people being weaponized by failed nation-states in the support of irredentist claims.  To understand the problematic nature of Somalia’s weaponization of the Somali identity, it is worthwhile to examine the stark difference that exists between the ethnic and the national identities present within the Somali people.

As it happens, the Somali are a people that are divided into several clans that live in at least five different nations in the Horn of Africa, not including their diaspora populations in places like Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.  In Africa, the Somali population is concentrated in five nations:  Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya.  Djibouti, which was once called French Somaliland or the land of the Afars and Issas, Somaliland, which was once British Somaliland, and Somalia, which was once Italian Somaliland, are differentiated at least in part by their distinct colonial history, which has made the Somali populations different enough that they have not cohered well.  Djibouti has never been a part of Somalia proper and Somaliland’s thirty years in Somalia began with lies about power sharing and federalism and ended up in a brutal and destructive civil war that ended up destroying a great deal of Somaliland’s infrastructure and killing many of its people during the last days of the Barre dictatorship.  Those same years found Somalia and Ethiopia fighting over the Ogaden region, where many Somali live in Ethiopia, which was also fought because of Somalia’s irredentist claims and desires to rule over all the Somali people wherever they may be.

The weaponization of the Somali identity is nothing new, then.  Somalia’s desire to conflate their national identity as Somalians with the Somali ethnic identity has led to a great deal of bad blood between Somalia and its various neighbors.  When this is combined with a poor track record of internal government and brutal treatment towards various constituent parts of the Somali nation, like Somaliland, Somalia itself has a rather poor track record and it is quite likely that any part of the Somali people that wants good government will have to get it on their own apart from that charnel house of anarchy.  And that is what makes the weaponization of Somali identity so troublesome, in that it seeks to promote a view that only Somalia, a state incapable of governing itself, is the only fit representative to address the concerns of Somali people who happen to live in nations outside of Somalia’s own borders.

This presents Somalilanders and the Somali people in Kenya and Ethiopia with a difficult challenge.  It is frequently necessary to defend one’s separate identity while also affirming a sense of kinship with other Somali peoples.  This is by no means a unique problem.  German Americans in the 1770’s had to defend their identity as separate from the Hessian mercenaries hired by the King of England to crush the American Revolution, and again in both World Wars in seeking to defend their status as loyal American citizens in the face of German aggression in Europe.  What it means to be Irish-American has been contested by Catholic and Protestant Irish whose opinions towards Great Britain has varied widely.  The Japanese-Americans in World War II had a tragic experience of being in internment camps because of the concern over their loyalty to the United States in World War II.  And so it goes.

What is the solution to such weaponization of identities?  For me, it appears obvious that we need to be able to distinguish between ethnic and national identities where people are seeking to conflate one with the other.  There are some people who claim that while Somali is a recognized identity that Somalian is not.  If that is the case, then such an identity needs to be created in order to separate someone who has a Somali background and someone who claims a citizenship in the nation of Somalia.  Somalia cannot govern itself; it has no business trying to paint itself as the sole legitimate holder of the national aspirations of the Somali people, some of whom are doing quite a bit better without Somalian interference than they would as part of a greater Somalia that would only be more fractious and anarchical than the existing one.  And as bad as things are, let us not seek to make them worse by granting legitimacy to Somalia’s desire to expand without having solved its inabilities to govern itself at its present size.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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