During colonial times, from mid-19th century to 1960, the territories inhabited by the Somalis were split into five to be shared among four colonial powers: The United Kingdom (received two territories), France, Italy, and Abyssinia, formalized in the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884–1885.
The colonial partners first administered the areas under the invitation or acquiescence of some of the local ruling clans, often to stave off challenges from other clans. The rivalry between European powers led to rival protectorate treaties establishing British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland.
Many efforts were mounted to liberate the areas once the colonial powers became entrenched, the most famous among them being the Derwish State established by Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, known to Somalis as Sayyidkii and the British as the Mad Mullah, which had its base in Taleex, in modern day Somaliland.
The Sayyid launched a movement in Somalia that is considered to be the foundation of Somali nationalism. This national identity gave way to a political ideology which advocated for a unitary Somali republic composed of the five territories held by the imperial powers. This movement eventually became known as Greater Somalia.
On 26 June 1960, the first of the five Somali territories, British Somaliland, became independent under the name State of Somaliland with Hargeisa as its capital. Five days later, on the 1st of July, the Italian Trust Territory of Somaliland followed suit and immediately joined with the State of Somaliland and together built that long sought-after single state. The Somali Republic with its seat in Mogadishu was formally a union between the two newly-independent states.
But that was to be the extent of the unification. Ethiopia refused to return the Hawd and Ogadenia (the Somali hinterlands), France refused to grant French Somaliland (Djibouti) independence until 1971 and the newly independent Kenya held on to its portion of Somali territory that it had inherited from the British colonial government as the Northern Frontier District.
Somalis did not give up on the Greater Somalia dream, however. After insistence by the Somalis, Britain held an informal plebiscite in the Northern Frontier District of its Kenyan colony, where the inhabitants overwhelmingly chose to unite with the new Somali Republic. The new, independent Kenya government ignored this vote and refused to cede the territory after a formal vote. This precipitated the Shifta War between Somali rebels backed by Somalia and Kenya that lasted from 1963 to 1967.
Next came Djibouti. The French government had held a questionable plebiscite in the territory which voted for continued association, although that was heavily suppressed by the government and bolstered by European settlers who had the right to vote as well. Djibouti finally became independent in July 1977, which, while not ideal for Somalia, was nonetheless welcomed as Somalis oversaw the new state.
Lastly, the liberation attempts of the Abyssinian held territories proved to be the most bloody and violent. There had always been ethnic tensions between the Somalis of the Ogaden and Hawd and other groups, primarily Oromos, that lived in adjacent territories. After years of tensions and hostile relations between the two countries, Somalia finally decided to retake the region by force.
In July 1977, Somali troops crossed the border into Ethiopia and started a campaign to forcibly occupy all Somali territory in Ethiopia. The mission was initially a success and the Somali forces achieved their primary objectives.
However, international opinion was against what was considered Somali irredentism, especially in Africa which wanted to preserve colonial borders. The Soviet Union and its allies, primarily Cuba, dispatched soldiers, advisors, and equipment to Ethiopia, which had recently had its monarch overthrown by a socialist junta. Almost a year later, Somali forces finally withdrew from Ethiopia and the war came to an end.
In 1995, Ethiopia adopted a new constitution which established a semi-autonomous Somali state in the country with the right to secede, an option which has not been exercised yet.
Since 1991, the former State of Somaliland has ‘withdrawn’ its participation in the Somali union and proclaimed itself as independent under the name Republic of Somaliland.
The dream of a Greater Somalia has come full circle in the last century. A movement to unite all five Somali territories into a single state took off at the start of the 20th century. Today, two decades into the 21st century, all five of those territories are still administered separately and there is an ever-present risk that they may fragment into further pieces in this century.
This excerpt is part of an upcoming book on the Somalis of Sweden.