2/2015
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Kadar Ali Diraneh

Djiboutian Somalis: matters of identity

Both the identity and the sense of belonging of Djiboutian Somalis are based on geographical, historical and ethnic elements. The identity is ambiguous, and the origin of this ambiguity is that the Djiboutian Somalis find themselves both inside and outside of Somaliness.

During the last part of the colonial period, the colonial power had attempted to "desomalise" the Djibouti territory by deporting ethnic Somalis, who were denied the status of citizen, to Somalia, and by a preference policy favouring Afars as the new ruling group.

The colonial power no longer considered Djibouti as part of Greater Somalia. This was the affirmation of a Djiboutian particularism. Somali-Issas of Djibouti would be different from other Somalis.

Djiboutian citizenship is linked to the territory of the same name. All people, born and living in the territory at the time of the declaration of independence, were considered citizens of Djibouti. The name of the French Territory of the Afars and Issas (TFAI), with its ethnic reference, was replaced by a geographical name (Djibouti), thus masking any tribal or ethnic affiliation.

People therefore have come to share a civic identity, through the Djiboutian nationality. This civic identity is affirmed legally by a national ID, a passport, and by shared rights and duties. It is the first circle of identity.

The second circle, the one of ethnic membership, implies the rights and specific duties of the ethnic group in relation to the state, and power sharing with other groups. The ethnic groups have common interests in the distribution of the resources of the state. They are also competing for power.

In Djibouti the two major ethnic groups competing on all fronts are the Somalis and the Afars.

The identity of the Somalis of Djibouti is defined by the rejection of membership in the Great Somali entity (the Republic of Somalia), instead they affirm their affiliation with a non-Somali area (territory of Djibouti), through their citizenship.

A Djiboutian may thus affirm his/her Somaliness through culture, language and clan. So he/she is at the intersection of a Somali identity and a non-Somali citizenship.

The identity of Djiboutian Somalis and their Somaliness raise some questions. The first question concerns the genealogical descent, including the geographical origin of parents and the living spaces of clan cousins. Second is one's sense of belonging to a clan, ethnicity, country, region and religion.

Does a Djiboutian Somali share elements – like religion, skin color, culture and political destiny − with the Somalis or does he/she share elements with the Djiboutians? Or maybe with other groups like Arabs, Africans etc.? Does he/she feel affinity with the family, the clan or the ethnic group? And finally the question of the future: what kind of community memberships – clan, ethnicity, national, regional or international – does one have?

In conclusion, we can see the complexity of the identity and community membership of Djiboutian Somalis. It differs from the national identity of the Somalis of Great Somalia (Republic of Somalia) but shares the Somali ethnic membership. One can claim one's particularity and at the same time celebrate one’s Somaliness.

Dr Kadar Ali Diraneh

The author has worked as teacher and researcher at the University of Djibouti since 2000. He is also Advisor at the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, Djibouti, since 2012. Between 2009−2012 he was CEO at the National Radio & TV Agency. He is the editor of Yesterday is not behind (Djibouti Studies Publications 2015) and Regards croisés entre colonisateurs et colonisés (forthcoming, l’Harmattan, Paris).

kadaralidiraneh(at)gmail.com