Imagining unity between Somalia and Ethiopia?
I was born in Eritrea in 1947 and grew up as an Ethiopian citizen. I left Eritrea in 1974 and have not returned since then. I am a historian and my areas of speciality are Italian colonialism and the history of modern education in the Horn of Africa.
I am considered a persona non grata by the Eritrean regime because I did not support the independence struggle. In Ethiopia, I am constantly harassed at the airport in Addis Ababa, especially since 1998, due to the fact that I was born Eritrean. I do not carry an Ethiopian identity card and I have no property in Ethiopia. I am a Swedish citizen since 1984 and that is more than enough.
Maybe partly because of my personal history I am tempted to imagine how the region might look like if Somalia and Ethiopia were to emerge as one united country. I strongly believe that bold ideas that enable a society to envision a better future emerge during periods of stress, crisis and distress.
I want to stress that I am not advocating hate, war and conflict among the Somalis and the Ethiopians. On the contrary, the content of my workshop presentation “Imagining unity between Somalia and Ethiopia” at the 12th International Somali Studies conference in August 2015 was peace and its dividends.
The wars caused by colonialism and the Cold War
The history of peaceful coexistence among the Somalis and Ethiopians is much longer than the history of conflicts between the two societies. Ethiopian expansion into western parts of Somalia and the European scramble for Africa provided the background to the armed conflicts between Ethiopia and Somalia in modern times.
The wars of 1964/5 and 1977/8 can directly be traced to colonialism and the Cold War. In the 1960s many people in Somalia were convinced that it was possible to take the Ogaden (a region inhabited by Ethiopian Somalis) away from Ethiopia. The policy of creating a nation of all the Somalis living in the Horn of Africa created conflicts between Somalia and its neighbours (Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia). The end of the Cold War in 1990 created new conditions and new questions.
The keynote lecture by Afyare Elmi at the same SSIA-congress captured very well the processes that have been unfolding in Somalia since 1990. For the first time in modern history, the Somali people are daily demonstrating the power of defining their history as well as their destiny.
Dr. Elmi pointed out that there is more intermingling of the Somali people now (post 1990) than ever in Somali history. He also pointed out that the Somali appear to prefer ‒ on the basis of their action on the ground rather than on rhetoric declarations ‒ manageable political entities made up of one or few clans. He identified seven such political entities in the Somali landscape (some already established and some in the process of being established).
The international community (the African Union, the European Union and the UN) has reacted to what is happening in Somalia in a highly discriminatory manner: The European Union allowed the dismantling of former Yugoslavia but refused to recognise the independence of Somaliland.
The upholding of colonial borders at any cost and against the expressed wishes of the population at large can only be counter-productive. Sooner or later the Somalis in the region will interact among themselves as well as with their neighbours so as to maximise the benefits of collaborative and peaceful coexistence.
The question of unity
Ethiopia is a home to more than 6 million Somalis. The Somali language is the third largest language in Ethiopia. As a matter of fact about 50 per cent of all Somalis in the world live in Ethiopia.
The Somali impact on the social, political and cultural landscape of the Ethiopian state is not yet very noticeable, but this has to do with the fact that most political power is centred in Addis Ababa, the capital city located about 1,000 kilometres from Jigjiga, the regional Capital of Ethiopian Somali regional state. But there can be no doubt that with the growth of urbanization in the country, the Somali impact on Ethiopian culture will increase.
Another factor that is very important to bear in mind is that the economies and ecologies of the Ethiopian highlands and the Somali plains are complementary. The Somalis need the highlands as much as the Ethiopian highlanders stand to benefit from access to the Somali plains. The Ethiopian highlands are geographically speaking hinterlands of Somalia.
One of the most repeated criticisms to my lecture during the Somali Studies congress was that the Somali region was not an equal partner with Ethiopia of today. Many of those who attended the lecture mentioned that any such talk of unity between Somalia and Ethiopia was an invitation for Ethiopia to swallow Somalia.
But there were others who pointed out (perhaps with a touch of humour) that the Somalis, being who they are, might in an eventual union take over the Ethiopian state and infuse it with Somali culture.
The question of unity between the neighbouring states and between member states of the African Union has been on the agenda, at least theoretically since the formation of the African Union in 2000. In my view, Somali and Ethiopian scholars need to dwell upon the type of union between the two societies.
The experience that the former British Somaliland (now Somaliland) has gained and the political entities in the process of establishment ought to function as inspirational formulae for the slow but hopefully steady construction of a union between Somalia and Ethiopia.
It is not a question of Ethiopia swallowing Somalia, rather it is a vision where Somalia and its inhabitants (organised in several sovereign states) can live and thrive in harmony with Ethiopia whose economy, culture, and geography are complementary to that of Somalia.
I have no idea what would be the type of union that the peoples of the two societies would and could construct. And no one can spell out the contours of such union. What we can aspire to at this moment is to create a consensus on the idea of an eventual union and begin the long search for the modalities. I would like to conclude by suggesting that, as a first step, the Somali Studies International Association considers organising a special congress under the theme “Exploring union between the Somali and Ethiopian peoples”.
Relevant networks around the Horn of Africa and its diasporas such as the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies and the Institute for Horn of Africa Studies and Affairs might be approached for collaboration as well.
Although I am aware that the diaspora of both societies have a long way to go in harnessing the positive sides of the internet, I also believe that the diaspora have an important educative role in the framing of the future based on the multitude of factors that favour peaceful coexistence and eventual union.
The author is Professor Emeritus of history at Uppsala University, Sweden. He is the author of Italian colonialism in Eritrea, 1987 (reprinted 1997); Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience, 1997; Brothers at War: Making sense of the Eritrea-Ethiopian war, 1998‒2000, 2000; Woven into the tapestry: How five women shaped Ethiopian history, 2016. He and his life-partner, Berit Sahlström, have three daughters and five grandchildren. He lives in Malmö, Sweden.