The British Empire Library

A Modern History Of The Somali

by I M Lewis

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Richard Greenfield (Tanganyika 1955-58; later Research Professor, Somali National University, seconded as Somali Government Foreign Affairs Adviser 1974-86 & 1991-93)
Professor I M Lewis' Somali History is a remarkable book for it remains after four editions - 1965, 1980, 1998 and 2002 - essential introductory reading for all who would learn of the Horn of Africa. However, it is uneven perhaps because it started life as a modern history concentrating mainly on the former British Protectorate. The publishers claim on the cover that it is 'Revised, Updated & Expanded but the extent to which the author was allowed to update rather than add to previous editions is not clear. The odd typo has been picked up but the page numbers of chapters one to eight are unchanged and research cited as dating from 1964 and even 1957 is still termed 'recent'. An example, picked up by reviewers of earlier editions, is that the 'Galla' peoples never so described themselves, regarding that word as derogatory and calling themselves 'Oromo'. Lewis recognizes this in a footnote but the text remains confusing since he still uses both terms - sometimes in the same paragraph. Also Somalis refer to the lefthanded Imam Ahmed Ibrahim al-Ghazi as Guray rather than use the Abyssinian Gran.

Many readers of the Overseas Pensioner with experience in Eastern Africa will recall that after the second world war, former British administrators repeatedly ordered migrant Somalis back north-east across an arbitrary line in the former Northern Frontier District of Kenya. This, coupled with the Somalis' own insistence on the literal validity of lineages tracing their origin back to Arabia, made it easy to conclude, as Lewis has done at the beginning of chapter two, that "Until the late nineteenth century the history of the eastern Horn of Africa is dominated by the protracted Somali expansion from the north However breaks-through in the fields of archaeology, linguistics and molecular genetics (DNA sequences) suggest that the homeland of the Somali and the Oromo was the lakes region of Ethiopia. Thus much of the first two chapters is dated and no longer reflects current scholarship.

Perhaps the reader should begin this book on page 30, for thereafter Lewis' analytical and very readable chapters are likely to be of great interest to Overseas Pensioner readers. There follows a masterly survey of the colonial partition; penetration inland by French, British, Italian and Abyssinian Christians and Somali resistance thereto led by Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hassan - the so-called 'Mad Mullah' - and his 'Dervishes'; unification under the short-lived Afrique Orientate Italiana; the path to independence and the early problems experienced thereafter. This reviewer would only quibble over Filonardi, the important consul in Zanzibar to whom the Italian Government had "entrusted the management of its Benadir holding". Lewis states he " ... had deserted his consular post to form the commercial enterprise of V Vilonardi e Co". In fact he was a very prominent clove merchant well before being appointed consul and in resigning was responding to a direct written order to do so from the minister in Rome.

It was to be under the Italians and then the British that the majority of the Somalis first experienced union, albeit briefly. In the aftermath of the second world war, however, Ethiopia was seen particularly by the United States as a strategic ally and a victim to be rewarded. This had to be at the cost of the whole Horn of Africa. Discussing the key 1942 and 1944 Anglo-Ethiopian Agreements, Lewis does not shrink from observing that their eventual application was "despite the known strength of Somali feeling ... and the natural repugnance of the British officials on the spot to participate in what many regarded as a betrayal of Somali interests."

Later editions have added the Mogadishu 'Revolution' of 21 October 1969; the growth, extent and collapse of Soviet influence and the superficiality of Siad Barre's 'scientific socialism'; the attempt to 'liberate' the Ogaden and the problem of the subsequent mass movements of refugees. The fourth edition under review includes not only discussion of Somali opposition movements and the collapse of central authority but political developments in the north and north-east and the failure to date of international intervention. 'Warlords' are identified but so also is another emergent group which Lewis perceptively dubs ' the scrap merchants'. Even the former British Protectorate's current claims to international recognition as the Republic of Somaliland are hesitantly projected.

These additional chapters are all original and they vividly portray more recent events against a background of the remarkable resilience of Somali cultural values. To Lewis, "the general (chaotic) situation vividly recalls the descriptions of Burton and other nineteenth century European explorers; a land of clan (and clan-segment) republics ...". And if this and some of Lewis' contemporary interpretations might be felt overemphasized and rather rigid by some Somali and other scholars (who get short shrift in the footnotes!), the facts are well marshalled and the reader is left in no doubt that in their interpretation the author draws heavily on an unequalled lifetime of anthropological and political analyses of the structure of traditional Somali life and society. This is certainly a book to read as it is likely to be influential.

British Empire Book
I M Lewis
James Currey Ltd
0 85255 483 4