The aim of this essay is to piece together the political philosophy of the late President of Somaliland, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, into a set of principles and values that underpinned his political outlook and his actions. This seventh anniversary of his death provides an appropriate context to examine Egal’s political legacy, with the distance afforded by time, hopefully, enabling a measure of objectivity in the analysis. As with all such endeavors, this enterprise is fraught with the dangers of simplification of complex domestic and foreign policies on one hand and over-analysis of actions dictated by the practical exigencies of the day on the other. In this context, we must remain aware that Egal always viewed himself, first and foremost, as a practical politician and was generally suspicious or skeptical of the grandiose claims of political ideologues. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, his flair for realpolitik and focus upon practical governance notwithstanding, Egal believed passionately in certain philosophical principles which grounded his political beliefs and guided his policies, and which can and deserve to be presented as a coherent political philosophy. It is this underlying essence of his political legacy that this essay will attempt to explore and elucidate. For want of a better phrase, we shall call this set of core, political beliefs and principles, or philosophy if you will, Egalism.
A major constraint in the research for this essay, not to mention a sad loss for students of Somali and African politics, is the woeful dearth of published work by Mohammed Ibrahim Egal himself. Much of the research for this essay is, therefore, based upon Egal’s speeches, letters to various organizations and individuals, conversations with the writer over many years after his release from prison, correspondence with the writer during and after his stints in prison, and discussions with his friends and contemporaries. It is a great pity and a tremendous loss for scholars of African politics and history that Egal was not able to finish a book he had long been planning on Africa’s post-independence political history and his vision for the continent’s future. His detailed and personal knowledge of many of the principal players in Africa’s post-independence political history, not to mention his personal participation in many of the defining moments of post colonial African history, would have provided his views with a unique and definitive insight.
Somali Nationalism & Pan-Africanism
Anti-colonial nationalism was certainly one of the principal foundations of Egal’s political ethos and evolution. He spent the late 1940s and early 1950s studying in Britain and was exposed to the anti-colonial fervor prevalent throughout the British Empire at the time. Among the African students he met at this time with whom he became close friends and who would go on to lead the independence struggle in his own country (much as Egal did in British Somaliland) was Tom Mboya of Uganda. Egal also got introduced to the Pan-Africanism of Nkrumah, the tenets of which seemed to him to offer an African and nationalist remedy to the problems inherent in the colonial borders bequeathed the continent by the European powers. Indeed, Egal was to strike up a close friendship with Nkrumah that was only broken years later by the exile of Nkrumah and the imprisonment of Egal.
After completing his formal education in Britain, Egal returned to the British Somaliland Protectorate in 1957 and immediately got involved in the nationalist struggle for independence, quickly becoming the leader of the Somali National League (SNL) - the independence party of British Somaliland that formed the first government of Somaliland. The people of British Somaliland were very susceptible to the idea of political independence and the drive for independence from Britain found fertile ground in the national psyche.
The SNL was not the only political party agitating for independence in the British Somaliland Protectorate. There was also the United Somali Party (USP) which had a socialist perspective. Although, there was a clan element to the differences between the SNL and the USP, it is also true that there were ideological differences. The philosophical orientation of the SNL in ideological terms was pro-western and in favor of market economics, while that of the USP was pro-eastern (i.e. USSR and China) and favored a socialist, command economy. This leads us to one of the defining principles of Egalism – a belief in market economics and the limitation of government in economic activity principally to regulation and supervision. Another important difference between the two parties relates to Somali nationalism and Egal’s different perspective to most, if not all, of his contemporaries regarding union with Somalia and how to achieve the dream of Greater Somalia. Egal opposed the immediate union of Somaliland and Somalia which was promoted by all the other nationalist leaders of Somaliland and which was enthusiastically supported by the public. He had found the leaders of the Somali Youth League (SYL), the principal nationalist party of Italian Somalia, somewhat cooler to the idea of union and he found their proposed conditions for the proposed union effectively subsumed Somaliland into Somalia.
He, therefore, proposed that Somaliland defer the proposed union for a period of six months during which period the two sides would negotiate terms for union which would be acceptable to both sides. He envisaged the creation of Greater Somalia as a process whereby each specific territory would unite with a core Somali Republic (to be formed by the union of British Somaliland and Italian Somalia) through negotiations on the terms of such proposed union. Accordingly, he believed that it was essential that Somaliland and Italian Somalia negotiate terms for union which would serve as a template for the other territories that would accede to the union in the near future, i.e. Djibouti, NFD and Haud & Reserved Area. Upon the independence of Somaliland, when the SNL won the elections to form Somaliland’s first government, Egal’s political opponents decried his proposal as an attempt to cling to power at the expense of the dream of Greater Somalia. As the independence of Italian Somalia on 1 st July 1960 approached, the nationalist fervor in Somaliland became an unstoppable torrent that could not be contained, and Egal reluctantly acceded to popular demand and Somaliland united with Italian Somalia unconditionally on 1 st July 1960 to create the Somali Republic. The terms of the union were those proposed by the SYL which Egal had found unpalatable.
Egal’s vision of a Republic established through negotiation and dialogue and characterized by power sharing, regional autonomy and equality was replaced by the voluntary takeover of Somaliland by Italian Somalia. The inequitable terms of the union soon became apparent to the population of Somaliland, once the heady effect of the nationalist fervor of independence had abated. The union had to be ratified by the people of both Somaliland and Italian Somalia through the adoption of the constitution of the new Republic in a national referendum in 1961. While the new constitution was overwhelmingly ratified in the erstwhile Italian Somalia, it was soundly defeated in Somaliland evidencing the dissatisfaction of the populace there to the terms of the union into which their nationalist fervor had precipitously impelled them. While his opponents had characterized Egal’s opposition to the terms of the union proposed by the SYL in the context of his personal political interests, the fact is that his opposition was motivated not only by the inequity of the terms of union, but also by a different vision of Greater Somalia. Egal understood much more clearly than his fellow Somali politicians the great difficulties that would be faced in obtaining the acquiescence of other African nationalist leaders to the creation of Greater Somalia.
He understood very clearly that that both Ethiopia and Kenya would characterize the quest for Greater Somalia in terms of an irredentist Somali Republic seeking to annex contiguous regions of it neighbors in direct opposition to the central tenets of the African nationalism, i.e. Pan-Africanism. He believed that the only way that Somalis could successfully make the case for Greater Somalia within a Pan-African context was by reference to the core anti-colonial principle of self determination. To this end, he proposed that the Somali people had been divided by the colonial carve up of Africa and that with the liberation of Africa, the Somali people themselves freely and voluntarily wished a union of the territories they inhabited. On this basis, Egal reasoned that it would be impossible for fellow Africans to deny Somalis their inalienable right to self government. For this reason, he argued that the Republic established through the union of Somaliland and Italian Somalia embody this principle by enacting a constitution that guaranteed a significant degree of regional autonomy through regional assemblies and protected the rights of minorities. He was convinced that this was the best way to attract the other Somali inhabited territories to join the union voluntarily and also overcome the objections of other African leaders.
However, events overtook the internal debate over the union as Britain reneged on its promise to hold a plebiscite supervised by the UN in the NFD on union with Somalia and to then abide by the wishes of the majority in the territory as evidenced by said plebiscite in the independence negotiations for Kenya. The result of the vote was an overwhelming majority in favor of union with Somalia, which the British government ignored by granting independence to Kenya without making any provision for respecting the wishes of the people of the NFD. The new Republic of Somalia responded by walking out of the British Commonwealth amid condemnations of “the perfidy of Albion”. Tensions between the new Republic and Kenya and Ethiopia steadily worsened and in 1964 the first war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Haud & Reserved Area, which Britain had ceded to Ethiopia, despite promises to the contrary to Somaliland prior to independence, broke out.
Another attempt to reconcile the perceived irredentism of Somali nationalism with the continental nationalism of Pan-Africanism, which is a another defining element of Egalism, is evident in Egal’s foreign policy during his brief period as Prime Minister of the Republic between 1967 and 1969. Almost immediately upon assuming office in 1967, Egal embarked upon a policy of détente with Somalia’s two neighbors, i.e. Ethiopia and Kenya with whom relations had been tense, and often bellicose, since the Republic was established in 1960. He was successful in establishing cordial, personal relations with both Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and these warm personal friendships were translated into a significant easing of tensions on both borders. Somali trucks and property which had been confiscated by Ethiopia as well as individuals who had been imprisoned in that country for violating border regulations were freed and propaganda directed by both sides against each other was stopped. Similar confidence building measures were taken between Kenya and Somalia. Egal embarked upon a charm offensive throughout Africa designed to counter Somalia’s negative image in the continent as a recalcitrant, warlike irredentist bent upon wresting away land from its neighbors.
His close, personal relationships with many African leaders, including Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Kaunda, Nyrere and Tafawe Balewa helped immeasurably in this effort and he was largely successful in reintegrating Somalia into the mainstream of African politics. It is important to point out here that Egal had spent three years in the political wilderness in Somalia from 1964 (when he resigned from government) until 1967 when his candidate won the Presidential elections and he became Prime minister. During this time, in addition to planning and executing his political comeback, he developed a rationale for reconciling the unification of Somali people and territories with Pan-Africanism. He foresaw that the best hope for economic development and advancement for the newly independent states of Africa lay in regional groupings that would not only create larger markets with economies of scale for investment and trade, but that would also enable African countries to negotiate with foreign countries and companies on a more equal footing.
To this end, he proposed enlargement of the East African Community (grouping Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) to include Somalia, Ethiopia and Zambia. This proposal, which was positively received by his contemporaries, was to be announced at the East African Community (EAC) summit meeting in Arusha in 1968. Egal had been charged by the other leaders, namely Haile Selassie, Kenyatta, Obote and Kaunda, with the responsibility to prepare the statement however, in the event, Egal was unable to attend the said meeting in order to defeat a no-confidence vote in the Somali Parliament orchestrated by his opponents, and it fell to Julius Nyrere of Tanzania, as the host, to present the proposal in Arusha. Nyrere chose not to do so. Later that year, 1968, Nyrere announced the implementation of his personal vision of African Socialism, “Ujamaa” to the party congress of his TANU party in Arusha, and the famous Arusha Declaration that the world remembers today is Nyrere’s proclamation of “Ujamaa” and not the expansion of the EAC to reshape East Africa that was the brain child of Egal. In the context of Somalia’s quest for the union of the Somali people, Egal’s vision was as simple as it was practical. Since the Somali people were pastoralists, migrating seasonally with their herds of livestock in pursuit of pasture and rainfall, the fundamental problem faced by them as a result of their division between various nation-states related principally to crossing the borders of mutually hostile countries.
Once Somalia and Ethiopia became members of the new, enlarged EAC the immigration and customs controls at the borders would be greatly minimized enabling the nomadic Somali pastoralists to move freely with their herds across national boundaries, much as the Masai and other pastoralists move back and forth between Kenya and Tanzania. Thus, the single greatest source of friction between the Somalia and its neighbors, Ethiopia and Kenya, would be removed. Secondly, Egal reasoned that the close economic and political cooperation between Somalia and its two neighbors, which the new treaty relationship envisioned, would create the conditions that would encourage these two countries to afford their Somali regions greater autonomy. In this perspective, he was indeed ahead of his time, as evidenced by the federal constitution granting a significant measure of autonomy to the individual regions adopted by Ethiopia after the overthrow of the Mengistu dictatorship. Egal also reasoned that by replacing the constant friction over the border, not to mention the armed belligerency that characterized Somalia’s relationships with its neighbors, with free movement of people and trade, the Somali people would shed their traditional hostility and suspicion of Ethiopia and Kenya. Again, Egal was far ahead of his time, as is evidenced by the open borders between Ethiopia and Somaliland and the amity between the peoples of these countries. This is all the more remarkable since the Somaliland was the part of the erstwhile Republic that was most belligerent to Ethiopia.