Mark Adams commented on two blog entries: Somalia Parts 2 [The Worst Case Scenario Begins] and 3 [The Somalis Meet Europe].  I thank him for his comments and respond here.   On some points, we disagree less than it might appear,  on some we agree, but a gap probably still remains.

On your first point, Mark — the geographic origins of the Somali people — recent scholarship points to the southeastern mountains of Ethiopia as the original of the Saho, Afar, Somali and Oromo.  They speak related Cushitic languages. According to the Cambridge History of Africa, the Somalis migrated southward from the mountains several thousand years ago into what is now Kenya, then to the coast and northward around the Horn. They were on the northern coast of the Horn by around 900 AD, adopted Islam and began moving southward into the interior, slowly but steadily evicting the Oromos, a process that continued into the 20th century. (I will provide the exact citation later.)

Bernard Lewis, the best known historian of the Somalis, is not reliable on recent events or changing historical views.  His best-known book came out in 1965, and has not been thoroughly updated for decades, though the latest edition was in 2002.  For example, his population estimate is four and a half million, while current figures are around 8-9 million.

I acknowledged the existence of the sultanates, but pointed out that they were clan-based and did not unite clans in bigger units.  I was noting the absence of political organization above the clan level. If I left the impression that the Somalis had no politics at all, I want to correct that.  Within the individual sultanate or clan and its subunits, the Somalis were probably as political as anyone.

Colonial rule was imposed on the clans from above, but clan authority still survived, first in competition with Europeans, then in competition with a newly independent national government with an unfamiliar political structure. The Somalis have struggled since 1960 to harmonize a nation-state with deeply rooted clan loyalties and habits. As I wrote, Somali unity was first advocated under Islam by Mohammed Abdille at the end of the 19th century, to avoid clan rivalry.

Islam again seems to be a unifying force around which a national authority might succeed. That would mean taking power from the clans, the ‘warlords’ and maybe others — perhaps powerful merchants. As it was a century ago, a puritanical form of Islam, not the usual Somali Sufi form, is proposed.

I don’t know if the Adals were a clan, or even fully Somali.  They were close to the Afars — some use the names interchangeably — and may have had a mixed heritage, possibly including Adere and Oromo elements. Perhaps you can direct me to a good source on this. Mohammed Gragn, whom you mention, is more often referred to as Adal, not Somali. He was an effective leader who created a multi-ethnic army that included Somalis when he devastated the Ethiopian highlands. The Somalis were known as fierce fighters but more interested in plunder than in occupying the cold highlands.  Gragn was interested in occupation.

Two further points.  I agree that famine is often man-made. Even when the drought is real, politics makes things worse. But there were horrific famines in the early colonial years when there was still little scope for foreign meddling. It is hard to imagine a riskier life than that of a nomadic pastoralist in a semi-desert.

The Somalis themselves acknowledge their need to be ready to fight over water and pasture in dry years. In the first clan agreements with the British, protection from other clans was their main interest. Significantly, there is no evidence that they tried to oppose, as Somalis, the British or Italians, until Mohammed Abdille rallied them under the banner of Islam. The Somalis themselves credit him with launching the idea.

On the question of Ethiopia and the Ogaden, I took a neutral position. I did not say that Ethiopia has an ancient right to the Ogaden, or that it doesn’t. I described the Ogaden as a place that would become part of Ethiopia. Today’s border between Ethiopia and its Somali neighbors is mostly a creation of the 20th century, though drawn without Somali participation. Unfair as that is, stronger powers always draw borders to their own advantage (not just in Africa: the US southwest, China in Tibet, the Russian empire, etc.).

The Somalis and Ethiopians have a long, tangled history. The first recorded use of the term ‘Somali’ is in a victory hymn of Emperor Yeshak, who led the Ethiopian armies to the coast of the Indian Ocean in 1415, allegedly riding his horse into the surf. For centuries, fighting was endemic between the Christian highlands and the Muslim lowlands, sometimes including the Ogaden.

Almost no African borders coincide with ethnic borders; Somalis are far from alone in having several nationalities. The Organization of African Unity, accepting reality, agreed in 1964 to accept colonial borders as their permanent borders.