The (Im)possibility of the Ethiopian Somali Blog

My dissertation research focuses on Somali nationalism as a spatial imagination – the ways in which Somalis imagined new geographies for the Horn of Africa, and for a time sought to reorganize political space into a Somali state without colonial boundaries: a Greater Somalia. To speak of the geography of the Somali people is to describe a cultural, ethnic and linguistic landscape which can be mapped across four states: Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya. It invokes a cultural nation that both preexisted and exceeds the boundaries of the contemporary nation-state of Somalia. It points to a history of the multiple colonialisms governing Somalis: Ethiopian, French, British, Italian – and how they have shaped the geography of the Horn.

Though my work is historical and traces the pan-Somali imagination to its end with the  overthrow of the military dictatorship of Mohamed Siyaad Barre and Somalia’s plunge into civil war, I am interested in the afterlives of Somali nationalism and how Somaliness has been remapped and reconstituted in new ways. Nowhere has that perhaps transformed more than in Ethiopia since 1991. The Somali region of Ethiopia first came under Ethiopian rule with the formation of the modern Ethiopian nation-state at the turn of the 20th century. It was the culmination of decades of centralization efforts by succeeding emperors to consolidate their traditional northern Ethiopian highland polities, followed by an expansionist turn south and southeast under Emperor Menelik II, doubling Ethiopia in size. Ethiopian claims to the Somali region were ratified in a series of treaties between Menelik and the European powers occupying neighbouring Somali colonies in 1897, and by 1932, Ethiopia’s borders with French Somaliland, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland were demarcated under Emperor Haile Selassie.

The Ethiopian empire that expanded into the Somali region carried with it a northern highland definition of national identity. These included religious and cultural symbols rooted in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the Amharic language, a feudal land tenure system and ox-plough agriculture. Ethiopianness was thus synonymous with these northern particularities in imperial Ethiopia, and the incorporation of lowland peoples into the empire – many of whom, like Somalis, had other languages, were Muslim or practiced indigenous religions, and engaged in pastoral agriculture – were through policies of assimilation. The suppression of difference was part of the process of becoming an Ethiopian in the Ethiopian Empire. Though the overthrow of the emperor in 1974 transformed the old imperial order in Ethiopia in a number of ways, such as the introduction of the concept of national citizenship to peoples who were previously subjects of the empire, the highland character, the elevation of Amharic language, the erasure of ethnic difference, and the centralizing state impulse remained intact even after the Marxist Derg regime took over.

The new political order implemented in Ethiopia after the 1991 overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam and his socialist military dictatorship was one of ethnic regional autonomy, political devolution, and the idea of democracy. It marked a shift away from an historically assimilationist Ethiopian identity based on Amhara/“highlander” culture and cultural symbols, to produce new configurations of identity, ethnicity and nationality, and remake “Ethiopian” as a heterogenous category. This gave Somalis unprecedented political power in Ethiopia, though rights and freedoms in the Somali region remain precarious and citizenship contested. Ethiopian national identity is no longer understood to be a contradiction or opposition to Somali identity in the contemporary context of a semi-autonomous Somali state within a larger Ethiopian federal state. The language of instruction in schools is now Somali, not Amharic, and government institutions in the region are administered by ethnic Somalis. Somali culture, previously used as a marker of difference from Ethiopia and cultural otherness, now appears daily on Ethiopian television and is displayed prominently at national events. The annual “Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day” was hosted in the Somali region in 2014. At the same time, the collapse of the nation-state in Somalia and the demise of Greater Somalia as a political aspiration has given way to new sovereigns, forms of governance and political subjectivities both within and beyond the boundaries of Somalia. These two critical historical junctures have enabled a rethinking of both Somaliness and Ethiopianness in relation to these post-1991 state formations, producing new configurations of identity, ethnicity, nationality and citizenship. The Ethiopian Somali is now a thinkable, though contentious, category.

Safia Aidid is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard University, whose research focuses on Somali nationalism and its interaction with the Ethiopian state. You can find her on Twitter @SafiaA.


  1. An interesting read.

    I suppose this is a great start for future relations between Ethiopia and Somalia/land. Wonder if it’ll be more like US-Mexico or US-Canada.

    How would you compare (and foresee) the Ethiopian Somali to its Kenyan Somali counter part?

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