The modern media image of Somalia is very simple : a terrible place with no government at all where people kill each other for obscure reasons vaguely linked with the rise of radical Islam . A specialized literature has developed on the subject[1], and even if this image is exaggerated , it does have a strong element of truth . But then at the same time , in an unrecognized “state” in the north , issuing from a former British colony , lays a country similarly populated by Somali , similarly Muslim , belonging to the same Islamic turuq (Brotherhoods) , speaking the same language and sharing the same culture , Somaliland . And yet Somaliland , the internationally unrecognized smaller brother of the southern violent country , is probably the most peaceful nation in Africa , with streets so safe at night that one might be in Geneva . “Reborn” on May 18th 1991 , Somaliland did not share the colonial fate of its southern twin but was a British Protectorate .

There are of course a variety of reasons beyond divergent colonial histories for the enormous difference in political climate between North and South . But it had long been my suspicion – not shared by every Somalia specialist – that colonial history had a lot to do with it[2]. But we lacked a global and comprehensive history of the British Somaliland Protectorate . There were many books on the so-called “Mad Mullah” , Mohamed Abdulle Hassan who fought both the Ethiopians and the British in the territory between 1899 and his death from the Spanish Flu in 1920 . But this was proto-colonial , the British spending all their time in fighting and not administering . And after 1920  there was hardly any work done on the British Protectorate simply as a colony and not as a gung-ho adventure story – which the war with the “Mad Mullah” undoubtedly was ! This is why the decision by Mr Millman to start his book in 1920 was a wise one : he starts where most others stops . And he goes on to explain simply how things were done . The book is both systematic and lackadaisical , dull and picturesque . This is because it sticks closely to the reality of the Protectorate , which was all those things . Post-colonial studies have often had a tendency towards the ideological : either colonialists were evil people who oppressed the natives , or , on the contrary , they represented the good old days when Europeans with common sense knew how to deal with the complexities of Africa . Mr Millman does not belong to either of these schools , he is simply a realist . And the Northern Somali reality , once the “Mad Mullah” epic was over , tended to be poor and narrow (one reason while we had no books on colonial Somaliland) . One reason was that the Somali population did not want “development” , something hard to understand for a contemporary researcher . In the words of an administrator in 1920 , “transforming activities are not necessary because Administration is only popular with the natives insofar as it is confined to settling disputes and preserving order” (p 29) . This attitude was set in a very peculiar syndrome : the Somali feared a British withdrawal[3] but , at the same time , they did not want British interference .


They particularly resented education (the only three madrasa in the territory were only attended by the children of Arab traders and Indian civil servants) and in May 1939 rioting against school attendance killed three . There was only one small hospital in Berbera and “Indirect Rule was a non-starter because there simply were no native authorities to associate with the task” (p 33) . The picture of pre-war British Somaliland that comes out of these pages is paradoxical but Somali-coherent and it corresponds to a clear-cut assessment made at the time by another man who knew the Somali well . In the 1993 re-edition of his book[4] Gerald Hanley quoted the remark an old Somali had made to him in 1941 , after he had “liberated” him from the Italians : “I want to be well-governed and to be left alone”. Hanley was right about the quote : this was the gist , the hard core of the Somali concept of good governance and Millman sums it up about Somaliland in another quote , this time from a British administrator : “The Empire is in the business of enforcing her” (p 56). What is “her[5] ? Xeer is the system of (unwritten) legal obligations and punishments pertaining to each clan . This “traditional law” , far from being “primitive” or “embryonic” is in the contrary extraordinarily precise and detailed , for those elements that pertain to traditional Somali life. Its adaptation to all aspects of Somali life is such that it always trumped shari’ah law , even after the Somali became Muslims . And Xeer was conceived of without any reference to an overall state which would be a law-giver and law-enforcer[6]. So what was good governance for a traditional Somali ? A system that would respect Xeer , provide a neutral interpreter of the Law and , in case of need , a referee that would make sure the Xeer customary legal decision would be carried out . But at the same time a system which would not tell the Somali what he should do or not do outside of the judicial moments of his life . This is exactly what the Protectorate authorities provided . Courts which blended Xeer clanic law with British Common Law (for the “modern” aspects of life) , with Xeer prevalence and an impartial (i.e. non-clanic) arbitration , both in court and later outside . The carrying out of Justice decisions was given to the authority of the Illalo police units , made up of Somali soldiers commanded by British Camel Corps officers . They patrolled the arid territory and took care of the wrongdoers . Apart from that they had nothing to enforce since the Protectorate did nothing apart from supervising respect for native law . Was this system a kind of western-enforced formalization of the “noble savage” vision ? Yes , in a way .

The Somali were neither “developed” nor “oppressed” ; in Hanley’s words , they were “well-governed and left alone”. Conditions were primitive , including for the British administrators . Salaries were close to bare survival – £900/year for a married man , £700 for a bachelor – distractions were non-existent , utilities scarce , the administration skeletal[7] and the economy Spartan[8]. Of course this rough utopia could only survive in the absence of any outside interference . There were only two outside threats : the Italians and the Ethiopians . It was the Italians who blew it apart by invading the Protectorate in June 1940 and occupying it for seven months before being chased out again . But then the Ethiopians poured salt into the wound by occupying the Hawd area of the Ogaden border . Ethiopia had occupied the Ogaden back in 1887 , preferring the role of local Scramble for Africa predator to the role of victim . But it wanted more than arid bush land and it was mainly angling for a sea opening . Since their victory over Italy , the British controlled all potential sea openings for Ethiopia , all the way from Massawa down to Kisimayo . So the Ethiopians started encroaching on the Hawd , pushing north-westward , tricking or buying Somali into signing papers recognizing they were Ethiopian citizens and using those with the newborn UN administration in New York (p 180) . The UN ploy would eventually lead to success at first – and later to catastrophe – in Eritrea ; but in Somaliland it only contributed to alienate the Somali from the British , since the Somali felt abandoned when Secretary of State Ernest Bevin 1946 unification plan for all  Somali territories was dropped in the face of Ethiopian (and US) opposition[9].

The post war years never saw a return to the balance of pre-war social equilibrium because the world had changed ; on both sides . On the British side the new generation of colonial authorities did not understand any more what their predecessors had known and they wanted to destroy the old Xeer-cum-British Law system because it was seen as “uncivilized” . Attorney General J.S.R. Cole had tried to abolish the court system (and the Illalo police which was underpinning it) because “to suggest that justice can be founded on any other principle than individual responsibility is savagery and it destroys all hope of progress” (p 203) . Neither the Ethiopians nor the Italians who had come back under the UN flag in 1948[10] recognized Xeer and as a result fighting increased on the Protectorate’s borders. And inside the territory , the promotion of native administration did not progress as “the évolués were more interested in politics than in administration”.

The first Somali political party , the Somali Youth League (SYL) , had been created in 1943 in the South[11]. Its “northern branch” , the Somali National League (SNL) had started its activities in Somaliland in 1947 but the enmity between Darood and Issaq had soon led SYL to be a Darood party while SNL became an Issaq one . Given the nationalistic fervour – and in the 1950s the rising Nasserite mystique – SYL and SNL which disagreed on everything , agreed on one : the Protectorate territory was duty bound to merge with the former Somalia Italiana as soon as independence came . This rush to fusion , which was to have such momentous consequences , is the only part of the book which is underwritten . Given the importance of the topic , it would have been useful to get a bit more about the 1957 to 1960 process which the author simply depicts through the lamentations of the powerless British administrators (London could not wait to run away from the problem , given the absolute uselessness of the colony) . Mohamed Ibrahim Egal , the SNL Prime-Minister-in-waiting who was to have another life as President of re-independent Somaliland after 1993 , was tricked , pushed and manipulated both by public opinion and by SYL members into agreeing to the future merger[12].

In fact , given the larger population of the South and given the fact that over the last three years the British-Somaliland relationship had been seriously damaged by the retrocession of the Hawd to Ethiopia , HMG did not extend any protection to its former colony , did not ask it to apply for Commonwealth membership and let it sink into the maws of the southern politicians . The whole fragile construction of a westernized Somali traditional fragment seemed to sink with it into a world where blind force had been the rule since 1923 . A year later there was a desperate coup in former “Somaliland” , by “secessionist” soldiers eager to escape the Darood embrace . It failed and it took ten years of guerrilla war (1981-1991) to pry the old Protectorate territory loose from the southern hold . But today , the unrecognized (but working) Somaliland Republic is a living memento to the dour minimalist administrators of days gone by who had managed to understand the core – perhaps without the trimmings – of the traditional Somali culture . If you read this book and compare it to the pathetic attempts of the international community at resuscitating a (non working) State in southern Somalia , you will understand why .

[1] Michael Maren : The Road to Hell . New York . The Free Press . 1997 , John Burnett : Where Soldiers Fear to Tread . London . Heinemann . 2005 , James Fergusson : The World’s Most Dangerous Place . London . Bantam Press . 2013 are some examples , often with a more interesting content than their sensational titles might suggest.

[2] This is a point I tried to develop in my essay “Benign Neglect versus La Grande Somalia : The Colonial Legacy and the Post-Colonial Somali State” pp 35-49 in Markus Hoehne and Virginia Luling (eds) : Milk and Peace , Drought and War. Essays in Honour of I.M. Lewis . London . Hurst and Co . 2010 .

[3] In 1910 , at the height of the « Mad Mullah » emergency , the hard-pressed British had completely withdrawn from the interior and only kept a toehold on the coast . Many of their Issak allies were then killed by the Darood insurgent forces .

[4] Gerald Hanley : Warriors . London . Eland . 1993 . The author had published its World War Two East African campaign memories  under the title Warriors and Strangers in 1971 and later separated the Strangers part which is about Kenya from the Warriors part which is about the Somali .

[5] The modern Somali spelling would be Xeer.

[6] For a very interesting modern treatment of Xeer see Michael van Notten : The Law of the Somalis . Trenton . The Red Sea Press . 2005

[7] The number of expatriate staff culminated at 376 , with 144 Indians and 232 British .

[8] There was no mining of any sort , hardly any agriculture and the only production were animal flocks whose excess production was exported to Aden .

[9] Bevin’s memory has remained extraordinarily popular among Somali . In 1990 , this author still saw an old yellowed photograph of the long dead Secretary of State pinned over the entrance of an okal (collapsible Somali hut) in the Somaliland bush .

[10] The UN had created an ad hoc body – Amministrazione Fiduciaria in Somalia or AFIS – which brought back all the Italian colonial administrators under the international flag .

[11] Paradoxically , its statutes had been drafted by a British administrator in Mogadiscio .

[12] Many years later , soon before his death in 2002 , he told this author that this had been  « the greatest blunder in my life »