The Somali Youth League, Ethiopian Somalis and the Greater Somalia Idea, c.1946-48

Author : Cedric Barnes

Year : July 2007

In 1946 Makhtal established the SYC in Harar with himself as President. It is noteworthy that such an anti-British figure should head an important branch of what had been a very pro-British nationalist organisation. Indeed it seems Makhtal's initial presence in Harar was to complain against the British Military Administration and its continuing disarmament campaign in the Ogaden.38 Harar was an important spiritual and political centre for the Ogaadeen Somalis, and it was logical that the Somali political club should have a branch there. When Makhtal first arrived in Harar he was well received by the Ethiopian government, which saw him as an important historical ally in the Ogaden against British and Italian colonialism. Furthermore, in 1946 the SYC still appeared to an ally of Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian government saw that it could even be used to support claims for a greater Ethiopia, including not only the Ogaden but also ex-Italian Somaliland, or at the very least to prevent the restoration of the Italians to their former colonies. British sources report that while he was in Harar the Ethiopian government paid him a healthy monthly allowance.39

However, once in Harar Makhtal's politics began to change. Harar had been under full Ethiopian control since 1942 and like many areas of Muslim Ethiopia the local population did not wholly welcome restored Ethiopian government. Harari townsmen had been given a certain amount of privilege and promotion during the Italian occupation, resulting in a social and economic revival directly linked with the demotion of 'Amhara Christian' political dominance. But three years after the restoration of Harar to Ethiopia, Harari townsmen once again found themselves under the dominance of Ethiopian Christian outsiders, and had lost what social and economic gains they had made under the Italian regime. As a result of these grievances an ethnic Harari association was founded sometime in 1945 or 1946, which is remembered today with two Arabic titles, the jam'iya al-wataniya or jam'iya hurriya al harariya, translated respectively as 'the nationalist society' or 'the society for Harari freedom'.40 However when Makhtal Daahir established the SYC in Harar, the smaller Harari society allied itself and merged with the club, presumably to achieve more political influence. After exposure to the restored Ethiopian government in Harar and the local resentment it had engendered, Makhtal began to see the Ethiopian government as just as detrimental to Ogaadeen and Somali aspirations as he considered the British to be. British sources record that Makhtal's nationalism was further spurred by being kept waiting in Addis Ababa for an audience with the Emperor where he met several Eritrean Muslims who influenced his attitude to the restoration of Ethiopian rule.41
By early September 1947 Makhtal left Harar and returned to the safety of Ogaden, still under British Military Administration where the Ethiopian police had no jurisdiction. However, BMA jurisdiction did not deter the Ethiopian government from flexing its muscles in Jigjiga in the RA where Ethiopian police attempted to arrest the vice-President of the Harar branch of the SYL, Haji Kalile Ahmed, but where large numbers of SYL members prevented him being taken to Harar.45 In another symbolic act signalling the Ethiopian sovereignty of the Ogaden, the Ethiopian government granted a concession to the American Sinclair Oil Company to prospect for oil in the Ogaden still under the BMA.46 This was a clear sign that the Ethiopian government would now push for the return of the RA and Ogaden. Furthermore, in the face of an increasingly belligerent SYL and in anticipation of regaining control of the RA, the Ethiopians appointed a more vigorous Ethiopian representative in Jigjiga whom the British officials described as 'a senior official of strong anti-British persuasion to check the growth of the SYL in Jigjiga'.47 The Ethiopian government, not without foundation, strongly suspected that the British were fostering the growth of the SYL.48