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Somalia: The genesis of the idea of federalism

Tuesday January 30, 2024
By: M. Trunji

Ambassador Enrico Anzilotti (1898-1983)

A bit of background

The concept to give Somalia a federal system is not, as some may assume, a direct consequence of the civil war that ravaged the country. The idea of federal system divided the Somali society in pre-independence era, and remains, to this day, a highly divisive issue. The idea to make Somalia e federal system had its genesis in a meeting the Hisbia Dighil Mirifle party (HDM) had with Ambassador Enrico Anzilotti, Administrator of Somalia, in 1955. The meeting, convened by the Administrator himself was attended by leading figures of the Hisbia Dighil Mirifle (HDM) party including Abdinour Mohamed Huseen, President of the Party, Hagi Abdullahi Mursal, Vice President, Abdulkadir Mohamed Aden “Zoppo”, Secretary-General, Iman Mohamed Hussen, party member and Territorial Council member, Imam  Osman Ali, Secretary of the HDM branch in Baidoa, and others. The meeting came as a result of a petition the party submitted to the Italian Prime Minister, the Under-secretary for Foreign Affairs, the Administrator, and the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations in which the party had requested the federal system to be introduced in Somalia in line with its political programme enshrined in the party statute. The party, representing the population living between the two rivers, deeply feared the hegemony of the northern pastoralist population forming the back born of the SYL party. “They reinstated the incompatibility between them and the others two ethnic groups, and the impossibility, according to them, to live/coexist as brothers” writes Anzilotti. The federal State the party proposed was a federal country divided in 3 tribal regions: one for the Darod, one for the Hawiye, and the third for the Rahanwein. (Record of the Meeting of 6 August, 1955)

Although recognizing the right to everyone to hold his political opinion on the form of the future Somali State, Anzilotti made it clear that the Italian administration will never encourage a federal system for Somalia. “As long as long we have the responsibility the UN placed on us to bring Somalia to independence, federalism will never be adopted for Somalia”, writes Anzilotti. The good Ambassador cited a number of reasons for ruling out federalism system as an option for Somalia, and they included the tribal structure of the society, and the inadequacy of the territory’s economy, two factories interconnected likely to lead, in the view of the Administrator, to a process of disintegration of the territory. Anzilotto held the view that the best solution, if not the only chance for Somalia, was instead the constitution of a United National Front: “It was absurd “, he said “to be together in a common front on the boundary issue, (meaning the border dispute with Ethiopia) and, at the same time promote propaganda for internal divisions”.

Anzilotti: Federalism is a “suicidal” solution for Somalia

Days before meeting the HDM delegation, Anzilotti had a long meeting with the SYL leadership, led by Aden Abdulla, leader of the party. There was a wide range of items on the agenda for discussion, including the issue of the federal system to be introduced in Somalia. Although not declaring publicly, the SYL was suspicious that the Italian authorities were secretly encouraging the idea of federalism, but Anzilotti surprised his guests when he stated that federalism for the future State of Somalia was a “suicidal” solution leading eventually the territory, already plagued by multiple tribal conflicts, into worrying clan enclaves. (See record of the meeting on 3 August, 1955). He added that, even if the future Somali Legislative Assembly, scheduled to be elected in less than a year, sanctioned the federal system, Italy would have reviewed the mandate it received from the UN Trusteeship Council to administer Somalia. The Administrator informed the peripheral organs of the Territory (Governors and District Commissioners) the official stance of the Administration on the issue and the risk associated with it.

Federalism came into the open at the Constituent Assembly

The form of government (federal or unitary) the future nation would adopt was subject of prolonged debate in the Constituent Assembly. In the discussions on the draft Constitution, Hon. Hagi Abdullahi Mursal, of the Hisbi Destur Mustaqil Somali party (HDMS) introduced an amendment calling for federal system for the future State with the possibility for the Somali people to express their approval through a referendum (Records of the Constituent Assembly n. 6 of April 6, 1960, quoted in (Mario D’Antonio, La Costituzione Somala , precedenti storici e document costituzionali, 1962). This preference for the federalism derived from deep seated fear of dominance by the nomadic pastotoralist clans the bulk of which generally support the SYL party. By contrast, the SYL advocated a unitary, strong centralized government, arguing that federalism would encourage clannishness. The federal system was seen as dangerous system that clan and regional groups could resort to with potentially destructive effects on the unitary of the country. In the end, political and numerical strength enabled the Lega party to prevail and the unitary system was adopted.

It should, however, be noted that, following the reforms introduced in 1958, under the new denomination of “Hisbi Destur Mustaqil Somali” (HDMS), the party has departed from the idea of the federal system, it had long advocated, in favour of the more amenable form of regional autonomy, where matters relating to foreign policy, national defence, development programmes and Justice would fall under the purview of the central government.

The federalism idea revived

Since Anzilotti’s time, Somalia went through a long period of transformation and changes: The country gained full independence, Somalis, in one way or another, governed themselves. They enjoyed 9 years of stability with more or less functioning democratic institutions. In 1969 the country unexpectedly fell under the control of military regime which has disrupted the democratic process in progress since 1950 and ruled the country with iron fist.

Rival tribal groups under different denominations and with no clear political agenda, forced the military leaders to flee the country in 1991, after 21 years of interrupted rule, resulting in the collapse of the State.

When the country attempted to resurge from the ash, after protracted reconciliation efforts with the help of the United Nations and other friendly countries, the Somalis decided to adopt the federal system for the country. Somalia was once celebrated as a democratic oasis in a continent awash of dictatorship. What Ambassador Anzilotti warned the Somalis against in 1955, happened in 2004 when a dozed of worrying Somali factions, gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, and opted for the federal system. Today, Somalia is torn a part and divided into clan enclaves referred to as “federal member States”. More than 3 decades have elapsed since the fall of the military regime, yet Somalia remains without a functioning central government.

A profile of Ambassador Enrico Anzilotti

Enrico Anzilotti was born in Florence in 1898. He served as artillery Officer during the First World War. After legal training he was appointed Secretary to the Italian delegation to the League of Nation at Geneva in 1920. He embarked on diplomatic career in 1925, serving in Cairo and Alexandria of Egypt. From 1937 to 1944, he was Consul in Oran (Algeria) and Melbourne (Australia). In early 1946; he was appointed Consul at the Italian Embassy in China. From there he was transferred in 1948 to the Italian Embassy in London as Advisor, and in 1949 he had another prestigious position: he became the first representative of Italy in the new State of Israel. From 1952 until his nomination as Administrator of Somalia, he served as Ambassador in Vienna, Austria. Anzilotti, a consummate and able Diplomat, held the office of Administrator of Somalia, between 1955 and 1958. Among the 4 successive Italian Diplomats who served as Administrators of the Trust Territory (Somalia), Anzilotti was the only awarded the “Stella della Somalia” (Somalia Star) on grounds of the good work he has done and for living by the spirit of the Trusteeship Agreement. To this day, there is a neighbourhood in Mogadiscio popularly known as “Quartiere” Anzilotti, Anzilotti Quarter.


M. Trunji

E-mail: [email protected]


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