While working to build my collection of British Somaliland stamps, I came across a previously unknown-to-me issue, with a couple of stamps offered for sale online. (I bought them for about $15.) Of course I knew about “Somaliland Protectorate” — the British territory in the horn of Africa dating back to the late 1800s. I also knew about neighboring Italian Somaliland, a territory seized at the turn of the century and expanded under King Emmanuel III and Mussolini. It
remained under Italian supervision, for the most part, until July 1, 1960. That’s when both “sides” (British and Italian) merged into a sovereign “Republic of Somalia.” I’ll get to the sorry history of that wretched nation in a moment.
But first, there are these stamps to contend with. If Somaliland Protectorate and Italian Somaliland combined into Somalia on July 1, how to explain the late-issue stamps from Italian Somaliland, overprinted “Somaliland Independence 26 June 1960”?
How indeed? You’re talking about the history of the Horn of Africa, remember, where the normal rules of governance, statehood and territorial interest don’t quite apply. I’ve done some homework on the region in preparation for this essay, so bear with me. If you lose your way, I’ll be right there with you. But if your attention wanders, watch out! It’s dry and hostile territory out there in the desert!
The short answer to the question above is this: On June 26, the British territory voluntarily went out of existence, granting its sovereign powers to a new entity known as “Somaliland.” It was meant to be only a caretaker government, and remained in place only a week, until the merger with neighboring Italian Somaliland could be consummated. On July 1, “Somalia” was born and “Somaliland” ceased to exist.
End of story? Not by a long shot. Stay with me, for it’s an intriguing yarn. It goes back to the early days, the 1880s, when the British were jockeying for position on the southern shore of the crucial shipping channel from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and on to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. After signing treaties with clan chiefs, the British declared a protectorate covering a swath of territory around Africa’s eastern horn. The first stamps from the region were overprints of stamps from imperial India — understandable, since the Raj on the far shore of the Arabian Sea was overseer of the territory at the time.
The British “ruled” their Somaliland protectorate with a light hand — well, let’s say, on the cheap. Even post-World War II, its annual budget was less than a quarter-of-a-
million pounds. Britain’s main concern from the outset was quelling the Dervish uprising — a latter-day incarnation of today’s Islamic State or Taliban. Once the insurgents were
decisively routed in 1920, after a daring aerial attack on
the Dervish capital of Taleh, things settled down. The Colonial Office was only too happy to leave local affairs in the hands of the clan elders. Aside from a six-month occupation by Mussolini’s troops in 1940, British Somaliland continued as a sleepy, largely barren outpost
and trading hub.
There is much to say — not here — about what happened to Somalia after independence; how that hapless nation moved inexorably, relentlessly, unstoppably toward disaster — a not-so-slow-motion civic train wreck. Somalia’s devolution into a failed state was not pre-ordained, and its fate has been shared to alarming degrees by nations in much of sub-Saharan Africa.
My focus here is on Somaliland, the new entity that used to be British Somaliland Protectorate. After iindependence day on June 26, “Somaliland” lasted only a week — arguably the shortest-lived republic in history. Yes, it was only meant to be a place-holder.
But some anomalies are worth noticing. For example, the first and only leader of this quicksilver republic was Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal, a veteran of British rule. Egal was a political leader before independence, a member of both the
Executive Council and the Legislative Council that spent three years planning for independence. Egal’s champions claimed that in the mere five days of its working life, the republic gained recognition from 35 countries, including the United States. (That assertion has been disputed; while U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter sent a note of congratulation June 26
to the Council of Ministers of the new republic, Washington only recognized the merged government of Somalia July 1.)
These fledgling assertions of national pride take on meaning in view of what was to come after decades of misrule in Mogadishu. When Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre finally fled in 1990, warring factions precipitated a civil war that never seems to have ended. A reliable barometer of the depth of civic destruction is that by October 1991, all effective postal services in Somalia had ceased. They would not be restored until 2014, and I wouldn’t place a bet on a letter to or from Mogadishu arriving at its destination even today.
How, then, to explain the stamps from “Somalia” or “Somali Republic” that kept appearing in the decades when there was no functioning postal service? As one philatelic scholar explains: “Postage stamps continued to be produced illegally internationally during the war, although their subject matter suggests they were designed for external collectors.” (For more on this distressing phenomenon of stamp mills producing fodder for topical collectors with no real connection to the nominal country of issue, see FMF Stamp Project blog posts of February 2018, “Cinderellas: A Spreading Stain”; and March 2018, “Cinderellas: A Nightmare of Abuse and Excess.”)
After the collapse of Barre’s government, leaders in the north took action. For self-preservation, and to guard agains the factional disintegration radiating from Mogadishu, Somaliland’s elders gathered in Hargeisa in May 1991 to declare — or rather, re-declare — the independent state of Somaliland. This autonomous region, carved from what was once British Somaliland Protectorate, has maintained its identity ever since.
Somaliland has lived a comparatively parallel existence with its chaotic neighbor to the south. Various efforts to break all ties with Somalia have foundered, along with designs on the territory from Mogadishu or elsewhere.
Somehow, Somaliland has been spared the chronic violence, disarray and terror of Somalia. Perhaps the warlords, militias, Islamic insurgents, colonels and soldiers in the south are too preoccupied battling each other to pick a fight with the north. I should mention that Somaliland has maintained a military defense with 12 divisions, just to make sure none of the combatants from the south stray.
Somaliland’s governmental structure, which combines traditional and modern features, could be a model for other nations in the Horn of Africa, if not the whole continent. It helps to have an ethnically homogeneous population and a self-disciplined clan system. Somaliland also has been blessed with seasoned, reasonable leaders — like Muhammad Egal, its first president. Egal went on to serve as a key minister of sovereign Somalia — before being jailed for years by dictator Siad Barre. Egal took over in autonomous Somaliland in 1993, succeeding President Abdirahman Tuur, and served until his death, from natural causes, in 2002.
As experience and history show, effective governance cannot be taken for granted. Somaliland’s blend of law and custom is worth studying. Its balanced, bottom-up system is one of the most democratic in Africa, developed without foreign assistance. Freedom House ranks Somaliland’s government “partly democratic,” quite a feat for this small nation surrounded by authoritarian states and failed polities. To be sure, Somaliland has its shortcomings. For example, like other African nations, it continues to outlaw homosexuality. In recent years, the regime has shown alarming tendencies to revert to the repressive habits of its neighbors — harassing journalists and dissidents, infringing legal rights, spending secretly and illegally. Internal reformers — including clan elders and constituents — must act within laws and customs to restore honest and just governance, so as to halt Somaliland’s slide into disarray.
Somaliland doesn’t get much respect. Unable to win global recognition, it is relegated to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. The government of Wales has been cordial, particularly since it is home to a considerable community of Somaliland expats. But London is another matter. Somaliland’s application to join the Commonwealth — as a mere observer — is still pending.
Somaliland still may be on the side of the angels, but there are problems. Remember what I said about normal rules of nations not applying to the Horn of Africa? Well, here’s an example: There are multiple claimants to some of the godforsaken territories in the region, and some of them have set up their own countries. Part of the land mass that used to be British Somaliland Protectorate is now … autonomous Puntland (established 1999). There are declared states of Maakhir (2007) Adwalland (2010) and Khatumo (2012). (By the way, I have not yet found any stamps issued by these “countries” — surely it’s only a matter of time.) The nominal leaders of these and other self-styled independent entities unanimously oppose complete sovereignty for Somaliland, fearing they and their cohorts will be sucked into the slipstream and lose their sinecures.
At least one leading British political leader has spoken up for Somaliland. Nigel Farage of the third-ranked UKIP said in 2015: “Somaliland has been a beacon of peace, democracy and the rule of law in the Horn of Africa for the past 24 years. It is about time the UK and the rest of the international community recognized Somaliland’s case for recognition. It’s about time peace was rewarded. For the UK to turn its back on their legitimate demands for sovereignty is wrong. It is extraordinary that we have not been lobbying for the their admittance to the Commonwealth … Somaliland, a former protectorate, is left in the cold. This must change.”
Before I close, a word or two (or more) on the postal history accompanying this civic narrative. The first postage stamps from the Horn of Africa were the British India overprints that began in the 1880s. Italian authorities came out with stamps from “Benadir” starting in 1903, then “Oltre Guiba” (Jubaland) in the 1920s, then simply Somalia or Italian Somaliland. The neighboring French started issuing stamps from “Obock” in the 1890s, then the French Somali Coast (Cote Francaise des Somalis) after the turn of the century. In the 1960s it was renamed the French Overseas Territory of Afar and Issas, before becoming independent Djibouti in 1977.
And so the nations come and go. Sic transit gloria — except that in the Horn of Africa, there wasn’t much glory in the region’s imperial past, and there seems to be very little to celebrate in the struggles of today. But speaking of Afar and Issas and stamps, I must say that nation issued some ravishing, over-size, multicolor engravings. Another point in its favor: It’s a real entity, with real stamps. That is, you could go into a post office in Afars and Issas, ask for a stamp and get one of these beauties. You could have done the same in French Somali Coast, or Italian Somaliland, even Obock and Benadir.
But what about these more modern stamps from “Somalia” and “Djibouti”? We already know there wasn’t a functioning postal authority in Somalia for more than two decades. You also may know that stamp mills churn out sets on contract, or perhaps even on spec, for topical collectors. Are these stamps “real”? I have to say I even have my doubts about stamps from “Somaliland.” That plucky nation deserves support. But while I cheer on the democrats in Hargeisa, and wish them well in their mission, I doubt I ever will become a collector of the dubious sets of stamps issued in their name
In 1997, the government of Somaliland — formerly part of Somalia, and before that the British Somaliland Protectorate — decided to issue definitive stamps that were overprints of the well-known Machin profiles of Queen Elizabeth that had been appearing on British stamps since the 1960s. Why this autonomous state picked British stamps to overprint is a mystery to me — though I sense a strong attachment to England on the part of some of its former proteges. Apparently postal authorities thought twice about it, though, for the stamps were not issued immediately. Only after Somaliland found itself short of stamps did the overprints find their way to post offices in February, 1998. There was an immediate backlash. Postal customers in Somaliland must have objected to this symbolic compromise of sovereignty. There must have been surprise in both countries to see the queen’s portrait defaced by the big, black, lettering — there has never been an official overprint of Machin definitives, before or since. The stamps were withdrawn within days and destroyed, but not before some reached collectors. I also have seen examples cancelled on cover. (All too expensive for me — this image is from the Internet.)
Here are some more stamps from British Somaliland. While King Edward VII was on the throne (1902-11), the area was declared a protectorate. It remained that way through the reigns of George V and George VI (see stamp at right), then on to Elizabeth II and independence in 1960.
Philately from Italian Somaliland began humbly enough, with overprints of stamps from the motherland. (right)
By the 1930s, however, the Italians were putting out bold, stylish sets like the one shown below.
Italy gave up its territory to the British in the 1940s, but took over again in 1950 — a rehabilitated imperial power?
I thought this was the last set put out by Italian Somaliland, but it might be an early set from independent Somalia. Either way, those runners are headed for disaster …
Here is a throwback to early colonial days, when Italy was getting a foothold in the Horn of Africa. Doesn’t King Victor Emmanuel III look jaunty in this two-color print complete with charming floral border? He would remain titular monarch of Italy through Mussolini, fascism and World War II, abdicating in 1946. He also claimed the title of Emperor of Ethiopia. He died in Egypt in 1947.
Who’s kidding whom? Some stamp mill churned out this souvenir sheet honoring David Bowie and slapped the name “Republic of Somalia” on it before offering it to dealers as a cute topical set. The caption accompanying this image on the Internet says it all: “This ‘stamp’ is counterfeit, not valid for posting and has no investment value.”
What’s this? Djibouti celebrating the marriage of Britain’s Charles and Diana while also lauding Lord Nelson and the imperial fleet? It’s surprising enough to see a former British colony wax nostalgic for the good old days and revel in royal power and pageantry. But Djibouti used to be a French territory, for goodness’ sake! I smell philatelic pfakery here, pholks …
Here is some catnip for Lady Di topical collectors. What glam! What pizzaz! Only trouble is, the stamps are bogus. The Republic of Somaliland is not a member of the Universal Postal Union, and the UPU does not recognize its stamps. Somaliland does not have a seat in the United Nations. It must make do with the organization of unrecognized states. (Yes, there is one.) While I have been moved and inspired as I learned of Somalland’s successes in building a peaceful, durable democracy with a sustainable economy in the troubled Horn of Africa, still I cannot accept its postage stamps as valid. The only ones that meet the standard are the ones illustrated at the very beginning of this essay. Between June 26, 1960 and July 1, 1960, the Republic of Somaliland was a legitimate sovereign state, so those overprinted stamps are good with me.
TO BE CONTINUED