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  • British Somaliland: An Administrative History, 1920–1960 by Brock Millman
  • Lidwien Kapteijns (bio)
British Somaliland: An Administrative History, 1920–1960, by Brock Millman London and New York: Routledge, 2014; pp. xi + 314, maps. $152.00 cloth.

Imagine a book on Apartheid South Africa, written in 2014, that would praise Apartheid as the best possible form of rule for South Africans and portray leaders of the anticolonial national liberation movement such as Mandela as a wrong- and hotheaded group of detribalized évolués, totally alienated from the people and misled by subversive political influences from recently independent African states. Imagine further that the author of this book would explicitly take pride in ignoring scholarly analyses of colonial rule in general and would almost completely disregard existing scholarship about the country and people under study. Millman’s book is precisely such a study of the British Somaliland in the period from 1920 to independence.

Throughout the book, Millman reports the points of view of his colonial interlocutors, that is to say, the long list of British colonial administrators whose official communications to the Colonial Office he has carefully studied, without methodically contextualizing these sources or probing them for their truth value and blind spots. On the one hand, this leads to a long series of contradictions, as the author too often uncritically reproduces the different points of view recorded by various colonial officers at different moments of time. On the other hand, this produces a consistently reductive—one is tempted to say racist—interpretation of Somali people and history. To Millman and the colonial officials he studies, the real Somalis are the rural tribesmen, “stiff-necked and occasionally violent” (6), “illiterate and parochial” (98), and “armed and stoic, … schooled since infancy in the art of raiding” (118–19); they are people “who could not understand, and ultimately despised any other way of life than their own” (12) and “who still live their lives by ancient patterns” (9).

In contrast to the people “back in the bush” (200), members of the post–World War II Somali urban educated elite, especially members of political parties such as the Somali Youth League (SYL) and National United Front (NUF), represent, to the mind of the author, detribalized urban rabble-rousers with unsavory political opinions and ambitions for independence. It is these people Millman blames for hijacking the political process and bringing about the untimely achievement of political [End Page 206] independence and its troublesome aftermath. To Millman, the members of the growing “detribalized urban population … which ultimately constituted the cannon fodder for radical politics in the late Protectorate period” are not people who organized politically against racist and arbitrary colonial rulers who signed away large parts of the territory in which they lived and considered their own, but precursors to the mooryaan, those marginalized urban youths who were major perpetrators of Somali civil war violence in 1991 and thereafter (297). That Somalis were capable of having political opinions and that many regarded these political leaders as freedom fighters and fathers of the nation is not something Millman and the colonial sources he cites appear capable of acknowledging.

British colonial rule “proved to be a near-perfect fit for a conservative, Muslim, nomadic people,” Millman argues, and “was perhaps the best government ever devised to rule Somalis” (6). Although he characterizes it as “an ambulatory, occasionally predatory, benign despotism” (6), it was nevertheless perfect for Somalis because of their nature as a unique species of noble savages. This mindset allows the author to present a description of colonial policies and points of view—interlaced with his own endorsements or critiques—without analyzing the impact of colonial rule in a systematic or thorough way. Millman consistently ignores most of the scholarship that deals with such an impact and that has studied the destructive legacies of colonial rule in Somalia. There is no mention of the books that have documented the short- and long-term costs of the more than two-decade-long anticolonial jihad that colonial occupation provoked. Absent from the analysis is the scholarship that has analyzed the impact of British colonial boundary making and the signing away of large parts of Somali-inhabited lands...


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pp. 206-210
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