In 1948, a British District Officer travelled through the Mudug Province in north-east Somalia. 1 After the defeat of the Italians in 1941, the enemy’s colony had been placed under a temporary British Military Administration (BMA) pending further decisions. With the British occupation, the Second World War came to an end in the Horn of Africa. Conflicts had begun in 1935 with the attack on Ethiopia by Italian forces and reached a climax in 1940 when Italy, by then a member of the Axis coalition, launched military offensives to British posts across the Sudanese and Kenyan borders and occupied the Côte française des Somalis, today’s Djibouti, and the British Protectorate of Somaliland. But Italy’s imperial fantasies of controlling the whole Horn of Africa were short-lived. In January 1941, British Commonwealth troops launched a series of counter-attacks that forced the Italian Army to capitulate rapidly. Advancing from Kenya, British troops entered Somalia’s capital Mogadishu within less than two months, overall meeting little resistance and suffering limited casualties. 2 When the British officer toured the Mudug province, the war had ended seven years earlier. Yet coming to a halt in a village, he met a local chief who enquired whether the war was over and who had won the conflict: ‘We did,’ informed the officer laconically. ‘May God be praised,’ said the Somali, as if to congratulate him for the victory, but soon after clarified his question: ‘What are you’ he asked, ‘English or Italian?’ 3

This story was included by the BMA in one of a hundred documents that considered how to best dispose of former Italian colonies in the postwar international order. As at the time the major powers – France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – failed to agree with each other on the issue, the anecdote was sent to London to assure the Foreign Office that whatever the final decision on the former Italian colonies, Somali communities’ reactions would not constitute a matter of concern. They belonged to a ‘small world’, informed the BMA, with little or no clue about global political developments. 4 At the same time, the story revealed a rather inconvenient fact. Seven years had passed since the Italians had been defeated, and yet to some Somalis, regardless of how distant their lives appeared to British officers

stationed in East Africa, the change of regime had passed unnoticed. In many ways, acknowledging the possibility that some did not see or care about the differences between British and Italian rule undermined the very basis of the BMA. The occupation of former Italian colonies by Allied forces was proclaimed as a liberal triumph over fascist oppression and presented as part of a bigger, global agenda: the liberation campaign against the Axis coalition. The wartime rhetoric highlighted the role of the BMA as ‘emancipators’, ‘rescuers’ and ‘saviours’ of local communities in the Horn of Africa. The core of the BMA was defined by virtue of its opposition to the fascist regime. Take for instance one of the first accounts of the operations in East Africa published by the Ministry of Information in 1944 with the title The First to Be Freed . The pamphlet served to illustrate the positive changes brought about by the BMA in the enemy’s colonial possessions. In doing so, it made a clear-cut distinction between the right and wrong causes, the good and bad sides and thus between the British and Italians. 5 Since the Italians’ defeat, so the book contended, the BMA had assisted Somali communities and fostered their development particularly in the fields of education, trade and sociopolitical activism. 6

While this narrative rightly identified a series of opportunities that arose in Somalia as a result of the change of regime, it functioned as a smokescreen that prevented the discussion of more problematic aspects of the military occupation and concealed the fact that the BMA and wartime rhetoric had several limitations. Set up with the broad aim of controlling former colonies for an unspecified period of time, the BMA had no means or scope to implement any tangible changes in the colony’s structure, to introduce reform or to draft plans for future reconstruction. Dealing with a very low budget, military authorities had to maintain law and order while harnessing local resources for the war effort. Historical research has devoted little attention to the analysis of the multiple and complex aspects of the British administration such as the process of pacification and the attempts to enforce some form of control and to foster economic outputs. Most scholarly attention has centred either on the lengthy and controversial international debate on how to dispose of Italy’s colonial possessions 7 or on the emergent Somali nationalism and irredentist claims in the postwar era. 8 Accordingly, the BMA is portrayed as having established a somewhat liberal and tolerant institutional framework within which international talks among the Big Four unfolded and sociopolitical organisations, forbidden under the Italians, could emerge and develop their agendas. Reducing our understanding of British-occupied Somalia to these aspects, however, is problematic because the wartime rhetoric distorted perspectives of local dynamics and the relationship between the military occupiers, the former colonial masters and the communities under occupation. This chapter critically engages with the BMA positions and discusses how the Allied rhetoric of freeing Somali communities from fascist oppression found itself ill at ease when due to war contingencies the BMA restored structures of former colonial administration that it had initially attempted to overcome. Due to its provisional character, the military administration remained ambiguously embedded with

the aims of the Allied liberation campaign and the lack of resources to further develop these objectives in former colonies. It was this ambiguity at the heart of the BMA that allowed the military rule to adopt controversial policies, such as the use of collective punishments to suppress local unrest and labour conscription to meet wartime economic needs, that did not comply with the underlying aims of the liberation campaign.