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75th Anniversary of SYL - 15 May 1943

Mohamed Issa Trunji
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

This article is being published to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Somali Youth League party, better known as Lega dei Giovani Somali (LGS). In this article I give a brief outline of the emergence of this party, its rise and eventual fall. It is hoped in a second article to examine the activities of other political parties that rivaled the Lega before and after independence. 

The first modern Somali social organization, the Somali Youth Club (SYC), was founded in Mogadiscio on May 15, 1943. Somalia was then under British military occupation. At the beginning, the SYC was primarily actively engaged in promoting social and welfare, education and health programmes, targeting particularly the less privileged segments among its affiliates. However, it would be wrong to believe that the promotion of the social welfare of members of the Club could entirely be divorced from political matters. To help improve the new club, the British allowed the better educated police and civil servants to join, thus relaxing Britain’s traditional policy of separating the civil service from political parties “because the new movement was progressive, co-operated with the government, and was anti-Italian.”(I.M. Lewis, 2002)

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Two differing narratives explain the genesis of the Club. One explanation suggests that in early 1943, when the Italian community in Somalia was permitted to organize political associations, a host of Italian organizations of varying ideologies sprang up with a view to challenge British rule, and agitate, sometimes violently for the return of the colony to Italy. Faced with growing Italian political pressure inimical to continued British tenure, British colonial officials encouraged the Somalis to organize their political organizations.  (I.M. Lewis, 2002)

The second explanation of how the SYC  came about, which received wide currency, endorses the notion that, on May 15, 1943 a group of 13 little-known young urban Somalis came together, in a small one-room office in Via Cardinale Massaia in Mogadiscio, to found a club they called Somali Youth Club (SYC). The group included elements hailing from the main Somali clan families. There is no consensus among Somalis over who in the group should be considered to have provided the main inspiration. Some maintain that much of the inspiration came from Yassin Haji Osman Sharmarke, the most erudite element in the group by Somali standards of the time. However, this notion is strongly contested by others who attribute credit to Abdulkadir Sakawa-din and Haji Mohamed Hussein, both of ethnic Benadir. Yassin was an ethnic Majerten who served the Italian colonial administration as a clerk. He received a modest level of education at the ‘Scuola per figli di capi’, a special school for siblings of Somali paramount chiefs during the fascist regime. (Bullotta 1948) Though lacking formal education, Yassin was nevertheless a brilliant man, with sound political awareness. To implement his ideas, he needed two things: First, a vibrant membership of the Club and, second, a programme which could be incorporated in a statute. He had no difficulty in co-opting 12 persons, representing the broader spectrum of Somali clan families. This explains how clan factor always remains a core element in every major political decision, and Yassin was well aware of this reality, which he found hard to ignore. The majority of the co-opted members were semi-literate; they earned their livelihood doing menial jobs as shopkeepers, office cleaners, gate-keepers, interpreters etc, and none of them had ever been outside Somalia or came into contact with Western culture and civilization.As for the second requirement, it is widely believed that Yassin received benevolent support from little known Italian communist elements in Mogadiscio in drawing up the Statute of the Club.

Abdulkadir Sheikh Sakawa-din, grandson of the much venerated religious leader, Sheikh Aweys Al-Qadiria, was elected President of the Club and Dahir Haji Osman Sharmarke became its Secretary. The Club’s political aims were limited to two objectives: firstly, to unite all Somalis, particularly the youth, by eradicating harmful prejudices likely to lead to and frequently cause communal and tribal frictions; and secondly, to educate the youth in modern ideas and civilization through cultural circles and through the establishment and expansion of a formal education system based on schools.

British liberalization policy not only brought benefits to the SYC, but also left the door open for the formation of a host of other political-cum-tribal parties which emerged in the Forties, most of them supported by Italy’s powerful propaganda machinery designed to strengthen this country’s claim to return to Africa. The Italian government, through the Ministry of Italian Africa, (Ministero dell’Africa Italiana) provided funds destined to encourage the political activities of pro-Italian associations in the former pre-war colonies. These included associations such as the Istaqlal party, founded in 1948, in Libya; the Veteran’s Association and the New Eritrean Pro-Italia Party in Eritrea; and, in Somalia, the Conferenza Somala, the main components of which were veterans, ex-combatants and local chiefs demanding Italian return to Somalia as an administering power under the auspices of the United Nations. The “Conferenza” included: the Patriotic Beneficence Union, the Somali Progressive Committee, Hizbia Dighil Mirifle, the Union of Africans in Somalia, the Somali Young Abgal Association, and Hidayat Islam Scidle and Mobilen.

The Somali Youth Club becomes a political party: its rise, decline and fall

Through the powerful British propaganda tools, the Somalis were aware of the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and of its programme calling for the independence of peoples under colonial rule. One of the foremost topics of discussion among the four major powers in the world: Britain, France, United States of America and the Soviet Union was the future status of the former Italian colonies in Africa, one of them being Somalia. This development stirred Somali Youth Club members as they realized that the nation could not move forward without guided political agenda. Debates among members convinced that the time was ripe for the Club to become a political association. Among the items debated was the name of the new party. The delegate from the SYC branch Belet Uen, Aden Abdulla, who was knowledgeable about developments in Pakistan and its dominant political party, the Islamic League, suggested the name “Somali Youth League”, and the congress soundly accepted the proposal. (Interview with Mohamoud Yousuf Aden “Muro” Louein, Belgium 2009)

In April 1947, the Club became a fully-fledged political party; its name was changed from Somali Youth Club (SYC) into Somali Youth League (SYL) or Lega dei Giovani Somali (LGS). The official newspaper of the time, the Somalia Courier, reported the momentous event in its article heralding the changes. It wrote: “On the 1st April 1947 a new era started for the Somali Youth League. In fact it may be said that childhood was over and manhood was reached. On that date the name was changed from Somali Youth Club to Somali Youth League, the latter being more suitable for the widening interests and development. The foundation date of this League is still considered to be the 15th May 1943 but the 1st April is the date that marks the renaming of the Club, the passing of a new constitution and framing of a wider programme; this will be an important date in the history of Somalia” (Somalia Courier, April 16, 1947). The new party adopted two additional objectives and appended them to its amended constitution. The first was the elimination of any situation prejudicial to Somali interests and the second the adoption of Somali as the national language, using an existing script known as ‘Osmania’, invented by Yassin Osman Kenadid, as the national script.

The Lega differed from the other political parties in two important aspects: firstly, it was led by the best educated elements of the time, and secondly, its financial resources came from monthly contributions from members throughout the territory. Party membership was open to any Somali over the age of 15. It would appear, however, that membership was initially open to men only; women were allowed to join as members and pay subscriptions following the Party Congress of 1950 (TNA FO 1915/509, January 1950) Upon joining, new members were required to take a solemn oath to abide by the objectives of the party: “I swear by Almighty God that I will not take action against any Somali. In times of trouble, I promise to help the Somali. I will become the brother of all other members. I will not reveal the name of my tribe. In matters of marriage, I will not discriminate between the Somali tribes and the Midgan, Yibir, Yahar and Tumal” (Article 52 of the party Statute). The party’s constitution made no reference to the large Bantu groups the heavily pastoral Somali society prejudices them.

The movement spread like wildfire and became very powerful in areas as far apart as Ogaden and British Somaliland. Paradoxically, however, whilst the British administration in Somalia was favourably disposed towards the Lega, the Kenyan colonial authorities proscribed the Garissa branch (NFD) of the party throughout the country on July 13, 1948, deeming it “dangerous to the good of government of the Colony” (East African Standard, July 1948) consequently, leaders of the party were exiled to the Turkana Province and not released until 1960. (A.A. Castagno, “The Somali Kenyan controversy: implication in the future”, 1964)

Yassin Haji Osman did not live long enough to see the evolution of the Club the creation of which he had greatly contributed to. With time, some of the 13 ’pioneers’ gradually quit the party. For instance, Dere Haji Dere, one of the founding members of the Club, appeared before the Four Power Commission of Investigation in January 1948 as member of the Hamar Youth Club (Four Power’s report , Section II , Chapter !V). This was followed by the dramatic decision taken by Abdulkadir Sakawaddin, the President of the Club, who publicly denounced and repudiated the Club for reasons which remain to this date shrouded in mystery and subject to different interpretations. Some believed that Sakawaddin was expelled from the party on grounds of alleged contacts with the Italians, the nature of which, however, had never been fully disclosed. (TNA FO 10/15/140, May 29, 1948). However, according to British intelligence sources, Sakawaddin had repudiated the party on the grounds of disagreements over policy: his Islamist teachings clashed with the secular policies of his colleagues. British intelligence source reveals that, during a religious sermon he delivered at Shingani Moaque, he told the congregation that, at its inception, the Lega had laudable aims, but it had since resorted to violence, and for this reason he had left the party (TNA FO 1015/140, June 16, 1948). Based on the limited evidence available from credible sources, the allegations of betrayal leveled at Sakawaddin call for reserve. Sakawaddin was very influential in the party and was not only highly respected, but also considered a martyr by the other members of the Club.

Except Haji Mohamed Hussein, none of the remaining ‘founding fathers’ did play any significant role in the party’s political activities, being overshadowed, as later events were to prove, by relatively better educated and more active elements who took over the control of the party. In the field of the Public Administration, only Dahir Haji Osman and Ali Hassan ‘Verdura’ held top positions in the civil service after independence.

A word may be said about the much debated notion of whether there had been any communist influence on the Lega. It stands on record that a section of the Italian Communist Party, known as ‘Partito Comunista’, existed legally in Somalia in 1948. According to British reports, it functioned privately with a very limited number of sympathizers; in tandem with scores of other small Italian political parties. There were many indications supporting the notion that the Italian Communist Party had some influence on the newly established Somali Youth Club (SYC). Firstly, the original flag of the Club with its hammer and sickle was a true copy of the standard of the Italian Communist Party. As a result, British colonial authorities in 1944 withdrew their approval for the Club and authorization for its activities on the grounds of the latter’s perceived communist tendencies. To avoid further restrictions and trouble with the colonial authorities, the Club changed its standard. “Since then, the Club is not as it used to be, no more closed fists and no more red flags,” (Del Boca). Secondly, the constitution of the Club was written in Italian, and was believed to have been drafted for the Club by an Italian who may have been one of the local lawyers (TNA FO, 1015/140, April 10, 1947).

The Lega, as an organization, was probably never a communist-oriented party, but at times, as a reaction to the return of Italy to Somalia voices within the party were heard calling for the party to embrace communist ideology. Abdirazak Haji Hussein, a former Prime Minister of Somalia, maintains that it would be wrong to conclude from these circumstances that Yassin Haji, or any of his party fellows, had embraced communist ideology.“For the young inexperienced Somalis it was merely a manifestation of sympathy to the Soviet Union’s favourable attitude towards the colonial people,” (February 2010)

By 1956, a time coinciding with the formation of the first Somali government, the party had begun to show signs of strain already pointing to its subsequent disarray. The antagonism and competition between the Darod and Hawiye clan families risked on more than one occasion bringing government activities to the brink of collapse.

Towards the end of the Trusteeship period, a number of prominent figures of the party, for different and often personal reasons, started turning the back on the party. The first to leave was one of the founders, Haji Mohamed Hussein (1958), followed by Sheikh Ali Giumale, Haji Farah Ali (1962) and Abdirazak Haji Hussein (1968). All of them formed opposition parties as alternatives to their former party.

By 1969, as a result of changes of leadership brought about by continuing internal divisions, what remained of the old guard of the party was merely symbolic. The party had lost much of its original nationalistic zeal, values and prestige and reduced itself to a Mafia-like organization in the hands of unscrupulous elements whose main drive was the lust for power and greed for wealth.The party’s popularity had hit rock bottom and, perhaps most importantly, the Somali public at large felt enervated by the behaviour of the political class and incumbents, who through electoral manipulation and corruption were squandering the nation’s economic resources for their own benefit. The party’s nationalistic values were hijacked by factionalism and sectarian division within the ruling party itself, a circumstance that unfortunately paved the way for the military to seize power.

Mohamed Issa Trunji
E-mail: [email protected]

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