The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)

Part II. NOMADS’ LAND

Chapter 11. How to start a border war

Taleh, Sool, June 2011

There was, of course, nothing new about the combustibility of the Somaliland border region, as the British discovered in 1898 when Islamist rebels occupied their protectorate’s second city, Burao. The rebels were led by a charismatic religious scholar, Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, still known to Somalis as the Sayyid (‘Master’), but better known to the British as ‘the Mad Mullah’. The nickname, according to legend, dated from 1895 when he arrived back in Berbera from the Hajj and was stopped by a British customs officer who wanted to charge him import duty on his luggage. The Sayyid angrily refused: by what right did this foreigner prevent him entering his own country? Some travellers nearby told the officer to pay no attention to the man: he was just a mad old mullah.

Sayyid Hassan went on to become the focus of resistance against foreign oppressors throughout Somalia. It took the British twenty years and four separate military campaigns to suppress him. Noted for his poetry as much as for his fighting prowess, he is still Somalia’s greatest national hero, in a country that has always worshipped its poets. Siad Barre knew what he was doing when he erected a statue of him, mounted on his warhorse on an immense tiled plinth outside the parliament in Mogadishu. (The statue was subsequently destroyed in the civil war, although the plinth remains.)

The Sayyid’s story had many curious twenty-first-century parallels. As a fomenter of jihad he was the Osama bin Laden of his time. Both men managed to unify rival clans and tribes by appealing to their common faith, and exploited that and their own charismas to stir up a powerful rebellion against the infidel oppressors.

‘I warn you of this,’ the Sayyid once wrote in a letter to the British. ‘I wish to fight with you. I like war, but you do not.’

As the Newsweek journalist Jeffrey Bartholet pointed out, the sentiment would be echoed almost a century later in bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the US: ‘These [Muslim] youths love death as you love life.’1

The Sayyid, like bin Laden, adapted his revolt to suit the conditions on the ground and the mores of the times. His army wore white turbans and called themselves the Daraawiish (‘Dervishes’), a deliberate evocation of a Sufi ascetic tradition dating from at least the twelfth century (and a term that retains semi-mythic connotations in modern Somalia: Puntland’s state militia are still collectively known as Daraawiish). The Sayyid may have modelled his movement on that of the Mahdi Army in Sudan in the 1880s, a Sufi-inspired revolt against colonialism that the British themselves characterized as ‘Dervish’.*

The Sayyid took Dervishism further than any historical predecessor when he founded a full-blown Dervish state in north-central Somalia in the 1890s. The state was formally recognized by both Germany and the Ottoman empire – a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the Islamic caliphate that al-Qaida theoretically still hopes to establish. Throughout World War One, the Dervish state was the only independent Muslim state on the African continent. It finally came to an end in 1920 when the recently formed Royal Air Force, acting on the orders of the then Minister for War and Air, Winston Churchill, bombed the Sayyid’s capital at Taleh. It was the first time in history that Western airpower was used to dislodge an Islamic militant. In the year that bin Laden was trapped and killed in Pakistan by foreign soldiers swooping from the sky, this was another parallel with the present that was impossible to miss.

For all his piety and poetry, the Sayyid was not a kind or gentle man. Clans who resisted the expansion of his state in the 1900s were cut down without mercy, which made him a highly ambivalent sort of hero for modern Somalis, and a tainted symbol of liberty.

‘No one dares portray him negatively, yet he killed so many people,’ said Isse Dhollowaa, one of President Farole’s inner circle, whose father was born in Taleh.* ‘Anyone even vaguely associated with the British was skinned alive. Children were slaughtered. Pregnant women were disembowelled. It was exactly like al-Shabaab today.’

His notorious livestock raids had not been forgotten in Garowe. On one occasion he sent 5,000 men against the Sultan of Majeerteen, who advanced ‘like locusts’, destroying and pillaging everything in their path, and eventually drove off over 25,000 camels.

His most famous poem, a work once rote-learned by every Somali schoolchild, was a characteristically gloating account of the killing of Richard Corfield, the dashing but foolhardy colonel-commandant of the British camel constabulary, at the Battle of Dul Madoba in 1913. In the poem, the Sayyid instructs the ‘hell-destined’ Corfield to explain how he died to the guardians of heaven:

Say to them: ‘From that day to this the Dervishes never ceased their assaults upon us.

The British were broken, the noise of battle engulfed us’;

Say: ‘In fury they fell upon us.’

Report how savagely their swords tore you,

Show these past generations in how many places the daggers were plunged.

Say:‘“Friend,” I called, “have compassion and spare me!”’

Say: ‘As I looked fearfully from side to side my heart was plucked from its sheath.’

Say: ‘My eyes stiffened as I watched with horror;

The mercy I implored was not granted.’

Say: ‘Striking with spear-butts at my mouth they silenced my soft words;

My ears, straining for deliverance, found nothing;

The risk I took, the mistake I made, cost my life.’

Say: ‘When pain racked me everywhere

Men lay sleepless at my shrieks.’2

The author went on to describe how Corfield’s body was eaten by hyenas, and his veins and tendons plucked out by crows. He had, however, deployed poetic licence in his account of what happened at Dul Madoba – or else it was wishful thinking. In reality, according to Douglas Jardine, the British Administration Secretary of the day, Corfield was killed instantly by a bullet to his pith-helmeted head while trying to unblock a jammed Maxim gun, and his body was recovered and buried. The British, furthermore, were not quite as ‘broken’ as the Sayyid claimed. His dervishes, marching line abreast towards the enemy line shouting their ‘weird, monotonous war-song, “Mohamed Salih”’, outnumbered the camel constabulary by twenty to one, and yet four hundred of them were killed to just thirty-five of the British. When news of the engagement reached London, the press denounced it as a HORRIBLE DISASTER TO OUR TROOPS IN SOMALILAND, yet the Dervish name for their supposed victory told a different story: it was known forever after as Ruga, ‘the smashing or grinding of bones’.3

The Sayyid, of course, was concerned not with historical accuracy but with firing up a rebellion, and for that, his poem was perfect. The ‘no mercy to infidels’ message of The Death of Richard Corfield was as useful as ever in the 1990s, when militiamen resisting the US military distributed pamphlets of the poem in Mogadishu.4 It was certainly tempting to make a connection between the Sayyid’s imagined version of what happened to Corfield, and the actual treatment of the US helicopter crewmen whose lynched and semi-naked bodies were dragged through Mogadishu’s streets.

Like Richard Burton who wrote that he could not ‘well explain the effect of Arab poetry to one who has not visited the Desert’, the Sayyid understood intuitively that nothing touched the fierce nomadic soul like a good poem. His modern jihadist successors had the same insight. Osama bin Laden marked the wedding of his son in Kandahar in January 2001 by declaiming a poem of his own composition that celebrated the recent al-Qaida suicide attack on the USS Cole as it refuelled at Aden. The text of his verse later found its way into the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat:

A destroyer: even the brave fear its might.

It inspires horror in the harbour and in the open sea.

She goes into the waves flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and fake might.

To her doom she progresses slowly, clothed in a huge illusion.

A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves5

Until the 1940s, according to the Polish professor of Somali literature B.W. Andrzejewski, oral poetry in Somalia ‘was used in inter-clan and national politics as a weapon of propaganda . . . by custom, opinions expressed in verse could be much sharper in tone than anything said in ordinary language.’6 The poetry itself was highly formalized, and had to follow complex rules of alliteration if it was to be judged any good. The aspiring poet also had to select the metre best suited to the subject matter. The gabay, for instance, was favoured for the handling of serious subjects at a leisurely pace, while the jiifto was preferred when more urgency was required. Even more urgent was the geeraar which, according to Andrzejewski, ‘used to be recited on horseback and was associated with journeyings and war’. Although oral poetry is no longer central to social discourse, poetry recital competitions remain popular in the twenty-first century, above all among the eternally homesick diaspora, where the best poets can fill arenas and are treated like rock stars. According to aficionados, though, there is no greater master of the language than the Sayyid, a poet who could write a poem about a camel, and ‘capture the innermost nature of the camel’.*7

I badly wanted to see the ruins of Taleh, which enticingly lay just 50 miles north of Garowe. The Sayyid built fortresses all over Somalia in the course of his long rebellion, but the Dervish capital was different: a giant complex of thirteen interlocking stone fortresses known as the Silsillat (‘Chain’), a word that also hinted at the holy lineage of the Sayyid, who was said by his followers to be descended from the Prophet himself. The wall encompassed wells, gardens, granaries. There was room for 5,000 Dervish fighters, their horses and camels, and hundreds of head of cattle. There were mighty tomb towers containing the remains of the Sayyid’s parents and other notables, as well as an execution area called Hed Kaldig (‘Place of Blood’). The whole was overlooked by three further forts over 60 feet high, one of which was reserved for the Sayyid himself, and connected to the Silsillat by a tunnel 200 yards long. It was without doubt the greatest archaeological ruin in Somalia.

Nick Beresford, the Garowe UNDP chief, was keen to see it too, and so in early 2011 we began to lobby the Farole government for permission to mount a small expedition there. It shouldn’t have been a problem. There seemed no doubt, and Farole’s ministers agreed, that Taleh came under their administration. The district’s inhabitants were all Darod clansmen, 95 per cent of them Dolbahante, who belonged to the same Harti confederation of sub-clans as President Farole’s Majeerteen. There were, however, certain difficulties involved with a trip to Taleh, chief of which was that it lay not in Puntland proper, but in the contested province of Sool. This made it a kind of no-man’s-land for the Garowe administration, who tried to avoid antagonizing Hargeisa unnecessarily. The policy was to let sleeping dogs lie, so the Minister for Information, Culture and Heritage, Ahmed Ali Askar, sucked through his teeth when we first asked.

On the other hand, we could see that our request had put him on the spot, for what kind of a heritage minister could not arrange a tourists’ visit to the country’s greatest ruin, 50 miles from his capital? Farole’s critics had always sneered that his authority did not extend far beyond the tarmac between Galkacyo and Bossasso, and Askar’s hesitation now suggested that the jibe might be true. It turned out that very few members of Farole’s government had been to Taleh since he came to power in 2009. Askar himself had not been since 1978. However, after many days of lobbying it became obvious that Farole himself had been consulted, and that he had ruled in our favour. In fact, not only did we have permission to travel to Taleh: we were to be accompanied there by an official government delegation from Garowe. The president, it seemed, had decided to take advantage of our visit to put down a territorial marker for Puntland.

There were, naturally, several false starts. Various government ministers announced that they were coming, dropped out, changed their minds again, but eventually two of them committed themselves: Ahmed Ali Askar and the Security Minister, Khalif Isse Mudan. At this point the local UN security chief, an ex-Spanish air force officer called Jorge, got wind of the trip and insisted on coming too, along with a paramedic in case of emergency, and an empty spare car in the event of a breakdown. The local press were tipped off, and the Puntland Intelligence Service. With Khalif’s heavily armed security detail in two overloaded technicals and our own SPU added in, there were forty-one people assembled outside the UN office on the morning that we finally set out, dispersed among no less than ten four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The journey itself was a delight. We lurched off the tarmac after less than a mile and plunged exhilaratingly into the desert. There was no urban hinterland. One minute we were on Garowe High Street, the next we were streaming across the immense Nugaal plain, the vehicles fanned out in a V-formation to avoid the towering plumes of choking orange sand thrown up by the car in front. The plain was dotted with scrub and the occasional cluster of acacia, and was not empty but teemed with life. I spotted an ostrich bounding along the shimmering horizon with its own plume of dust rising in its wake, its neck outstretched like Walt Disney’s Road Runner. Every so often we passed a nomad zareba with their attendant herds of goat and camel, some of which numbered in the hundreds. Even the nomad’s sheep here were indigenous, although the breed is known, confusingly, as a Blackhead Persian – a small, fat-tailed beast with a skinny white body and a striking, ebony black head. The shepherds were mostly sun-scorched children armed with sticks, looking small and vulnerable in the blazing vastness, yet unquestionably also a part of the ecosystem.

Hyena and cheetahs were said to live here, and East African oryx, and Soemmerring’s gazelle. At one point the convoy was obliged to slow to a crawl in order to ford a watercourse, where the spiky greenery flashed with exotic birdlife, weavers and bee-eaters and who knew what else. Back on the plain, a herd of tiny antelope scattered at our approach, bouncing like clockwork toys among the thickets. Our driver said they were dik-dik, although they might easily have been Gazella spekei, Speke’s gazelle, a species identified by the discoverer of the source of the Nile himself.

When one of the vehicles suffered a puncture, and the convoy stopped and everyone got out while it was being fixed, I looked around to find that everyone was grinning. The sense of space and freedom of the desert made me, too, want to sing, for there was no better cure for the claustrophobia of the town. Garowe was not a popular posting among the UN staffers, who were forbidden to leave the office without armed guards, and never after dark. Every evening at sunset there was always someone jogging or speed-walking around the barbed-wired edge of the compound, like an animal pacing its cage in a zoo, studiedly ignoring the guards in their watchtowers.

I thought of Benson, the whimsical Kikuyu cook in the canteen on the high top floor of the UN building, who had twice extended his contract in Somalia because of the pay. Benson wore a full chef’s toque and whites, which greatly flattered the broiled chicken and rice he seemed to produce every night. His spare time was spent in front of the television or staring through the window at the desert haze out beyond the town, sighing heavily and seeing neither. ‘Ohhhhh Gaaarowe,’ he would groan, in a way that made the foreign staffers laugh; although the joke never quite concealed the deadness in his eye.

A place like Garowe could easily drive foreigners ‘sand-happy’, as Gerald Hanley called it in the 1940s. Hanley memorably described interrogating a tall, grey-haired Italian officer who had been found wandering in the desert equipped with nothing but a kettle. When questioned, he explained that he had been walking back to his wife and children in Italy, and begged, with a trembling hand, to be given a pass and sent on his way. One military doctor told Hanley that ‘isolation among the wolves can bring about exactly the same effects as a good long drenching of shellfire’, and I had no doubt that was as true now as it had been for Hanley’s generation of Europeans.

But our outing was a boon to the Somalis, too. In Garowe, Askar, Khalif and the guards and drivers who surrounded them seldom went further than the Ruqsan Square, the charms of which had palled for me after the first visit. Both ministers had returned from years in exile in order to serve in Farole’s cabinet. They had settled in the same suburban Western haven, Woolwich in south-east London, where they must have spent many homesick evenings lamenting the absence of nomads and camels and wondering if they would ever see these things again. So there could be no more satisfying trip for them than this one, particularly as we were heading to Taleh, the centrepiece of the Dervish legend that went to the heart of the Somali national identity.

The landscape through which we drove was the setting of a famous Somali novel, Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl, in which the hero Calimaax, a Dervish warrior-poet in the mould of the Sayyid, conquers lions and leopards with his bare hands but misses the chance to win the hand of his true love through his inability to read her letters. Published in 1974, Cawl’s novel was very much a product of its time, when the country was in the grip of a government education drive. It was also, extraordinarily, the first novel ever to be published in the Somali language. Many cultures define themselves, at least in part, by their published literary canon, but not Somalia, a country whose stories had always been declaimed from memory, and where books other than the Koran barely existed. It was not until 1972, when Siad Barre formally adopted the Latin alphabet and rejected the Arabic one, that Somalia even had an official orthography. So it was highly significant that Cawl’s novel, the foundation stone of modern Somali literature, should glorify the Dervishism of the 1910s via a hero who repeatedly recites the Sayyid’s actual poetry as the plot unfolds:

The provisions and the clothes which keep people busy in the towns

Bustling and trading, are merely lifeless wealth brought in from outside.

If the town is cut off from the interior, the Angel of Death soon comes to it on his errands.

Taleh, when we finally reached it, felt extraordinarily cut off. The domed tops of the towers of the Silsillat were visible from miles away, rising above the plain like the warheads of missiles from a silo. It was like catching sight of Xanadu for the first time. A senior elder was waiting for us at the city limits in the shade of an old and lonely acacia tree. The ministers got out of their cars and each gave the elder, whom they clearly knew, a manly cheek-to-cheek hug, a small but essential ceremony that signalled our formal permission to proceed.

A crowd of two or three hundred awaited us in the town centre, which was dominated by an acacia even older and larger than the first one. On a low stone wall surrounding this magnificent tree were gathered all the elders of the community, the faces of some of them as gnarled as the bark of the acacia. Each carried a walking stick, a badge of authority in this herding community. The sticks had been customized according to taste. Some were ornately carved, or had been jazzed up with coloured tape. Others had been buffed to a lustrous finish, or were tipped with glittering brass or silver ferrules. All of the elders’ sticks, though, were topped with a curved handle, unlike those of the boys and young men standing in the rank behind them, which were plainer as well as straight.

A group of women ululated energetically as the crowd parted, and we were shown to a row of chairs in the centre of the circle, the honoured guests of the village parliament. This was, you could tell immediately, the way things had always been done here. It felt like communing with the Tree of Souls in the James Cameron movie Avatar. A hundred yards to the left, tantalizingly, was the crumbling, cream-coloured corner of one of the forts. The ruins, though, would have to wait. First it was time for a speech from the district commissioner.

His tale of woe was translated, divertingly, by a man with a master’s degree from Bangor in north Wales. The district commissioner said there had been no effective administration in Taleh since Siad Barre’s time. All social services had collapsed. There was no doctor, no police station, no water management, no telephone line to the outside world. The only things that worked here were the school and a mother and child clinic, both of which had been funded by charitable donations from the diaspora. There had been no help from the government in Garowe, let alone the one in Mogadishu, and no help either from the international community, not even from UNESCO, who he thought should recognize the Sayyid’s fort as a World Heritage Site. When he had finished I asked how long it had been since a gaalo had been seen in Taleh. The district commissioner turned to consult two other elders before replying that we were the first since some Norwegian aid workers had passed this way in 1997.

Next up to speak was an ancient man with a henna-dyed moustache known as Ahmed Aden Taleexi – ‘Mr Taleh’ – who turned out to be the community memory bank, a village bard who specialized in the myths of the glorious Dervish past.

‘Now then,’ he began, ‘which one of you is the British journalist?’

I rose to my feet, grinning apprehensively, and he stared at me with bloodshot, rheumy eyes.

We are the ones you fought,’ he said, pointing in an arc at the crowd with his walking stick, which I noticed was particularly elaborately carved. ‘You British with all your technology and bombs destroyed this place. You can see the damage your warplanes caused with your own eyes, but did we ever receive compensation? We received nothing!’

There was a murmur of agreement from the rapt crowd, and an outbreak of ululating from the women’s section.

‘The bombing caused great suffering,’ the old man went on. ‘The British took our young men away to fight in their army – three thousand of them! And we never saw them again. The wounded were left to die of thirst, and their bodies were eaten by hyenas. We wrote to your ambassador in Mogadishu in 1983 demanding recompense, but did we receive a reply? We did not!’

There was more ululating, and I looked at my interpreter in alarm. It was ninety-two years since the RAF had bombed Taleh, but for this old man it was as though it had happened yesterday. Did the younger townspeople share his sense of affront?

‘Don’t worry,’ chuckled the man from Bangor. ‘The people here will ask for anything if they think they can get it.’

It was a relief nevertheless when Mr Taleh stopped his Brit-bashing, and launched into a long, florid (and historically inaccurate) account of the rise and fall of the Dervish state. The ending of his oration was strangely anticlimactic – a meek repeat of the district commissioner’s plea for UNESCO recognition of the ruins, and a request to tell the British press – and there was no further mention of British compensation once he had finished.*

Minister Khalif’s speech in reply was, as I expected, a brazen piece of politicking. The Puntland government, he said, would soon be opening ‘many’ offices here. He promised to rebuild the police station, and to put in a phone line. He said he ‘fully’ supported the elders in their bid for UNESCO recognition of the ruins, which his government would recommend be ‘repaired’. This last offer was patently ridiculous – the Silsillat was damaged far beyond any point of repair, even if such a thing was desirable – but it was greeted anyway with cheers and yet more ululation.

Taleh, it occurred to me, was not doing too badly for a community abandoned by government. The townspeople had responded to the delegation from Garowe with energy and discipline, and they clearly knew what they wanted. Somalia might have been the world’s most failed state, yet at this local level it had not failed at all, but appeared in some important ways to be thriving. The drought had greatly inconvenienced them, but they were manifestly not starving. The town was not in a state of anarchy, despite the lack of a police station. All the old social conventions, including the practical application of xeer, customary law, were intact and functioning. Taleh seemed to have achieved a remarkable level of self-sufficiency, which made me think that the district commissioner ought to be careful what he wished for – because in this community’s case at least, greater involvement with Garowe could easily cause more problems than it solved.

At last we were released to explore the ruins. We spread out across the interior of the Silsillat with a long chaotic trail of people strung out behind: ministers, civic officials, elders, soldiers, secret servicemen, all mixed in with dozens of curious onlookers from the town. The exterior walls were massive things, 14 feet thick in places, and had evidently been constructed with great skill. The identity of the master-masons responsible has never been discovered. In fact it is not certain that the Sayyid, who only moved his capital to Taleh in 1913, even built the Silsillat. Archaeologists once speculated that the original fort was the work of the Himyarites, a pre-Islamic Yemeni civilization, or even of the ancient Egyptians, and that the Sayyid and his followers had merely crept into the ruins and exploited them.

I climbed a steep staircase to a corner tower roof, and gazed out over the shimmering, dun-coloured plain. The Garowe official, Dhollowaa, had told me that when he was a boy, his ancient grandmother had described how the Sayyid once lived at Taleh ‘like a Zulu king’, surrounded by the huts of his warriors for as far as the eye could see. There were tens of thousands of them, a roiling, lawless encampment where feuds were common and fights were settled not with words but by the sudden, late-night thrust of a spear through the heart. But the plain was empty of warriors now; only cloud-shadows chased each other across the desert expanse.

We looked into the tallest tomb-tower, a beehive-shaped mausoleum to the Sayyid’s Ogadeni father, Sheikh Abdille. The chamber inside was dark and damp and cool beneath a high plastered ceiling that echoed with the chirruping of diving swallows. The Sheikh, I learned, married several Dolbahante women. The Sayyid, born of the first of these, Timiro, was the eldest of thirty children.

‘That is why so many of us here are kin to the Sayyid,’ the Bangor graduate explained. ‘Many of our grandparents were killed in this fort by the British.’

It seemed, however, that there was little ancestor worship in Taleh these days. The raised stone slab covering the Sheikh’s grave had been smashed in long ago, leaving a rectangular heap of broken-edged rubble. Bending down to peer through a small opening in the side, I found myself face to face with the eyeless skull of a goat that some joker had placed amid the dust and debris.

We trailed out of the Silsillat to the outlying fort that had once been the Sayyid’s private residence: ‘Like the White House,’ said the Bangor man. The Sayyid began to live up to his reputation for madness as he grew older, a power-crazed monomaniac who eventually became so fat that, according to one envoy prostrated trembling before him, he was unable to cross his legs, and was obliged to sit with them extended straight out in front of him. His subjects believed he had supernatural powers, and that he was protected by an amulet given to him when a lizard whose life he had spared turned out to be a djinn in disguise. He kept a semblance of order at Taleh through old-fashioned terror. His chief executioner boasted that he could not sleep at night unless he had achieved at least twenty mutilations and deaths in the course of the day; a sentry who went AWOL was viciously whipped before being burned alive.10

The Sayyid’s palace was surrounded by a secondary curtain wall built of rocks noticeably bigger than those used for the Silsillat. The front of this stout edifice had nevertheless been blown off, and the roof had caved in. This was the work not of the RAF, as Mr Taleh claimed, but of a camel-borne party of British sappers who followed up the air raids in February 1920. The 20-pound and 2-pound bombs carried by the RAF’s Havilland DH9A biplanes were far too puny to dent these walls. As the British well knew, the value of their aircraft was primarily psychological: the Shock and Awe campaign of its day.

The dozen biplanes of the RAF’s ‘Z Force’ had been unloaded in the utmost secrecy in packing cases at Berbera, with their pilots and crews masquerading as a party of oil prospectors. The ruse worked, for the surprise of the attack when it came was total. Not only had the Dervishes never seen an aircraft before: the Sayyid himself had no conception of aviation. So when the first plane appeared over the horizon he anxiously inquired of his advisers what it might be.

‘A few guessed the truth, but hesitated to communicate their guess for fear of the death that was the recognized punishment for the bearer of evil tidings,’ recorded Douglas Jardine. ‘Some, with the Oriental’s native penchant for flattery, suggested that they were the chariots of Allah come to take the Mullah up to heaven.’

The Sayyid, concluding that the occupants of the strange machines must at the very least want to talk to him, ‘hastily donned his finest apparel. Leaning on the arm of Amir, his uncle and chief councillor, he sallied forth from his house and took up his position under the white canopy used on state occasions, to await the coming of the strange messengers. Then the first bomb fell. Amir was killed outright and the Mullah’s garments were singed. Thus the first shot all but ended the campaign.’

The operation to oust the Sayyid actually lasted three weeks. As he and his forces fell back on the Silsillat, Z Force switched from bombs to incendiary rounds and strafing attacks on the Sayyid’s livestock, tactics that damaged Dervish morale just as much as the high explosives. The British expected their opponent to make a stand at Taleh, but he fled as the camel corps approached. The Sayyid’s caravan was chased and surrounded. Six of his sons were killed in the fight that followed, and six more were captured, although the Sayyid himself, protected no doubt by his magic amulet, managed to slip the net.

The Z Force raids were the toast of London, where they were credited with solving the ‘21-year-old Dervish problem in Somaliland’, although as Jardine pointed out, the achievement was not the RAF’s alone.

‘Such a legend is dangerous in the extreme,’ he wrote, ‘leading, as it has done, to a belief in some quarters that the savage peoples of Africa and Asia can be controlled from the air, and that the troops and police on whom we have relied in the past should be replaced in whole or in part by aircraft.’

Jardine’s note of caution still resonates in an age when many military tacticians argue that the terrorist hotspots of the world can be policed by unmanned aerial drones in place of ground troops. It was not aircraft or any other British weaponry that finally carried off the 64-year-old Sayyid, but a dose of Spanish influenza contracted while in hiding in the Ogaden later that year.

Our visit to Taleh was not without consequences, for there are few secrets in Somalia, and it wasn’t long before the government in Hargeisa found out about it. A week later, another delegation set out to visit Taleh. This one comprised several local Somaliland officials, and was led by a Hargeisa MP. Before they could get to Taleh, however, their convoy was intercepted in the desert by Puntland Defence Forces. A shoot-out ensued in which a Sool province education official was killed.

Nineteen others were arrested and taken back to Garowe, where Ahmed Ali Askar, the formerly mild-mannered Information and Heritage Minister from Woolwich, issued a combative press release that blamed Somaliland’s ‘provocation’ squarely on his opposite number in Hargeisa, Ahmed Abdi Habsade. This individual, he alleged, was a ‘known political opportunist’ who was ‘intending to create insecurity and instability’ in the area. ‘Recently, he has been busy creating confrontation and continuous crises,’ the press release continued. ‘Puntland Government believes that the reason behind this provocation is due to last week’s visit to Taleh by Puntland Government officials accompanied by UNDP officers and international journalists.’

Was I indirectly responsible for the Sool official’s death? An investigation by the UN’s security division later concluded that the Somaliland delegation’s presence near Taleh was a coincidence, and unconnected to our visit, whatever Minister Askar said. But I still did not feel entirely comfortable, and nor did Nick Beresford.

‘With hindsight it was not a good move,’ he told me in an email. ‘But it’s an unpredictable place: easy for some to be wise after the event.’

Garowe, amazingly, felt that it had still not made its point. A fortnight after the shoot-out, Puntland’s chief magistrate found eight of the captured Somalilanders guilty of an ‘illegal’ incursion that had ‘undermined the sovereignty of Puntland’, and sentenced them to prison for five to ten years each. This was heavy-handed even by the standards of their fierce border dispute, and three months later the prisoners were granted an amnesty by President Farole and released.

This was not quite the end of the affair. That December near Taleh, unidentified gunmen assassinated Jama Ali Shire, the brother of Puntland’s vice-president. Five days later a Puntland finance official was murdered, also by persons unknown, as he left a Taleh restaurant. The region was entering another cycle of the violence that seemed always to have blighted it. These latest killings weren’t necessarily the work of Hargeisa, though – because in January 2012, Dolbahante clan elders from three contiguous border provinces, Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, sat down beneath Taleh’s acacia tree, and boldly proclaimed a new autonomous state, to be called Khatumo, with Taleh as its capital. The spirit of independence and self-sufficiency I had seen there was real, not imagined. Both Somaliland and Puntland were out of favour. The descendants of the Sayyid had just rejected rule by anyone but themselves. It was news of this momentous decision that Silanyo was so desperate to suppress when he arrested twenty-five journalists in Hargeisa. Abdisaman Keyse, a correspondent for the London-based channel Universal TV, was detained for his ‘hyperbolic reporting’ of the Taleh meeting a full four months after it had taken place.11

Khatumo, geographically, was a recreation of the Dervish state. Some locals even called it Darwiishland, although its leadership this time was rather less charismatic: an ageing ex-prime minister of Somalia, Ali Khalif Galaydh, in allegiance with an exile from Columbus, Ohio known as Xagla-Toosiye (‘Hip Straightener’). The new state’s parliament was a wall around a tree. Its capital had no telecommunications, no hospital, no road or water or sewerage management, and a police station with no roof. It did, however, have a new state flag. This was the same as the Somali national flag, but with the addition of a white horse rearing to the left of the five-pointed star, saddled but riderless: a clear reference to the mighty Dervish cavalry, or even to the Master himself.

Khatumo, in the end, was absurd: a tiny clan entity, bankrolled by exiles nostalgic for a long-dead state based on robbery and cruelty and a cult of personality. Even Khatumo’s supporters admitted that, economically, it had nothing going for it but the livestock trade, although the possibility of oil beneath the ground, however remote, meant that neither Puntland nor Somaliland were likely to give the region up without a fight. The brave act of secession beneath the acacia tree promised nothing but more violence and instability.

Khatumo’s first murder occurred just eight weeks after the new state’s declaration, when gunmen in Taleh shot and killed a provincial court judge, Abdirashid Igge. The judge had been one of the delegates in the Somaliland convoy ambushed by Puntland militia the previous year, and had only recently been released from jail in Garowe. This unfortunate man was no partisan. Before Hargeisa appointed him a judge, he had been employed by Garowe as an official in the Ministry of Employment and Sport. Khatumo authorities launched an investigation. It was to no one’s surprise that the killers were never caught.

* According to Shuke, the Director of the Puntland Development Research Centre in Garowe and an authority on East African history, the Sayyid and the Mahdi may even have been taught by the same Islamic scholar, a Wahhabi Sheikh in Mecca called Mohamed Salih.

* ‘Dhollowaa’ meant ‘No incisors’, the absence of which, he explained, was a genetic trait in his family. ‘I think maybe it’s because we’re nomads and we drink so much milk, so we don’t need teeth,’ he said.

* There are said to be forty-six ways to describe a camel in Somali – almost as many as the fifty-two words for snow employed by the Saami people of Lapland.8

* The British ambassador to whom the citizens of Taleh wrote was either Robert Purcell or William Fullerton, who took over from Purcell in 1983. In 1984, Fullerton advised the newly appointed US ambassador Peter Bridges to read First Footsteps in East Africa, noting that Burton said Arabs called Somalia Bilad wa issi, the ‘Land of Give Me Something’. Bridges wrote later in his memoir: ‘“The longer you are here,” said Bill Fullerton, “the more you will think that name is apt.” He was right.’9