Somalia is an East African country and part of the Horn of Africa; it borders the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Minority Rights Group International currently lists Somalia as ranking #2 for peoples under threat. This ranking means that Somalia has extremely high risk of genocide and mass killing1.
The country was created in 1960 and was formerly a British protectorate and an Italian colony. Following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre, Somalia collapsed in 1991. Over the last several decades rival warlords have torn the country apart into clan-based fiefdoms. Simultaneously, an internationally supported unity government formed in 2000 and struggled to establish control. Eventually the two relatively peaceful northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland broke away. Following 2012, a new internationally backed government was installed, and Somalia has been moving towards stability. However, the new authorities still face a challenge from Al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Shabab rebels.
Approximately 10,800,000 people make up the population of Somalia today, most of whom are Islamic and speak Somali, Arabic, Italian, and/or English2. Despite there being few reliable population statistics for Somali minority groups due to chaos in the country, estimates indicate that they compose 1/3 of the total Somalia population; approximately 3,600,000 people3. Somalia’s largest minority and major at risk community is the Bantu groups, collectively known as (Wa) Gosha, which means literally, ‘people of the forest’1. Gosha are the principal non-Somali minority group in the country. The population of Somali Bantu is estimated to be more than 1,000,000 people4. Bantu communities primarily reside in the Lower Juba and Shabelle valleys of southern Somalia, where most live in the vicinity of either the Shabelle or Juba rivers5. Gosha rely on the water source from these rivers for drinking, bathing, fishing, and agriculture. They speak Bantu language.
Bantu peoples are descended from slaves who were originally brought to Somalia in the 19th and 20th centuries from African countries such as Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique by the Sultan of Zanzibar and other slave lords. During these time periods approximately 25,000-50,000 slaves were absorbed mainly into the Shabelle River Valley area. Halfway through the 19th century the first fugitive slaves began to arrive in the more remote Juba River Valley area. “According to the Somali Bantu Association in the US, by the early 1900s there were an estimated 35,000 ex-slaves living in communities along the Juba River. Anthropologists sometimes distinguish between Bantu along the Juba River, and those who remained in the Shabelle Valley as being two distinct groups”1. The slavery of Gosha persisted well into the early 20th century until it was abolished by the Italians1. Unfortunately, Somali Bantus continued to face severe discrimination after the abolishment, which continues to this day. Although some Bantu were able to keep their distinctive languages and culture alive, others became more assimilated while many aligned themselves to dominant clans for protection. Despite the severe hardships faced by this community, many individuals have managed to establish themselves as farmers and tradesmen.
Both the regime and downfall of the dictator Siad Barre hindered Somali Bantus severely. Under the regime of Siad Barre, Gosha had their lands seized and handed over to members of larger Somali clans. During the downfall of Barre in 1991 law, order, and food stocks collapsed, allowing Bantu farmers to be targeted for abuse. Being outside the traditional clan protection system, Gosha were helpless and forced to work the land they once owned as contract farmers, pay protection money, and stand by as their women were raped1.
In 1991 a refugee camp called, Dadaab was set up on the Kenyan-Somali border to house families fleeing conflict in Somalia. For years, Kenya has threatened to shut down the Dadaab refugee camp, which is home to approximately 330,000 residents including a significant proportion of the Bantu minority. Kenya has attributed the camp to being both a breeding ground for Islamist terrorists and at risk for planned attacks on the camp soil. In 2016 Kenya’s Interior Minister, Joseph Nkaisserry announced that the camp would close by November2. However, the plans were delayed. Fortunately for Dadaab’s residents, Judge John Mativo of Kenya’s High Court ruled in February 2017 that the government’s plan to close the camp “specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional”6.
Somali Gosha want stability, respect, equality, laws that will protect them, and opportunities to escape poverty. They want recognition, access to land and resources, and participation as well as representation in government. Bantus want a future for themselves and their children just as every community does. Gosha feel that they have “…been denied [their] proper share of benefits of national life,…[but lack the power] to press for access and participation as well as mere recognition”7. Although this is very pessimistic (I apologize to Bantus), I do not believe Gosha will be able to achieve these goals for a very long time. They currently do not have the proper leverage to gain separation, autonomy, or independence due to racism and lack of stability from a large clan, which is essential in Somali society.
Bantu peoples have faced and continue to face social, economic, and political exploitation and exclusion since the dawn of their existence. The possible future Gosha have in reaching their aspirations is most likely bleak. Hopefully the new internationally backed government that was installed in 2012 may one day bring this minority group the peace, justice, and stability they have been awaiting centuries for.