Somalia may have joined the East African Community (EAC) last week, becoming the eighth member of the expanding bloc, but Somalis are wondering whether the move could kill their national language: Somali.
So far, that possibility seems remote, but a minister's decision to address the press in Swahili has been condemned in some quarters, with some critics accusing him of breaking the law.
It all began when Somali Minister of Information and Culture Daudi Aweis addressed journalists in Arusha, Tanzania on Saturday last week ahead of the 23rd Summit of Heads of State and Government.
He spoke broadly about the importance of Somalia's participation, repeating the message he had given in English –in Swahili.
“It has been a long wait for Somalia which first put in a bid to join the EAC in 2012. The quest to join the East African Community has been a top priority for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud since his re-election in 2022,” he said.
“Somalia has a lot to gain from joining the EAC. It would benefit from regional infrastructure projects that include roads, railways and energy projects.”
Hodan Ali, a Somali political commentator, immediately took Aweis to task for using a language that no one at home understands.
“The official languages of Somali Government does NOT include Kiswahili (sic),” Ms Ali wrote on X (formerly Twitter).
'Enough with the nonsense'
“It’s Somali and Arabic. The Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism of FGS (federal government of Somalia) can use his additional linguistic abilities when he’s not representing the Somali Government. Enough with the nonsense.”
Not that Somalia is often strict about languages. Government officials routinely use English when communicating with the outside world and rarely resort to Arabic, even though it appears on government letterheads.
But Swahili, the lingua franca in most EAC countries, was not always dead in Somalia. Before the civil war in 1993, coastal towns such as Kismayu had a significant Swahili-speaking population because of historical links with other coastal towns such as Mombasa and Zanzibar.
In Somalia, coastal people in the southern parts of the country are referred to as Banadiri (a corruption of the Swahili word - Bandari or port).
But Ali's criticism of the minister was riled at by others.
Geeljire (@nololfiican) argued that Swahili was one of the "native languages" in Somalia.
“Go to Barawe or Kismayo. In Kismaayo, half of the people spoke Kiswahili before the civil war. In Barawe, more than 90 per cent of residents spoke Kiswahili,” he argued, without citing a source for his figures.
Ali, another critic, accused Hodan of hypocrisy for treating Swahili as a foreign language while ignoring English, which is not an official language in Somalia but which Hodan hasn't complained about when officials use it.
“We need to decolonise our language,” said Ahmed Visin (X via @ahmedvision1).