Somalilandsun: This article argues that the politics of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the 1920s reshaped relations between ethnicity and territorial sovereignty in Ethiopia’s eastern borderlands. A 1925 criminal trial involving Gadabursi Somalis began as what Britons deemed a ‘tribal matter’ to be settled through customary means, but became a struggle for Ethiopia’s regent, Ras Tafari, to assert Ethiopia’s territorial authority and imperial sovereignty. British claims of extraterritorial jurisdiction over Somalis amidst 1920s global geopolitical shifts disrupted existing practices of governance in Ethiopia’s eastern borderlands and created a dilemma for Ethiopian authorities. In order to uphold international obligations, Ethiopian officials effectively had to revoke their sovereignty over some Somalis indigenous to Ethiopia. Yet Britons’ practical application of extraterritoriality to Somalis was predicated on assumed racial differences between Somalis and highland Ethiopians (‘Abyssinians’). Thus, Ethiopia’s recognition of British extraterritorial jurisdiction would lend legitimacy to claims exempting Somalis from Ethiopian sovereignty due to differences in identity. The case reveals how assertions about race, nationality and ‘tribal’ identity articulated to subordinate Ethiopian rule to British interests and, in the longer term, to delegitimize Ethiopian governance over Somalis.
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