Will Somalis hack the EAC lingua franca, Kiswahili?

Sunday December 10 2023

Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan (left) shakes hands with her Somalian counterpart Hassan Sheikh Mohamud during the EAC summit in Arusha, Tanzania on November 24, 2023. PHOTO | POOL


Somalia may have joined the East African Community (EAC) last week, and Somalis are facing a dilemma on where that leaves their national language: Somali.

A minister’s decision to address the press in Kiswahili was criticised in some quarters, with critics accusing him of violating the law.

It all began when Information and Culture Minister Daud Aweis addressed journalists in Arusha, Tanzania ahead of the 23rd Heads of State Summit. He spoke on the importance of Somalia joining the EAC, re-capping the message he had given in English.

Read: Swahili address lands Somalia minister in the soup

Hodan Ali, a Somali political commentator, immediately lay into Aweis for using a medium no one understands at home.

“The official languages of Somali Government does (sic) NOT include Kiswahili ,” Ms Ali wrote on X. “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 strict on languages. Officials in government routinely use English when communicating with the outside world and rarely turn to Arabic, even though it appears on government letterheads.

In Somalia, however, Kiswahili, the lingua franca of most EAC countries, was not always dead. Before the civil war in 1993, coastal cities like Kismayu had a significant population speaking Kiswahili, having had historical ties with other coastal cities like Mombasa and Zanzibar.

The coastal people in southern parts are referred as Banadiri, a distortion of the Swahili word, Bandari — port.

Ali’s criticism of the Minister was lampooned by others. Geeljire (@nololfiican) argued Swahili is one of the “the native languages” in Somalia.

Read: EYAKUZE: African (dis)unity goes beyond language to art, food, politics

“Go to Barawe or Kismayo. In Kismaayo, half of the people spoke Kiswahili before the civil war. In Barawe, more than 90 percent of residents spoke Kiswahili,” he argued without providing a source of his figures.

Ali, another critic charged, was hypocritical for looking at Swahili as a foreign language while ignoring English which is not an official language in Somalia but which Hodan herself hasn’t complained about when officials use it.

“We need to decolonise our language,” said Ahmed Visin (@ahmedvision1).