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History of Somalia

Early History

The original settlers of the Somali region were ethnic Cushites from the fertile lakes of southern Ethiopia. This group is sub-divided into a number of other ethnicities, which are still readily recognized (and fought over) today. Archeaological evidence supports the idea that most of the coastline of present day Somalia had been settled by 100 AD.

These early villages put the Somalis in contact with Arab traders traveling along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. In the ensuing centuries, the Somalis were one of the first peoples to convert to Islam. The Arabs established the ancient city of Salec on the horn of Africa which would last as a central trading hub until the 17th century, when it was sacked by Christian Ethiopians.

In the Middle Ages the formation of the clan-family political structure began to take shape, when extended families of persecuted Muslims elsewhere in Arabia, fled en masse to the frontier in Somalia. Their relative affluence made them powerful, and inter-marriage with the locals produced economically beneficial relationships. During the 1300s, the future capital city of Mogadishu came to prominence as a favorite "party town" for Arab sailors.

Muslim Somalia enjoyed friendly relations with its neighbor Christian Ethiopia for centuries, to the point where despite jihad raging everywhere else in the Arab world, Somalia promised never to attack Ethiopia. The fact that Ethiopia has some of the most forbidding natural terrain in the world, didn't hurt the peace effort. Unfortunately, in 1414 an unusually aggressive Ethiopian king, Negus Yeshaq, took power and launched a religious war for conquest against Somalia and Djibouti. His campaign was successful, and the Somali king was executed. King Yeshaq had his minstrels compose a song praising his victory, which contains the first written record of the word "Somali".

The Somalis lived under Ethiopian domination for a century or so, however starting around 1530 under the charismatic leadership of Imam Ahmad Guray, they got their revenge. Regrouped Muslim armies marched into Ethiopia employing scorched earth tactics and slaughtering every Ethiopian they could get their hands on. The complete annihilation of Ethiopia was averted by the timely arrival of a Portuguese expedition led by Pedro da Gama, son of the famed navigator Vasco da Gama. The Europeans naturally sympathised with their fellow Christians, and a joint Portuguese-Ethiopian force used cannons to rout the Muslim army and Ahmad Guray was killed.

After this setback, the Portuguese established a major economic colony in Somalia, primarily engaged in textile manufacturing. Also the Ethiopians resumed their harassment of Somalian border towns with mixed success, culminating in the sacking of Salec in 1660.

In the 17th century, Somalia fell under the sway of the rapidly expanding Ottoman Turks, who exercised control through hand picked local Somali governors. In 1728 the Ottomans evicted the last Portuguese colony and claimed sovereignty over the whole horn of Africa. Their actual exercise of control though was fairly modest, they demanded only a token annual tribute and appointed a Turkish judge to act as a kind of Supreme Court for interpretations of Islamic law. In all other respects, the local governors ignored the Ottomans. By the 1850s Turkish power was in decline, and the annual tribute was being paid more out of force of habit, than from fear of possible retribution.

Colonial Era

Starting in 1875 the age of Imperialism in Europe transformed Somalia. Britain, France, and Italy all made territorial claims on the peninsula. Britain already controlled the port city of Aden in Yemen, just across the Red Sea, and wanted to control its counterpart, Berberra, on the Somali side. The Red Sea was seen as a crucial shipping lane to British colonies in India, and they wanted to secure these "gatekeeper" ports at all costs.

The French were interested in coal deposits further inland and wanted to disrupt British ambitions to construct a north-south transcontinental railroad along Africa's east coast, by blocking an important section.

Italy had just recently been reunited and was an inexperienced colonialist. They were happy to grab up any African land they didn't have to fight other Europeans for. They took control of the southern part of Somalia, which would become the largest European claim in the country, but the least strategically significant.

In 1884 Egypt, which had declared its independence from the now basically irrelevant Ottomans, had delusions of grandeur about restoring its ancient power, and set its sights on East Africa. Unfortunately for those plans, the Sudanese did not cooperate and a major anti-Mahdist revolution there shattered any hope of a neo-Egyptian empire. The few advance troops that had made it to Somalia had to be rescued by the British, and escorted back to their own side of the fence.

Surprisingly the biggest threat to European colonial ambitions in Somalia came from Ethiopian Emperor Mendik II who had successfully avoided having his own country occupied, and was planning to play another round of Ethiopia's favorite national past time, i.e. "lets go conquer the Somalis". By 1900 he had seized the Ogaden region in western Somalia, which was mostly desert and only good for meager livestock production. Ironically even today, long after all the Europeans had given up on their relatively valuable colonial possessions, Ogaden, the most barren of Somali provinces, is still frequently fought over by the two bordering nations. Most likely more blood has watered the ground in Ogaden than rain.

Somali resistance to their colonial masters, both familiar and foreign, began in 1899 under the leadership of religious fanatic Mahammad Abdille Hasan. Their primary targets were their traditional enemies the Ethiopians, and the British who controlled the most lucrative ports and were squeezing tax money from farmers who had to use the ports to ship their livestock to customers in the Middle East and India. Hasan was a brilliant orator and poet with a very strong following of Islamic fundamentalist dervishes who waged a very bloody guerilla war. This war lasted over two decades until the British Royal Air Force, having honed their skills in WWI, led a devastating bombing campaign against dervish strongholds in 1920, during which Hasan was killed. As seen before, Somali fighting spirit tended to disipate once their charismatic leader was vanquished, a characteristic the Americansns would try to exploit near the end of the century. The dervish struggle was the one of the longest and bloodiest anti-Imperial resistance wars in sub-Saharan Africa, and cost the lives of nearly a third of northern Somalia's population, as well as egregious casualties on the Ethiopian and British sides.

While the British were bogged down by the "Mad Mullah", the French made little use of their Somalian holdings, content that as long as the British were stymied, their job was done. This attitude may have contributed to why they were more or less left alone by the revolutionaries. The Italians though were intent on larger projects and established an actual colony in the sense that a significant number of Italian civilians migrated there and invested in major agricultural development. By this time Mussolini was in power, and he wanted to improve the world's respect for Italy, via expert economic management of its new colonies, to upstage the British and their various embarrassing problems with the natives.

Due to the constant fighting the British were afraid to invest in any expensive infrastructure projects that might easily be destroyed by guerillas. As a result when the country was eventually reunited in the 1960s, the north which had been under British control, lagged far behind the South in terms of economic development, and came to be dominated by the South. The bitterness from this state of affairs would be one of the sparks for the devastating civil war that was to follow.

In 1935, the British were pretty sick of Somalia. The pastoralists they fought on a daily basis were routinely labeled "anarchists", which seems prophetic today, considering Somalias lack of any government for the past decade. The dervishes refused to accept any negotiations, and even after they had been soundly defeated in 1920, they continued sporadic violence for the entire duration of British occupation. To make matters worse, Italy saw Ethiopia's encroachment into Ogaden as a threat, and easily conquered the feudalist African kingdom. The British had been using eager Ethiopians as frontline troops in their effort to put down the Somali uprisings, and now with Ethiopians expelled back across the border, were faced with the option of doing the dirty work themselves, or packing up and looking for friendlier territory.

By this time many thousands of Italian immigrants were living in Roman-esque villas on extensive plantations in the south. Conditions for natives were unusually prosperous under fascist Italian rule, and the southern Somalis never violently resisted. It had become obvious then that Italy had won the horn of Africa, and Britain left upon Mussolini's insistence, with little protest.

Meanwhile the French colonies had faded to obsolescence with Britain's dwindling control, and they too were abandoned. The Italians then enjoyed sole dominance of the entire East African region including Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and parts of northern Kenya.

World War II

Italian hegemony of Somalia was short lived, because on the outset of WWII, Mussolini realized he would have to concentrate his resources primarily on the home front to survive the Allied onslaught. As a result the British were able to totally reconquer Somalia by 1941. During the war years, Somalia was directly ruled by a British military administration and martial law was in place, especially in the north where bitter memories of past bloodshed still lingered.

Unfortunately these policies were as illadvised as they were previously. The irregular bandits and militias of the Somali outback received a windfall in weaponry, thanks to the world wide surge in arms production from the war. The Italian settlers and other anti-British elements made sure the rebels got as many guns as they needed to cause trouble. Despite a fresh Somali thorn in their side, the British protectorate lasted until 1949, and actually made some progress in economic development. The British established their capital in the northern city of Hargesia, and wisely allowed local Muslim judges to try most cases, rather than impose alien British military justice on the populace.

The British allowed almost all the Italians to stay, except for a few obvious security risks, and regularly employed them as experienced civil servants, and in the educated professions. The fact that 9 out of 10 of the Italians were loyal to Mussolini and probably actively spying on the Italian army's behalf, was tolerated due to Somalia's relative strategic irrelevance to the larger war effort. Indeed, considering they were technically citizens of an enemy power, the British lent considerable leeway to the Italian residents, even allowing them to form their own political parties in direct competiton with British authority.

After the war, the British gradually relaxed military control of Somalia, and attempted to introduce democracy, and numerous native Somalian political parties sprang into existence, the first being the Somali Youth League in 1945. The Potsdam conference was unsure of what to do with Somalia, whether to allow Britain to continue its occupation, to return control to the Italians, who actually had a significant amount of people living there, or grant full independence. This question was hotly debated in the Somalian political scene for the next several years. Many wanted outright independence, especially the rural citizens in the west and north. Southerners enjoyed the economic prosperity brought by the Italians, and preferred their ledership. A smaller faction appreciated Britain's honest attempt to maintain order the second time around, and gave their respect.

In 1948 a commission led by representatives of the victorious Allied nations wanted to decide the Somalian question once and for all. They made one particularly foolhardy decision, that being granting Ogaden to Ethiopia, despite massive civil demonstrations against this, which would spark war decades later. After months of vaciliations and eventually turning the debate over to the United Nations, in 1949 it was decided that in recognition of its genuine economic improvements to the country, Italy would retain a nominal trusteeship of Somalia for the next 10 years, after which it would gain full independence. The SYL, Somalia's first and most powerful party, strongly opposed this decision, preferring immediate independence, and would become a source of unrest soon.

Despite the SYL's misgivings the 1950s were something of a golden age for Somalia. With UN aid money pouring in, and experienced Italian administrators, who had come to see Somalia as their home, infrastructural and educational development bloomed. This decade passed relatively without incident and was marked by positive growth in virtually all parts of Somali life. As scheduled, in 1959, Somalia was granted independence, and power transferred smoothly from the Italian administrators to the by then well developed Somali political culture.


The freshly independent Somalis loved politics, every nomad had a radio to listen to political speeches, and remarkable for a Muslim country, women were also active participants, with only mild mumblings from the more conservative sectors of society. Despite this promising start, there were significant underlying problems, most notably the north/south economic divide and the Ogaden issue. In hindsight it might have made more sense to create two separate countries from the outset, rather than re-uniting the very distinct halves of Somalia and hoping for the best. Also, long held distrust of Ethiopia and the deeply ingrained belief that Ogaden was rightfully part of Somalia, should have been properly addressed prior to independence. The north and south spoke different languages (English and Ethiopian vs Italian and Somalian, respectively) had different currencies, and different cultural priorities.

Starting in the early 60s, troubling trends began to emerge when the north starting to reject referendums that had won a majority of votes, based on an overwhelming southern favortisim. This came to a head in 1961 when northern paramilitary organizations revolted when placed under southerner's command. The north's second largest political party began openly advocating secession. Attempts to mend these divides with the formation of a Pan-Somalian party were ineffectual. One opportunistic party attempted to unite the bickering regions by rallying them against their common enemy Ethiopia and the cause of reconquering Ogaden. Other nationalistic party platforms included the independence of the northern Kenyan holdings of the Italian colony, from Kenya proper. These regions were largely inhabited by ethnic Somalis who had become accustomed to enlightened Italian rule, and were distressed by the more or less authoritarian regime they faced in Kenya.

Somali's internal disputes were manifested outwards in hostility to Ethiopia and Kenya, which they felt were standing in the way of 'Greater Somalia'. This led to a series of individual Somali militiamen conducting hit and run raids across both borders from 1960 to 1964, when open conflict erupted between Ethiopia and Somalia. This lasted a few months until a cease fire was signed in the same year. In the aftermath, Ethiopia and Kenya signed a mutual defense pact to contain Somali aggression.

Although Somalis had received their primary political education under British and post-war Italian tutelage, the virulently anti-Imperialist parties rejected the European's advice whole cloth, and threw their lot in with the Soviet Union and Communist China. By the mid-60s the Somalis had formal military relationship with Russia whereby the Soviets provided extensive materiel and training to the Somali armed forces. They also had a sort of soldier exchange program in which several hundred soldiers from each country went to the other's to train or be trained. As a result of their contact with the Soviet military, many Somali officers gained a distinctly Marxist worldview. China supplied a lot of non military industrial funding for various projects, and the Italians continued to support their displaced children in Africa, and the relationship between the rapidly communizing Somalia and the Italian government remained cordial. The Somalis however were increasingly becoming jaded of the United States, which had been sending substantial military aid to their hostile neighbor, Christian Ethiopia, and thanks to incessant anti-Western indoctrination at the hands of their new Russian friends.

By the late 60s, the Somali democracy that had gotten off to such an enthusiastic start just ten years prior, was beginning to crumble. In the 1967 election, due to a complicated web of clan loyalties, the winner was not properly recognized and instead a new secret vote was taken by already elected National Assemblymen (senators). The central election issue was whether or not to use military force to bring about the long dreamed of pan-Somalism, which would mean war with Ethiopia and Kenya and posibly Djibouti depending on who was ranting at the time. In 1968 there seemed to be a brief respite from ominous developments when a telecomunications and trade treaty was worked out with Ethiopia, which was very profitable for both countries, and especially for residents on the border who had been living in a defacto state of emergency since the 1964 cease fire.

1969 was a tumultuous year for Somali politics with even more party defections, colusions, betrayals and colaborations than normal. In a major upset the SYL and its various closely allied supporting parties, which had previously enjoyed a near monopoly of 120 out of 123 seats in the Assembly, saw their power slashed to only 46 seats. This resulted in angry accusations of election fraud from the displaced SYLers, and their remaining members still had the clout to do something about it. Particularly unsettling was that the military was a strong supporter of the SYL, since that party had always been saber rattling about invading Ethiopia and Kenya, thus giving the military a reason to exist.

Siad Barre's Dictatorship

A few months after the controversial change of government, a dissatisfied army officer from a traditionally oppressed clan group, assassinated the president. The National Assembly, with its recently acquired non-SYL majority, attempted to select a new president. However, the SYL backed military decided any new president would be unlikely to further their interests, and staged a Coup d'état and took over key points in Mogadishu and arrested prominent opposition leaders.

Communist-leaning army commander Siad Barre was nominated as president of the revolutionary government. Among his first actions were to suspend the constitution, disband the Assembly, abolish all opposing political parties, and execute a few symbolic people, including the former president's assassin. Barre was also pretty heavy on the Marxist rhetoric, which has led some to believe the revolution was Soviet inspired, but the coup was conducted entirely by local forces, and most likely was as much a surprise to Russia as the rest of the world. His first year in power was noted for a total reorganization of Somali society, replacing the traditional clan based legal system with a Koranic / Marxist blend of his own devising, followed by a thorough purging of all civil and educational institutions of anyone deemed needing 're-education'. Barre also attempted to do away with many age old clan customs, which included hiring practices preferential to one's own clan. In the revolutionary Somalia, the state dictated employment options, often deliberately at odds with clan traditions.

Starting in 1971 Barre's new programs were regional detente with its wary neighbors; making Somali the country's official language and enforcing a standard written version (until then Somali had been written in a wide variety of ways according to local dialects); and established a 25 man cabinet with decision making power, all of whom were appointed military men. A powerless civilian government branch was also formed to keep up appearances. Barre's main source of power was personal loyalty from the military and his crafty ability to play the various clan factions off each other. With the colonial-inspired democratic government dead, the clans were the next most powerful political units in Somalia, had they been able to work together against Barre. His primary goal was to prevent that from happening.

By 1974 all of the familiar trappings of an authoritarian communist state were in place. Mandatory political meetings for all citizens, censorship boards, income and goods redistribution, regular denouncements of "traitors to the state", etc. Another notable policy was the forced relocation of the outback's numerous nomad population onto collective work camps, which one might tentatively compare to Soviet gulags. Throughout the early 70s, Barre was frequently imprisoning and executing suspected plotters against him, more often than not, high ranking officials he had personally appointed recently.

The rise of socialism in Somalia is interesting because it does not have a history of class struggle, as Russia and China did. Prior to colonialism, Somali communities led a fairly egalitarian existence with little economic inequality, and what there was, did not seem to cause any hard feelings. Socialism became popular in Somalia purely as a reaction against all things Western, including capitalism, which developed as part of the extreme pro-independence party platforms in the 40s. Thus Barre's fervent adoption of borderline Stalinist policies seems to be ex-nihilo. His justifications for adopting socialism included the fact that the Soviets had helped them through their development period, which of course was circular logic, as the Russians only helped because of Somalia's previously stated socialist leanings.

In any case Barre wanted to be the perfect African socialist, and soon posters of him joining the communist pantheon of Marx, Engels, and Lenin were ubiquitous throughout Mogadishu. A personality cult grew around him and his self described economic brilliance. Despite his attempts to stamp out clan politics in Somalia, Barre could not shake his cultural roots and indulged in clan favoritism personally; half the ruling party were members of his own clan, and most government positions were filled by the most closely allied clans, a fact that was used to deride him as a hypocrite in underground press.

In 1977 Siad Barre launched yet another war against Ethiopia for control of Ogaden, despite his earlier promises not to. This sparked a counter-revolution on the home front, which although did not unseat Barre, was enough of a distraction to cause Somalia to falter on the Ethiopian campaign. The war was decisively lost by late 1978 and ethnic Somalis inhabiting Ogaden fled Ethiopian retaliation into Somalia proper, creating a huge refugee problem. At this point the socialist Somali government essentially went bankrupt and depended on international aid for economic survival. Organized armed opposition to Barre's regime emerged and the beginnings of total social breakdown. In response Barre stepped up his use of repressive tactics, and the amount of arbitrary imprisonments, torture and executions increased alarmingly. His tyranical measures were at least partially racist in nature, targeting unpopular clan groups first and foremost.

Out of desperation, Barre abandoned his previous strident anti-Americanism and in 1982 went begging to Washington. He partially appeased the Western world by releasing a token number of political prisoners, and received about $34million in aid. By the middle of that year, his regime was severely threatened by a combined force of Ethiopian regulars and Somali disident militias that seized control of large portions of central Somalia. The United States was convinced for whatever reason that Barre was the only legitimate authority in the region, and feared the certain alternative of complete anarchy. They gave a large shipment of military aid and $45 million cash to Barre to crush the invasion/insurrection. To improve his image in Western circles, Barre staged blatantly corrupt election wherein he received 99% of the vote.

In 1984 Barre signed a treaty with Kenya asserting Somalia had repudiated its past territorial claims in the northern part of their country. He also signed a treaty with South Africa whereby Somalia would be given extensive military support in exchange for granting a monopoly on Somalian air travel to the South African Airways company. Also in this year, pro-Somali rebels in Ogaden called a ceasefire with Ethiopia when they realized they would not be better off under Somali rule. Barre had been counting on these rebels to keep the Ethiopian military busy, and now faced a greater threat. In 1985 Barre signed an alliance with Libya and domestic disorder increased terribly in the face of a major drought that swept the region.

In 1986 Somalia received more American military aid, but suffered a diplomatic setback when they expelled British journalists for printing what Barre called anti-Somalia propaganda. Furthermore they were cut off from IMF assistance when Barre refused to liberalize the economy. Faced with dwindling reserves and a mounting crisis, Barre lashed out in a very bloody reign of terror. In May, he was badly injured in a car accident, and although made a full recovery, now at the age of 70, his health was called into question. The various military generals and high ranking political officers actively began power bartering behind his back as to who would succeed his position. This infighting brought normal government operations to a standstill, which considering the standard operating procedure of the day was pillage and murder, a non functioning Somali government was probably the best news possible. With opposing factions of the revolutionary government at a stalemate, the army and bureaucracy were purged again of those lacking sufficient loyalty to the president, and what was left of the national treasury was embezzled by whoever could get access.

Meanwhile on the streets of Mogadishu and elsewhere, Barre's dreaded Red Beret honor guard looted and killed enemy clan members at will. Despite constant civil disorder and random street violence, Barre held a strong grip on power until 1988. By the end of the decade though, the end was near. The disintegration of the country's infrastructure and a complete lack of law and order doomed any attempt at asserting authority.

Civil War

In 1991, the northern portion of the country declared its independence as Somaliland; although de facto independent and relatively stable compared to the tumultuous south, it has not been recognized by any foreign government. UN Security Council Resolution 794 was unanimously passed on December 3, 1992, which approved a coalition of United Nations peacekeepers led by the United States to form UNITAF, tasked with ensuring humanitarian aid got distributed and peace was established in Somalia. The UN humanitarian troops landed in 1993 and started a two-year effort (primarily in the south) to alleviate famine conditions. However, when the UN withdrew on March 3, 1995, having suffered significant casualties, order still had not been restored.

See also: Somalia