Somalia: History

Early history traces the development of the Somali state to an Arab sultanate, which was founded in the seventh century A.D. by Koreishite immigrants from Yemen. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese traders landed in present Somali territory and ruled several coastal towns. The sultan of Oman and Zanzibar subsequently took control of these towns and their surrounding territory.

Somalia’s modern history began in the late 19th century, when various European powers began to trade and establish themselves in the area. The British East India Company’s desire for unrestricted harbor facilities led to the conclusion of treaties with the sultan of Tajura as early as 1840. It was not until 1886, however, that the British gained control over northern Somalia through treaties with various Somali chiefs who were guaranteed British protection. British objectives centered on safeguarding trade links to the east and securing local sources of food and provisions for its coaling station in Aden. The boundary between Ethiopia and British Somaliland was established in 1897 through treaty negotiations between British negotiators and King Menelik.

During the first two decades of the 1900s, British rule was challenged through persistent attacks by a dervish rebellion led by Mohamed Abdullah (known as the "Mad Mullah" by the British). A long series of intermittent engagements and truces ended in 1920 when British warplanes bombed Abdullah’s stronghold at Taleex. Although Abdullah was defeated as much by rival Somali factions as by British forces, he was lauded as a popular hero and stands as a major figure of national identity to many Somalis.

In 1885, Italy obtained commercial advantages in the area from the sultan of Zanzibar and in 1889 concluded agreements with the sultans of Obbia and Aluula, who placed their territories under Italy’s protection. Between 1897 and 1908, Italy made agreements with the Ethiopians and the British that marked out the boundaries of Italian Somaliland. The Italian Government assumed direct administration, giving the territory colonial status.

Italian occupation gradually extended inland. In 1924, the Jubaland Province of Kenya, including the town and port of Kismayo, was ceded to Italy by the United Kingdom. The subjugation and occupation of the independent sultanates of Obbia and Mijertein, begun in 1925, were completed in 1927. In the late 1920s, Italian and Somali influence expanded into the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. Continuing incursions climaxed in 1935 when Italian forces launched an offensive that led to the capture of Addis Ababa and the Italian annexation of Ethiopia in 1936.

Following Italy’s declaration of war on the United Kingdom in June 1940, Italian troops overran British Somaliland and drove out the British garrison. In 1941, British forces began operations against the Italian East African Empire and quickly brought the greater part of Italian Somaliland under British control. From 1941 to 1950, while Somalia was under British military administration, transition toward self-government was begun through the establishment of local courts, planning committees, and the Protectorate Advisory Council. In 1948, Britain turned the Ogaden and neighboring Somali territories over to Ethiopia.

In Article 23 of the 1947 peace treaty, Italy renounced all rights and titles to Italian Somaliland. In accordance with treaty stipulations, on September 15, 1948, the Four Powers referred the question of disposal of former Italian colonies to the UN General Assembly. On November 21, 1949, the General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending that Italian Somaliland be placed under an international trusteeship system for 10 years, with Italy as the administering authority, followed by independence for Italian Somaliland. In 1959, at the request of the Somali Government, the UN General Assembly advanced the date of independence from December 2 to July 1, 1960.

Meanwhile, rapid progress toward self-government was being made in British Somaliland. Elections for the Legislative Assembly were held in February 1960, and one of the first acts of the new legislature was to request that the United Kingdom grant the area independence so that it could be united with Italian Somaliland when the latter became independent. The protectorate became independent on June 26, 1960; 5 days later, on July 1, it joined Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic.

In June 1961, Somalia adopted its first national constitution in a countrywide referendum, which provided for a democratic state with a parliamentary form of government based on European models. During the early post-independence period, political parties were a fluid concept, with one-person political parties forming before an election, only to defect to the winning party following the election. A constitutional conference in Mogadishu in April 1960, which made the system of government in the southern Somali trust territory the basis for the future government structure of the Somali Republic, resulted in the concentration of political power in the former Italian Somalia capital of Mogadishu and a southern-dominated central government. Most key government positions were occupied by southern Somalis, producing increased disenchantment with the union in the former British-controlled north. Pan-Somali nationalism, with the goal of uniting the Somali-populated regions of French Somaliland (Djibouti), Kenya, and Ethiopia into a Greater Somalia remained the driving political ideology in the initial post-independence period. However, under the leadership of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal (prime minister from 1967 to 1969), Somalia renounced its claims to the Somali-populated regions of Ethiopia and Kenya, greatly improving its relations with both countries. Egal’s move towards reconciliation with Ethiopia, which had been a traditional enemy of Somalia since the 16th century, made many Somalis furious, including the army. Some argue that this reconciliation effort is one of the principal factors that provoked a bloodless coup on October 21, 1969, and subsequent installation of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre as president, bringing an abrupt end to the process of party-based constitutional democracy in Somalia.

Following the coup, executive and legislative power was vested in the 20-member Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), headed by Barre. The SRC pursued a course of “scientific socialism” that reflected both ideological and economic dependence on the Soviet Union. The government instituted a national security service, centralized control over information, and initiated a number of grassroots development projects. Barre reduced political freedoms and used military force to seize and redistribute rich farmlands in the areas of southern Somalia between the Juba and Shabelle Rivers, relying on the use of force and terror against the Somali population to consolidate his political power base.

The SRC became increasingly radical in foreign affairs, and in 1974, Somalia and the Soviet Union concluded a treaty of friendship and cooperation. As early as 1972, tensions began increasing along the Somali-Ethiopian border; these tensions heightened after the accession to power in Ethiopia in 1973 of the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime, which turned increasingly toward the Soviet Union. In the mid-1970s, the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) began guerrilla operations in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Following the overthrow of the Ethiopian Emperor in 1975, Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977 in an attempt to regain the Ogaden, an attempt that initially went in Somalia’s favor. The Somali National Army moved quickly toward Harer, Jijiga, and Dire Dawa, the principal cities of the region. However, following the Ethiopian revolution, the new Ethiopian Government had shifted its alliance from the West to the Soviet Union. Because of the new alliance, the Soviet Union supplied Ethiopia with 10,000-15,000 Cuban troops and Soviet military advisors during the 1977-78 Ogaden war, shifting the advantage to Ethiopia and resulting in Somalia’s defeat. In November 1977, Barre expelled all Soviet advisers and abrogated the friendship agreement with the Soviet Union. In March 1978, Somali forces retreated into Somalia; however, the WSLF continued to carry out sporadic but greatly reduced guerrilla activity in the Ogaden. Such activities also were subsequently undertaken by another dissident group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Following the Ogaden war, desperate to find a strong external alliance to replace the Soviet Union, Somalia abandoned its Socialist ideology and turned to the West for international support, military equipment, and economic aid. In 1978, the United States reopened the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Somalia. Two years later, an agreement was concluded that gave U.S. forces access to military facilities at the port of Berbera in northwestern Somalia. In the summer of 1982, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia along the central border, and the United States provided two emergency airlifts to help Somalia defend its territorial integrity. From 1982 to 1988, the United States viewed Somalia as a partner in defense in the context of the Cold War. Somali officers of the National Armed Forces were trained in U.S. military schools in civilian as well as military subjects.

During this time, the Barre regime violently suppressed opposition movements and ethnic groups, particularly the Isaaq clan in the northern region, using the military and elite security forces to quash any hint of rebellion. By the 1980s, an all-out civil war developed in Somalia. Opposition groups had begun to form following the end of the Ogaden war, beginning in 1979 with a group of dissatisfied army officers known as the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). In 1981, as a result of increased northern discontent with the Barre regime, the Somali National Movement (SNM), composed mainly of the Isaaq clan, was formed in Hargeisa with the stated goal of overthrowing of the Barre regime. In January 1989, the United Somali Congress (USC), an opposition group of Somalis from the Hawiye clan, was formed as a political movement in Rome. A military wing of the USC was formed in Ethiopia in late 1989 under the leadership of Mohamed Farah “Aideed (which means “one who does not take insults lying down”),” a former political prisoner imprisoned by Barre from 1969-75. Aideed also formed alliances with other opposition groups, including the SNM and the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), an Ogadeni sub-clan force under Colonel Ahmed Omar Jess in the Bakool and Bay regions of Southern Somalia. In 1988, at the President’s order, aircraft from the Somali National Air Force bombed the city of Hargeisa in northwestern Somalia, the former capital of British Somaliland, killing nearly 10,000 civilians and insurgents. The warfare in the northwest sped up the decay already evident elsewhere in the republic. Economic crisis, brought on by the cost of anti-insurgency activities, caused further hardship as Siad Barre and his cronies looted the national treasury.

By the end of the 1980s, armed opposition to Barre’s government, fully operational in the northern regions, had spread to the central and southern regions. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled their homes, claiming refugee status in neighboring Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. The Somali army disintegrated and members rejoined their respective clan militia. Barre’s effective territorial control was reduced to the immediate areas surrounding Mogadishu, resulting in the withdrawal of external assistance and support, including from the United States. By the end of 1990, the Somali state was in the final stages of complete collapse. In the first week of December 1990, Barre declared a state of emergency as USC and SNM forces advanced toward Mogadishu. In January 1991, armed opposition factions drove Barre out of power, resulting in the complete collapse of the central government. Barre later died in exile in Nigeria. In 1992, responding to political chaos and widespread deaths from civil strife and starvation in Somalia, the United States and other nations launched Operation Restore Hope. Led by the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), the operation was designed to create an environment in which assistance could be delivered to Somalis suffering from the effects of dual catastrophes--one manmade and one natural. UNITAF was followed by the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). The United States played a major role in both operations. On October 3-4, 1993, 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in an incident recounted famously in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” The United States continued operations until March 25, 1994, when U.S. forces withdrew.

Following the collapse of the Barre regime in 1991, various groupings of Somali factions sought to control the national territory (or portions thereof) and fought small wars with one another. Approximately 14 national reconciliation conferences were convened over the succeeding decade. Efforts at mediation of the Somali internal dispute were also undertaken by many regional states. In the mid-1990s, Ethiopia played host to several Somali peace conferences and initiated talks at the Ethiopian city of Sodere, which led to some degree of agreement between competing factions. The Governments of Egypt, Yemen, Kenya, and Italy also have attempted to bring the Somali factions together. In 1997, the Organization of African Unity and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) gave Ethiopia the mandate to pursue Somali reconciliation. In 2000, Djibouti hosted a major reconciliation conference (the 13th such effort), which in August resulted in creation of the Transitional National Government (TNG), whose 3-year mandate expired in August 2003. Kenya organized the Somalia National Reconciliation Conference, a 14th reconciliation effort, in 2002 under IGAD auspices. The conference concluded in August 2004 with the establishment of a Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The absence of a central government in Somalia allowed outside forces to become more influential by supporting various groups and persons in Somalia, particularly Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, all of which have supported various Somali factions and transitional governments. In July 2006, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia and defeated the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization al-Shabaab, formerly the nominal military wing of the ICU, became independent of the Courts and launched a multi-faction insurgency after the Courts scattered as a result of the 2006 invasion. Al-Shabaab and other extremist forces garnered power in subsequent years through their effective fighting of the Ethiopians, intimidation, and harsh implementation of shari’a law. In January 2009, Ethiopian forces completely withdrew from Somalia. Up until an anti-al-Shabaab offensive began in the western regions of southern Somalia in early 2011, al-Shabaab had controlled much of south-central Somalia and parts of Mogadishu. Responding to a crushing famine in the south-central region and setbacks at the hands of the TFG and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), al-Shabaab largely pulled out of Mogadishu in August 2011. While al-Shabaab’s violent attacks continue to limit the TFG’s ability to provide public services, as well as prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable Somali populations, al-Shabaab does not enjoy as wide-reaching control as in late 2010.

Beginning in spring 2011, Somalia and the greater Horn of Africa experienced what some have called the worst drought in 60 years. Massive crop failure and a drastic rise in food prices, coupled with the security situation in al-Shabaab controlled areas of south and central Somalia, led the UN to declare famine in six areas in September 2011. This famine forced thousands of Somalis into already overstretched refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, while others have fled to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab continues to deny international aid to the most affected communities. The United States, UN, and international humanitarian agencies have been working to address both the immediate needs of the Somali people and work toward a more permanent solution to stop similar crises in Somalia. The United States is providing over $211 million in humanitarian assistance in Somalia. As a result of continued international humanitarian assistance and better rains, the UN declared in February 2012 that Somalia was no longer experiencing famine conditions. However, the humanitarian situation remains dire, with 2.34 million people still in crisis.

In October 2011, faced with what it perceived as an untenable threat to its security and economy as a result of high-profile incidents involving kidnap and murder of European tourists, Kenya sent military forces into Somalia to push back al-Shabaab and remains in southern Somalia to date. In December 2011, Ethiopian military forces entered Somalia and captured the town of Beledweyne, once held by al-Shabaab. As of March 2012, Ethiopian forces had taken the former al-Shabaab stronghold of Baidoa, while AMISOM controls most of the capital, Mogadishu.

The lack of governance and resulting instability led to the emergence of Somalia-based maritime piracy in the form of hijacking vessels and their crews for ransoms. Since 2008, the number of attacks annually by Somali pirates has risen into the hundreds and spread beyond the immediate coast of Somalia as far away as the Gulf of Oman and the western Indian Ocean. The UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions authorizing states to undertake all necessary measures in Somalia to suppress acts of piracy. In January 2009, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia was established to coordinate international counter-piracy efforts, including the multinational naval task forces conducting patrols and escort operations off the coast of Somalia to protect international shipping lines. With average ransom payments for hijacked ships reaching several million U.S. dollars, piracy has developed into a complex and lucrative economy of its own with negative impacts on global commerce, regional security, and Somali society, particularly in the states of Puntland and Galmuduug, where most pirate attacks from Somalia are based. U.S. and international efforts decreased the success rate of pirate attacks in 2011--cutting the number by about half from the year before.


CIA World Factbook (April 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( April 2012)