The History of Somalia
Below is a brief history of Somalia. To find information other than history for Somalia then visit
the Somalia Country Page.
Early history traces the development of the Somali people 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 l9th 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 this century, British rule was challenged through persistent attacks led by Mohamed Abdullah. 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 some 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; five 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 reflected clan loyalties, which contributed to a basic split between the regional interests of the former British-controlled north and the Italian-controlled south. There also was substantial conflict between pro-Arab, pan-Somali militants intent on national unification with the Somali-inhabited territories in Ethiopia and Kenya and the "modernists," who wished to give priority to economic and social development and improving relations with other African countries. Gradually, the Somali Youth League, formed under British auspices in 1943, assumed a dominant position and succeeded in cutting across regional and clan loyalties. Under the leadership of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, prime minister from 1967 to 1969, Somalia greatly improved its relations with Kenya and Ethiopia. The process of party-based constitutional democracy came to an abrupt end, however, on October 21, 1969, when the army and police, led by Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, seized power in a bloodless coup.
Following the coup, executive and legislative power was vested in the 20-member Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), headed by Maj. Gen. Siad Barre as president. 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. Perhaps the most impressive success was a crash program that introduced an orthography for the Somali language and brought literacy to a substantial percentage of the population.
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 Hailemariam 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. Fighting increased, and in July 1977, the Somali National Army (SNA) crossed into the Ogaden to support the insurgents. The SNA moved quickly toward Harer, Jijiga, and Dire Dawa, the principal cities of the region. Subsequently, the Soviet Union, Somalia's most important source of arms, embargoed weapons shipments to Somalia. The Soviets switched their full support to Ethiopia, with massive infusions of Soviet arms and 10,000-15,000 Cuban troops. In November 1977, President Siad Barre expelled all Soviet advisers and abrogated the friendship agreement with the U.S.S.R. In March 1978, Somali forces retreated into Somalia; however, the WSLF continues 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 1977 Ogaden war, President Barre looked to the West for international support, military equipment, and economic aid. The United States and other Western countries traditionally were reluctant to provide arms because of the Somali Government's support for insurgency in Ethiopia. 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 in 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 1990 the United States viewed Somalia as a partner in defense. Somali officers of the National Armed Forces were trained in U.S. military schools in civilian as well as military subjects. Within Somalia, Siad Barre's regime confronted insurgencies in the northeast and northwest, whose aim was to overthrow his government. By 1988, Siad Barre was openly at war with sectors of his nation. At the President's order, aircraft from the Somali National Air Force bombed the cities in the northwest province, attacking civilian as well as insurgent targets. 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 1990, the insurgency in the northwest was largely successful. The army dissolved into competing armed groups loyal to former commanders or to clan-tribal leaders. The economy was in shambles, and hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled their homes. In 1991, Siad Barre and forces loyal to him fled the capital; he later died in exile in Nigeria. In the same year, Somaliland declared itself independent of the rest of Somalia, with its capital in Hargeisa. 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 until 1994, when U.S. forces withdrew.
The prevailing chaos in much of Somalia after 1991 contributed to growing influence by various Islamic groups, including al-Tabliq, al-Islah (supported by Saudi Arabia), and Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (Islamic Unity). These groups, which are among the main non-clan-based forces in Somalia, share the goal of establishing an Islamic state. They differ in their approach; in particular, Al-Ittihad supports the use of violence to achieve that goal and has claimed responsibility for terrorist acts. In the mid-1990s, Al-Ittihad came to dominate territory in Puntland as well as central Somalia near Gedo. It was forcibly expelled from these localities by Puntland forces as well as Ethiopian attacks in the Gedo region. Since that time, Al-Ittihad has adopted a longer term strategy based on integration into local communities and establishment of Islamic schools, courts, and relief centers.
After the attack on the United States of September 11, 2001, Somalia gained greater international attention as a possible base for terrorism--a concern that became the primary element in U.S. policy toward Somalia. The United States and other members of the anti-terrorism coalition examined a variety of short- and long-term measures designed to cope with the threat of terrorism in and emanating from Somalia. Economic sanctions were applied to Al-Ittihad and to the Al-Barakaat group of companies, based in Dubai, which conducted currency exchanges and remittances transfers in Somalia. The United Nations also took an increased interest in Somalia, including proposals for an increased UN presence and for strengthening a 1992 arms embargo.