Somalia as a modern state formation is a result of the European colonization of Africa in the 19th century. Prior to this, there had been a number of urban states and sultanates in the same area for hundreds of years, several of which on the coast were central trading centers in the Middle Ages.
Somalia’s location on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean gives the country a strategically important position that has been sought after by foreign powers for several periods. This was especially true during the Cold War. During the colonial period, one part of Somalia was ruled by Italy, another by Britain. These two were, by independence in 1960, merged into the new Republic of Somalia, while a third Somali, under French rule, became independent as Djibouti. There are also Somali-dominated areas in Ethiopia and Kenya. In the 1990s, Somalia as state formation disintegrated as a result of civil war and regime change. Two areas broke out and declared independence: Somaliland and Puntland. In addition to war, Somalia has been severely hit by drought and hunger.
- Countryaah: Check to see the location of Somalia on the world map. Also covers major mountains, rivers and lakes in Somalia.
Somalia has one of Africa’s oldest documented history, with early settlement and extensive contact with other areas through extensive trade. To see more information other than history, please visit Abbreviationfinder to learn more about climate, population, government, and economy for the country of Somalia.
Archaeological excavations and written records attest to early settlement, as well as civilizations in Somalia thousands of years ago. Traces have been found for burial sites around 6,000 years old, and cave paintings, among others, at Hargeisa, which is about 5000 years old. Much of early civilization is closely related to Ethiopian cultures in the West and Arabs in the East.
There are also finds of pyramid structures, mausoleums and stone walls that tell of contact with ancient Egypt and Mycenaean Greece. Such cultural monuments, linked to records, indicate that the so-called ancient Punt may have been in the northeastern part of today’s Somalia. Here was a civilization that traded gold, ivory, myrrh and frankincense, among others – with Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians and Romans, as well as with Indians and Chinese. One of the oldest kingdoms, Makrobia, ruled much of today’s Somalia in the millennium before our time.
The trade-based states expanded their networks, among other things, by improving their merchant vessels and by taming the dromedary as a means of transport. Some trading centers were intermediaries in trade between East Asia and the Middle East.
In the 700s, Somalia was drawn into an expanding Arab trade that was also aimed at the interior. From here, gold, slaves and ivory were especially sought after. Arab and Persian traders established themselves on the coast, contributing to the development of trade centers.
Somalis spread on the Horn of Africa, beyond the borders of today’s state. The area was early Islamized by Yemenite immigrants, from the second half of the 600s. Several strong Sultanates emerged both in the northeast and further south, among them Adal and Mogadishu, who were part of the Ajuran empire in the 15th century. One of the other great sultanates was Warsaw. Some of them came into contact – and conflict – with Christian Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the west, with military campaigns both ways.
With its strategic location and position as a trading center, Somalia has for centuries also been an area of conflict, partly as a result of the struggle for influence. This was true even before European colonialism in the 19th century. Before the arrival of Europeans, there was a struggle between states in the area; then Portuguese interests in particular came to the coast and were met with resistance.
From 1527, the Adal Sultanate submerged areas both south of present-day Somalia and westward in later Ethiopia. After invading much of eastern Ethiopia, the invasion was fought back by Abyssinians with Portuguese help, and several Somali cities, including Zeila, were destroyed.
The Portuguese sought control of the Indian Ocean trade, but were driven back. Somali rulers received support from the Ottoman Empire, including Egypt. Somali-Ottoman forces also attacked Portuguese trading stations further south, in present-day Kenya. Somali forces also captured Zanzibar and controlled Lamu. Somali trade continued to grow, including the Chinese Ming Dynasty.
In the mid-1800s, the European superpowers’ interest in the Horn of Africa and Somalia increased. The United Kingdom developed Aden as an important supply port for trade with India from 1839, and depended on imports of meat from Somalia. France established a supply station in Obock on the Afar coast in 1862, and expanded a port in Djibouti. Italy opened a station in Assab in 1869. This, and not least the construction of the Suez Canal (1859-1870), gave Somalia increased strategic value. At the same time, the strong urban states and the sultanates were weakened. The Egyptian Kedive Ismail Pasha (1830-1895), claimed an old right on the Red Sea coast, and in 1875 took control of the important port cities in the north, and Harrar inland. Egypt evacuated Somalia in 1885, and in 1887 Harrar was captured by Emperor Menelik 2 of Ethiopia.
During the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885, the Somali area was divided between European powers. France gained control of French Somaliland; the later Djibouti. The United Kingdom made the northern part of the country a protectorate such as British Somaliland, after entering into agreements with the most important clans. In 1888, France and the United Kingdom entered into an agreement regulating the relationship between their Somali possessions. Italy established protectorates in the northeast in 1889, then transferred control of the southern part of the country from British interests – and established with it an Italian colony called Italian Somaliland.. In 1896–1997, the three great powers signed respective agreements with Emperor Menelik 2, in which Italy stated its claim to the Somali Ogaden, which later belonged to Ethiopia. Somali areas farthest south were incorporated into British possession Kenya.
Anti-colonial uprisings took place especially against the British government, led by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdullah Hassan. His dervish rebels repeatedly defeated British forces in the period 1900-1904, and the British failed to defeat the rebellion until 1920, gaining control of the interior. Italy gained control of its entire colony in 1927. Italian Somaliland and Italian possession Eritrea were used as a springboard for Italy’s attack on Abyssinia in 1936, after which the three territories were incorporated into Italian East Africa.
Somalia’s recent history, up to independence in 1960, began in practice with World War II, which became the beginning of decolonization. Somalia was one of the areas in Africa that became the scene of fighting between the warring parties in Europe.
In Somalia, Italian forces occupied British Somaliland in 1940, but the following year the Italian possessions were taken by Allied forces and placed under British military administration. At the same time, British Somaliland was returned to British control. With the exception of French Somaliland, the Somali areas were brought together under British administration until the areas of Ogaden and Hawd were surrendered to Ethiopia.
As part of the 1947 peace treaty, Italy lost all rights to Italian Somaliland, and waived its right to the area. Equally, in 1950 Italy was given the task of leading the territory, which was now a UN mandate, for a period of ten years until independence in 1960.
Somali nationalism emerged after 1945, including through the Somali Youth League (SYL), which won a majority in the 1959 Italian legislative assembly elections in Italian Somaliland.
British Somaliland became independent on June 26, 1960; Italian Somaliland July 1st. On the same day, July 1, 1960, the two territories were merged into the independent state of Somalia. The two national assemblies were merged, and Abdirashid Ali Shermake (1919-1969) of the Somali Youth League (SYL) became prime minister; president from 1967. SYL, based in the south, joined the Somali National League (SNL) in the north in the first Somali government. SYL then won the 1964 and 1969 elections.
After the 1969 election riots came, and on October 15, President Shermake was assassinated by his own bodyguard. This led to the military seizing power in a coup on October 21, and a military revolutionary council led by Major General Siad Barre to replace government and parliament. Siad started a process of making Somalia a socialist state, based on a form of so-called scientific socialism, with elements from both Marxism and Islam.
Several reforms to counter regional and ethnic divides were implemented, and the modernization program included the preparation of a Somali written language. In 1976, the Revolutionary Council was replaced by the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP). Under Siad and the SRSP, Somalia was a one-party state and, increasingly, a police state, which was particularly linked to the Soviet Union.
The military regime promoted claims in the areas of northeastern Africa with Somali-speaking population, the former French Somaliland (which in 1977 became independent as Djibouti), the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and northern parts of Kenya. Following the military takeover in Ethiopia in 1974, the conflict between the countries developed in 1977–1978 into full war (the Ogaden War). Somali forces invaded Ogaden, but were driven back in 1978 when Ethiopia received Soviet aid and military support from Cuban troops.
The defeat of the Ogaden war intensified the dissatisfaction with the Siad regime. The opposition organized itself into several groups, including the Somali National Movement (SNM), which had its base in the Isaac clan in the north. From the mid-1980s, SNM began its military struggle against the central government.
SNM’s resistance evolved from 1988 to full civil war. In one of the first major operations, the SNM-controlled city of Hargeisa was bombed by the Air Force; an estimated 40,000 were killed and 400,000 fled to Ethiopia.
In 1989, a new opposition group emerged, the United Somali Congress (USC), led by Mohamed Farrah Aidid and based on the hawiye clan. It also resorted to weapons against the regime. In the south, the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) was formed. In the second half of 1990, SNM, USC and SPM coordinated their resistance, and in November – December, forces from USC Mogadishu took over.
On January 27, 1991, Siad Barre fled the capital. USC appointed Ali Mahdi Muhammad (born 1939) as new interim president. SNM took control of the north and on 17 May 1991 declared the northern part of the country an independent republic under the name Somaliland, with SNM chairman Abd ar-Rahman Ahmed Ali Tur as president. Siad Barre tried to regain power from his bases in the southwestern part of the country, but failed. He went into exile first to Kenya, and then to Nigeria.
After the conquest of Mogadishu, the war entered a new phase – a war between the north and the south and later a war between various clans in the south. Both SNM and SPM opposed the appointment of Mahdi as president. An agreement between the various militia groups, signed in Djibouti in 1991, proposed a ceasefire and the establishment of a clan-balanced national assembly, but this was not put to life because of fighting inside the USC.
USC elected Mohamed Farrah Aidid as leader, and rivalry between him and President Ali Mahdi led to armed clashes. Aidid and Mahdi both belonged to USC – and to that same clan, hawiye, but two different subclans of this, habir gedir and abgal respectively. The fighting in and around Mogadishu in 1991-1992 led to thousands of deaths; around 100,000 fled. After mediation, a ceasefire between the parties was signed in March 1992. In April, the United Nations decided to send military observers to the country, in the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM).
In the spring of 1992, about one million Somalis had fled Somalia, and a fifth of the remaining population was at risk of starving to death. The United Nations and the United States decided to launch a civilian-military relief operation, where food and drug distribution was provided with military protection. The United States sent 20,000 UN-flagged troops to Somalia in December 1992, and 21 countries contributed troops to the Unified Task Force (UNITAF). This one tried to bring Aidid and Mahdi together for peace talks, and began to disarm their forces.
After meetings between UNITAF and the militia groups, the United States decided to withdraw and leave responsibility to the UN. The UNOSOM II peacekeeping UN force was launched in 1993 with participation from 35 countries, including Norway and the United States. Also this support force along with Somali militia. An American attempt to capture Aidid led to significant losses, and the United States decided to withdraw. These events were later filmed through Black Hawk Down (2001). The UN was strongly criticized for how the operation was carried out, and most western countries, including Norway, withdrew in 1994. The force continued with a smaller set-up until it was fully withdrawn in March 1995.
At the same time as the UN was being wound up, there were widespread fighting between rival militias in Mogadishu. In June 1995, Aidid was removed as leader of his faction Somali National Alliance (SNA) and followed by Osman Ali Atto (1940–2013). Aidid responded to the provision of being appointed Somalia’s president, but neither his regime nor Ali Mahdis was internationally recognized. Fighting between Aidid and Ali Mahdi’s forces broke out again in Mogadishu in December 1995, and Aidid launched a military offensive in southern Somalia.
In 1996 there were battles between different militia groups and inside Aidid’s militia. In August, Ali Farah Aidid died of gunshot wounds. His son, Hussein Mohamed Farrah, was elected interim president. Following the initiative of the regional cooperation organization IGAD, 26 factions met in December 1996, and established a national council to stake out the further road towards peace and a representative regime. A new agreement was signed in Cairo in 1997. A reconciliation conference in Baidoa in 1998 elected Somalia’s first legal government since President Siad was ousted in 1991.
In 1998, a gathering of leaders in the province of Puntland decided to declare independence. Unlike the neighboring Somaliland, the new state formation did not seek international recognition, but had a united, federal Somalia as its target.