Somalia – Some History

Somalia is reported to be the most ethnically homogeneous state in Africa. Its capital is Mogadishu, The Beautiful City, The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

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On a map, Somalia is oriented as if to cradle the Arabian peninsula; that ancient land of Yemen, the southernmost of the Arabian peninsula, is just a 250 kilometer boat ride across the separating Gulf of Aden. Somalia’s right hand juts eastward into the Indian Ocean further than any other point on continental Africa. Somalia is a natural guardian of the southern entrance to the Suez canal, one of the most heavily traveled corridors of trade in the world.

Modern Somalia is strife-riven into three regions along old fault lines. The northern territory along the Gulf of Aden, one time British Protectorate, has declared its independence as Somaliland. The easternmost region containing where Cape Hafun, has more recently declared its independence as Puntland, a name recalling an ancient heritage from the days of the Pharoahs. The southern region, south of the tip of the horn of Africa, remains as Somalia, a part of one time Italian Somaliland.

Puntland has been identified by many historians with The Land of Punt referenced in ancient Egyptian trading records. Others identify it with the Land of Put in the bible. Others, though, attach the biblical reference to Libya. The region was reportedly rich in wildlife, and rich in products desired in Egypt. “These products included gold and aromatic resins such as myrrh, frankincense, and ebony; the wild animals depicted in Punt included giraffes, baboons, hippotamuses, and leopards.”1 Thus the region’s heritage dates back millennia.

European claims to this ancient region date back less than two hundred years. It was the time of the Scramble for Africa, inaugurated by the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. Italy, whose colonization enterprise had lagged far behind its European rivals, laid claim to the eastern Cape Hafun region and the lands southward. Great Britain established its claim in the northern region. Through multiple treaties, the Italian Protectorate and British Protectorate were established in 1888. They became known as Italian Somalia and British Somalia.2

British and Italian Somaliland …

The horn of Africa seems to be a more barren place in modern times than it was in the days of the Pharoahs. Nevertheless, in time, Italy invested heavily in its colony and Italian Somaliland came to be known as the crown jewel of Italy. Britain, possessing by this time a world embracing empire, invested far less in the relatively barren landscape of British Somaliland. Far larger and wealthier, India was considered the crown jewel of its empire. The relative investments may have been for both better and for worse, depending upon one’s point of observation. A recent writer described it thus, “Italy was more interventionist than was Britain”. But railway and roads, and, by many accounts, an excellent airport was developed by the Italians.

Italy and Great Britain were allies in WW1, and, in the settlement of that war, Britain awarded some of its Somalian territory to Italy. Italy continued to develop its colony up until WW2, in which Italy joined Germany in war against Great Britain. In August 1940, Italy invaded British Somaliland, dislodged the British and annexed the region into German East Italy. In March 1941, Britain recaptured its territory and, by war’s end, took possession all of Italian Somaliland.

In the WW2 settlement, Italian Somaliland was returned to Italy as a trusteeship under UN mandate and supervision. The understanding was that all of Somalia would be granted independence, and would reunite, in ten years. But that future ten year period combined with the preceding colonial decades, to create essentially two different Somalias, a North and a South, with widely different understandings of life in a modern state, together with vastly different levels of experience and expectation. Italian Somaliland had been significantly developed for the five decades preceding the war, British Somaliland had not. For the post war decade, Italian Somaliland was supervised by UN mandate with training to continue as an independent state. British Somaliland was not. And the North and the South were pitted against one anther as proxies in WW2. The disparities instigated problems in the era of independence.3 British Somalia was granted independence June 26, 1960 with the understanding that it would unite with Italian Somalia upon its independence July 1, 1960. Five days later, July 1, 1960, a modern independent united Somalia was born.

Somalia …

In 1960 a constitution was ratified and political offices filled for a system of government that continued until a coup d’etat in 1969, during which the constitution was suspended, and, after which, the country was renamed the Somali Democratic Republic.

From 1969 until the civil war of 1991, the Somalia Democratic Republic was under the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre. This was the era of the Cold War. Somalia leaned socialist and received considerable support from the Soviet Union until the war with Ethiopia, the Ogaden war of 1977-1978. Somalia invaded in the attempt to recover territory divided up by the colonialists a century before. Upon early easy success, the Soviet Union abandoned Somalia and threw its support into Ethiopia.4Somalia broke diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and sought alliances elsewhere. The United States welcomed relations with Somalia, having long sought them, particularly for its strategic location at the entrance to the Suez canal. It’s been observed that through it’s alternating relations with the Soviet Union and then the United States, Somalia had built the largest army in Africa. During the 1980s, the people grew increasingly distressed with the military dictatorship until civil war broke out in 1990.

image from May 30, 2017 NPR article

In 1991, the northern region, Somaliland, declared itself to be an independent republic. In 1998, the eastern region, the eastern region declared its independence as Puntland. The map5 shows the 3 disputed regions in present day Somalia.


  1. The Land of Punt, wikipedia
  2. The present day sate of Djibouti, the northern neighbor of present-day Somalia, had been colonized by France in 1883 and had become known as French Somaliland.
  3. There were further fracturings of the ethnic Somali under British management both (then) present and past, as important regions inhabited by ethinc Somalis, against their wishes, were essentially ceded to Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, further dividing the people. Somalia, wikipedia
  4. an almost comincal note in the wikipedia article on the Ogaden War, The USSR, finding itself supplying both sides of a war, attempted to mediate a ceasefire. When their efforts failed, the Soviets abandoned Somalia.
  5. NPR, May 30, 2017