List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

Between Arabia and Ethiopia

The land of the Somali people, much of it arid and inhospitable, has for thousands of years been close to civilization and international trade. To the north, just across the Gulf of Aden, is Saba, the land of the legendary Queen of Sheba and the earliest part of Arabia to prosper. To the west is Ethiopia, where the kingdom of Aksum is established by the 5th century BC.

Situated on the so-called Horn of Africa, jutting out into the India Ocean, Somalia's harbours are natural ports of call for traders sailing to and from India. So the coastline of the region is much visited by foreigners, in particular Arabs and Persians. But in the interior the Somali are left to their own devices.

Colonial competitors: 1839-1897

European interest in Somalia develops after 1839, when the British begin to use Aden, on the south coast of Arabia, as a coaling station for ships on the route to India. The British garrison requires meat. The easiest local source is the Somali coast.

France and Italy, requiring similar coaling facilities for their own ships, establish stations in the northern Somali regions. The French develop Djibouti. The Italians are a little further up the coast at Aseb, in Eritrea. When the European scramble for Africa begins, in the 1880s, these are the three powers competing for Somali territory. Soon they are joined by a fourth rival, Ethiopia, where Menelik II becomes emperor in 1889.

France and Britain, after a brief risk of armed confrontation, agree in 1888 on a demarcation line between their relatively minor shares of the coast. The French region around Djibouti becomes formally known as the Côte Françcaise des Somalis (French Coast of the Somalis, commonly referred to in English as French Somaliland). This remains a French colony until becoming independent as the republic of Djibouti in 1977.

British influence in the coastal area around Zeila and Berbera is formalized during the 1880s in a series of treaties promising protection to the chieftains of various local Somali clans. The region becomes a protectorate under the title of British Somaliland.

Although France and Britain have thus acquired control over two valuable stretches of coastline (of increased commercial importance now that the Suez Canal has opened), by far the largest part of Somalia is disputed between Italy and Ethiopia.

Italy establishes protectorates along the coast eastwards beyond British Somaliland, and Italian companies acquire leases on parts of the east-facing Somali coast (where the landlord is the sultan of Zanzibar). Italy agrees spheres of influence amicably with Britain in 1884, placing the border between British Somaliland and Italian Somalia just west of Bender Cassim. At first Italy is also on congenial terms with Ethiopia - notably in the 1889 treaty of Uccialli concerning Eritrea.

But disagreement over the actual meaning of the Eritrean treaty rapidly sours relations between Italy and Ethiopia. By 1896 this results in outright war and in the crushing defeat of the Italians at Aduwa.

Although these events concern only Eritrea, the weakened Italian position has immediate repercussions in Somalia. There is a large Somali region, the Ogaden, which lies between Ethiopia and the coastal part of Somalia where the Italians are active. As yet neither imperial power controls this region, but after Aduwa the Italians are in no position to resist Ethiopian claims to it.

The result is a new settlement agreed between the powers in 1896-7. Ethiopia is granted the Ogaden and is ceded the southern strip of British Somaliland, a region known as the Haud. This arrangement (which brings many Somalis permanently within Ethiopia) holds good as a colonial compromise until the 1920s, when it is upset by the aggressive energies of fascist Italy.

In the intervening years the most dramatic upheaval occurs in British Somaliland, where the uprising led by Mohammed ibn Abdullah Hassan (known to the British at the time as the Mad Mullah) takes two decades to suppress.

Fascism, World War II and independence: 1923-1967

A new era of conflict begins in Somalia in 1923 with the arrival in the Italian colony of the first governor appointed by Mussolini, newly in power as Italy's fascist dictator. A vigorous policy is adopted to develop and extend Italian imperial interests, culminating in the defeat and annexation of Ethiopia in 1936.

The local situation is therefore tense when World War II begins, though there is little immediate chance for the two relatively small colonies of the allies. French and British Somaliland are entirely surrounded by Italian Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia - now jointly known as Italian East Africa.

By 1940 the British have withdrawn from their colony, while French Somaliland claims neutrality in keeping with the policy of the Vichy government. However in 1941 British forces recover the whole area (except French Somaliland) from the Italians, thus uniting almost the entire territory of the Somali people under British rule.

Meanwhile French Somaliland is being blockaded by the allies. In 1942 the local administration changes allegiance and throws in its lot with the Free French.

Between 1948 and 1950 the situation reverts to the colonial boundaries agreed in 1897. Ethiopia retains the Ogaden and the Haud. French and British Somaliland continue as before. And in 1950 the Italians return to Somalia under a UN trusteeship, with the commitment to bring the colony to independence within ten years.

In the event the year 1960 brings independence to both the British and Italian colonies, in June and July respectively. They decide to merge as the Somali Republic, more usually known as Somalia. The French colony has to wait until 1977 before becoming independent as Djibouti.

Somali conflicts: 1960-1999

From the start a major political theme in independent Somalia is the need to reunite with three large Somali groups trapped in other states - in French Somaliland, in Ethiopia (the annexed Ogaden and Haud regions) and in northern Kenya.

Failure to make any progress on this issue is largely due to western support for Ethiopia and Kenya, which causes Somalia to look to the Soviet Union for military aid. Nevertheless the Somali government manages to maintain a fairly neutral stance in international affairs during the 1960s - a position which changes dramatically after 1969.

The winning party in the first elections of the new republic is the SYL or Somali Youth League, formed originally to campaign for independence within British Somaliland. Elections in March 1969 bring the party a larger majority. It is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its rule until - in October of this same year - a policeman assassinates the president, Muhammad Egal.

A few days later, in a mounting political crisis, the commander of the army, Mohamed Siad Barre, seizes power. President Siad has no doubt on which side of the Cold War he intends to align himself. Comrade Marx, Comrade Lenin and Comrade Siad are soon appearing together on banners and posters at government rallies.

Siad introduces a brutal Marxist dictatorship, insisting upon the supremacy of party and nation as opposed to the local clan loyalties which are a strong feature of Somali culture. But it is the clans of Somalia which finally demolish his totalitarian state. The collapse results from Somalia's running sore, the question of the Ogaden.

In 1977, with Ethiopia in chaos after the fall of Haile Selassie, Somalia attacks Ethiopian garrisons in the Ogaden. Soon a Somali army is even besieging the city of Harar. But President Siad is betrayed by his chosen superpower. The Soviet Union sees a more important potential client in the new Ethiopia.

Early in 1978 the Ethiopian army, using Soviet equipment and reinforced by troops from Cuba, recaptures the Ogaden. The result is the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees over the borders into Somalia.

In the aftermath of this disaster guerrilla groups, clan-based and regional, are formed in and around Somalia with the intention of toppling Siad's repressive and centralizing regime. By 1988 the result is full-scale civil war, resulting in the overthrow of Siad in 1991. He withdraws to the safety of his own clan, becoming one warlord among many in this increasingly chaotic nation. In 1991 the faction controlling the former British Somaliland confuses matters by declaring its independence as the republic of Somaliland.

Famine, the UN and continuing chaos: 1992-1999

The conflict destroys Somalia's crops during 1992 and brings widespread famine. Food flown in by international agencies is looted by the warring militias. By December 1992 the situation is such that the UN actively intervenes, sending a force of 35,000 troops in Operation Restore Hope.

The UN briefly calms the situation, persuading fifteen warring groups to convene in Addis Ababa in January 1993 for peace and disarmament talks. These seem at first to make progress, but the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. In March 1994 American and European units in the UN force withdraw, finding the level of casualties unacceptable. Troops from African countries and the Indian subcontinent remain in situ.

During the rest of the decade the situation gets worse rather than better. From late 1994 the capital, Mogadishu, is divided between the two most powerful of the warring factions. In each a leader declares himself the president of the nation and organizes a supposedly national government. In March 1995 the remaining UN forces are evacuated from the coast under the protection of an international flotilla.

At the end of the decade the only remotely stable region is the breakaway republic of Somaliland, in the northwest. An interim constitution is introduced here in 1997 and a president is elected. But the would-be republic fails, as yet, to win any international recognition.