Somalia borders Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. It was formed from the merger of former colonies of the United Kingdom and Italy which both gained independence in 1960. It was never a terribly rich country, but the civil war which started in 1991 has devastated the country and plunged much of it into famine. United Nations troops went in to try to calm things down and distribute food in 1992 but left in 1993. The southern half of the country is still being fought over. The northern half (the formerly British area) has a provisional government and is seeking to be recognized as a separate country, "the Republic of Somaliland."

Known in Somali as Soomaaliya.

A new unitary government of Somalia has recently (2000) been formed, under the presidency of Abdulqassim Salat Hassan. Not all factions recognize it, of course.

As well as the former British zone declaring itself independent Somaliland, a region calling itself Puntland has also set up its own government, though it says it wants to be part of a united Somalia when the time comes. Another region called Jubaland has now also proclaimed self-government.

British Somaliland gained independence on 26 June 1960, Italian Somaliland on 1 July, and united with it to form the Somali Republic. The name was changed to the Somali Democratic Republic on the accession of General Maxamed Siyaad Barre (Mohammed Siad Barre) in a military coup in 1969.

The capital is Muqdisho, also called Xamar in Somali; better known under the forms Mogadishu and Mogadiscio. It is the origin of the name Madagascar, which was labelled in error by early European explorers.

The new transitional government (elected in Djibouti) intended to establish their capital at Baidoa, but President Abdulqassim has remained in Muqdisho, causing the head of the faction controlling Baidoa, the Rahanwein Resistance Army, to leave the government in protest. Another one was elected in Nairobi in October 2004, under the presidency of the Puntland leader Cabdullahi Yuusuf Axmed, which has yet to move into Mogadishu.

The flag of Somalia has always been a white five-pointed star on United Nations blue. The five points stand for the five colonial administrations that the Somali people were divided amongst: Italian, British (in British Somaliland and in Kenya), French, and Abyssinian.

Superpowers, Money, Guns, & Blood: How "Somalia" Happened

Somalia is one of the least developed countries in Africa. It has had a history of poverty, clan warfare, and occasional famine. The country barely existed for most of the West until the 1990s when famine and a lack of government made them headline news (largely because of high profile interventions by the United Nations and the United States).

To many, the situation in Somalia was a disaster that happened overnight and was something somehow endemic and expected of a "backward" African nation. Making the past irrelevant to the present (at the time, though the situation has not improved greatly in many respects) and making the people of Somalia partly guilty for their misery. That is incorrect, the situation in the country that became known to the West has a history and it could have been foreseen to a large extent, though nothing was done until it was convenient and played well in the media.

Somalia is an East African nation on what is known as the "Horn of Africa," part of the continent that juts out pointedly at the mouth of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, angling around the Arabian peninsula and directly across from Yemen. On the African continent, it bends around Kenya to the southwest, Ethiopia (its longest shared border) to the West, and the small nation of Djibouti at the northwest tip.

Colonial legacy and independence
Like many countries in Africa, Somalia was the result of European colonialism and its aftermath. Before World War II, the region was divided between Britain and Italy, plus France to a lesser extent. As a result of the war, Italy lost its colony and Italian Somaliland was taken under the control of Britain (as a military administrated protectorate). Parts of the territory were eventually brought under Ethiopian control (particularly the Ogaden region which will become important later). In 1950, an Italian administration, as part of a UN trust, was allowed back into southern Somalia to spend ten years preparing the country for independence (Britain maintained the northern part).

Even before independence, a group called the Somali Youth League (established in 1942) had spread throughout the region with its call for cultural and political independence. Ethiopia had cracked down on them (the group had strong support in the country) by banning all political activity, resulting in violent protests and the military stepping in. It was worse after the Ogaden area had become part of Ethiopia. The result was thousands of refugees pouring into the British and Italian areas.

In 1960, both sections were united to form the Somali Republic (French Somaliland later became Djibouti). But problems already existed. The borders were not demarcated as well as they could have been—the Ogaden area, which juts into the western side of Somalia, was especially contested—and numbers of Somalis ended up in Ethiopia and Kenya. Both ethnic Somali populations in those areas and the Somali government favored self-determination—something that became a serious matter with Ethiopia later on.

In the 1960s, alone, there was military conflict with Ethiopia over the Ogaden area and Somali guerilla activity in northern Kenya. The West considered Ethiopia and its bases important geopolitically and militarily. The US was a key source of aid to the government (as well as Kenya). In fact, there was some US aid to Somalia, too, but the support of their rivals was of much greater importance to how the US was perceived.

Looking for aid and support of its own, Somalia turned to countries like the Soviet Union. They got monetary and military aid, including training of personnel. But this was the beginning of an era of both countries becoming chess pieces in the Cold War (they, and as a result, the whole "Horn" region becoming pawns in a game played by the Superpowers). On the other hand, the country was not anti-western and by and large remained neutral in respect to those nations.

Mohammed Siad Barre and the SRC
Somalia had two elected presidents. The second, elected in 1967, was assassinated by a bodyguard and within days there was a coup d'etat by the military (it seems there was no connection between the two incidents beyond advantage taken from the lack of a leader). One of the men leading the coup, Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, became the new president.

The new ruling power, the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) quickly went into action arresting members of the former government, banning other political parties, abolishing the National Assembly, suspending the constitution, and renaming the country the Somali Democratic Republic. One of the main goals was to unify all Somalis under one flag ("pan-somalism"). This had been a long-term desire of the earlier administration (though the second president had backed off on the subject).

Espousing what was called "scientific socialism," the SRC reorganized governmental institutions and attempted certain reforms, under what was said to be a compatible mixture of Islam and Marxism. This, of course, alienated them from much of the West, particularly the US, and aligned them with Moscow, which would end up building a strategic air/naval base there.

The SRC, which was essentially the government, did accomplish some positive things, including better conditions for women (to a point), a better organized political apparatus, a civil code, recruitment of several thousand teachers, and probably its best achievement, the creation of a written Somali language, with work to make the nation literate (while it made successful inroads, much of the population remained illiterate, only rising from 5% in 1972 to 24% in 1990). There was action taken to centralize government, rather than allowing clans to run themselves and—in particular—settle disputes and mete out "justice" through traditional (often violent) means. "Tribalism" was one of the things Barre and the ruling group hated.

But the SRC was a military-led government and continued to consolidate power. Most civil positions were held by military personnel, the court system was run by military tribunal, a National Security Service (NSS) was implemented to stop professional people and dissidents from leaving the country as well as to stop the clans from administering punishment and settlement themselves. The media were used to spread the government's official party line and promote the idea of socialism. A censorship board was also created. Marriages had to take place at government/orientation centers.

Since the nomadic tribalism was so disliked and felt to be an obstacle toward socialism, as many as 140,000 people were relocated from farming/herding areas to coastal areas where they were encouraged to be fishermen and agriculturists. This was also an attempt to break down the traditional clan ties with the land and each other.

In 1970, the constitution, already suspended, was revoked, and revolutionary legislation made to replace it. Though it had been claimed that by 1971 the military rule would be over and replaced, it never actually happened. It was announced that Somalia would have a single party system (though not communist as Moscow had hoped). In 1976, the SRC was disbanded and replaced by the Somali Revolutionary Socialist party (SRSP). But it was basically the same thing. There were more civilian and nonmilitary people in positions within the new party, but it was essentially still run by those who were military, including Barre (as part of the politburo and secretary general of the SRSP) and his son-in-law who was the NSS head (many of Barre's relatives had varying degrees of power within his regime).

All during this time, the US continued to add and give extensive military support to Ethiopia, while the Soviet Union did the same for Somalia. Needless to say this mutual arming and aid had far more to do with Cold War policy and maintaining a presence in the strategic Gulf area than much concern for the countries, themselves. Then in the mid 1970s, everything switched.

Superpowers shift alliances
In 1974, a group of military officers staged a coup against Ethiopia's Hailie Salassie and the ruling monarchy. Shortly after the success of the coup, the country was declared socialist (obviously distressing to the US). But Ethiopia was still considered the "prize" of the region and it wasn't until 1977 when the US pulled out all aid, citing human rights abuses. With Moscow's support of money and weapons, plus several thousand Cuban troops, Ethiopia was able to repel a 1977 invasion of Ogaden by Somali troops.

When Soviet support for Ethiopia began increasing and US support faded, the US had decided it was imperative to "move in every possible way to get Somalia to be our friend" (, since the possibility of both countries being under the sphere of Soviet influence was intolerable. In fact in 1978, the Soviets offered to help engineer a US-USSR mediated settlement between the two nations. The US refused, claiming it was a a typical Soviet ploy in dealing with regional disputes and would "legitimize the Soviet presence in the Horn" ( quoting National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski).

As Soviet support had increased following the coup, Somalia took the change as a go ahead for the invasion. This is not hard to have predicted, given that the US had informed Somalia that if it gave up its claims in Kenya and Djibouti, what happened to Ogaden was its own business. On the other hand, the US could not overtly fund and arm the country that was invading.

As long as troops were in Ogaden, the US would provide no military assistance. But it would allow assistance from elsewhere—without condemnation or comment. Acting as if it were taking the moral high ground, the US denounced the USSR for its arming of Ethiopia, while saying nothing as Somalia received arms from Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Italy. Nor did it condemn Israel for shipping weapons to Ethiopia—and remained silent about its own shipments of nonmilitary hardware to Ethiopia.

Somalia renounced its ties with the Soviets, cementing the link to the US. This would lead to increased aid over the years (not all of it military) and US access to former Soviet bases within the country. But the failure of the campaign weighed heavily on Somalia and it led to the rise of opposition groups and the arrival of refugees from outside the country (which made a struggling economy with limited resources even more fragile). The results of these things will follow later.

After the war, Barre refused to give up his desire for the Ogaden territory and because of it, the US was hesitant to offer arms, though it continued other support, much of it in credits (some of which went to the purchase of weapons), grants, World Bank loans, and easing restrictions from the International Money Fund). Wishing to maintain a country in the region, it was able to get China to give aid. Money from Saudi Arabia also allowed it to purchase arms (much of them from Italy). There was a change in those policies after 1980, to which we'll return.

Despite all the aid from the US and a considerable amount from Italy (between 1981 and 1991, 114 projects that cost around one billion dollars), the money used foolishly, inefficiently, or on weapons, none of which did anything to help the people or the economy. Little was used for development and infrastructure, leaving the door open for later unrest and other problems.

Among the Italian projects were a $250 million dollar road that was built and left unused because few Somalis drove. A $40 million dollar hospital was built but there was no one able to run it and it was left to fall apart. Another $95 million was spent to build a fertilizer plant that was never functional. More money was used to create the University of Somalia (recall the low literacy rate), the teachers of which (Italians) received $16,000 to $20,000 a month.

Increasing corruption in the Barre regime made things worse and much of the economic aid was used just to replace what was lost for other reasons. The economic growth declined throughout the decade. Food production was mishandled as well, setting the stage for what was to follow (apparently nothing having been learned from the previous famine in 1974).

Strategic change and lessons unlearned
In the late 1970s two things happened that once again shifted the US attitude toward Somalia. First, the Shah of Iran fled the country to be replaced by the extremist (and uncontrollable by the US) Ayatollah Khomeini. The US had been responsible for the Shah's rise to power over a leader who was more concerned with nationalization of the oil than in the "interests" of the western oil companies. This turn of events was not only a serious blow to corporate America, but also threatened to destabilize the region (at least that was the stock reason given).

Further, at the end of 1979 (Christmas Eve), the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. This also threatened "stability." Though Afghanistan had little to do with oil, a Soviet presence in the region was seen as dangerous to the American assumption of regional control (ownership, if you will). The fear of some sort of Middle East "domino theory" that could rob the US of its self-appointed hegemony had to be on the minds of officials.

It is instructive to briefly look at the Afghanistan situation as it is similar to what happened in Somalia. In the US desire to stem threats of instability, maintain a presence in the region, and to both embarrass and drain resources from the Soviet Union (the idea was to mire them in their own Vietnam), the US supported with money and weapons groups without considering the consequences. With the help of Pakistan and others, militants were rounded up (including some not from Afghanistan), trained and armed, and set loose in Afghanistan to battle the Soviets.

After the war, Afghanistan was plunged into civil war and conditions became so bad that many of these fighters were welcomed into power as the Taleban regime. Others were part of the many clans whose internecine warring brought about the conditions that led to the Taleban ascendancy. Later, these groups made up the United Front (Northern Alliance), which was also armed as part of the 2001 (undeclared) "war on terror," conveniently forgetting the sins of the past that helped create the situation in the first place.

At the beginning of the 1980s, a similar arming was about to take place in Somalia. With fears about oil and loss of its standing in the region (as far apart as East Africa and Central Asia are), the administration (Jimmy Carter) signed an arms for use of bases agreement with Somalia. The idea was that the bases there, in conjunction with others in Oman, Kenya, Egypt, and Sudan would maintain the presence and ability to strike, if need be, to protect US interests.

Part of the agreement allowed the US to stage annual military exercises (Operation Bright Star) there. Exercises that were as much a propaganda exercise/show of force for the Soviets and anyone in the region that might be thinking of stepping out of line than fulfilling any necessary military purpose. By 1983, there were forty US military advisers there and during the decade over three hundred Somali officers received US training.

Due to problems with Congress (which demanded no Somali troops be allowed in Ogaden), Carter was unable to carry through on much of his promise for arms until right before leaving office. The succeeding administration (Ronald Reagan) had still hoped that the Ethiopian "prize" might still be available and was slow to give aid. This came to an end with a small invasion by Ethiopia in 1982. Military equipment and arms were immediately sent out to Somalia. Pledged aid of $45 million turned into $80 million (economic and military) rather quickly.

Between 1980 and 1989 (fiscal), Somalia received $390 million in military aid (including grants, credit, training, and "security-related" Economic Support Funds). Additionally, it got $200 million more in cash sales. In the first half of the decade, it was the number four recipient of US "military assistance funds" and in 1986, it was number one.

It should be noted that Somalia continued to receive funds from Saudi Arabia and Italy. Additionally, South Africa made a pact with the country for weapons on the condition Somalia would give landing rights to South African Airways planes (1984).

Barre was putting about a fifth of the total government expenditures into the military.

Barre's brutal regime
The majority of the money (that didn't disappear through corruption) and arms were not used for actual military use, but rather for what is usually referred to (euphemistically) as "internal security." It was used against his own people.

Attacks by Somali dissidents (many from across the border in Ethiopia) continued and nationalist groups began to arise within Somalia, itself. The weapons were used in attempts to dispense with the problems and to maintain "order." With these actions, Barre began to use more and more harsh measures against dissent and political enemies. Arrests, executions, reported torture, and general mayhem. As the decade went on, things grew steadily worse. And the money continued to roll in.

"Elite" squads called the Red Berets (Duub Cas) were used to strike out at different clans and to maintain his power over them (he'd already become a master of playing them against each other). In 1986, they began the harassment and intimidation (and worse). At the same time, there were purges among the army's officers to weed out anyone insufficiently "loyal."

In 1988, Somalia and Ethiopia made an agreement to stop supporting each other's dissident factions. Ethiopia expelled one aggressive group called the Somali National Movement (SNM). Not wishing to end their hope to overthrow Barre, they began operations within Somalia.

Somali people have very strong connections to the numerous clans which they belong to. There are six major groupings, overall, that are composed of almost the entire population. The SNM happened to be made up primarily of people from one clan. In retaliation for the movement's operations, Barre launched an assault on all members of the clan. Further, there was a failed coup d'etat earlier that year led to summary executions of seventeen accused conspirators. All but one came from another clan. Which, in turn, led to strong repression of the whole clan.

Barre's Red Berets (and others) destroyed or poisoned wells, machine-gunned livestock (by the tens of thousands), summarily executed unarmed people, ruined grazing land, destroyed schools and even had South African and ex-Rhodesian (now called Zimbabwe) air force pilots bomb people. Reports of mass rape were also part of his attempt at "internal security" (perhaps not as a matter of policy). Bodies of the victims found in graves were chained together. Those who survived to return home later, found their houses looted and mined.

A US State Department report estimated 5000 unarmed citizens were killed between May 1988 and March 1989 (just from one clan). While some died fighting (some of which was self-defense), another 1000 women and children are said to have been bayoneted to death. Human rights group Africa Watch put the numbers higher, at about 50,000 to 60,000. Bombings of villages led to a mass exodus of 300,000 refugees who fled to Ethiopia.

Human rights groups began speaking out about the regime, both Africa Watch and Amnesty International had earlier documented serious abuses and violations throughout the eighties that led to a cutback on aid (not until 1987). Some continued to trickle in until 1989 when all aid was discontinued (though China, Libya, and the aforementioned South Africa continued to supply arms). As late as June 1988 Barre had received $1.4 million in rifles and grenades from the US.

Things continued to worsen. In 1989, a Catholic bishop (Italian by birth) was gunned down at his church—not dissimilar to the murder of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (who was also an outspoken critic of the regime he lived under) the following year. It is thought that the orders came from Barre or someone close to him in the government. Less than a week later, while demonstrating the arrest of one of some of their Imams, 450 Muslims died and over 2000 were injured when Red Berets shot into the crowd. Later that day, hundreds were rounded up, at least forty-seven of whom ended up dead and buried on the beach.

These actions were finally enough to make the US distance itself wholly from aid to Somalia and cooled relations (though it didn't end them—Barre was still an "ally"). In fact, the then current administration (George Bush) still asked for $20 million for the Economic Support Fund (meant for "security") and General Norman Schwarzkopf, himself, asked to continue military aid. Congress stopped both attempts.

The end of Barre
Facing more internal dissent, threat of full-blown civil war, and without the support of the US, Barre's hold on power had the potential of slipping away. This increased concern, if not paranoia. At a soccer game in mid 1990, a riot broke out. Barre's bodyguards opened fire into the crowd, killing at least sixty-five people.

The following week he sentenced to death forty-six members of a political group that had signed a petition asking for new elections to more attention to human rights. Demonstrations were so large that the city came to a halt and he was forced to drop the sentences. His grasp on power was, indeed, slipping away. In December, the US abandoned the naval/air base.

As if to underline Somalia's actual unimportance, strategically, it was of no use during the Gulf War. Bases in Saudi Arabia were of much more importance and utility in maintaining an American presence in the Middle East. Without forthcoming aid (even development aid had been shut down and the UN pulled out its agencies) and unable to stop internal strife, Barre only had a matter of time.

Refusing to resign, he swore that "when I came to Mogadishu, there was one road built by the Italians. If you try to force me to stand down, I will leave the city as I found it. I came to power with a gun; only the gun can make me go" (www.zmag). Two movements, the SNM and the United Somali Congress (USC), were determined to take down Barre at all costs and he was finally ousted in January 1991 following four weeks of looting and rampaging by his troops who also fired artillery randomly throughout the capital. An estimated 20,000 died. Barre fled to Kenya but was unable to stay there and moved to Nigeria where he died in January 1995.

As far as the US was concerned, the outcome didn't matter as long as the country remained an ally—"a kind of 'win-win' situation" according to one official (

The SNM controlled the north of the country and in March broke away to form the Republic of Somaliland (as of this writing, still unrecognized as an independent state). The USC controlled the southern part of the country, including Mogadishu, which became a divided city because of internal conflict in the USC. The split was between General Mohammed Farah Aidid and the man who had been chosen as the interim president, Mohammed Ali Mahdi.

The conflict consisted of little more than each man wanted to control Somalia. Forces of the two sides battled in the capital and elsewhere. The devastation from Barre was being worsened by continual fighting among the two warlords. According to Africa Watch, "the level of discipline among the troops [was] so low, the number of free guns so high and the need to loot for food so great that firefights [would] undoubtedly continue" ( It has been estimated that between November 1991 and March 1992 some 41,000 people were killed, most civilians and half of them women and children (some estimates cut the total in half).

Lawlessness and banditry were the order of the day. A new US Embassy was invaded and all diplomatic and other personnel pulled out of the country. The food situation, already drastically weakened from the Barre regime's tactics, became worse—especially after the fighting and looting in the countryside drove off many of the farmers. What was to come was, again, predictable, and international aid organizations warned of what would almost certainly happen. In January 1991, relief agencies predicted 20 million Africans could face starvation (chiefly in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan). In fall of 1991, the UN estimated 4.5 million Somalis face danger from food shortages. A drought made catastrophe inevitable.

As the "excuse" for intervention, it is interesting to note that it wasn't until after the worst had struck (and indications were showing some improvement) and the UN/US intervened, that the media even paid attention. Despite warnings from interested groups. From January 1991 to June 1992, Somalia got a total of fourteen minutes of air time on the three major networks (US: ABC, CBS, NBC).

Dismissed were reasons of corporate or geopolitical concerns. Ignored were the mineral deposits and potential oil reserves—companies such as Amoco, Chevron, and Conoco had been exploring for sites in the area. In fact, the LA Times later reported a "close relationship between Conoco and the US intervention force" and that the company's headquarters in the capital were used as a "de facto US Embassy" ( Further on the intervention is really outside the scope of this and deserves its own essay.

In December 1991, the US rejected the proposal to put Somalia on the agenda for the UN Security Council and it took the arrival of new Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to get a discussion on it. In February 1992, the two sides agreed to a UN sponsored cease fire. It was already a little too little, a little too late. And things would not improve as a result of the intervention.

An informative look at the evolution of the situation can be seen in these quotations:

"What you are seeing is a general indifference to a disaster we played a role in creating."
—(Former) US Representative Howard Wolpe, also a former member of the House Subcommittee on Africa and professor of African Politics

"It's easy to blame us for all this.... This is a sovereign country we're talking about. They have chosen to spend [US military aid] that way, to hurt people and destroy their own economy."
—US diplomat who was stationed in Mogadishu (not identified).

The second argument is certainly plausible if one chooses to ignore the history and pretends to have had no knowledge of what was being done with that aid for over a decade. It's easier to blame the people who were repressed and the dictator who did it. The typical way of viewing situations outside of any context assuring there are no consequences for one's own actions.

(Sources:,,, final quotes from here,,,,

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