Originally, Somalis probably hail from the southern Ethiopian highlands, and have been subject to a strong Arabic influence ever since the 7th century, when the Somali coast formed part of the extensive Arab-controlled trans-Indian Ocean trading network.
In the 19th century much of the Ogaden Desert – ethnically a part of Somalia – was annexed by Ethiopia (an invasion that has been a source of bad blood ever since) and then in 1888 the country was divided by European powers. The French got the area around Djibouti, Britain much of the north, while Italy got Puntland and the south. Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (known affectionately as ‘the Mad Mullah’) fought the British for two decades, but it wasn’t until 1960 that Somaliland, Puntland and southern Somalia were united, which wasn’t altogether a good idea.
Sadly, interclan tensions, radical socialism, rearmament by the USSR and the occasional (often disastrous) war with Ethiopia helped tear the country apart. Mohammed Siad Barre, Somalia’s last recognised leader, fled to Nigeria in 1991 after the forces of General Aideed took Mogadishu. At the same time the Somali National Movement (SNM) moved quickly and declared independence for Somaliland. Puntland also broke away.
Fierce battles between warring factions throughout southern Somalia took place throughout the 1990s, but in 1992 the US led a UN mission (Operation Restore Hope) to distribute food aid to the southern population. Without much ado a nasty little conflict between the US-UN and warlord General Aideed began, during which it’s estimated that thousands of Somalis died. The last UN troops pulled out in 1995, having alleviated the famine to some extent, but the nation was still a disaster area.
Designed to establish control across the whole of the country, Somalia’s lame-duck Transitional National Government (TNG) was set up in 2000. Alas, it didn’t manage to gain recognition from its own people in Somalia, who keep regarding it as a creature in the hands of international interests. Although it’s the only internationally recognised body, it has proved too weak to impose its rule and has failed in promoting reconciliation or curbing the power of militias. It has had to cower in the west in the town of Baidoa, its redoubt, leaving the rest of the country in the hands of feuding warlords.
The self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland was formed in 1991 after the collapse of unitary Somalia. Thanks mainly to the predominance of a single clan (the Isaq), it has remained largely peaceful and stable since 1991. It has great oil and gas potential and voted for complete independence in 1997 before holding free presidential elections in 2003 (although opposition parties don’t recognise the victory of President Dahir Riyale Kahin). Although its leaders desperately struggle to gain formal international recognition, Somaliland is still treated as a pariah by the international community and is not recognised as a separate state by the outside world. The main reason why the world is reluctant to accept Somaliland’s independence is that the UN still hopes for a peace agreement covering all of Somalia, and its other neighbours are wary of an independent Somaliland, fearing a potential ‘Balkanisation’ of the Horn. For Somalilanders, this sounds profoundly unfair. Unlike the rest of Somalia, they have managed to establish law and order in their country. Expat Somalilanders have kept doing their best to influence diplomatic corps in Europe, in East Africa and in North America – in vain, so far. But there are some signs of hope: Somaliland’s leaders have nurtured good relations with Kenya, Ethiopia, the UK, Germany and Norway, and seem to be backed by the African Union.
In 2003 their efforts were partly ruined by a sad story: ‘terrorists’ from Mogadishu illegally entered Somaliland and shot several aid workers with the aim of destabilising the fledgling country and making it lose its credibility on the international scene. This explains why the local authorities tend to be overprotective of foreigners once they venture outside the capital.
Puntland is a different kettle of fish. It too did reasonably well up until 2001, when President Colonel Yusuf refused to stand down after losing an election, a point he reinforced by waging a little war. Puntland is at odds with neighbouring Somaliland: there’s a territory dispute over several border provinces.
June and July 2006 marked an important turning point: Islamist militias, operating under an umbrella calling itself the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), ousted US-backed, secular warlords from Mogadishu and took control of the ravaged capital. Then they took swathes of southern Somalia. The CIC made it clear that the Quran was the constitution and there was no room for Western-style democracy, but ordinary Somalis, exhausted by years of chaos, seemed to prefer the harsh rule of Islamic hardliners over the deadly tyranny of the warlords. This hard line has raised fear outside, especially in the USA, which suspects that the CIC could become a terrorist safe haven and a Taliban-esque state.
Ethiopia, fiercely opposed to any kind of Islamist ideology at its doorstep, sent troops near Baidoa to support the transitional government, which at first opposed any power sharing with the new leaders. Finally, under international pressure, the transitional government started negotiations with the CIC. At the time of writing, the Islamic courts were on the verge of conquering the whole of Somalia, something which no other group has managed since 1991.
As if this wasn’t enough, southern Somalia was affected by the worst drought in a decade in 2006, creating the bleakest malnutrition situation in years.
There is some hope that a comprehensive victory in the south may at least restore order and perhaps bring some relief to Somalis for the first time since Siad Barre was toppled in 1991. So far, the CIC has restored law and order, as testified by the reopening of Mogadishu’s port and airport in August 2006. Whether they’ll manage to forge a more enduring peace remains to be seen, and their ability to establish national unity and gain international recognition has yet to be tested.