Originally, Somalis probably hail from the southern Ethiopian highlands. As a people, they 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 – whose people are ethnically a part of Somalia – was annexed by Ethiopia (an invasion that has been a source of bad blood ever since), 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, between 1960 and 1991, interclan tensions, radical socialism, rearmament by the USSR and the occasional (often disastrous) war with Ethiopia helped tear the country apart. Mohamed 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 still only controls only parts of Mogadishu. In 2002 the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) created a government for southwest Somalia; later that year 21 warring factions in the south and the TNG agreed to a cessation of hostilities for Kenyan-sponsored peace talks, although most of the delegates seemed more concerned with their private fiefdoms and the quality of their Kenyan hotel accommodation than creating a viable state. In 2004 a transitional federal president was elected, but with limited influence and power.
In 2007 President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed entered Mogadishu for the first time since taking office. That year, African Union troops landed in Mogadishu to help the government forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, fight Al Shabab (an Islamist insurgency group). After the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army in 2009, the Islamist fundamentalists managed to recapture Mogadishu and the southern port of Kismayo. In 2011, Kenyan troops entered the scene; they set up military bases in various areas in the country to help the weak Somali government forces oust the Al Shabab groups. Over the next few years, the Islamist insurgents retaliated by carrying out a number of terrorist attacks and mass killings both in Somalia and in Kenya.
To complicate matters further, a crippling drought caused by rainfall failure has threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in southern Somalia since 2010. In 2011, three regions were formally declared famine zones by the UN.
Breakaway (but Unrecognised) States
Thanks mainly to the predominance of a single clan (the Isaq), Somaliland 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, 2010 and 2017. However, the fledgling state is not officially recognised by the international community, which still hopes for a peace agreement covering all of Somalia.
Semi-autonomous Puntland is a different kettle of fish. It too did reasonably well up until 2001, when its President Colonel Yusuf refused to stand down after losing an election, a point he reinforced by waging a little war.