New American Series: Somalis

New Americans Series

We continue a series on the five largest ethnic groups to be resettled to Sioux Falls in the last five years by the Refugee and Immigration Center (RIC).  Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

New American Series: Somalis

Conflict History

 Somalia makes up the cap of the Horn of Africa.   Djibouti borders Somalia to the northwest, Ethiopia covers much of the western border, and Kenya comprises its southern border.  Somalia has the longest coastline of any country in Africa at 3,300 kilometers[1].  This coastline had been the desire of many colonial powers and important for trade throughout its history.  Within Somalia there are several autonomous regions including Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug, and Jubaland.

Political Situation in Somalia as of March 25 2013.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Political Situation in Somalia as of March 25 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

National boundaries, set at the end of the 19th century by British, Italian, French, and Ethiopian colonial powers, did not take into account the large number of Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.  “The existence of Somalis outside the country’s national borders continues to be a source of conflict in the region.”[2]

The history of the conflict in Somalia has much to do with its citizens’ kinship-based identity in the form of clans.  “Clans constitute the heart of Somali society, and the central challenge facing modern Somalia is how to unify a country whose people often give greater allegiance to lineage than to nation…These hierarchical descent groups, each said to originate with a single male ancestor, are a central fact of Somali life.”[3]

Towards the end of the 19th century and into the next, a growing sense of Somali nationalism grew.  Considered “one of the founders of Somali national identity” was Mohammed ibn Abdullah Hassan, whose “abilities as a poet and orator, highly valued skills among Somalis, won him many disciples, and much of his success was in commanding trans-clan loyalty.”[4] Somalia gained independence from Italy and Great Britain on July 1st, 1960 and became the Somali Republic.

Initially, independence brought with it a highly participative democracy experienced by all Somalis; however all foreign policy “was dominated by the Somali unification issue and by the campaign for self-determination of adjoining Somali communities in the Ogaden, French Somaliland, and northern Kenya.”[5]   This belief in unification, known as “Pan-Somalism,” led to military conflicts in Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

The country’s initial democratic success broke down by the end of the decade.  President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated in October 1969 and the military, led by Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, stepped in to fill the power vacuum.  Barre and his administrators adopted “Scientific Socialism,” aligning itself closely with the Soviet Union and China. Barre’s administration implemented several economic and cultural “crash programs” to “transform” Somali society with varying levels of success and failure.  Democracy ended as Barre “abolished the National Assembly, suspended the Constitution, prohibited any form of political association, and put some prominent politicians and members of the previous government in custody.”[6]  Opposition to Barre’s repressive and nepotistic rule began early on and in order to maintain power and divide his opposition Barre exacerbated clan loyalties, pitting clan against clan, and polarizing the nation along clan lines.  As government efficiency and societal equality declined, militarized opposition increased and on January 27, 1991 Barre’s military dictatorship ended as clan-based guerrilla warfare spread to the Somali capital of Mogadishu.  That same year, unilateral actions by governmental officials in the South and general disillusionment and public pressure in the North, caused Somaliland in the north to declare itself independent.

Mohamed Siad Barre, military dictator of Somalia from 1969 to 1991. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Mohamed Siad Barre, military dictator of Somalia from 1969 to 1991. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The southern and central regions slipped into civil war and anarchy as clan-based militias fought government forces.  Drought and fighting in the fertile south caused widespread famine in the region.

Over the course of the year, several hundred thousand Somalis died of violence, disease, and famine.  At least 45% of the population was displaced internally or fled Somalia to neighboring countries, the Middle East, or the West…Relief organizations estimated that by early 1993, one half of all Somali children under five years old had died.[7]

Military missions to restore peace and safeguard food aid from the United States and the United Nations proved unsuccessful, as those with guns, led by local warlords, stole food and disrupted distribution.  “In the absence of an accepted government, power and food were in the hands of those with guns, and in a country that had been the recipient of much foreign military aid, there was no shortage of arms.”[8]

Numerous unsuccessful peace conferences were attempted in the 1990s.  Hope surfaced as another set of peace talks begun in 2002 yielded a transitional federal government whose Parliament met in the Somali city of Baidoa in February 2006.  However, from March to May, the BBC Africa reported that “scores of people are killed and hundreds are injured during fierce fighting between rival militias in Mogadishu.  It is the worst violence in almost a decade.”[9]  Fighting continued as Islamists insurgents waged guerilla warfare against the transitional government and its African Union allies.  Al-Shabab, a jihadist military group meaning “the Youth,” formed in 2006 after the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union and continues to this day to carry out violence in southern Somali, Kenya, and Uganda.  Al-Shabab joined the Islamist military group, al Qaeda, in 2012.

Somalia was home to one of Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis during the famine of 2010-2012.  August 2012 marked a significant step towards greater stability in the region when Somalia’s first formal parliament was sworn in at Mogadishu bringing an end to the transitional federal government.


[1] The Refugee Service Center, Center for Applied Linguistics. “The Somalis: Their History and Culture” CAL Refugee Fact Sheet No. 9. October 1993

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Ioan M. Lewis. “Somalia” Encyclopeadia Britannica Online. Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc., 2013.  Web. 25 Feb. 2014 Accessed.

[6] The Refugee Service Center, Center for Applied Linguistics. “The Somalis: Their History and Culture” CAL Refugee Fact Sheet No. 9. October 1993

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] “Somalia Profile” BBC News, last modified December 19, 2013, accessed February 26, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14094632

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