Foreign interventions in Somalia

Wararka Maanta

Foreign interventions in Somalia

Occupying 3,000 kilometers of coastal territory where the Red Sea flows into the Indian Ocean, Somalia forms the ‘Horn’ of East Africa. It is a country of arid plains which rise to mountains in the north. Traditionally, the Somali are a nomadic people whose subsistence relies on the herding of goats, cattle, sheep and camels. Arable cultivation, however, can be found in a fertile region located between the country’s two permanent rivers, the Jubba and the Shebelle (Alex Thomson, 2004)

Somalia has an estimated population of around 12.3 million (CIA world fact book).Around 85% of its residents are ethnic Somalis, who have historically inhabited the northern part of the country. Ethnic minorities are largely concentrated in the southern regions. The official languages of Somalia are Somali and Arabic, both of which belong to the Afro-asiatic family. All people in the country are Muslim, with the majority being Sunni.

Historically Somalia was an important centre for commerce with the rest of the ancient world,( North Atlantic Books: 1992) and according to most scholars, (Charnan, Simon (1990) it is among the most probable locations of the fabled ancient Land of Punt.

During the Middle Ages, several powerful Somali empires dominated the regional trade, including the Ajuran Sultanate, the Adal Sultanate, the Warsangali Sultanate, the Sultanate of the Geledi and the Majeerteen Sultanate.

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.
In the intervening years the most dramatic upheaval occurs in British Somaliland, where the uprising led by Sayed Mohamed Abdulla Hassan (known to the British at the time as the Mad Mullah) takes two decades to suppress[1]. In the interior, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan’s Dervish State successfully repulsed the British Empire four times and forced it to retreat to the coastal region, but the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920 by British airpower.

As a result of Fascism, World War II  and struggle for independence 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.

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 from the Italians, 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.

Two years form 1948 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.
In 1960, the former British and Italian territories merged, within days of independence, to form the Somali Democratic Republic. Nationalists of both North and South united behind the leadership of the Somali Youth League. Most Somalis, however, saw this unification as only the beginning. They desired a greater Somaliland which would include all their people, Aden Abdullah Osman Daar became the first president, but the new country’s borders were not clearly defined, and there were border skirmishes and hostilities with Kenya and Ethiopia throughout the 1960s.

Between 1963 and 1968, the Somali government severed diplomatic ties with the UK authorities over the Northern Frontier District issue. It later reestablished relations following the rise to power of the Supreme Revolutionary Council in 1969. (British Pathe, 2010). In 1964 the republic of Somalia rejected the OAU’s 1964 declaration on acceptance of the colonial boundaries clearly identified Somalia as an irredentist state.

The Somali Republic was dependent upon external actors at independence, and remained so throughout the post-colonial period, Western powers offered a small military programme amounting to US$10 million. The Soviet Union responded by out-bidding this offer with a US$30 million package.25 Ironically, Cold War competition resulted in a situation where the USSR supplied and trained the army during the 1960s, while the West did the same for the country’s police force.[2]

Economic assistance was also sought from equally diverse sources. Having very little domestic capital to invest itself, most of the costs of Somalia’s development projects were met by foreign donors. Italy provided US$190 million of aid between 1953 and 1975, the Soviet Union US$152 million, China US$133 million, the United States US$75 million, and other Western countries a total of US$64 million[3].

In 1969 a military coup led by Major-General SiadBarré. Seizing power, the military responded to the fragmented nature of Somali politics, Barré justified his coup d’état on the grounds that this inter-clan competition wasted scarce resources and bred corruption. Indeed, the military simply took advantage of the fact that it had become the most organised force in Somalia’s fragmented society (external aid, after all, had made it the fourth biggest army on the African continent, next to those of Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana).

Barré’s regime adopted scientific socialism as its ideological guide. Domestic and foreign businesses were nationalised, land became strictly controlled by the state, political pluralism was suppressed, and a single Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party was established.

Barre’s experiments in Marxism-Leninism won the backing of the Soviet Union. This alliance was confirmed with the signing of a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation in 1974, and in return for external resources the USSR gained access to the Indian Ocean port of Berbera and several Somali airfields. Moscow considered its presence in the Horn of Africa as a vital counter-balance to the US arming of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime across the border in Ethiopia. It was the army itself that benefited most from Soviet patronage. Military aid flowed into Somalia during the first half of the 1970s. The army, for example, increased in size from 12,000 soldiers in 1970 to 30,000 by 1977.

Although Somalia now relied heavily on the Soviet Union as its primary patron, the government in Mogadishu was careful to keep its options open. External resources, after all, were invaluable whatever their ideological origin. For this reason, Barré made efforts to court fellow Islamic countries, joining the Arab League in 1974. Somalia also had profitable relations with China and North Korea.

In hindsight, it was fortunate that these alternative diplomatic and aid channels remained open, because, by 1978, Soviet assistance had ceased. The break with Moscow came as a response to Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia. The border between these two states had never been precisely defined, and under colonial rule nomadic Somalis had retained grazing rights across the frontier. The irredentist government in Mogadishu had consequently always claimed the Ogaden to be an integral part of a greater Somaliland. In 1977, Barré, taking advantage of the political instability created by the Ethiopian revolution, decided to strike. The Somali regular army, trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, crossed the border in large numbers to fight alongside the insurgent (ethnic Somali) Western Somali Liberation Front.

At first glance, Barré’s decision to abandon the patronage of the Soviet Union seems odd. How could Somalia afford to lose these external resources? These events posed something of a dilemma for officials in Moscow,

Initially, it looked as if Barré had succeeded in his diplomatic volte-face. A deal involving US$460 million of US arms was negotiated between the two countries in June 1977 (with Saudi Arabia acting as mediator). Consequently, although the Somali army had made impressive progress in its invasion of the Ogaden, it was now no match for Soviet-supplied Ethiopian forces, reinforced by Cuban combat troops. The Somalis, outnumbered and outgunned, finally withdrew from the Ogaden in March 1978.

Barre’s government overriding concern became the need to secure external patronage once more. Foreign assistance, in this respect, represented the regime’s best hope of restoring vital legitimacy and prestige. Resources were needed to feed Barré’s client–patron networks. Mogadishu sought help from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, China, France, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy, the United States, and reconciliatory advances were even made towards the Soviet Union.

Somali government spent two years in the wilderness. In 1980, however, Mogadishu came to an agreement with the United States whereby US forces gained access to the military facilities of Berbera in return for military aid.

Alongside Washington’s US$51 million of military assistance and US$53 million of development aid, Italy gave US$9 million for irrigation and hydroelectric projects, while European Community institutions gave a further US$53 million.31 In terms of external resources, the state of Somalia was now back in business. Barré’s regime, however, was never able to secure the levels of patronage it had enjoyed in the 1970s. Western donors were too aware of the government’s deteriorating human rights record, and the ever-present threat of irredentist adventurism.

Without these external resources, the regime in Mogadishu could no longer assert its authority over the entire territory of Somalia. Since the Ogaden defeat, Barré had attempted to retain power by arming ‘loyal’ sub-clans, and encouraging them to ‘pacify’ other factions.

Barré’s forces were pitted against the secessionist Somali National Movement in the North, the Majetein Somali Salvation Democratic Front in the NorthEast, the Somali Patriotic Movement in the South and West, and the United Somali Congress around Mogadishu. Essentially, as power in the centre faded, Somalia was carved up by local factions based on clan allegiances. Civil war was the result, and, defeated, Said Barré finally fled the country in 1991. The beginning of Somalia’s collapse can be traced to an offensive launched by the Somali National Movement (SNM) in the northwest of the country in May 1988.

In 1992. With non-government agencies (NGOs) reporting some 50,000 deaths in the fighting, and a further 4.5 million Somalis at risk through famine, the United Nations decided to act. UN emergency aid, and troops to protect it, were subsequently dispatched. Significantly, this operation coincided with the declaration of the ‘New World Order’ envisaged by US President George Bush. Wanting to show the potential for conflict resolution that this new international order offered, Bush agreed to bolster the UN operation with up to 30,000 US troops. The ‘peace enforcement’ of Operation Restore Hope commenced in December 1992.

Then, in October 1993, the tables were turned. During yet another raid against Aidid’s militia, a US ‘black hawk’ helicopter was shot down. In the ensuing firefight, 18 US Rangers were killed (alongside some 300 Somalis). By March 1994, US forces withdrew from Somalia, as did most of the UN mission.

A decade later, Somalia still has no central authority. The state has collapsed. No government has been able to generate legitimacy either internally (among all Somalis) or externally (benefiting from international patronage).

International communities and western countries tried to help Somali people to get back political stability and functional government number of transitional government ware recognized in Djibouti and Kenya. In 2004 Former Puntland president was elected to run the administration until 2009 however the Transitional National Government (TNG) lacked recognition and had limited control over the country let alone its capital.

During 2006 a variety of Islamist organizations, centred on a long-standing network of local Islamic or sharia courts in Mogadishu, had come together under an umbrella organization, popularly known in the Western media as the Islamic Courts Union. As the movement coalesced and seized control of Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union became an alternative to the internationally recognized, but internally disputed, Transitional Federal Government, then restricted to Baidoa. To the outside world, where the shift in the politics of Somalia had gone largely unnoticed, the Courts’ sudden ascendance looked like a carefully planned Islamic revolution. The reality was far more complex.

As a result of Ethiopian and US involvement in Somalia Ethiopian troops invaded Somalian territory on July 20, 2006. Ethiopia maintained it was providing military assistance to the transitional government.

Somalia’s interim government resisted militant advances by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) forces north to the last unoccupied city of Baidoa. The fighting intensified into direct confrontations on December 8 as ICU and Ethiopian troops backed by government forces clashed in Dinsoor and near Galkayo.

US interests in Somalia date back to funding and military backing of the regime of Siad Barre in the 1970s. After the UN interventions of the 1990s, the US has mainly avoided involvement in the nation. Officially, the present United States’ interest in the Horn of Africa region comprises desires for stability and peace in Somalia, including support of the establishment of a new government under the Transitional Federal Government, passage of the UN Security Council resolution to deploy an African-led peacekeeping force known as IGASOM, delivery of humanitarian aid, as well as warnings against the spread of extremist and terrorist groups in the region, including Al-Qaeda.



[2] World Bank. Adjustment in Africa. 3.

[3] Yohannes, Okbazghi. The United States and the Horn of Africa: An Analytical Study of Pattern and Process. Boulder: Westview, 1997. 225.


Daud Dahir Hassan

Daud Dahir
Researcher and Investigator
Twitter: @Dauddhassan