Civil war, War Lords and Famine. Three words that have become synonymous with Somalia. The country once labelled as the Switzerland of Africa has now become one of the most tragic stories of humanity but also, of humanities ability to rebuild itself. Somalia is a land rich in heritage and history, once an economic hub of the world. In the absence of a state stricken by poverty, civilians struggle to maintain a normal day to day life. Known as the ‘Horn of Africa’ Somalia has the longest coastline known in Africa, which was once attributed to be the hub of commerce and trade in Africa.
Going back even further, original cave paintings dating back 3000-6000 years show how Somalia was once home to some of the earliest human societies in the world. Somalia has a strong history and culture, which has become washed away in the face of economic difficulties. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud stated, “ Somalia is emerging from a very long and difficult period, and we are now moving away from the past of instability, extremism, and piracy, to an era of peaceful development.” Somalia was and still is a country of herders, farmers, and fishermen, in which its historical past is rooted. Despite being a part of the Arab League, the official language in Somalia is Somali.
With the opening of the Suez canal in 1969, Somalia’s location became even more significant, positioning Somalia as the intersection between Africa and Asia, as a global trade route. This was capitalized upon by the west, and in 1884, the United States, as well as 12 European countries, held a meeting in Berlin, with the aim to colonize and divide the African continent between them, diving Somalia into three different provinces which would then be separately ruled by the respective European countries; Britain Somalia, Italian Somalia, and French Somalia. Known as the Ogaden region, it was then overthrown by the Ethiopian empire, and the Northern Frontier District, by Kenya.
Later, in 1960, both British and Italian Somalia would gain independence, while French Somalia chose to remain under French rule, yet eventually in 1977 would vote for Independence, becoming most recently known, as Djibouti. In 1960 Former British and Italian colonies, colonized what was remaining of Somalia, thus forming Greater Somalia. Aden Abdullah Osman Daar would then become elected, as the first President of United Somalia, ruling peacefully for the preceding seven years. The next President, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, would oversee a peaceful reign, and is the reason Somalia was then called at the time, the ‘Switzerland of Africa.’ However, in 1969, corruption became rooted, and tensions started rise amid the assassination of the President by internal forces. President Mukhtar Mohamad Hussein then became the succeeding President before being overthrown in a violent political coup.
For the preceding two decades, Somalia would be under the dictatorship of President Mohamad Siad Barre, ultimately throwing the country head first into decades of violence. Parliament was dissolved, the constitution suspended, as the ballot box became no longer relevant to its benevolent dictator. Political parties were banned, politicians arrested, as the country became ruled by the rifle, instead of democracy. As the military became precedingly more brutal, the economy slid downwards, making living conditions more challenging for the civilians on the ground. Properties were soon confiscated with no compensation, and trade was bought to a halt as imported materials would be confiscated at the border.
The Barre regime was relentless and merciless, embedded in self-interest and limitless greed. Both the United States and the Soviet Union stood in support of Barre’s regime, however, assisted in boosting the infrastructure of the country and assisting with schooling efforts. In 1977 Barre decided to overthrow the Ogaden region from Ethiopia. However, left-wing scholars claimed that Barre was reclaiming the original border, before the original colonial invasion. The war would be placed under the accountability of the Western Somali Liberation Front, which didn’t exist at the time but was simply a cover for the Somali Military coup. In the fight for their territory, they were then forced to withdraw, due to the Soviet Unions allegiance with Ethiopia. Defeated, Somali Nationalism was pushed under the rug and was no longer seen as an aspiration in the face of defeat.
During this time of instability, Warlords started to gain a stronghold over the region, as opposition towards the government by the masses had risen. As more tribes and regions started to oppose Barre’s dictatorship, he began to fight against the civilians of Somalia, plunging the country into almost irreversible poverty. Thousands of Somali’s would soon die at the hands of the dictatorship, causing the uprising of 1991 when the civilians started to overthrow the government, which would inevitably fall as the United States and the Soviet Union had withdrawn their support. Former British Somalia would proceed to declare Independence from the greater Somalian region, becoming the Republic of Somali Land. Italian Somali would become the Federal Republic of Somalia, under the new President, Ali Mahdi Muhammad.
However, President Mahdi Muhammad would be opposed by General Mohamed Farrah Hassan Aidid, starting the civil war which is still present today, despite a ceasefire being agreed upon after four months. This civil war could have undoubtedly been avoided, had President Barre not placed different tribal groups against each other during his dictatorship, and yet, in playing the card of tribalism, he had aimed to divide and conquer, yet had only turned the country against itself. By enforcing Sectarianism, the wounds of a divide would be pushed deeper into the fabric of society, creating almost irreversible damage, plunging Somalia to become a collapsed estate. Somalia had gone from being one of the best democratic states in Africa to one of the worst, globally.
The absence of government would mean no schools, security services, health facilities, or new infrastructure, causing Somalia to rely solely on aid, as opposed to being a self-sufficient and thriving democracy. However, even though the state had collapsed, the nation itself had not, and civilians would begin the effort to rebuild the country, without any resources, in the act of self-determination as a whole. Somalians would work together, in rebuilding the country, which is now beginning to bear fruit. Somalians built one of the most affordable and effective, telecommunication systems, their financial system became based on predominantly mobile and cash payment systems, which has not only been successful but has proven that a self-sustaining and communist society can work, when citizens are left to govern, where there is no governance.
Somalians have been known for their outstanding resilience, to the toughest conditions placed upon them, as well as undisputable work ethic, with an eagerness to learn that could put most university students in the West, to shame. Although Somalia relies on aid, they have worked together, to create a cohesive system for society, with endurance to rebuild the country, with their own hands, and unending perseverance.
Chelsea Lotz is a freelance writer interested in South African politics and international affairs. She has been a speaker at the United Nations Ministerial Roundtable Conference in Geneva, following several years of NGO work.