Somalia: The Forgotten Story
The story of Somalia’s decline from stability to chaos and the problems facing its people at home and abroad.
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Filmmaker: Hamza Ashrif
Somalia’s modern history is a tale of independence, prosperity and democracy in the 1960s, military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s – followed by a desperate decline into civil war and chaos almost ever since.
The effect of the war has been to scatter the Somali people in their millions to refugee camps and neighbouring countries – and in their hundreds of thousands to the UK, Canada and the United States.
Somalia gained independence from Britain and Italy in 1960. It held free and fair elections and was ruled democratically from 1960 to 1969.
Somalia has become a kind of catchword for a kind of violent, terrible situation.
Once labelled the “Switzerland of Africa”, Somalia enjoyed almost a decade of democracy. The first elected president of Somalia, uniting the former British and Italian territories, was Adam Abdullah Osman who reigned for seven years. He was succeeded, freely and peacefully, by Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke.
Sharmarke, however, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards in 1969.
Speaker of the Somali Parliament Mukhtar Mohamed Hussein took over, but his brief, six-day tenure was cut short by a military coup led by General Siad Barre, ending Somalia’s period of democratic government.
Whatever its faults – and there were many – Barre’s 22-year rule effectively created modern Somalia, building one of Africa’s strongest armies and massively improving the literacy of the population.
Yet Barre, who gained the support of the US and the Soviet Union, the superpowers of the day, also dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, banned political parties, arrested politicians and curbed press freedom.
“From then, there was a downward trend. In everything. A disintegration. And every time things were going down, the military regime was becoming more brutal and more dictatorial,” says Jama Mohamed Ghalib, a former Somali government minister.
But when Barre launched the Ogaden war in 1977 to take the Somali majority region from Ethiopia, it provoked serious international opposition, including that of the Soviet Union which had once supported Barre but now sided with Ethiopia. The Somali army was forced to withdraw.
Opposition to the Barre government gradually increased and in May 1988, encouraged by Ethiopia, the same northern tribes – in what had once been British Somalia – rebelled against Barre’s dictatorship. This provoked the full force of his military power and aggression and thousands of northern Somalis were killed.
Three years later, in 1991, both the northern and southern tribes, again supported by Ethiopia, rose up against Barre. His grip on power had weakened, his former allies had abandoned him and he was finally brought down. One outcome was the northern region proclaiming its independence and declaring itself as Somaliland. It maintains its separatism today, but has hardly any international recognition.
But the other long-lasting outcome was civil war, with myriad competing factions and frequent intervention by foreign powers and neighbouring countries. In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union split into several factions, one of which was Al Shabab. The radical group still controls large parts of the south of the country today.
“If Siad Barre was to leave power two years earlier and said, ‘Now, Somalis, you have to organise new elections and I will be happy to leave’ – none of this would have happened. But when he brutalised different groups of people in different regions of the country, people were just, literally, mindlessly trying to get rid of him,” says Abdi Samatar, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota.
A flood of UN aid in the 1990s and 2000s led to the collapse of Somali agriculture and has reduced many farmers to poverty. At the same time, fishing by large foreign vessels in Somali waters has led to the piracy off the coast which has become synonymous in many people’s minds with Somalia worldwide.
The ongoing civil war has caused serious damage to Somalia’s infrastructure and economy. Thousands of Somalis have either left as economic migrants or fled as refugees. Most spent months, if not years, in refugee camps. Around 200,000 Somalis refugees have fled to Yemen and roughly 50,000 to the UAE. There are around 150,000 Somalis living in Canada, 100,000 in the UK and 85,000 in the US.
Within Somalia, more than a million people are internally displaced.
“There are more than 1.1 million people displaced from their homes and their original places of living; 1.1 million people. There’s certainly nearly that same number who are reliant upon food assistance from the United Nations agency and other donors, nearly a million people who can’t meet their own food needs,” says Nicholas Kay, United Nations special representative for Somalia.
Somalia receives aid from both the UN and the Arab League – of which it is a member, but how it’s allocated and where it goes can sometimes appear inconsistent.
Many Somalis have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, hoping to return to Somalia once the civil war dies down. Ethiopia has become home to 4.6 million Somalis and Kenya to over 2 million. After a series of al-Shabab attacks in Kenya starting in 2011, the Kenyan government began ordering Somalis back into refugee camps and some to return to Somalia.
Other Somalis have even fled to war-torn Libya, a hub for human traffickers. From there, they must make the often treacherous sea journey to Europe and then by land to onward destinations. Those who survive can encounter a wide range of problems – but sometimes find help from established Somali communities.
With the collapse of government, Somalis have often turned to their tribes, clans and sub-clans to fill the void, and clan allegiances can extend beyond Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya into the diaspora.
“The clan is a wonderful form of insurance,” says the BBC’s Africa Editor, Mary Harper. “Because if I arrive in London and I’m from a particular Somali clan, I’ll find my Somali clan brothers and sisters and they’ll look after me. If I don’t have any money, they’ll give me money to maybe start a business and maybe I’ll pay it back. If I don’t have anywhere to live, they’ll help me find somewhere to live. So they really, really look after each other.”
“The Somali community in the UK has been in existence long before the state collapsed,” says Laura Hammond, senior lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
“As a community the Somali community is suffering quite a lot from a lack of integration which is caused not just by their own difficulties, learning the language or figuring out so-called British life. But it’s also about structural exclusions that are put in place. So it’s very difficult for them to find jobs, it’s very difficult for them to solve their immigration status. It can take them years to actually gain citizenship.”
Abdi Warsame and Abdirizak Bihi are part of the Somali community in Minneapolis in Minnesota state in the US. Warsame has become an elected member of Minneapolis City Council and has worked hard to ensure that his people are properly and evenly represented at the municipal level.
Bihi runs the Somali Education Advocacy Center: “In 1996 I moved here from Washington DC to work with the refugees I’ve seen in camps. So I knew the challenges they’ll face here. I became an interpreter, a counselor, a cultural broker. We’d train them to or help get Somali speaking personnel so they could address the issues that the new Americans were facing. And it’s not really easy to be black, Muslim and immigrant.”
When Aboukar Awale came to the UK in 1997, he found mafrishes, cafes where Somali men would drink tea and chew the addictive stimulant khat. He himself became an addict – but the drug is now banned in the UK, thanks to the campaign spearheaded by Awale. However, it’s still a big problem among young Somalis and so he’s now taken his campaign to the streets of Somalia itself: “I thought if I am lucky, then what about the children of Somalia, and those being raised who think khat is a good thing? And that’s how I started this campaign.”
Like many Somalis across the diaspora, Awale hopes deeply that one day he’ll be able to return to help re-build his homeland.
“It will happen inshallah. It might not happen in ten years; it might not happen in maybe 20 years. But one day… It just breaks my heart. But inshallah, Somalia will come back. Someday Somalia will be back.”