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Somalia: Understanding the History of Violence

Ahmed KamilBy Ahmed A. Abdullahi (Kamil)
Saturday, November 10, 2007

“There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking [about] peace and non-violence — … And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences … whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate.” Nelson Mandela  

“The question is no longer between violence and non-violence; it is between non-violence and non-existence.” Martin Luther King Jr. 

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The demand for capable and competent leaders who are committed to the values of Islam and the restoration of national state has been discussed in the past article.1 Yet, Somalia remains to be a country that inspires images of violence, chaos, disorder and abject poverty.  For the past two decades, various clans and sub clans have been dead locked in a violent struggle for power and dominance. The lethal use of force has become the culture in resolving disputes between rival clans, groups and governments. Now recent events, such as the Ethiopian intervention and the alleged Al-Qaeda presence have further exacerbated the conflict and fueled the already growing volatile and dismal state of Somalia. This infatuation of violence has been the root cause of the total collapse of all Somali institutions and the human suffering. In addition, any peace talks on the nation’s agenda have been delayed due to the consequent of all this violence.  In order to conceptualize this violent reality, it is crucial for the young generation of Somalis to learn the historical conflict, and understand more deeply the crippling damage it has brought to a nation.      

Somalia can be viewed in terms of identity socio-politics, where clan loyalty plays a key determinate in starting or fueling the violence. However, clan identity is not the basis of the ensuing violence but rather their deliberate manipulation creates and exacerbates divisions. Also, the colonial rule in Somalia created a system of unequal advantage among the various clans in the region. This inequality laid the foundation for potential conflict and tension along the clan structures. Subsequent decades later, Somalia obtained its independence in July 1st 1960. During that year, British Somaliland (north) and the Italian Somaliland (south) were unified to give birth to the Republic of Somalia. While the newly formed Somali state was in a pre-mature stage of governance it had engaged in a border dispute with Ethiopia and Kenya. Post-independence leaders sought to unite Somalis under the banner of 'Great Somalia', encompassing the north-eastern region of Kenya, French Somaliland (now Djibouti), and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. This national goal, however, divulged Somalia to be in constant conflict with its neighbours.  

Four years later into independence, hostilities erupted between Somalia and Ethiopia and small scale military clash broke out along the ill-defined border in 1964. The fighting ended through mediation by international bodies headed by Sudan. Then, in 1969 a major turning point in the history of Somalia takes place. The violent struggle for power led to the assassination of President Abdi-Rashid Ali Sharmarke after which a military coup was engineered by the general of the Somali armed forces, Mohamed Siad Barre. The new ruler overthrew the newly formed government and placed a military dictatorship in its place. Barre’s regime adopted a socialist type of government, in which it “dissolved the national assembly, banned political parties and adopted a supreme council with the power to rule by decree.” This regime used ruthless methods to sustain its grip of power, such as public executions against those who appose its policies or are accused of plotting against the State. One of the most publicized incident occurred in 1975 when ten religious Scholars were publicly executed on the charge of preaching against a new law that was in direct violation to Islamic law. Then shortly after in 1977 the country was mobilized again under the national agenda of ‘Great Somalia’ and a full scale war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region was irreversible. This particular conflict was devastating for Somalia on many levels, but mainly it took a major toll on the underdeveloped economy and caused instability in the political order.   

Moreover, as the socio-political climate intensified in Somalia, the government has resorted to manipulating clan loyalty in disguise of national security. Thus, internal strife and clan grievances came to a boiling point due to the violent repression under Barre’s government. As a result, Somalis took up arms to resist Barre in the form of organized factions representing different tribal and regional interests. One of the earliest factions formed were the Somali Salvation Democratic Movement (SSDF) and the Somali National Movement (SNM) at the end of the 1970’s. Barre – against both movements- exercised indiscriminate force against the leaders and its supporters in their situated regions. One of the major violence perpetuated against a large population were the people of the Northern regions (Somaliland). In effort to maintain control of that region, Barre ordered the Air Force to bomb the second capital of Somalia; Hargeisa, destroying the city in 1988. The human casualties were enormous and devastating. The aftermath of the attack led to more clan based factions to organize themselves and protest the government. As a result, the United Somali Congress (USC) and Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) came to surface and were met with the same violent repression by Barre’s regime.  

Furthermore, in early 1990’s, as the situation escalated to a boiling point, anti government groups and the clan based factions engaged in a bloody battle against Barre’s regime. Fighting between the opposition and the government continued until the collapse of the state in 1991, leaving thousands of people dead. After the defeat of Barre’s regime and the absence of an immediate agreement on a new government, a fierce struggle for power began within the alliance opposition groups. This particular conflict resurfaced strong clan zeal and deep rooted grievances. The fighting continued between SPM and USC, and later within USC factions in Mogadishu. These inter-clan battles further contributed to the statistical loss of life and casualty in Somalia; ranging from tens of thousands of fatalities and about a million refugees in and outside the country.  

The descent into chaos and lawlessness in Somalia has brought a wave of dramatic events in the 1990’s. Relative peaceful administrations were established in Puntland and Somaliland while bloody conflicts continued in Southern Somalia. This unfortunate situation has brought extreme measures of poverty and shortage of food that resulted in a devastating famine. In response to the humanitarian crisis, the U.N Security Council authorized the deployment of troops in 1992. The principle objective was to ‘Restore Hope’ and deliver food and aid safely to the neediest areas in southern Somalia. The mission, however, has fallen in the ploy of different international interest groups and the UN/US clash with local militias loyal to General Aidid -  epitomized in the  film “Black Hawk Down” led to the ultimate failure of the humanitarian effort. After the gradual U.N departure in 1995, the situation in the south further escalated and renewed the inter clan violence in Mogadishu and the surrounding areas of Bay, Bakol, Kismayo and Baledweyne. The escalated conflict between the factions in the south brought a wave of attempts to establish a system of order through reconciliation conferences. Every attempt of reconciliation was met with disagreements that led to the use of force and violence to oust the peace process. About 15 attempts of reconciliation conferences have failed due to this unfortunate obsession with violence.  

When viewing the development of Somalia, in relation to the country’s history of ongoing conflict, it therefore leaves us to consider the perspective that the use of violence is the single factor obstacle to any socio-political and economic progress in Somalia. It is evident that Somalis have failed in their history to resort to peaceful conflict resolutions and opted for violent means. Today, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) backed by Ethiopia and the Alliance opposition backed by Eritrea are all furthering this ongoing violence. None of them have demonstrated a non-violent approach or policy in restoring hope and peace in the country. In the past half decade, oppressive violence and reactive violence has been systematically perpetuated with no regard for the potential devastating consequence. To reverse this enormous catastrophe, it is crucial for Somalis to understand that any future solution to the Somali crises will have to be in the form of non-violent means. The civil society organizations in Somalia give some hope because of their determined commitment to the values of peace and development. It is imperative that such organizations are formed and supported and the use of violence to solve Somali affairs denounced, once and for all, by all Somalis who are sincere about peace in Somalia. 


Ahmed A. Abdullahi (Kamil) is a senior student in Sociology and Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Mr. Abdullahi can be reached @ [email protected]



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