Somalia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Somalia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Somalia, republic in East Africa, occupying the tip of the Horn of Africa. The dry, sparsely populated country has been in a state of civil war and anarchy since 1991, when the central government was overthrown. Somalia is bounded on the north by the Gulf of Aden, on the east and south by the Indian Ocean, on the southwest by Kenya, on the west by Ethiopia, and on the northwest by Djibouti. The total area is 637,700 sq km (246,200 sq mi). Mogadishu is the capital and largest city.


Somalia has a long coastline, extending for 3,025 km (1,880 mi), but it has few natural harbors. A sandy coastal plain borders on the Gulf of Aden in the north. A series of mountain ranges, with average elevations between about 915 and 2,135 m (about 3,000 and 7,000 ft), dominates the northern part of the country. Shimbiris, the highest peak in Somalia at 2,416 m (7,927 ft) tall, is located here. To the south, the interior consists of a rugged plateau, ranging in elevation from about 500 m (about 1,640 ft) in the north to less than 180 m (600 ft) in the south. In the south, a wide coastal plain, which has many sand dunes, borders on the Indian Ocean. The country’s two major rivers are found on the southern plateau, the Jubba (Genalē) in the southern part and the Shabeelle (Shebelē) River in the south central section.

Climate in Somalia

The climate of Somalia ranges from tropical to subtropical and from arid to semiarid. Temperatures usually average 28°C (82°F), but may be as low as 0°C (32°F) in the mountain areas and as high as 47°C (116°F) along the coast. The monsoon winds bring a dry season from September to December and a rainy season from March to May. The average annual rainfall is only about 280 mm (about 11 in).

Plant and Animal Life in Somalia

Vegetation in Somalia consists chiefly of coarse grass and stunted thorn and acacia trees. Aromatic bushes producing frankincense and myrrh are indigenous to the mountain slopes. In southern Somalia, eucalyptus, euphorbia, and mahogany trees are found.

Wildlife is abundant and includes such larger animals as the lion, giraffe, rhinoceros, leopard, zebra, and hyena. Among smaller animals are several species of antelope, warthog, monkey, and baboon. Birds of prey, found throughout the country, include eagles, kites, and storks; game birds include varieties of guinea fowl, partridge, sandgrouse, and bustard. Snakes, scorpions, and centipedes live in the dry plains, and crocodiles in the coastal waters.

Natural Resources of Somalia

Somalia has few natural resources. The grasslands are suitable for grazing livestock, and the fertile land in the river valleys of the Jubba and Shabeelle and in some coastal areas is used for agricultural crops. Mineral resources are relatively diverse but have not been exploited. Known deposits include gold, silver, gypsum, copper, zinc, manganese, limestone, salt, and uranium.

Environmental Issues in Somalia

Overgrazing, deforestation, and periodic drought have led to desertification in Somalia. Only 0.7 percent of Somalia’s land area was officially protected before the country’s civil war. Protected areas suffer from poaching, logging, and livestock grazing.


The vast majority of the population consists of Somali, a Cushitic people. A small minority of Bantu-speaking people live in the southern part of the country. Other minority groups include Arabs, Indians, Italians, and Pakistanis. Some 70 percent of the people are nomadic or seminomadic pastoralists. The remainder are either crop farmers or inhabitants of the few urban centers.

Population Characteristics of Somalia

Somalia has a population (2009 estimate) of 9,832,017. The overall population density is 16 persons per sq km (41 per sq mi). The principal cities are Mogadishu, the capital, Hargeysa, Kismaayo, and Marka.

Religion and Languages spoken in Somalia

Islam is the dominant religion in Somalia, and most of the people are Sunni Muslims. The official language is Somali; Arabic, English, and Italian are also used.

Education in Somalia

Before Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, education was free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 13. The literacy rate increased from 5 percent of the adult population in the early 1970s to 24 percent in 1990 following an intensive government-sponsored literacy campaign. As a result of Somalia’s civil war, the educational system collapsed and most schools closed, including the Somali National University in Mogadishu, which had an enrollment of about 4,600 prior to the war. In 1996 primary schools enrolled only 8 percent of primary school-aged children, and secondary schools enrolled a mere 5 percent of secondary school-aged children.


The economy of Somalia is based primarily on livestock raising. Crop farming was of importance only in the south. Efforts to diversify and modernize the economy were directed by the government through a series of development plans, extensively assisted by foreign grants and loans. In the late 1980s the gross national product (GNP) was estimated at only $290 per capita. In the early 1990s, with the Somalian economy in a state of collapse because of the civil war, the GNP had fallen to $36 per capita.

Agriculture of Somalia

Livestock raising is the principal occupation in Somalia. The size of livestock herds began to recover in the mid-1990s after falling during the country’s civil war. Sheep and goats are the most numerous livestock, with smaller numbers of cattle. The principal crops grown are corn, sorghum, sugarcane, cassava, and bananas.

Forestry and Fishing in Somalia

While most wood is cut for fuel, Somalia’s major forestry export products before the 1990s were frankincense and myrrh. Fish is an important source of food for Somalis, and commercial fishing was a growing sector of the economy before the civil war. Boats of many nations fish illegally in Somali waters due to the country’s lack of law enforcement.

Manufacturing in Somalia

Before the civil war escalated in the early 1990s, manufacturing in Somalia was in the early stages of development. A cement factory, a meat and fish cannery, and a textile plant were established. Other industries included oil seed and fruit processing plants, leather and shoe factories, and petroleum and sugar refineries. Most industry shut down in the early 1990s as a result of civil disorder.

Currency and Banking of Somalia

The unit of currency is the Somali shilling, consisting of 100 cents (about 7,000 Somali shillings equal U.S.$1; 1996), issued by the Central Bank of Somalia (1960). Somalia is a member of the Islamic Development Bank and the African Development Bank.

Foreign Trade in Somalia

Before the war, Somalia’s chief exports were livestock and bananas. Other exports included meat, fish, leather and hides, and wood. The principal imports were foodstuffs, chemicals, machinery, textiles, and petroleum. The civil war disrupted Somalia’s foreign trade, but by the mid-1990s the country was again exporting livestock and fruit. Liberia’s principal trading partners for exports are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Kuwait, India, and Thailand. Leading sources for imports are Djibouti, Kenya, Brazil, Thailand, and the UAE. In 2006 Somalia’s exports totaled $541 million, and imports were $740 million.

Transportation and Communications in Somalia

Somalia has no railroads and only 12 percent (1999) of its roads are paved. Mogadishu is the leading port and the site of an international airport. Air Somalia and a number of international carriers provide international service. Competing factions publish a number of newspapers and also operate radio and television stations. Mobile telephone and Internet service providers serve a growing number of subscribers.


Before 1991 Somalia was governed under a constitution adopted in 1979. Executive power was held by a president, who was head of state and leader of the country’s sole legal political party, the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party. Nominated by the party’s Central Committee, the president was elected to a seven-year term by direct universal vote. Legislative power was vested in the 177-member People’s Assembly. The president appointed 6 members, and the other 171 were popularly elected; all served five-year terms. The highest civilian courts in Somalia were the Supreme Court, two courts of appeal, and eight regional courts. The overthrow of the central government in January 1991 left Somalia in a state of civil war, with no clear central governmental authority, and a number of clans fighting each other for territory.

In 2004 a peace conference elected a 275-member transitional legislative body and a president. This government was based in Nairobi, Kenya, due to ongoing instability in Somalia. In 2006 the transitional government moved to the city of Baydhabo (also known as Baidoa) within Somalia.

Local Government of Somalia

Somalia is nominally divided into 18 regions and 84 districts. Since the start of the civil war, two northern regions have established autonomous governments. Somaliland, occupying most of the territory between the Gulf of Aden and the border with Ethiopia, broke away in 1991 and declares itself an independent nation. No government recognizes it as such. Puntland, east of Somaliland and encompassing the northern third of Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast, established its own government in 1998, but does not seek to secede from Somalia.

Health and Welfare in Somalia

Hospital and clinic services in Somalia are severely strained by Somalia’s civil war. Although international relief ended a famine crisis in the early 1990s, primary health care remained an urgent need in the countryside. Only 29 percent (2006) of the population has access to a safe water supply, and only 23 percent to adequate sanitation. The average life expectancy at birth in 2009 was 50 years; the infant mortality rate was 109 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Defense of Somalia

Until the early 1990s military service of 18 months was compulsory for men between the ages of 18 and 40. In 1990 the army had a force of some 60,000; the navy, 1,200; and the air force, 2,500. Since the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991, there have been no national armed forces, although the clans maintained separate armies.


The history of the region now included in Somalia dates from antiquity, when the land was known to the ancient Egyptians as Punt. From the 2nd to the 7th century AD parts of the area belonged to the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum. Arab tribes in the 7th century settled along the coast of the Gulf of Aden and established the sultanate of Adal, which centered on the port of Zeila. The Somali people began slowly to migrate into this region from Yemen in the 9th century. The sultanate disintegrated during the 16th century into small independent states, many of which were ruled by Somali chiefs. Zeila became a dependency of Yemen, and was then captured by the Ottoman Empire.

European Colonization

The first European power in the region was Britain. In order to protect British trade routes and provide safe anchorage for ships, Britain took possession of Aden (now in the Republic of Yemen) on the Arabian coast in 1839. Subsequently, about 1875, Egypt, disregarding Turkish claims, occupied some of the towns on the Somali coast and part of the adjacent interior. When the Egyptian troops left the area in 1882 to help stem the revolt of Muhammad Ahmad (known as the Mahdi) in the Sudan, Britain occupied the territory in order to safeguard the route to India through the Suez Canal, which had been opened in 1869. In 1887 a British protectorate, known as British Somaliland, was proclaimed. The protectorate, initially a dependency of Aden, was placed under the administration of the British Foreign Office in 1898 and of the Colonial Office in 1905.

Italian interest in the Somali coast developed in the late 19th century. By the terms of the treaties with native Somali sultans, and conventions with the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, and Zanzibar, Italy acquired a foothold along the Indian Ocean coast.

British control of the interior of the protectorate was challenged by native revolts between 1899 and 1910. In 1910 the British abandoned the interior and withdrew to the coastal regions. They finally subdued the rebels in 1920. During this period Italy extended control over the area inland from the Indian Ocean coast by the Treaty of London in 1915 and by various postwar agreements. In 1936 Italy merged Italian Somaliland, Eritrea, and the newly conquered Ethiopia into the colonial state of Italian East Africa. After the Italian entrance into World War II (1939-1945) on the side of Germany in 1940, Italian troops invaded British Somaliland and succeeded in expelling the British. The United Kingdom reconquered its protectorate in 1941.

By the terms of the Italian peace treaty adopted in 1947, Italy was forced to renounce title to the possessions in Africa, and responsibility for disposition of these colonies was allocated to the so-called Big Four (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR). In 1948 the Big Four, having failed to reach an agreement on disposition, referred the matter to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). A plan granting independence to Italian Somaliland after ten years as a UN trust territory under Italian administration was approved by the General Assembly in November 1949. On April 1, 1950, after Italy had accepted the terms of a UN trusteeship agreement, the British military government was replaced by a provisional Italian administration. The territory was named Somalia.


On July 1, 1960, by agreement with the UN Trusteeship Council, Somalia was granted independence. It merged thereupon with the former British protectorate, to which the United Kingdom, by prearrangement, had given independence on June 26. The first president, Aden Abdullah Osman Daar, elected in 1960, was defeated for reelection in 1967 by the former premier Abdi Rashid Ali Shermarke. On October 15, 1969, Shermarke was assassinated, and days later a military group, led by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, seized power. In 1970 Barre declared Somalia a socialist state, and in the following years most of the modern economy of the country was nationalized. A drought in 1974 and 1975 caused widespread starvation.

In mid-1977 ethnic Somalis in the adjacent Ogadēn region of Ethiopia initiated open warfare aimed at ending Ethiopian control of the area. The rebels were armed by Somalia, which also contributed troops to the effort. The Somalis captured most of the Ogadēn by late 1977, but Ethiopia, aided by Cuba and the USSR, reasserted control over the region in early 1978, as Somalia’s army suffered heavy losses. Subsequent fighting in the Ogadēn precipitated a flood of refugees into Somalia; the number of homeless in 1981 was estimated at close to 2 million. The United States gave both humanitarian and military aid and was in return granted use of the naval facilities at Berbera, previously a Soviet base.

Opposition to Barre’s rule began to coalesce in 1981 after Barre chose members of his own Marehan clan for government positions while excluding members of the Mijertyn and Isaq clans. Insurgent groups from those clans initiated clashes with government troops beginning in 1982. A peace accord ended hostilities with Ethiopia in 1988, but the civil war intensified, despite Barre’s attempts to placate insurgents by proposing a multiparty government. By 1989 only Mogadishu and portions of Hargeysa and Berbera were firmly in government control. In 1990 the clans opposing Barre formed a united front to fight the war. Barre was forced to flee the capital in January 1991, and was eventually accepted for asylum in Lagos, Nigeria, where he died of a heart attack in 1995.

Civil War

While the clans had been successful in coordinating their efforts to depose Barre, forming a coalition to govern the country proved more difficult. During the 23 months following Barre’s overthrow, about 50,000 people were killed in factional fighting, and an estimated 300,000 died of starvation as it became impossible to distribute food in the war-ravaged nation. On December 9, 1992, a contingent of U.S. Marines landed near Mogadishu, the vanguard of a UN peacekeeping force sent to restore order. International agencies soon resumed food distribution and other humanitarian aid, interrupted in 1993 by sporadic outbreaks of violence.

The UN mission became mired as it evolved from one of relief to that of rebuilding a Somali government. The UN force targeted powerful clan leader Mohamed Farah Aidid, viewing him as the biggest threat to the establishment of a transitional government, but repeatedly failed to capture him. Clashes between Somali factions and UN troops became frequent, and an estimated 1,000 Somali were killed. Troops from the United States, which had withdrawn in March 1994 after 30 of its members were killed and 175 wounded, returned in February 1995 to cover the departure of the remaining UN peacekeeping force in March. Despite failing to restore peace, an estimated 300,000 lives had been saved from famine by the international relief effort.

As Somalia descended into chaos in 1991 the northern region of Somaliland (former British Somaliland) declared itself an independent republic. While independent Somaliland is not recognized by the UN, it has its own president, legislature, currency, and constitution. Southern Somali warlords have attacked Somaliland, and the breakaway republic also suffers from internal fighting and economic stagnation.

Aidid declared himself president of Somalia in June 1995, though this position was not recognized by rival clans. In late 1995 and early 1996 battles, Aidid’s forces captured strategic territory in the south and parts of Mogadishu. Aidid died in July 1996 from gunshot wounds received in a street battle and was succeeded as nominal president by his son Hussein Mohammad Aidid.

In the second half of the 1990s a number of cease-fires between factions were declared in hopes of holding a clan leader summit to work out a national government. Renewed fighting disrupted each of these agreements. The main clan leaders met in Cairo, Egypt, in December 1997 and agreed to a plan to convene a conference of hundreds of rival clan members to elect a new national government. However, clan fighting continued throughout 1998 and 1999, and the planned conference was repeatedly postponed.

Transitional Government

The conference was finally held in mid-2000 in Djibouti. Over several months, hundreds of Somalia’s clan leaders, warlords, and politicians debated the establishment of a new central government. In August the conference elected a transitional legislative body and a president. The transitional government failed to extend administrative control over more than a section of Mogadishu, and its three-year mandate expired in 2003. A new transitional legislative body—based in Nairobi, Kenya—was elected in 2004. In October 2004 the Transitional Assembly, as it was known, elected Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as president. In November he nominated Ali Muhammad Ghedi as prime minister. The new government faced numerous challenges as it attempted to establish control over Somalia, including sporadic clan warfare, a devastated infrastructure, and the question of how to reintegrate Somaliland and another northern breakaway republic called Puntland.

Attempted Islamist Takeover

In June 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a grouping of Sharia courts backed by Islamist militias, claimed control of Mogadishu. In the following months, ICU forces won control over most of the southern half of Somalia and appeared to have become the most powerful military force in the country. The transitional government remained relatively weak and controlled only the city of Baydhabo (also known as Baidoa).

Ethiopia’s Military Intervention

In September 2006 the African Union (AU) agreed to send a peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops into Somalia to help support the transitional government. However, the AU force was never deployed. Instead, neighboring Ethiopia sent an estimated 20,000 troops into Somalia in December 2006. Ethiopian officials claimed the ICU was a terrorist group backed by Eritrea. Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi announced he was focusing attacks against the ICU militias to prevent a widening of the war and to protect his country’s sovereignty. The AU, admitting it had not acted quickly enough, approved of Ethiopia’s intervention.

In a military offensive during the last two weeks of December 2006, the combined forces of Ethiopia and the Somali transitional government reclaimed Mogadishu and forced the Islamist forces to retreat to the southernmost part of Somalia. The Ethiopian air force was also deployed to support efforts on the ground. Meanwhile, neighboring Kenya sent security forces to its northeastern border, effectively trapping the Islamist forces.

In early January 2007, United States military aircraft conducted air strikes in southern Somalia, targeting the final remnants of the Islamist forces. The United States claimed that key members of al-Qaeda were hiding among the fugitive Somali Islamists, including Abu Talha al-Sudani, who had been identified as an explosives expert from Sudan and the probable leader of East Africa’s al-Qaeda cell. However, it remained unknown whether he or any other al-Qaeda member had been killed in the attacks.

As the hostilities escalated, Prime Minister Ghedi resigned. He was replaced by Nur Hassan Hussein in November 2007. However, the president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, and Hussein disagreed over their approach to the Muslim insurgents, and the president tried to dismiss Hussein in mid-December 2008, naming a new prime minister. Hussein refused to step down, and Kenya threatened to freeze Yusuf’s assets in Kenya if he failed to rescind his action. In late December, Yusuf resigned, and in early January 2009 Hussein announced that he would seek the presidency in new elections. However, in late January, Somalia’s parliament, meeting in neighboring Djibouti, selected Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist cleric who had been part of the 2006 ICU alliance, as Somalia’s president.

Somali Piracy

The early 21st century saw the rise of piracy in the waters off Somalia, with a significant number of international vessels, including a Saudi super-tanker, being seized by Somali pirates. The pirates demanded ransoms for the release of the ships, their crews, and cargoes. The United States and other nations deployed naval ships to the region to patrol the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The United Nations (UN) advocated the deployment of foreign warships to defend the economic interests of countries.

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