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An Introduction to Somalia


The Somali Democratic Republic lies on the east coast of Africa, with Ethiopia to the northwest and Kenya to the west. There is a short frontier with Djibouti. Somalia has a long coastline on the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, forming the "Horn of Africa." All borders are arbitrary lines drawn during colonial times that ignore ethnic boundaries. None of these borders has been formally accepted by Somalia.


Somalia has a generally arid and tropical climate, determined principally by the northeast and southwest monsoonal winds and transitional periods known as tangambilis. There are two wet seasons: the gu, beginning in March and extending into May and sometimes June, and the dayr, the shorter wet season in October and November. Alternating with these wet seasons are two dry seasons, the jilal from December or January to March, dominated by hot, dry, dusty winds, and the hagaa, from the beginning of June to August. The hagaa is the hottest season of the year when temperatures may soar to 120 degrees F. The temperatures are moderated along the coast by cooling sea breezes. The average mean temperatures are 85 to 105 degrees F in the north and 65 to 105 degrees F in the south.

Most of the country receives less than 20 inches of rain annually, but some of the northern parts receive less than 2 inches. Severe droughts are common. The inland plains, particularly the Hual, have little surface water except in seasonally filled basins.

CITIES AND GEOGRAPHY: (see map of Somalia)

The capital is Mogadishu. It has an estimated population of 500,000. The other major urban centers are Merca (70,000), Hargeysa (50,000), Berbera (45,000), and Jowhar (20,000).

Topographically, there are four natural divisions: the Gahan, the northern highlands, the Ogo, including the Mudug Plain, and the Somali Plateau, including the Haud. In general there is only limited contrast among these regions.

The northern coastal plains, which stretch from the Gulf of Tadjoura along the Gulf of Aden into Mijirtein region, are known as the Guban (burned land) from its semiarid and parched condition. Inland, this coastal strip gives way to the rugged mountain ranges that extend from Ethiopia to the tip of the Horn at Cape Guardafui, the easternmost point of Africa. This range contains the country's highest point, Surud Ad, 2,408 meters. The mountains descend to the south through a region, known as the Ogo, consisting of shallow plateau valleys, dry watercourses and broken mountains. This region merges into an elevated plateau and then continues into Central Somalia as the Mudug Plain, whose eastern section is known as the Nugaal Valley. This region merges imperceptibly in the vast tilting Haud Plateau, with an average elevation of 900 meters in the center, itself a part of the larger Somali Plateau. The region between the Juba and Shebeli Rivers is low agricultural land; southwest of the Juba River to the Kenyan border is low pasture land.

The country has only two permanent rivers, the Juba and Shebeli, both originating in the Ethiopian Highland and flowing into the Indian Ocean. The Shebeli has a total length of 2,000 km. It runs parallel to, and north of, the Juba through southern Ogaden to Balad, about 30 km from the Indian Ocean, where it turns southwest and, after about 270 km, disappears in a series of marshes and sandflats. During exceptionally heavy rains the Shebeli breaks through to the Juba farther south and then enters the sea. The largest seasonal streams in the north are the Daror and Nogal.


Somalia has one of the most homogeneous populations in Africa with 85 percent of its people belonging to Hamitic stock and 14 percent to the Bantu stock. As a result of intermixture, 98 percent of the people are described as Somalis. The Somalis are united by language, culture, and religion as well as by common descent. All Somalis trace their origin to two brothers, Samaal and Saab, said to have been members of the Arabian tribe of Quraysh, to which Muhammad belonged. The descendants of these two brothers constitute six clan families or tribes. The Dir, the Darod, the Isaq, and the Hawiyah make up an estimated 75 percent of the population and belong to the Samaal line. The Rahanweyn and the Digil belong to the Saab line. The Samaal are nomadic or seminomadic pastoralists, while the Saab are farmers and sedentary herders.

Relationship among clans and subclans is based on the principle of contracts (or heers). Clans are usually associated with given territory defined by the circuit of nomadic migration. The territories of neighboring clans tend to overlap which often results in occasional conflicts. Clans have ceremonial heads known as soldaans (or sultans) or bokors, but their internal affairs are managed by informally constituted councils known as shirs, of which all adult males are members. Interlineage or inter-clan allowances are known as diapaying groups, or groups that accept the burden of paying blood compensation (dia) for homicide (tribal retribution/an eye for an eye). Traditionally, every Somali belongs to a diapaying group, and there are over 1,000 of them in the republic. These groups are also important social and economic units and function as mutual-aid associations and political blocs. Saab clans are subdivided into three subclans, each called a gember (or stool), whose affairs are managed by leading elders called gobweins. The Saab are more heterogeneous than the Samaal and have assimilated some non-Somali elements.

There are also a number of despised groups who are believed to have inhabited the country before the arrival of the Somalis. Known as Sab among the Samaal and as Bon among the Saab, they follow so-called inferior occupations such as hunting, blacksmithing, weaving, tanning, and shoemaking. The most numerous of these groups are the Midgaan, the Yibir, the Tumal, the Dardown, the Gaggab, and the Madarrala.

Along the Indian Ocean coast and in the valleys of the Juba and Shebeli Rivers are groups known as habasho, believed to be descendants of Negro slaves. Many of these groups, such as the Gobawein, the Helai, the Tunni Torre, the Shidle, the Rer Issa, the Kabole, the Makanne, and the Gosha, have been partially Somalized. Also along the coast live the Bajun, who display Indonesian traits, the Swahili-speaking Amarani and the primitive Boni and Eile.

Ethnic aliens include some 35,000 Arabs, 3,000 Europeans, and 800 Indians and Pakistanis. There are also over 500,000 refugees from Ethiopia, most of whom are ethnic Somalis living in Somalia.


The national and official language is Somali, a Cushitic language with dialectal differences that follow clan divisions. Of the several dialects, the most widely used is common Somali, spoken by Somalis not only within Somalia, but also in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. The other dialects are regional, such as Central Somali and Coastal Somali, but all dialects are mutually intelligible.

Most Somalis have some knowledge of Arabic, and educated Somalis have some familiarity with Italian and English.


The state religion is Islam, and the majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslims. There is a small Christian community, mostly Roman Catholics.


These are the six major factions that have turned Somalia into a collection of armed camps:

* Somali National Movement
Leader: Abdul Rahman Tur, in alliance with a committee of clan elders.
Manpower: 6,000 in 1988.
Equipment: Smaller militias in the north have armored vehicles, artillery, antiaircraft guns, light arms.
Clan: Isaak.

* Somali Salvation Democratic Front
Leaders: General Mohammed Abshir and Colonel Yusuf.
Manpower: Several thousand armed men.
Equipment: Some armored vehicles, antiaircraft guns, maybe some artillery, light arms.
Clan: Darod (Majretain branch).

* Aideed Faction, United Somali Congress
Leader: General Mohammed Farah Aideed.
Manpower: Several thousand armed men.
Equipment: Some armored vehicles, artillery, antiaircraft guns, light arms.
Clan: Hawiye (Habar Gadir subclan).

* Ali Mahdi Faction, United Somali Congress
Leader: "Interim President" Ali Mahdi Muhammad.
Manpower: 5,000 or less armed men.
Equipment: A few armored vehicles, antiaircraft guns, maybe some artillery.
Clan: Hawiye (Abgal subclan).

* Somali National Front
Leader: General Mohammed Said Hersi.
Manpower: A few thousand armed men.
Equipment: Several dozen armored vehicles, artillery, antiaircraft guns, light arms.
Clan: Darod (Marehan branch).

* Somali Patriotic Movement
Leader: Colonel Omar Jess.
Manpower: A few thousand armed men.
Equipment: Some armored vehicles and other heavy weapons.
Clan: Darod (Ogadeni branch).


The following dates are traditional holidays in Somalia:

1 January
25 March*
1 May
1 June*
26 June
30 June*
1 July
30 August*
New Year's Day
Id al-Fitr, end of Ramadan
Labor Day
Id al-Adha, Feast of the Sacrifice
Independence Day (Northern Region)
Independence Day
Mouloud, Birth of the Prophet
* (Note: These holidays are dependent on the Islamic lunar calendar and may vary by one or two days from the dates given.)


Following is a brief synopsis of recent Somali history. (A more detailed study is presented at Appendix A.)

* July 1, 1960
Independence; merger of British Somaliland Protectorate and the Italian Trusteeship Territory of Somalia.

* October 26, 1969
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre takes power in a bloodless coup.
Somali Democratic Republic founded.
Comes under the influence of the Soviet Union.

* 1977-1978
Changes to a pro-U.S. government.
Ogaden War with Ethiopia.

* 1987-1989
U.S. interest in Somalia declines.

* January 27, 1991
President Siad Barre is toppled and escapes to Kenya.

* 1991 until the present
Civil War between Clans for control of country and secession of old British Somaliland from the Republic of Somalia.

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