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.
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.
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.
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