Insight Somalia
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Politics Socio-Economic


Historically, Somalia played a significant political role in terms of advancing the global economy by connecting Africa, Asia and Europe. It exported various products such as myrrh, spices, gold and incense or luubaan in Somali among other commodities to the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Mesopotamian civilizations including the Assyrians and Babylonians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Indians, Ottomans and Muslim Caliphates as well as others. From the seventh century onwards, Islam spread peacefully in Somalia and became central in the social and political fabric of society. In many ways, it was congenial to the norms, traditions and culture of the Somali people. For instance, Somali dispute resolution systems such as “Xeer Soomaali” were perfect fit with that of Islam.

This eventually led to new political rulers under the name of Sultans most notably during the rise of the Ifat and Adal kingdoms throughout the thirteenth century. These rulers devised political, economic and military strategies which not only propelled but, also protected the country from various threats emanating from the Abbasid caliphate, Ethiopian empire and the Portuguese at the dawn of the colonial period. Henceforth, Somalia’s political and economic history is far more complex, richer and thus, the purpose of this paper is not sole to discuss such history, but to examine ways in which it can play a vital role towards Somalia’s current and future political and economic strategies.


Various scholars including Njoku have found that Somalia’s history is one that stretches back far more than 10 millennia. It was always strategically important in political and economic terms right from the beginning of human relations. Merchants from Somalia exported various commodities to major and none-major markets.

The Egyptians, for instance, called Somalia the Land of the Gods and used Somalia’s export products for various purposes. The unique aromatic scent of products such as frankincense and myrrh soon become redolent of everything that is Somalia. The warming of relations led the Egyptians to establish direct political and economic ties with Somalia during the rule of Mentuhotep III. Several trips to Somalia by high ranking Egyptian officials followed and the evidence of this can be found in hierographic diaries and various tombs. For instance, in the tombs of Niankkhnum, market scenes are depicted feature a Somali policeman chasing a thief in a market. The land of Punt or Somalia and the products it exported was often evoked in hymns. For instance, the following was devoted to the Egyptian god Amun. “The people of punt come to you, and the god’s land blossoms for love of you.”  Likewise, Egyptian love songs frequently poeticised Punt or Somalia as a magical place. “When I hold my love close, and her arms steal around me, I’m like a man translated to punt, or like someone out in the reed-flats, when the world suddenly bursts into flower.”

The Somali people established similar relations with the ancient Greeks who called Somalia the land of the Barbaroi. Greek scholars including Herodotus who is often referred to as the father of history in the western literature, indicates frankincense being exported from Somalia’s northern coast to Persia and Assyria and identifies an amount consisting of two and one half tons being offered annually to the Babylonian god BEL, on BEL’s temple in Babylon. From Herodotus’s writing, incense is referred to us ledanon, a name which is still familiar in Somali as luubaan, a generic name for incense. Greek travellers including Cosmos Indicopleustas visited Somalia between the first and fifth centuries AD (meaning after the birth of Christ in western literature). Greek records identify trade ties with the Somali people and their commercial coastal cities including Barawe, Hafun and Mogadishu. Present day scholars including Stern, Chittick, Smith and Wright have similarly found this political and mostly economic oriented ties between the ancient Greeks and Somalis.

The ancient Romans, on the other hand, called Somalia Cape Aromatica because of the trees that produce aromatic gum resins which Somali merchants exported to the Roman empire. As the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom in 106 AD, Somali rulers saw an opportunity to expand economic and political ties with India and Rome at the same time. As a result, Somali elites allowed Indian goods such as cinnamon to flood the Somali market and encouraged Somali merchants to re-export though more favourably to the Roman Empire. It is what eventually led the Romans to also call Somalia Regio Cinnamafore meaning the land of the cinnamon believing that Somalia produced cinnamon, though in reality, merely served as a commercial hub for spices from the Indian subcontinent. Two recognisable and enduring Somali traits were beginning to take root during the ancient times. Neutrality and entrepreneurial culture.


The rise of the Islamic civilization marks an important time in Somalia’s political and economic history. Though Somali rulers did successfully establish political and economic ties with this new world power called the Caliphate, it, however, ended up becoming deeply problematic as the relations between the two sides was neither reciprocal nor parity, more so in economic terms, particularly during the Abbasid caliphate. With the support of the political elites, the public protested against Harun al-Rashid and later al-Ma’mun. Somalis were not only adamant to avoid unnecessary conflict but, were also determined to maintain their political independence from the Arab world and as a result rejected any economic exploitation by the caliphates in the Arabian Peninsula. Somali elites began to focus on expanding economic ties with Asia. Prominent Somali figures including Said Muqdishawi who was a well-known scholar travelled to India and discovered people who were ruled over by Somalis and other east African groups like the Habesha. This includes Mahmud Shah II and his predecessors who ruled over an area spanning between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, Malik Sarwar who controlled a vast territory in northern India, Nepal to the east and the Himalayan mountains in the north. Historians from India including Hasan Askari, have similarly found this extraordinary history in other parts of India including the western and the southern provinces. To this day, Indian gods and temples including the Somalinga temple and the Indian god of priya Somalinga carry the Somali name while the Siddi people of Indian who left remarkable legacy of architecture, culture, military and politics prefer to call themselves Somalis.

Said Muqdishawi travelled further on to China at the height of the Yuan Dynasty and discovered more surprises. Somalia significantly expanded its exports to Asia, in particular to China during the Ming Dynasty. The nation’s commercial coastal cities were busy with economic activities. For political and economic reasons, Somali elites allowed significant number of none African immigrants to freely settle in the country during a time in which Mogadishu became a magnet to magnates who were likewise not Africans. Educational institutions expanded across the country and Mogadishu became home to a prominent university. Ibn Battuta who was spellbound by the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Mogadishu was puzzled by the Somali judicial systems, which he considered to be highly advanced hierarchical system of governance.

The historical city of Zayla in the north of the country became the capital of the Adal state which flourished from 1415 to 1577. The Adal state succeeded from the Ifat state after the Abyssinian king Negus Yakuno Amlak waged a bloody brutal war to conquer Somalia’s historical city Zayla and killed many Somalis, forcibly converted survivors to Christianity and changed mosques to churches in an attempt to control trade routes during 1270 to 1285. This marked an important turning point because, for the first time, the Somali people were forced to fight a battle they did not choose, but were nonetheless fully committed to defend the political, economic and territorial integrity of their country. Somalia’s General Ghazi (Iman Ahmed) who became lionized took steps that were invariably imbued with a sense of patriotism and identity based on “Somalinimo” began a devastating campaign against the Abyssinian Empire and likewise converted many Christians to Islam to avenge for the atrocities in Zayla. Though general Ghazi was killed in the battle of Wayna Daga during 1543, his benign but firm military leadership and deeply rooted patriotism became a powerful mantra to the Somali armed forces which developed a rich seam of experienced officers and generals under his reign. The war intensified as general Nur Mujahid was appointed as the head of the armed forces, leading to the defeat and death of the Ethiopian Emperor Galawdewos in 1559.

However, a new enemy who similarly threated the sovereignty and economic interest of the country was beginning to emerge. The Portuguese blockade of Mogadishu during the 16th century forced Somali rulers to finally accept the need to build a naval force. Somali elites ordered foreign merchants to bypass the blockade and use other Somali commercial ports such as Merca, Berbera, Bossaso, Zeila and Kismayo in order to allow trade to continue as normal. Large ships loaded with a variety of goods from the Arabia peninsula, India, Venetia, Persia, Egypt and China were still arriving. Somalia’s Ajuran state began to focus on the Portuguese threat in the south and their blockade of Mogadishu. It quickly instituted a solid military and naval force which successfully ended the Portuguese threat. In order to set further precautionary measures, Somali rulers strengthened political and economic relations with the Ottoman Empire and signed a military pact aimed at protecting free trade. This cooperation led Somali-Ottoman naval expeditions to petrol the seas as far as the far east during the 1580s. For the Somali people, resilience and patriotism based on Somalinimo became rooted in the national character during this period.

The deep decline

Somalia’s Adal state began to decline significantly both in political and economic terms, particularly after the death of Amir Nur in 1577. Equally, though the Somali fortress known as the Harar state flourished during the reign of Ali Daud in 1647, things, however, began to deteriorate after the Egyptians took over the city of Harar in 1875. As the Somali people in that state began to make headway in forcing the Egyptians to evacuate the city, Emperor Menelik saw the incipient decline of Somalia’s Harar state, took over the city and incorporated it into the Abyssinian Empire in 1887. Before the country could focus on this crisis, new colonial powers from Europe came. Somalia’s northern states signed treaties with Britain between 1884 and 1885 and became British Somaliland. Likewise, Somalia’s southern states signed treaties with Italy between 1888 and 1889 and became Italian Somaliland. Arbitrary borders were created which divided the rest of Somalia into French Somaliland, the Ogaden region or Soomaali Galbeed placed under Ethiopian rule and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) which was carved out or separated from Somalia’s Juba region was put under Kenyan rule. The colonial powers of Europe therefore further derailed Somalia’s long political and economic systems and structures.

Moreover, during this period, they have also resorted to extraordinary level of violence in an attempt to subdue the gradually expanding resistance from the dervish movement led by Sayyid Mohammad Abdille Hasan whose Somali poetic lilt became deeply influential. Such rule ended in British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland between 26 June and 1 July 1960. Though the Somali people quickly formed the Somali Republic and became Africa’s first democrats, the other three Somali states, French Somaliland, NDF and the Ogaden region were still under foreign occupation. It was not as if the Somali people could simply return to their old political, economic systems and structures pre-colonialism. The borders that were established to divide the Somali people were now recognised by the world at large. Moreover, the Somali nation or what was left of it was not able to equally trade with the world since much of it was still under the yoke of colonialism. As a result, it became a supplier of goods, particularly banana and sugar to Italy.

Perhaps, this explains why Somali rulers struggled and largely failed to manage the Somali politics and economy for the first time in history. This failure is what brought about grievances and deep mistrust of the new system. It gave rise to a litany of catastrophes including the assassination of president Sharmarke and the rise of a brutal dictatorial regime led by Mohamed Siad Barre whose tyrannical rule led to the demise of the state, prolonged civil war, warlords and terrorism. Though today, it is fair to say that the thugs and looters under the disguise of perceived clan interest and perverted religious doctrine can no longer hold the Somali people hostage, smart leadership is required to move Somalia forward towards political stability and economic prosperity in order to strengthen and safeguard the transcendent Somali cause.

From retrospect to prospect

Somalia is a nation that is often misunderstood, analysed and portrayed wrongly, knowingly or otherwise through a narrow and rather blurred prism. Stark dichotomy begins to emerge when one looks at its past holistically consequent on the interplay of historical processes for thousands of years. The most far-reaching of these came at the dawn of the colonial era. It is a period that profoundly altered the trajectory of the country. It went beyond mere physical destruction either be historical artefacts or ancient buildings, but also led to the prevalence of grotesque imitations, particularly in the context of economics and politics. It is because of this, that today the majority of the Somali people are largely unaware of their long and rather gilded history, especially in the fields of art, culture, judiciary, economics, education, politics, military and among others. These are the prime causes of the knowledge gap and lack of awareness. Therefore, the preservation of Somali history, in this case, the political and economic aspect would not only strengthen the bulwark of this nation but, would also identify the incalculable contribution of the Somali people to the world economy, international relations and the progress of the human race. As Winston Churchill once noted, “The longer you can look back, the further you can look forward.” It would be important therefore to take several steps.

First, a commission should be set up whose mandate is to oversee the creation of key national institutes. This would be significant for a number of reasons. For instance, it would strengthen the foundations of the nation, it can play a key role in supporting the work of government and the overall robustness of statecraft, and it would enhance growth, particularly in the context of social development.

Second, the political history of Somalia is important for three reasons. One, it provides context as well as conceptual toolkit particularly in any reform agenda. Two, it permits the Somali people to question the emergence of past political problems and differentiate issues that are temporary or contingent from those that are enduring and cumulative. This then introduces the third factor, that is it paves the way for citizens to recognise individual as well as collective mistakes and previous failures. This as a result plays a key role in easing the development of new views and political strategies that do not end up running into the ruts of the past.

Third, the preservation of the Knowledge and history of the Somali economy is similarly important in terms of the long-term trajectory of the country in two ways. One, it forces the Somali people to understand the historical pillars of the Somali economy and past discontinuities in economic activities and performance. For instance, poor performance has in the past coincided with deep political crises. Therefore, a historical understanding of the Somali economy is vital as it would immunise us as well as future generations from complacency. Two, the history of the Somali economy is significant in terms of context as well as offer appropriate choice of economic strategies.

These ideas for the present and future are in line with the transcendent Somali cause and the history of our forebears. Furthermore, far from fantasising the creation of a farfetched political and economic utopia, we, the rather living, in this age of globalisation should reflect on the past and learn lessons from that outward-looking, clear-eyed, open-minded, tolerant, pluralistic and multi-ethnic society, full of poets, artists, scholar, travellers and traders who forged political and economic ties with other progressive societies of their times. This would give us political and economic clout as well as options and enhance the prism through which we view and address the Somali politics and economy beyond the very simple, rudimentary, unsophisticated and often dichotomised thinking.

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