By MSW Add a Comment 11 Min Read


Italians in Somalia

During the widespread European colonization in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Somalia became the target of both British and Italian ambitions. The British arrived much earlier, negotiating treaties for harbor facilities in 1840. By the middle 1880s, the British had negotiated agreements with a number of northern tribes and established a protectorate of sorts. The British wanted to control the local supply of foodstuffs to supply their major port of Aden, just to the north across the Gulf of Aden. They ultimately established the colony of Somaliland and finalized a border with Ethiopia in 1897.

Meanwhile, the Italians were slowly acquiring control over the southern part of the region, also by signing protection agreements. They took control of the lands of two rival sultans in 1889, at which time the Italians informed them that as of the Berlin Conference five years earlier, Italy was now the owner of what came to be called Italian Somaliland. The Italians continued to spread their influence southward at the expense of the sultan of Zanzibar, who finally ceded control of his claims in 1925.

In the interior of the country, however, King Menelik II managed both to keep his country free of European domination and also stake a claim for some Somali territory himself. He did so in a region known as the Ogaden. Unwilling to have the British dominate the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden region, the French also got into the act by claiming a slice of land on the coast between British and Ethiopian claims. This came to be the colony of French Somaliland, today known as Djibouti.

Through the later part of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, the Italians and British established colonial administrations funded by taxation of the trade through the harbors they controlled. In the interior, however, Ethiopian military forces had no real source of income and had to live off the land in the Ogaden, thus alienating the Somalian population. It was this depredation at the hands of the Ethiopians that began a Somali nationalist movement. It started in 1899 under the leadership of a radical Muslim cleric, Mahammad Abdille Hasan. Hasan followed the Salihiyah order and his followers were the dervishes, the same order that had resisted Egyptian and British expansion into the Sudan two decades earlier. The dervish resistance movement came to target British as well as Ethiopian interests, and the British government, after some hesitation, committed troops to fight the “Mad Mullah.” In January 1904, Hasan suffered a major defeat which led to his signing a peace agreement in 1905 with both the British and Italian administrations. He honored it only for a couple of years before he was back in British Somaliland staging raids. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the fighting caused the death of some one-third of the northern Somali population and virtually destroyed the economy. Only Hasan’s death in 1920 (killed by British aerial attack on his capital at Taleex) ended the movement.

As in Libya, the Italians became intent on using Somaliland as an outlet for surplus population that would bring European standards to the region. The rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascism in the 1920s added further impetus to the plan, as the Italian government was eager to spread its influence wherever possible. Large-scale development projects, primarily agricultural, resulted in a major increase in the colony’s economy. In British Somaliland, however, there was less interest in local improvement; instead, the area remained a supply base for Aden as it had always been. The difference in economic growth showed itself when the two colonies merged later.

In 1935, Italy’s Mussolini began his aggressive campaign to reestablish the Roman Empire. His assault on Ethiopia was soon followed by a takeover of British Somaliland (1940). This brought, at least temporarily, a unification of the country. During the Italian occupation, the wealth was spread somewhat into the northern region and a barter economy was replaced with a monetary one. More immigrants, both Italian soldiers and civilians from the homeland, moved into Somaliland in order to consolidate Italian control. The Italian takeover also brought further trade with the outside world as well as an increase in public works. For the most part, the Italian occupation was beneficial to the country. Unfortunately, the occupation was brief, as the British established control in 1941 in all Italianheld areas of Africa. After placing Ethiopian King Haile Selassie back on the throne, the British returned the Ogaden region to his authority and placed the former Italian Somaliland under a military administration. The British goal was primarily peacekeeping. Local forces were raised in northern (Somaliland Scouts) and southern (Somalia Gendarmerie) regions, under British command.

The main long-term result of the occupation during World War II was the influx of weaponry into the country. Coupling that with the encouragement of rebels in the Ogaden to keep the British away from the border caused the population to become better armed and more aggressive. Most of the peacekeeping operations conducted during those years were attempts to disarm Somali bandit groups. Meanwhile, the new British administration began to implement some modernization. Spending more money in the northern region raised its standard of living. Health services and aid to agriculture were increased, as were attempts to expand the water supply for the herders in the countryside. Secular schools were initiated, as was a new judiciary which blended Islamic and British common law. Further, greater local political autonomy was granted as Italian appointees were removed and replaced by governing bodies which advised the British administration. On the other hand, Italian workers and specialists who had begun public improvements were kept on the job as long as they posed no security risk. Also, the Somalis were granted more access to police and civil service jobs.

The roots of Somali independence began with the formation of the Somali Youth Club, a political party formed in Mogadishu in 1943. By 1947, it was renamed the Somali Youth League and began to open party offices around the country. The League openly began to call for Somali unity and independence from both British and Ethiopian rule. Within a few years, a number of parties had formed, most based on a clan foundation, but some trying to unify the country without reference to any family or ethnic basis.

Technically, Italian Somaliland was still an Italian colony, but in 1945 the United Nations Council of Foreign Ministers was assigned the task of determining the nation’s future. Britain proposed a single united colony under their control. In January 1948, U.N. representatives arrived to gauge the depth of the Somali independence movement. The Somali Youth League and pro-Italian factions demonstrated to show off their strength, but clashes between the two factions led to violence. Still, the U.N. representatives decided, after talks with a number of parties, that independence was the correct path to follow. However, there was no agreement on how to lead the country to that path. The only solid decision made was to officially give the Ogaden region to Ethiopia, a move which angered Somali nationalists; it did, however, fulfill American and British needs for a military presence in Ethiopia. In 1949, the U.N. General Assembly finally took up the question of Somalia’s future. It was decided to allow Italy a 10-year trusteeship over their former colony with independence to be granted in 1960. This further angered the nationalist parties.

In the end, it made little difference. The British voluntarily ceded control of their administration in the north in 1960 so the area could unite with the southern provinces as soon as they became independent. The union took place on 1 July 1960 and the Somali Republic was proclaimed. A constitution was adopted based on the one in place in the southern provinces. Unfortunately, it ended up centering power in the south around the capital of Mogadishu, causing the northerners to feel they were getting less government attention. To keep the pot boiling, there were still active movements trying to reacquire the Ogaden from Ethiopia. Prime Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Egal (1967–1969) announced that Somalia would no longer claim the region, but that angered the Somalis so much that the army, under the leadership of General Mohamed Said Barre, overthrew Egal. That not only ended his career, but also ended party politics in Somalia.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version