Map

(This map is repeated from Part 3.  The part of Somalia that lies above the big wedge of Ethiopia was British Somaliland and today is the autonomous Somaliland that seeks international recognition. The districts of Bari and Nugaal, on the tip of the Horn, are still part of Somalia but operate under home rule as Puntland.)

The Somali clans shared a common language and culture — and Islam.

Sultanates came and went, usually based in one of the few small towns near the coast where Arab influences were strong.  Their authority didn’t cross clan lines, and was weak or nonexistent over the nomads in the huge interior.  The clans continued to infiltrate the Horn, mostly at the expense of the Oromos, who had migrated down from Ethiopia long before. No political structure emerged to combine the Somali Sultanates or clans into a bigger political unit.

In the 1880s individual Somali clans near the coast began signing agreements with the British and French.  The agreements explicitly asserted the independence of the clans, while allowing the Europeans to establish official posts on the coast.  England offered ‘the protection of Her Majesty the Queen-Empress’ (Queen Victoria).

France got its coaling station and commercial port.  England didn’t get the stability among the clans that it wanted, but succeeded in establishing a source of fresh meat for Aden.  It isn’t clear what the Somalis expected,  but they ended up becoming a colony.

The British were soon drawn deeper into the interior as the clans carried on their customary raiding and looting, and stealing from passing caravans.  The French had an easier time; Djibouti was tiny, with a small, less combative population and defined borders.

The Somalis were Sufi, a mystical, relatively easy-going form of Islam.  There were two schools of practice, both brought from Arabia and both spreading beyond clan boundaries.  These Orders remained purely spiritual, overseeing Islamic prayers and rituals and never challenging clan authority.

Unexpectedly, an inspired Somalic cleric emerged from obscurity in the last decade of the 19th century, promoting a strict and ascetic form of Islam. He was Sayyid (a title) Mohammed Abdille, recently back from Mecca and burning with puritanical zeal.  His sermons were inflammatory and eloquent (he later became famous for his poetry), sharply condemning Somalis who refused to change their ways and urging attacks on infidels and foreigners.

The Sayyid, as he is still known, demanded a complete ban on imported vices like alcohol and tobacco, and on the local habit of chewing khat (a stimulant).  He condemned the lavish self indulgence of the newly prosperous merchants in Berbera.  Most of all, he hated the Christians and their missionaries.  The Christian Ethiopians, asserting themselves again in the Ogaden, didn’t escape vilification either.

The parallel of The Sayyid with today’s fundamentalists is clear. A century ago he publicly joined strict Islam and Somali national identity into a single idea.  Today, fundamentalist clerics are again joining strict Islam with political goals beyond clan borders.  The Somali people are undoubtedly aware of the paralle.

The Sayyid’s influence continued to rise, and armed followers flocked to him.  Strikingly, and apparently for the first time, Somalis rallied behind someone outside of the clan system — not as a replacement for clan leadership but in an undefined role as a symbol of their common Somali identity.

There was no Somali precedent to guide The Sayyid.  He made  his own violent path.  In 1899 he threatened the infidel British if they didn’t leave Somaliland.  The British took up the challenge and found themselves in an increasingly nasty 20-year struggle that soon spread to the still barely occupied Italian colony. It continued until after WW I.  The Somalis fought fiercely (as they still do), causing the Europeans endless trouble.  The press in London dubbed Mohammed Abdille the Mad Mullah.

Somali nationalism was a fragile concept a century ago, entirely embodied in one man.  But it carried the seed from which a Somali nation has been struggling to grow.  Mohammed created no institutions, didn’t challenge the authority of the clan leaders and didn’t prepare a successor. Nevertheless, he had a huge impact on Somali consciousness  and emerged as an inspiration for Somali political ambitions after his death in 1920.

Britain,  and particularly Italy, now expanded their colonial administration, which inevitably eroded clan authority, a process that is still not complete. Creating a national government to replace the clans has also gone slowly.  In the nearly 50 years since independence (in 1960), Somalia is still somewhere between autonomous clans and a nation state.

As the government staggered and finally collapsed in 1991, a group of local thuggish leaders arose to claim the empty space.  Drawing on clan loyalties but operating like gangs, they began to muscle into the modern sector, stealing, extorting, bullying, killing, becoming the enforcers on their turf.

Two years ago the clerics of the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union took power in Mogadishu. They were welcomed at first for chasing out the gangsters but their rigid laws and heavy-handed enforcement soon made them unpopular.  When Ethiopia toppled the clerics in 2006, few rose to their defense.  It didn’t take long, however, for opposition to the occupying Ethiopians to appear.

Fundamentalist clerics are again trying to retake power.  They have split into rival factions, one led by an ICU cleric that the US had denounced as an ‘extremist’ in 2006 but now supports as a ‘moderate’.  He is opposed by Al-Shabaab, with reported Al Qaeda ties, who already control large parts of the country.

The basic elements of the turmoil in Somalia haven’t changed in over a century:  tension between clan authority and political evolution, modern puritanical Islam vs traditional Sufi Islam, rejection of  foreigners, particularly Europeans/Americans, ongoing clan fighting that contributes to the strength of the gangs and their bosses (the so-called ‘warlords’), and Somalia’s irredentist claim to the Ogaden.

Next time, the pirates.  Finally.