Far, far away lies a mythical land inhabited by a proud people who one day decided that this concept of “government” just wasn’t for them and that they would live by a system of “Fuck it, do whatever.” The clans partied so hard that the US and the UN decided to put an end to it. The result was a totally wicked sweet movie called Black Hawk Down, where badass motherfuckin’ Rangers rampaged through dusty desert streets shooting any dusky skinned individual they saw. Coincidentally, this would happen years later in other countries. Anyway, the US eventually got a bloody nose and bailed out, never to return, and the UN left a few years later after they realized they were making the situation worse and not better. With the outsiders gone, the clans went back to doing what they did best, killing each other.
That’s basically Somalia, but there’s a lot more to it.
Meet the Somalis
Important note: Any ‘Xs’ are pronouced as the letter ‘haa’ in Arabic, it’s a breathy H sound if you don’t know it. ‘Maxamed’ is ‘Mohammed’ etc.
Somalis live in Somalia. No shit, right? But did you know Somalis also live in tons of other places aside from diaspora communities? Somalis make up the majority of the population of regions in Ethiopia and Kenya, with the eastern part of Ethiopia being nearly entirely Somali. Somalis also make up the majority of the population of Djibouti.
Somalis have traditionally been pastoralists, nomadic herders who raised camels. Camels were actually domesticated in Somalia between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE and about 1/4 of the world’s camels live in Somalia and Ogaden.
Jay-Z has made a cigarette more famous than a camel can
The most important social unit in Somalia is the clan. There are five major clans, four of them being considered “noble” clans. The noble clans are the Darod, the Dir, the Isaaq, the Hawiye. They claim some sort of common ancestry through marriage arrangements a long time ago, and at lest one clan believes to be descended from a companion of the prophet Mohammed, which leads to some wacky situations such as some Somalis not considering themselves black or African in the least (THOSE FUCKING BANTU) and Somalia being a member of the Arab League. The fifth clan is the Rahanweyne, who speak their own weird version of the Somali language. In addition to being pastoralists, the Digil subclan were traditionally farmers and fishermen.
Somali subclans do not always get along. For instance, a lot of the current trouble was started in a conflict between Hawiye subclans, and during the Siad Barre years the Darod Majerteen subclan attempted a coup against the largely Marehan government, which is also a Darod subclan.
Somalis are said to be able to name their ancestors back 20 generations, and a Somali who loses the protection of his clan is in some really deep shit. Clans function as a sort of insurance system in traditional Somali law called “xeer.” Let’s say you’ve got some camels. Now let’s say I come over and kill one just for the hell of it. The elders from my clan or subclan will meet with your elders and reparations will be made. If I don’t have any camels to replace yours then my clan will provide them and stay on my ass about this shit for a long time. If I don’t get the point, maybe I’ve been chewing too much khat or something, and I keep going over and killing your camels, I’ll eventually get booted out of my clan, leaving me as fair game to be killed by anyone I may have pissed off. I’d have to leave Somalitown and go live with the Ethiopians or something, a fate worse than death.
Here is a neat map of clan concentration
The Siad Barre Years: A Brief History
Mohamed Siad Barre came to power in 1969 in a military coup and quickly moved to outlaw political parties and arrest former government members and all the fun things military dictators like to do. Barre was nominally a communist and was aligned with the USSR, which would also back the Derg in neighboring Ethiopia in 1974. Barre started off with some decent ideas. He mandated that Somali would be the official language of Somalia, that it would be the language of education, and that it would be standardized in Latin script.
He also tried to get rid of clans. Yeah, that didn’t work.
Head Somali in Charge
Siad Barre would rule until 1991, but the events that would lead to his downfall began in 1977 with the start of the Ogaden War. Siad Barre wanted to create Greater Somalia, uniting the Somalis that lived in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia with the rest of Somalia. Eventually this territory would encompass some northern areas of Kenya as well as Djibouti. At the onset of the war, Somalia had a military that was significantly smaller than Ethiopia’s but was better equipped. Somalia was the recipient of a good deal of Soviet aid and had an armored force second only to Egypt if I’m not mistaken. Somalia and Ethiopia have traditionally had tensions, with Somalia being an Islamic state and Ethiopia traditionally considered as a Christian bastion in the region. Up until Haile Selassie I was dethroned by the Derg, Ethiopia had been backed by the United States as well.
Anyway, 1977. The Somali National Army sweeps through Ogaden and captures most of it with little opposition. The USSR flips the fuck out because two of its proxies have started to fight each other. They try brokering a ceasefire and when this doesn’t work they completely withdraw support from Somalia and back Ethiopia instead. So does every other Communist country except for China and Romania. Cuba even sends around 18,000 troops. Oops. Somalia promptly starts losing after this. Jimmy Carter wants to help but Congress tells him to go eat a dick. Poor Jimmy.
Ethiopia learned a valuable lesson however. A strong and unified Somalia was a threat and keeping Somalia weak would help keep Ethiopia safe. Ethiopia began backing various Somali groups after the war in an effort to destabilize the country.
Greater Somalia. It still hasn’t happened
On top of this failed war, Siad Barre had some really shitty economic policies which resulted in a tanked economy. The answer? Make your own Gestapo and give them the power to do whatever the fuck they want. Wikipedia sums up what happened next pretty well.
From the late 1970s, and onwards Barre faced a shrinking popularity and increased domestic resistance. In response, Barre’s elite unit, the Red Berets (Duub Cas), and the paramilitary unit called the Victory Pioneers carried out systematic terror against the Majeerteen, the Hawiye, and the Isaaq clans. The Red Berets systematically smashed water reservoirs to deny water to the Majeerteen and Isaaq clans and their herds. More than 2,000 members of the Majeerteen clan died of thirst, and an estimated 5,000 Isaaq were killed by the government. Members of the Victory Pioneers also raped large numbers of Majeerteen and Isaaq women, and more than 300,000 Isaaq members fled to Ethiopia.
The Majerteen are a Darod subclan, Barre was Marehan, another Darod subclan. Some Majerteen attempted a coup and Barre targeted them because of it. Other clans began forming rebel movements. The Isaaq Somali National Movement (SNM) was backed by Ethiopia and concentrated mainly in the northern part of the country that was formerly British Somaliland. Elsewhere, the Hawiye based United Somali Congress (USC) was formed in response to oppression by Barre. This group was lead by former General Mohamed Farah Aidid (the Black Hawk Down guy) and Ali Madhi Muhammad, who was a businessman. Meanwhile, Barre’s son-in-law, General Mohammed Said Hersi Morgan, was terrorizing northern Somalia, bombing the Isaaq-dominated city of Hargeisa and killing upwards of 50,000 people. Siad Barre had successfully managed to anger nearly every group in Somalia with the exception of his own Marehan clan. He would be deposed in January of 1991 by the efforts of the USC, but this would only lead to more conflict. Americans would inevitably get involved, and they would inevitably make things better. Oh yes.
No Somalis were used in the making of this film
Part II will detail the adventures of Aidid and Ali Madhi Muhammad, US/UN interventionism, war porn, the rise of Islamist groups and pirates, and the general state of affairs between actors in the Horn of Africa right now. It’s like 5 in the morning though and I’m going to bed for now.