Welcome to Somalia
Somalia, easternmost country of Africa, on the Horn of Africa. It extends from just south of the Equator northward to the Gulf of Aden and occupies an important geopolitical position between sub-Saharan Africa and the countries of Arabia and southwestern Asia. The capital, Mogadishu, is located just north of the Equator on the Indian Ocean
Somalia is a country of geographic extremes. The climate is mainly dry and hot, with landscapes of thornbush savanna and semidesert, and the inhabitants of Somalia have developed equally demanding economic survival strategies. Apart from a mountainous coastal zone in the north and several pronounced river valleys, most of the country is extremely flat, with few natural barriers to restrict the mobility of the nomads and their livestock. The Somali people are clan-based Muslims, and about three-fifths follow a mobile way of life, pursuing nomadic pastoralism or agropastoralism.
The Republic of Somalia
was formed in 1960 by the federation of a former Italian colony and a British protectorate. Mohamed Siad Barre (Maxamed Siyaad Barre) held dictatorial rule over the country from October 1969 until January 1991, when he was overthrown in a bloody civil war waged by clan-based guerrillas. After Siad’s fall from power, warfare continued and the country lacked an effective centralized government—problems that persisted into the 21st century. Moreover, a de facto government declared the formation of an independent Republic of Somaliland in the north in 1991. Similarly, in 1998 the autonomous region of Puntland (the Puntland State of Somalia) was self-proclaimed in the northeast. Somalia, Somaliland, and PuntlandThe Republic of Somalia experienced fragmentation in the 1990s: the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland asserted its independence from Somalia in 1991, and the Puntland State of Somalia declared itself an autonomous region of Somalia in 1998. Neither is internationally recognized.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Decades of civil hostilities have virtually destroyed Somalia’s economy and infrastructure and split the country into areas under the rule of various entities. When Somalia’s tenuous transitional administration handed power to a new government in 2012, the newly declared Federal Republic of Somalia had only limited control over the country. There was, however, hope that the new government would usher in a new era, one in which peace would be achieved and Somalis could focus on rebuilding their country. Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today
Somalia is bounded by the Gulf of Aden to the north, by the Indian Ocean to the east, by Kenya and Ethiopia to the west, and by Djibouti to the northwest. Somalia’s western border was arbitrarily determined by colonial powers and divides the lands traditionally occupied by the Somali people. As a result, Somali communities are also found in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and the border remains a source of dispute.
The types of soil vary according to climate and parent rock. The arid regions of northeastern Somalia have mainly thin and infertile desert soils. The limestone plateaus of the interfluvial area have fertile dark gray to brown calcareous residual soils that provide good conditions for rain-fed agriculture. The most fertile soils are found on the alluvial plains of the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers. These deep vertisols are covered in black soils derived from decomposed lava rocks that are commonly called “black cotton soils” (because cotton often is grown in them). These soils have a high water-retention capacity and are mainly used for irrigation agriculture.
Somalia lies astride the Equator, but unlike typical climates at this latitude, conditions in Somalia range from arid in the northeastern and central regions to semiarid in the northwest and south. The climatic year comprises four seasons. The gu, or main rainy season, lasts from April to June; the second rainy season, called the dayr, extends from October to December. Each is followed by a dry season—the main one (jilaal) from December to March and the second one (xagaa) from June to September. During the second dry season, showers fall in the coastal zone.
Long-term mean annual rainfall is less than 4 inches (100 mm) in the northeast and about 8 to 12 inches (200 to 300 mm) in the central plateaus. The southwest and northwest receive an average of 20 to 24 inches (500 to 600 mm) a year. While the coastal areas experience hot, humid, and unpleasant weather year-round, the interior is dry and hot. Somalia has some of the highest mean annual temperatures in the world. At Berbera, on the northern coast, the afternoon high averages more than 100 °F (38 °C) from June through September. Temperature maxima are even higher inland, but along the coast of the Indian Ocean temperatures are considerably lower because of a cold offshore current. The average afternoon high at Mogadishu, for example, ranges from the low 80s F (mid- to upper 20s C) in July to the low 90s F (low 30s C) in April.
Plant and animal life
In accordance with rainfall distribution, southern and northwestern Somalia have a relatively dense thornbush savanna, with various succulents and species of acacia. By contrast, the high plateaus of northern Somalia have wide, grassy plains, with mainly low formations of thorny shrubs and scattered grass tussocks in the remainder of the region. Northeastern Somalia and large parts of the northern coastal plain, on the other hand, are almost devoid of vegetation. Exceptions to this are the wadi areas and the moist zones of the northern coastal mountains, where the frankincense tree (Boswellia) grows. The myrrh tree (Commiphora) thrives in the border areas of southern and central Somalia.
Owing to inappropriate land use, the original vegetation cover, especially in northern Somalia, has been heavily degraded and in various places even entirely destroyed. This progressive destruction of plant life also has impaired animal habitats and reduced forage, affecting not only Somalia’s greatest resource, its livestock (chiefly goats, sheep, camels, and cattle), but also the wildlife. There are still many species of wild animals throughout the country—especially in the far south: hyenas, foxes, leopards, lions, warthogs, ostriches, small antelopes, and a large variety of birds. Unfortunately, giraffes, zebras, oryx, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and, above all, elephants have been decimated (chiefly by ivory poachers). Measures to protect endangered species were taken with the creation of nature reserves and national parks, although those areas have been neglected since the collapse of the central government in 1991.
Ethnic groups In culture, language, and way of life, the people of Somalia, northeastern Kenya, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and the southern part of Djibouti are largely one homogeneous group. The Somali people make up the overwhelming majority of Somalia’s population. They are divided into numerous clans, which are groups that trace their common ancestry back to a single father. These clans, which in turn are subdivided into numerous subclans, combine at a higher level to form clan families. The clan families inhabiting the interfluvial area of southern Somalia are the Rahanwayn and the Digil, which together are known as the Sab. Mainly farmers and agropastoralists, the Sab include both original inhabitants and numerous Somali groups that have immigrated into this climatically favourable area. Other clan families are the Daarood of northeastern Somalia, the Ogaden, and the border region between Somalia and Kenya; the Hawiye, chiefly inhabiting the area on both sides of the middle Shabeelle and south-central Somalia; and the Isaaq, who live in the central and western parts of northern Somalia. In addition, there are the Dir, living in the northwestern corner of the country but also dispersed throughout southern Somalia, and the Tunni, occupying the stretch of coast between Marca and Kismaayo. Toward the Kenyan border the narrow coastal strip and offshore islands are inhabited by the Bagiunis, a Swahili fishing people.
Somalia: Ethnic composition
One economically significant minority is the several tens of thousands of Arabs, mainly of Yemenite origin. Another economically important minority is the Bantu population, which is mainly responsible for the profitable irrigation agriculture practiced on the lower and middle reaches of the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers. Many Bantu are the descendants of former slaves, and socially they are regarded as inferior by other groups in Somalia. The result is a strict social distinction between the “noble” Somali of nomadic descent and the Bantu groups. There is also a small Italian population in Somalia.
The Somali language belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Despite several regional dialects, it is understood throughout the country and is an official language. The second official language is Arabic, which is spoken chiefly in northern Somalia and in the coastal towns. Owing to Somalia’s colonial past, many people have a good command of English and Italian, which, in addition to Somali, are used at the country’s colleges and universities. Swahili also is spoken in the south. In 1973 Somalia adopted an official orthography based on the Latin alphabet. Until then, Somali had been an unwritten language.
Virtually all Somali belong to the Shāfiʿī rite of the Sunni sect of Islam. Various Muslim orders (ṭarīqa) are important, especially the Qādirīyah, the Aḥmadīyah, and the Ṣaliḥiyah.
About three-fifths of Somalia’s economy is based on agriculture; however, the main economic activity is not crop farming but livestock raising. Between 1969 and the early 1980s, Mohamed Siad Barre’s military government imposed a system of “Scientific Socialism,” which was characterized by the nationalization of banks, insurance firms, oil companies, and large industrial firms; the establishment of state-owned enterprises, farms, and trading companies; and the organizing of state-controlled cooperatives. In the end, this experiment weakened the Somalian economy considerably, and, since the collapse of the military regime, the economy has suffered even more as a result of civil war. In the early 21st century, the country remained one of the poorest in the world, and its main sources of income came from foreign aid, remittances, and the informal sector.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
By far the most important sector of the economy is agriculture, with livestock raising surpassing crop growing fourfold in value and earning about three-fifths of Somalia’s foreign exchange. Agriculture in Somalia can be divided into three subsectors. The first is nomadic pastoralism, which is practiced outside the cultivation areas. This sector, focused on raising goats, sheep, camels, and cattle, has become increasingly market-oriented. The second sector is the traditional, chiefly subsistence, agriculture practiced by small farmers. This traditional sector takes two forms: rain-fed farming in the south and northwest, which raises sorghum, often with considerable head of livestock; and small irrigated farms along the rivers, which produce corn (maize), sesame, cowpeas, and—near towns—vegetables and fruits. The third sector consists of market-oriented farming on medium- and large-scale irrigated plantations along the lower Jubba and Shabeelle rivers. There the major crops are bananas, sugarcane, rice, cotton, vegetables, grapefruit, mangoes, and papayas. The acacia species of the thorny savanna in southern Somalia supply good timber and are the major source of charcoal, but charcoal production has long exceeded ecologically acceptable limits. More efficient and careful handling of frankincense, myrrh, and other resin-exuding trees could increase yields of aromatic gums. The country’s small fishing sector revolves around the catch and canning of tunny (tuna) and mackerel in the north. Sharks are often caught and sold dried by artisanal inshore fishers. In southern Somalia choice fish and shellfish are processed for export. In the early 21st century, Somalia’s fishing industry was affected by climate change, overfishing, and increasing incidents of piracy along the coasts.
Resources and power
Somalia’s most valuable resources are its pastures, which cover most of the country. Somalia has few mineral resources—only some deposits of tin, phosphate, gypsum, guano, coal, iron ore, and uranium—and both quantity and quality are too low for mining to be worthwhile. However, the deposits of the clay mineral sepiolite, or meerschaum, in south-central Somalia are among the largest known reserves in the world. Reserves of natural gas have been found but have not been exploited. Sea salt is collected at several sites on the coast. The country’s few existing power stations—located at Mogadishu, Hargeysa (Hargeisa), and Kismaayo—are often out of order, resulting in frequent power cuts with adverse effects on factory production. (Rural areas have no power plants.) The construction of dams for hydroelectricity and irrigation on the Jubba River was stopped after the government collapse in 1991.
In the early 21st century, manufacturing did not account for a significant portion of economic activity. Many commodities necessary for daily life are produced by small workshops in the informal sector. Before 1991 Mogadishu was the chief industrial centre of Somalia, with bottling plants, factories producing spaghetti, cigarettes, matches, and boats, a petroleum refinery, a small tractor-assembly workshop, and small enterprises producing construction materials. In Kismaayo there were a meat-tinning factory, a tannery, and a modern fish factory. There were two sugar refineries, one near Jilib on the lower reach of the Jubba and one at Jawhar (Giohar) on the middle reach of the Shabeelle. However, even before the destruction caused by Somalia’s civil conflicts, the productivity of Somalian factories was very low. Often entire works did not operate at full capacity or produced nothing at all over long periods.
The three principal banks, which are nationalized, are the Central Bank of Somalia, the Commercial and Savings Bank of Somalia, and the Somali Development Bank, which mainly provides loans for development projects. After the collapse of the government in 1991, the formal banking sector’s functions were severely hindered. The country’s currency, the Somali shilling, has been depreciating for years. A shortage of hard currency in the 1990s led to an increase in counterfeit currency and the creation of regional currencies. A proliferation of newly printed currency in the early 2000s contributed to inflation. All these factors have greatly impeded the country’s economic development. The self-declared Republic of Somaliland issues its own currency, the Somaliland shilling.
Somalia has a large trade deficit. Its chief export commodities are livestock and bananas, which are mainly sent to Arab countries. Other exports include hides and skins, fish, and frankincense and myrrh. Almost everything is imported, even food for an urban population no longer accustomed to the traditional diet.
Besides the official market, there is also a flourishing informal market, by means of which tens of thousands of Somali workers in Arab countries provide commodities missing on the Somali market while avoiding the duties levied on imports. Since wages in Somalia are very low, almost every family is directly or indirectly involved in informal trading. Source: