Colonial Somalia

As the previous section showed, the top-down, centralised model of state control and authority developing in Europe in the mid-19th century was the antithesis of traditional Somali society and culture. Nevertheless, this model arrived in 1884, in the form of British, French, and Italian protectorates. These protectorates formally divided the Somalis across their traditional lands for the first time. The Ethiopians agitated to forestall European occupation of the Somali coast by eventually claiming the Haud grazing grounds occupied by western Somali clans. This became the disputed Ogaden region.

The traditional radiation of authority upward had always created a very flexible political system within Somali culture, but the arrival of European colonists meant the Somalis did not have the stability and durability needed to confront this well-armed centralised power. However, from the outset, Europeans struggled to override the significance of the Somalis’ true authority: the clans.

The British

From 1884, the British Government, prompted by the need to defend its strategic interests in the Red Sea against the French, entered into protection treaties with all the ‘tribes’ of the north-eastern Somali coast, except the Dhulbahante. Supplementary agreements with the Isaaq sub-clans in 1886 created British Somaliland.


The protectorate had an estimated population of around 315,000 people; comprising sections of the Dir clan (including the Issa and Gadabuursi), the Isaaq sub-clans Habar Awal, Habar Garhajis, and Habar Tolje’lo, and the Warsangeli sub-clan of the Darod. It established the first formal territorial boundaries around multiple Somali clans.

The British seemed to show some level of sensitivity to inter-clan dynamics; while the wealthy Isaaq and the Dir had some trade rivalry, the Warsangelis’ territorial location had already established them as a ‘buffer’ between the north-western traders and the dominant Darod clan of the north-east, the Majeerteen. The Isaaq emerged as the dominant clan in the protectorate.

The British considered their protectorate the ‘butcher shop of Aden’ and invested little in its development beyond exporting Somali livestock to their outpost in Aden. They chose instead to focus their energies in East Africa towards British East Africa.

Map of Colonial Somalia with prominent geographical features

Somali protectorates.jpg

The French

Meanwhile, the French claimed the lands surrounding the Gulf of Tajura inhabited by the Iise ethnic Somalis and Afar tribesmen and created French Somaliland. They intended to acquire intermediary status in the considerable trade between the Ethiopian hinterlands and the Mediterranean. The French successfully diverted the coffee trade from British-occupied Zaila (now Saylac) and forged strong commercial ties between ethnic Somalis and Ethiopia that saw their tiny protectorate prosper, to the economic benefit of all.

This area would later become modern day Djibouti and Somalis occupying it would resist efforts to merge with Somalia.

The Italians

The Italians did not have a clear administrative agenda for colonial expansion beyond the acquisition of territories to add prestige to the newly united Italian state. Fearful of being marginalised by the land acquisitions of larger European states, the Italians claimed the north-eastern lands of the Darod and the central areas near the Ethiopian border occupied by the Marehan, Bon Marehan and Awlyahan sub-clans around Lugh to create Italian Somaliland. In contrast to the British, the Italians in southern Somalia followed a program of land colonisation.

The Darod lands contained one of the Somalis’ only centralised power structures, known as the Majeerteen Sultanate. The Darod Sultans Yusuf Ali and Mahamuud were in-law relations, but they were bitter enemies. Both saw Italian protection as a useful way of obtaining weapons and financial reimbursement. In a few short years, both saw the decline of their prestige and authority, until the Majeerteen Sultanate became subsumed into Italian Somaliland.


The Majeerteen would later play a significant role in Somali piracy.

Resistance to colonial rule: Mohammed Abdullah Hassan


The division of Somalis, frustrations with Ethiopian incursion, and the authoritarian rule of the British and Italians led to the rise of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, an Ogaden/Darod clansman who used his personal interpretation of Islam to unite Somalis across clan lineages. From 1900, Hassan spent 20 years waging a fierce jihad against British imperial rule in Somaliland that killed a third of the population.

The Mullah’s stronghold at Tale.

Built in 1913, it was destroyed by the British in 1920.

Taken from E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Ex-Italian Somaliland.  London, UK: Watts & Co, 1951


The British dubbed Hassan the ‘Mad Mullah’ and his jihad expanded to Italian and Ethiopian occupiers as well as those Somalis who did not respond to his religious enthusiasm. While his Bah Geri/Ogaden sub-clan supported him, most of the Isaaq of British Somaliland ideologically opposed Hassan, with only sections of the Habar Yonis, Habar Tolje’lo and the Dhulbahante actively supporting him in British territory.


The Warsangeli held no sympathy for his movement but assisted him by selling arms for commercial profit. They later fought against him. The Marehan sub-clans of the western region, under Yusuf Ali’s sultanate domain, suffered heavily from Hassan’s raids and had no alternative but to join him. Hassan’s agitations ultimately saw him assigned Nugal territory (located between Hobyo and Majeerteen land) by the Italians. This gave him political recognition and significant prestige among all Somalis.

Colonial Life for Somalis: forming a national identity

From 1930 to 1940, Italian infrastructure investment in Mogadishu caused increasing urbanisation. Discharged Somali soldiers, fresh from Italian campaigns in Ethiopia, doubled the population. The benefits of education helped Somalis gain employment in international ports and low-level civil service. The development of the first indigenous and sophisticated alphabet and script for the Somali language helped create a Somali national consciousness.


In the north, Hassan’s struggle for freedom inspired small groups of local merchants and traders to organise political associations to promote education and overcome traditional rivalries that divided Somali society. Organised nationalist parties, such as the Somali Youth League, National United Front and Somali National League gained traction. Despite his incursions against them, the Somalis eventually came to view Mohammed Abdullah Hassan as a unifying symbol of revolt; the embodiment of the Somali’s nomadic concept of freedom and liberty, and of their distrust for the non-Somali.

For emerging Somali leaders, the unity of all Somalis, including those in French Somaliland, northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia (known as the Pan-Somali Movement) across all clans was considered the only way Somalis could unite to defeat the stronger colonial powers.

The Mullah's memorial in Mogadishu

Taken from Ray Beachey, The Warrior Mullah: The Horn Aflame 1892-1920 (London, UK: Bellew Publishing, 1990).

It was destroyed during the Somali civil war in 1991