A Brief History of Somalia

Somalia is located in the eastern-most tip of the African continent: the 'horn' of the Horn of Africa. To the outside world, Somalia is known as a land of war, famine, drought, and most recently, terrorism.


In 1991, the Somalis’ state violently collapsed. This catastrophic event was the end of a thirty year, post-independence period of a ‘European-style’ state centred around Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Since then, as the Somalis struggled to rebuild, Somalia gained the dubious distinction of being the most failed of all the world’s failed states. Many people blamed the state’s continued failure for the escalation of Somali piracy in 2008.

However, for more than a thousand years, the structure of Somali society contrasted starkly to the Europeans’ top-down, hierarchical model. This remains fundamental to the Somalis' difficulty in rebuilding their state and is integral to understanding why Somali piracy occurred.

With a handful of exceptions, the historical Somali political system had no sovereigns or chiefs, no formal judiciary and no administrative hierarchy of officials. Unlike in European society, all adult men were elders, with varying levels of authority connected to wealth and religious status. This societal structure centred on membership of one of six clan-families, sub-divided into at least fifty major sub-clans and even more lineages.


Even today, as Somali leaders attempt to rebuild a centralised state, the complex structure and relationships of the Somali clans remains at the heart of Somali society.

Somali clan families and sub-clans with approximations of territorial areas

Somali clans.jpg

Pre-colonial Somalia

The Somalis have a long and proud history of occupation of the Horn of Africa. Historically, most Somalis were semi-nomadic herders living in an arid environment, with a shared faith of Islam and a common language. This lifestyle combined with the role of the clans to create what prominent British scholar Ioan Lewis called ‘a pastoral democracy’.

Unfortunately, like many African peoples, there is very little historical evidence of pre-colonial Somali life. The Somalis are renowned as storytellers and poets, but the absence of any written language means historians continue to struggle to understand pre-colonial Somali experiences and events. Most of what non-Somalis know about pre-colonial Somalia is based on European evidence of their encounters with them.

From a European perspective, the Somalis were considered ‘a fierce and turbulent race of republicans’ and ‘no good [because] every man his own chief’, living in a society where ‘central political authority meant nothing.’ Aside from these more scathing generalisations, the British also described the Somalis as the ‘Irish of Africa’: inveterate extroverts, religiously devout with notoriously unpredictable but attractive personalities, and prone to fierce resistance to any foreigner who tried to rule them.

Central to all these foreigners' assumptions about them lay the significance of how the Somalis rejected centralised authority in favour of  democracy.


They had this in common with pirates.

Somali clans


As a whole, pre-colonial Somalis tended to eschew foreign diplomatic engagement. This is fortunate for the British, because the complex Somali clan system and its connection to space baffled them. As the British War Office noted in 1907, ‘they are distinct tribes and there is no cohesion amongst them, except the Habr tribes [the Isaaq].’ They ‘rarely act in unison, unless threatened by a common danger [and] the scarcity of water makes the possession of wells a frequent cause of dispute.’


The British observed that the democracy within the clans gave way to a lack of unity and cooperation between the clans. 

However, despite European perceptions of xenophobia, certain Somali clans did engage with foreigners prior to colonisation. Relationships formed along geographic opportunity and religious affiliation. The far-northwestern Dir took advantage of the close proximity of the Arabian Peninsula to build economic dependence on the sea and relationships with Arab communities. Commercial imports of rice, dates and cotton and exports of aromatic gum resins and livestock established the Dir as accomplished international traders.

The Isaaq tended to dominate the Somalis’ livestock trade and took advantage of this international trade opportunity through the ancient port of Berbera. Stereotyped as resourceful and energetic by the British, the Isaaq’s sub-clans recognised the advantages of cooperation with the British and became distinguished from other clans by jobs, skills and opportunities that benefited them financially. By the 19th century, British imperial control at Aden had skewed Isaaq trade and migration patterns towards Europe, enabling the Isaaq sub-clans to build interpreting skills and to become the first Somalis to live abroad. Through their association with the British, the Isaaq eventually became enmeshed in the international system in far greater numbers than their southern neighbours.

The Darod family of clans, including the Majeerteen and Warsangeli, occupied the entire Horn of Africa, characterised by arid sandy beach and coastal scrub. This clan proved far more hostile to European engagement. Writing in 1844, British sea captain Lieutenant Cruttenden described the occupants of a far eastern Darod town as ‘duplicitous’ and ‘intolerant (from ignorance), avaricious to excess and leading a life of utter indolence’. According to Cruttenden, the Darod disliked the self-confidence and commercial success of the Isaaq, harbouring suspicion and jealousy of their motivations. Their relationship with the Isaaq and the lineages of the dominant Majeerteen sub-clan formed only one of a myriad of complex and contentious clan relationships.