issue 161 - July 1986
GHETTO-BLASTERS belt out the latest sounds above the noisy chatter of young men in the cafés of the country's capital, Mogadishu. Other Western trappings - pasta, capuccino coffee - bear witness to past colonialism. Arab influence is even older. Mogadishu has over 100 mosques, and dhows still grace the shoreline, but today they bear cassettes in place of spices.
During the 'scramble for Africa' in the 1890s Somalia was carved up between the British, the French and the Italians. The Ogaden region was colonized by Ethiopia.
Independence came in 1960. But the new Somali Republic's democracy did not survive long. Tribal upheavals led to an army take-over under Major-General Siyad Barre in 1969. Following a line of Soviet-style socialism, Bane's government received Russia's military and economic aid. Somalia's strategic position on the Horn of Africa has always attracted countries keen to gain a foothold in Africa.
The new regime introduced some changes: a script for the previously unwritten Somali language. This script enhanced the national sense of identity and encouraged literacy. A Family Law was passed allowing women to sue for divorce, something unheard of before in Somalia's traditional Islamic society.
The severe drought of 1974 - 75 tested the government. It responded well, instituting a bold programme of settlement for nomads made destitute by the loss of their herds.
But in 1977 things changed: Somalia and Ethiopia went to war over the Ogaden region. Russia switched sides during the war, and in time the Somali forces withdrew in defeat.
The post-war years have been troubled. Barre survived a coup attempt, but Ethiopian-backed opposition groups goad the regime into repression. Clans fight each other. Barre has turned to the US for support, and American advisors can be seen in downtown Mogadishu. The government's commitment to socialism has been reduced to rhetoric.
But recent reconciliatory talks between Barre and the Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam could mean Ethiopia will withdraw support from Somali opposition groups, allowing Bane to relax repression and concentrate on building up the country.
The economy rests on livestock and a few cash crops. Somalia is far from self-sufficient in food, although there are plans to grow more and to develop fisheries.
Churchill once referred to Somalia as 'the Irish of Africa' and Somalis describe themselves this way to foreigners, relishing their national heritage of unruly independence.
Colonized and fought over, they were never really subdued. Somalis always regarded the colonizers' presence as fleeting and borrowed little from their culture except what seemed useful - like pasta or ghetto-blasters.
Leader: Major-General Mohamed Siyad Barre, President
Economy: GNP per capita $250 (USA $11,490)
People: 5 million (1983) (USA 234 million)
Health: Infant mortality (under 1 year old) 166 per 1,000 live births (USA 11 per 1,000) Percentage of population with access to drinking water: 60% (urban) 20% (rural)
Culture: Somali, pastoral-nomadic, with tradition of poetry and song. Strong Islamic influence.
Source: World Bank Report 1988; State of the World's Children 1986
Left in rhetoric, confused in practice. Strong American influence since 1978.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7