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U.S. Department of State

Background Notes: Somalia, July 1998

Released by the Office of East African Affairs, Bureau of African Affairs.

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There is no recognized government in Somalia. Travel into and within Somalia is dangerous. The Department of State recommends that travelers not go to Somalia.

There are no international flights to and from Somalia. Somalia is 8 hours ahead of eastern standard time and does not observe daylight saving time.

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Official Name:
Somali Democratic Republic


Area: 637,660 sq. km.; slightly smaller than Texas.
Cities: Capital--Mogadishu. Other cities--Hargeisa, Kismayo, Bosasso, Baidoa.
Terrain: Mostly flat to undulating plateau rising to hills in the north.
Climate: Principally desert; December to February--northeast monsoon, moderate temperatures in north, and very hot in the south; May to October--southwest monsoon, torrid in the north, and hot in the south; irregular rainfall; hot and humid periods between monsoons.

Nationality: Noun--Somali(s). Adjective--Somali.
Population (July 1995 est.): 7,347,554.
Annual growth rate (1995 est): 15.58%.
Ethnic groups: 85% Somali, 15% Bantu and Arabs.
Religion: 99% Muslim.
Languages: Somali (official), Arabic, Italian, English.
Education: Literacy--total population that can read and write, 24%: male 36%; female 14%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--119.5 /1,000 live births. Life expectancy at birth--total population: 56 yrs.
Work force (2.2 million; very few are skilled workers): Pastoral nomad--70%. Agriculture, government, trading, fishing, handicrafts, and other--30%.

Type: None.
Independence: July 1, 1960 (from a merger of British Somaliland, which became independent from the UK in June 1960, and Italian Somaliland, which became independent from the Italian-administered UN trusteeship on July 1960 to form the Somali Republic).
Constitution: August 25, 1979, presidential approval September 23, 1979.
Branches: Executive--Somalia has had no functioning government since the United Somali Congress (USC) ousted the regime of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Said "Barre" on January 27, 1991. The present political situation is one of anarchy, marked by inter-clan fighting and random banditry, with some areas of peace and stability. Legislative--not functioning. Judicial--Supreme Court: not functioning.
Political party: None functioning. Legal system: none functioning.
Suffrage: None provided for.
Administrative subdivisions: 18 regions (plural--NA; singular--Gobolka). Awdal, Bakool, Banaadir, Bari, Bay, Galguduud, Gedo, Hiraan, Jubbada, Dhexe, Jubbada Hoose, Mudug, Nugaal, Sanaag, Shabeellaha Dhexe, Shabeellah Hoose, Sool, Togdheer, Woqooyi Galbeed.
Central government budget (1984): $380 million.
Defense (1983): 29% of government expenditures.
National holiday: None presently celebrated.
Flag: Five-pointed white star in azure field.

GNP (1985 at current prices): $1.8 billion.
Annual growth rate: N/A.
Per capita income: N/A.
Avg. inflation rate: N/A.
Natural resources: Undetermined quantities of various minerals, including petroleum.
Agriculture (55% of GDP at factor cost): Products--livestock, bananas, corn, sorghum, sugar. Arable land--13%, of which 1.2% is cultivated.
Industry (7% of GDP): Types--sugar, textiles, packaging, oil refining.
Trade (1985): Exports--$110 million: livestock, bananas, hides and skins. Major markets--Saudi Arabia, Italy, North Yemen. Imports--$470 million: food grains, animal and vegetable oils, petroleum products, transport equipment. Major suppliers--Italy, Saudi Arabia, U.S., France, U.K.
Aid disbursed (1985): $400 million. Primary donors--Italy, Saudi Arabia, IBRD, U.S.
U.S. aid--$110 million.


Somalis have a remarkably homogeneous culture and identity. As early as the seventh century A.D., indigenous Cushitic peoples began to mingle with Arab and Persian traders who had settled along the coast. Interaction over the centuries led to the emergence of a Somali culture bound by common traditions, a single language, and the Islamic faith.

Today, about 60% of all Somalis are nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists who raise cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. About 25% of the population are settled farmers who live mainly in the fertile agricultural zone between the Juba and Shebelle Rivers in southern Somalia.

Sizable ethnic groups in the country include some 35,000 Arabs, about 2,000 Italians, and 1,000 Indians and Pakistanis. Nearly all inhabitants speak the Somali language, which remained unwritten until October 1973, when the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) proclaimed it the nation's official language and decreed an orthography using Latin letters. Somali is now the language of instruction in all schools. Arabic, English, and Italian also are used extensively.


Somalia is located on the east coast of Africa north of the Equator and, with Ethiopia and Djibouti, is often referred to as the Horn of Africa. It comprises Italy's former Trust Territory of Somalia and the former British Protectorate of Somaliland. The coastline extends 2,720 kilometers (1,700 mi.).

The northern part of the country is hilly, and in many places the altitude ranges between 900 and 2,100 meters (3,000-7,000 ft.) above sea level. The central and southern areas are flat, with an average altitude of less than 180 meters (600 ft.). The Juba and the Shebelle Rivers rise in Ethiopia and flow south across the country toward the Indian Ocean. The Shebelle, however, does not reach the sea.

Major climatic factors are a year-round hot climate, seasonal monsoon winds, and irregular rainfall with recurring droughts. Mean daily maximum temperatures range from 30oC to 40oC (85o F-105oF), except at higher elevations and along the east coast. Mean daily minimums usually vary from about 15oC to 30oC (60oF-85oF). The southwest monsoon, a cool sea breeze, makes the period from about May to October the most pleasant season at Mogadishu. The December-February period of the northeast monsoon also is comfortable. The "angambili" periods that intervene between the two monsoons (October-November and March-May) are hot and humid.


Early history traces the development of the Somali people to an Arab sultanate, which was founded in the seventh century A.D. by Koreishite immigrants from Yemen. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese traders landed in present Somali territory and ruled several coastal towns. The sultan of Zanzibar subsequently took control of these towns and their surrounding territory.

Somalia's modern history began in the late l9th century, when various European powers began to trade and establish themselves in the area. The British East India Company's desire for unrestricted harbor facilities led to the conclusion of treaties with the sultan of Tajura as early as 1840. It was not until 1886, however, that the British gained control over northern Somalia through treaties with various Somali chiefs who were guaranteed British protection. British objectives centered on safeguarding trade links to the east and securing local sources of food and provisions. The boundary between Ethiopia and British Somaliland was established in 1897 through treaty negotiations between British negotiators and King Menelik.

During the first two decades of this century, British rule was challenged through persistent attacks led by the Islamic nationalist leader Mohamed Abdullah. A long series of intermittent engagements and truces ended in 1920 when British warplanes bombed Abdullah's stronghold at Taleex. Although Abdullah was defeated as much by rival Somali factions as by British forces, he was lauded as a popular hero and stands as a major figure of Somali national identity.

In 1885, Italy obtained commercial advantages in the area from the sultan of Zanzibar and in 1889 concluded agreements with the sultans of Obbia and Caluula, who placed their territories under Italy's protection. Between 1897 and 1908, Italy made agreements with the Ethiopians and the British that marked out the boundaries of Italian Somaliland. The Italian Government assumed direct administration, giving the territory colonial status.

Italian occupation gradually extended inland. In 1924, the Jubaland Province of Kenya, including the town and port of Kismayo, was ceded to Italy by the United Kingdom. The subjugation and occupation of the independent sultanates of Obbia and Mijertein, begun in 1925, were completed in 1927. In the late 1920s, Italian and Somali influence expanded into the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. Continuing incursions climaxed in 1935 when Italian forces launched an offensive that led to the capture of Addis Ababa and the Italian annexation of Ethiopia in 1936.

Following Italy's declaration of war on the United Kingdom in June 1940, Italian troops overran British Somaliland and drove out the British garrison. In 1941, British forces began operations against the Italian East African Empire and quickly brought the greater part of the Italian Somaliland under British control. From 1941 to 1950, while Somalia was under British military administration, transition toward self-government was begun through the establishment of local courts, planning committees, and the Protectorate Advisory Council. In 1948 Britain turned the Ogaden and neighboring Somali territories over to Ethiopia.

In Article 23 of the 1947 peace treaty, Italy renounced all rights and titles to Italian Somaliland. In accordance with treaty stipulations, on September 15, 1948, the Four Powers referred the question of disposal of former Italian colonies to the UN General Assembly. On November 21, 1949, the General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending that Italian Somaliland be placed under an international trusteeship system for 10 years, with Italy as the administering authority, followed by independence for Italian Somaliland. In 1959, at the request of the Somali Government, the UN General Assembly advanced the date of independence from December 2 to July 1, 1960.

Meanwhile, rapid progress toward self-government was being made in British Somaliland. Elections for the Legislative Assembly were held in February 1960, and one of the first acts of the new legislature was to request that the United Kingdom grant the area independence so that it could be united with Italian Somaliland when the latter became independent. The protectorate became independent on June 26, 1960; 5 days later, on July 1, it joined Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic.

In June 1961, Somalia adopted its first national constitution in a countrywide referendum, which provided for a democratic state with a parliamentary form of government based on European models. During the early post-independence period, political parties reflected clan loyalties and brought a basic split between the regional interests of the former British-controlled north and the Italian-controlled south. There also was substantial conflict between pro-Arab, pan-Somali militants intent on national unification with the Somali-inhabited territories in Ethiopia and Kenya and the "modernists," who wished to give priority to economic and social development and improving relations with other African countries. Gradually, the Somali Youth League, formed under British auspices in 1943, assumed a dominant position and succeeded in cutting across regional and clan loyalties. Under the leadership of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, prime minister from 1967 to 1969, Somalia greatly improved its relations with Kenya and Ethiopia. The process of party-based constitutional democracy came to an abrupt end, however, on October 21, 1969, when the army and police, led by Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad, seized power in a bloodless coup.

Following the coup, executive and legislative power was vested in the 20-member Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), headed by Maj. Gen. Siad as president. The SRC pursued a course of "scientific socialism" that reflected both ideological and economic dependence on the Soviet Union. The government instituted a national security service, centralized control over information, and initiated a number of grassroots development projects. Perhaps the most impressive success was a crash program that introduced an orthography for the Somali language and brought literacy to a large percentage of the population.

The SRC became increasingly radical in foreign affairs, and in 1974, Somalia and the Soviet Union concluded a treaty of friendship and cooperation. As early as 1972, tensions began increasing along the Somali-Ethiopian border. In the mid-1970s, the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) began guerrilla operations in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Fighting increased, and in July 1977, the Somali National Army (SNA) crossed into the Ogaden to support the insurgents. The SNA moved quickly toward Harer, Jijiga, and Dire Dawa, the principal cities of the region. Subsequently, the Soviet Union, Somalia's most important source of arms, embargoed weapons shipments to Somalia. The Soviets switched their full support to Ethiopia, with massive infusions of Soviet arms and 10,000-15,000 Cuban troops. In November 1977, President Siad expelled all Soviet advisers and abrogated the friendship agreement with the U.S.S.R. In March 1978, Somali forces retreated into Somalia; however, the WSLF continues to carry out sporadic but greatly reduced guerrilla activity in the Ogaden.

Following the 1977 Ogaden war, President Siad looked to the West for international support, military equipment, and economic aid. The United States and other Western countries traditionally were reluctant to provide arms because of the Somali Government's support for insurgency in Ethiopia. In 1978, the United States reopened the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Somalia. Two years later, an agreement was concluded that gave U.S. forces access to military facilities in Somalia. In the summer of 1982, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia along the central border, and the United States provided two emergency airlifts to help Somalia defend its territorial integrity.

From 1982 to 1990 the United States viewed Somalia as a partner in defense. Somali officers of the National Armed Forces were trained in U.S. military schools in civilian as well as military subjects. Within Somalia, Siad Barre's regime became increasingly a victim of insurgencies in the northeast and northwest, whose aim was to overthrow his government. By 1988, Siad Barre was openly at war with sectors of his nation. At the President's order, aircraft from the Somali National Air Force bombed the cities in the northwest province, attacking civilian as well as insurgent targets. The warfare in the northwest sped up the decay already evident elsewhere in the republic. Economic crisis, brought on by the cast of the anti-insurgency, caused further hardship as Siad Barre and his cronies looted the national treasury.

By 1990, little remained of the Somali Republic. The insurgency in the northwest was largely successful. The army dissolved into competing armed groups loyal to former commanders or to clan-tribal leaders. The economy was in shambles, and hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled their homes. In 1991, Siad Barre and forces loyal to him fled the capital; he died in exile in Nigeria. In 1992, responding to the political chaos and death in Somalia, the United States and other nations launched Operation Restore Hope. Led by the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), the operation was designed to create an environment in which assistance could be delivered to Somalis suffering from the effects of dual catastrophes--one man-made and one natural. UNITAF was followed by the United Nations Operation in Somalia. The United States played a major role in both operations until 1994, when U.S. forces withdrew after a pitched gun battle with Somali gunmen that left hundreds dead or wounded.


Somalia has no government at present. For administrative purposes, Somalia is divided into 15 regions, each governed by a Regional Revolutionary Council whose members are appointed by the president.

Principal Government Officials

Somalia has no government at present.

Other Ministers


Ambassador to the United States-- vacant
Ambassador to the UN-- vacant

The Somali Democratic Republic has no diplomatic representation in the United States or abroad.


In the wake of the collapse of the Somali Government, factions organized around military leaders took control of Somalia. The resulting chaos and loss of life promoted the international intervention led by the United States, UNITAF. That operation was followed by the United Nations Operations in Somalia, UNOSOM, which ended in 1994. Since that time, various groupings of Somali factions have sought to control the national territory and have fought small wars with one another. Hussein "Aideed", and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, leaders of such factions, both claimed executive power in a new "government" based in Mogadishu. Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, first President of Somalia, was selected by elders as President of "Somaliland" which is made up of the former northwest provinces of the republic. As many as 30 other factions vie for some degree of authority in the country.

Efforts at mediation of the Somali internal dispute have been undertaken by many regional states. Ethiopia has played host to several Somali peace conferences and initiated talks at the Ethiopian city of Sodere, which led to some degree of agreement between competing factions. The Governments of Egypt, Yemen, Kenya, and Italy also have attempted to bring the Somali factions together. In 1997, the Organization of African Unity and the Inter-Governmental Agency on Development gave Ethiopia the mandate to pursue Somali reconciliation.


Somalia lacks natural resources and faces major development challenges. Its economy is pastoral and agricultural, with livestock--principally camels, cattle, sheep, and goats--representing the main form of wealth. Because rainfall is scanty and irregular, farming generally is limited to certain coastal districts, areas near Hargeisa, and the Juba and Shebelle River valleys. The modern sector of the agricultural economy consists mainly of banana plantations located in the south, which use modern irrigation systems and up-to-date farm machinery.

A small fishing industry has begun in the north where tuna, shark, and other warm-water fish are caught. Aromatic woods--frankincense and myrrh--from a small forest area also contribute to the country's exports. Minerals, including petroleum, natural gas, and uranium, are found throughout the country, but none have been exploited commercially. Several oil companies are exploring for petroleum. With the help of foreign aid, small industries such as textiles, handicrafts, meat processing, and printing are being established.

There are no railways in Somalia; internal transportation is by truck and bus. The national road system comprises 14,400 kilometers (9,000 mi.) of roads that include about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 mi.) of all-weather roads.

Air transportation is provided by small air charter firms and craft used by drug smugglers. The UN and other NGOs operate air service for their missions.

The European Community and the World Bank jointly financed construction of a deepwater port at Mogadishu. The Soviet Union improved Somalia's deepwater port at Berbera in 1969. Facilities at Berbera were further improved by a U.S. military construction program completed in 1985. During the 1990s the United States renovated a deepwater port at Kismayo that serves the fertile Juba River basin and is vital to Somalia's banana export industry. Smaller ports are located at Merca, Brava, and Bossaso.

Radiotelephone service is available to Aden, Zanzibar, and Nairobi, as well as to Rome and London. The internal telecommunications system has broken down completely. Somalia is linked to the outside world via ship-to-shore communications (INMARSAT) and private telephone networks operating from other countries. Most cities and villages are not linked to Mogadishu or Hargeisa. Radio broadcasting stations operate at Mogadishu and at Hargeisa, with programs in Somali, English, Italian, Swahili, and Arabic.


Since independence, Somalia has followed a foreign policy of nonalignment. It has received major economic assistance from the United States, Italy, and the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as from the Soviet Union and China. The government has sought close ties with many Arab countries.

The status of expatriate Somalis is an important foreign and domestic issue. A goal of Somali nationalism is to unite the other Somali-inhabited territories with the republic consistent with the objectives of pan-Somali tradition. This issue has been a major cause of past crises between Somalia and its neighbors--Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti.

In 1963, Somalia severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom for a period following a dispute over Kenya's northeastern region (Northern Frontier District), an area inhabited mainly by Somalis. Somalia urged self-determination for the people of the area, while Kenya refused to consider any steps that might threaten its territorial integrity. Related problems have arisen from the boundary with Ethiopia and the large-scale migrations of Somali nomads between Ethiopia and Somalia. Since 1981, the Somali Government and Kenya have embarked on a rapprochement that brought an exchange of senior Kenyan and Somali officials in May 1983, and a visit to Mogadishu by Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in July 1984.

In the aftermath of the 1977-78 Somali-Ethiopian war, the Government of Somalia continued to call for self-determination for ethnic Somalis living in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. At the March 1983 Nonaligned Movement summit in New Delhi, President Siad stated that Somalia harbors no expansionist aims and is willing to negotiate with Ethiopia.

Since the fall of the Barre regime, Somali foreign policy has centered on winning international support for various plans for national reconciliation.


The Somali National Army was made up of the army, navy, air force, and air defense command. High-ranking army officials play a major role in Somalia's political affairs. The total strength of the army was about 50,000 personnel. Most Somali military equipment and weaponry are Soviet hardware delivered between 1972 and 1977. About 50% of that equipment was lost during the 1977 Ogaden war, and much of the remainder is rapidly deteriorating. In recent years the government has turned to Western countries in seeking new and modern weaponry for its military. Western military aid has centered on modest deliveries of defensive arms, training, and improved maintenance. The People's Republic of China, Egypt, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have provided most of Somalia's recent foreign military assistance. The Somali Government's demise led to the de facto dissolution of the national armed forces.


U.S. diplomatic relations with Somali were interrupted by the fall of the government and have not yet been re-established.

Principal U.S. Officials


The U.S. embassy has been closed since 1991. U.S. contacts with Somalia are maintained by U.S. embassy Nairobi, Kenya.


The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on immigration practices, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications program to N-8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the password is info (Note: Lower case is required). The CABB also carries international security information from the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-4000.

Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648)

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).

U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an emergency.

Further Electronic Information:

Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch, the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://1997-2001.state.gov.

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published annually by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.

National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.

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