Sunday, August 12, 2012

Italian Somaliland - A History

Prior to the era of Italian administration, Somalia did not exist as a single country. The region was divided between numerous small sultanates who had recognized various distant overlords throughout history such as the Ottoman Sultan. By the time Italy began to take a serious interest in the region much of it was under the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar who had extensive holdings down the east African coast. Italians had explored the area of the Somali coast and a few had moved there over the years. In 1879 Italians in Somalia formed the “African Society of Italy” with private support from the home country. Italian involvement began with an alliance with the Sultan Kenadid of Hobyo, one of the major Somali local rulers. In 1888 he signed a treaty which made his domain a protectorate of the Kingdom of Italy. This gave him an advantage and other chieftains were anxious to keep up. In 1889 the Sultan of Majeerteen signed a protectorate treaty as well. Both used their special friendship with Italy to press their long-standing conflicts with the Sultan of Zanzibar and each other. The Italian government was mostly interested in the ports and guarding the sea lanes through the Gulf of Aden to the Suez Canal and not terribly concerned with the inland areas.

The Ethiopian victory in 1895 confined Italian influence to Eritrea on the north coast of the Horn of Africa and this prompted Rome to look to other areas for immigration and development. Somalia was one of those areas. Land was purchased from the Sultan of Zanzibar and Italians were encouraged to settle there. Private companies held a tenuous hold on the area until the government in Rome began taking charge of administering the area. On April 5, 1908 a law was passed which formally united the region into the single colony of “Somalia Italiana”. Trade was established, agriculture where possible, local industries and conservation. The infrastructure began to be built up but the Italian influence remained limited to the coast due to the growing power of a renegade Muslim leader named Muhammad Abdullah Hassan. Better known as the “Mad Mullah” he was neither mad nor a mullah, simply a poet who inspired a following with ambitions to become the master of the entire region. When World War I broke out, the “Mad Mullah” saw his chance for a great victory.

Using weapons smuggled by the Turks from the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, and in cooperation with the Emperor of Abyssinia who had converted to Islam, the “Mad Mullah” began waging a war of conquest to drive out the Europeans and their Allies and take control of the whole of Somalia. Fighting broke out in 1914 before Italy entered World War I but escalated rapidly in 1915. In 1916 Turkey, Ethiopia and the “Mad Mullah” came together in an alliance against the Italians, French and British and Italy was forced to send reinforcements to the colonial corps in East Africa to deal with this problem. Not long after the Muslim Emperor of Abyssinia was deposed but civil war continued to rage in Abyssinia with those siding with the former Emperor still allied with the Somali rebels. In February of 1917 the rebels attacked Sultan Uthman of Obbia who was an Italian ally, however, they were ultimately defeated and in the summer the Sultan of Obbia launched his own attack against the “Mad Mullah”. British forces cooperated in the campaign against the “Mad Mullah” (who was just as opposed to their presence as he was the Italians) but when the Sultan of Hobyo refused the British permission to move through his territory Italy intervened to have him deposed and exiled. By the end of the war the Anglo-Italian forces (which included many indigenous troops) succeeded in suppressing the rebel forces and restoring peace to the region.

Duke of the Abruzzi in Mogadishu
Italian Somalia was further developed after the war with Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi founding the Societa Agricola Italo-Somala to explore the country and study the prospects for agricultural development there. In 1923, a year after the “March on Rome” Fascism came to Italian Somalia with the appointment of Cesare Maria De Vecchi di Val Cismon as governor. He enacted a campaign of development and regimentation as well as subduing the last rebel holdouts in the south which was fully pacified by 1926 in no small part thanks to the Dubats, the indigenous Somalis fighting in the employ of Italy. Over the next decade more Italians moved to Mogadishu and the Somali tribes were catalogued and organized. Trade was built up, local industries were established, agriculture became a major part of the economy and new roads and railroads were built. Many Somalis were also enlisted in the colonial units of the Italian army and these, along with the armies of the local sultans, played a significant part in the southern front of the second war with Abyssinia. Following the successful conclusion of that war seven months later, Italian Somalia was developed even further as road and rail links were established all across Italian East Africa from Eritrea, through Ethiopia to Somalia.

The rule of Italy over Somalia was careful to respect existing native institutions. Friendly rulers maintained their traditional positions, the clan structure of native society was kept in place and Islam remained upheld as the dominant religion of the colony. Some Somali warriors earned great fame during this period and a unit served as the escort of the Italian Viceroy of East Africa. The Sultan of Olol Dinle, for example, led his Somali troops in several victories on the southern front in the war in Ethiopia. During World War II they were among the last Italian forces still holding out in Ethiopia against the Allied invasion and put up such a heroic fight against impossible odds that when finally forced to surrender the British received them with full military honors. They had earlier participated in the conquest of British Somaliland which was particularly important to them as it was the first time that all the Somali tribes became united under one flag. Of course, the war brought the end of the colonial period but in terms of the local economy and the standard of living of both the Somalis and the Italian settlers, Somalia under Italian rule had been one of the most advanced and successful parts of Africa.

Princess Maria in Mogadishu
At the end of the war, King Umberto II, like his father, had hoped that Italy would be able to retain those colonies, like Somalia, which she had gained prior to the Fascist era but the Allies would not allow this. Britain controlled the region until 1949 after which time Somalia became a United Nations Trust Territory, administered by Italy which had the most experience in the region from 1950 to 1960. In 1960 the country was united with the former British Somaliland to create the country which exists today. During the last period of Italian administration, Somalia continued to make rapid progress thanks to Italian supervision and the large amounts of money given to the region by the United Nations. The University of Rome set up schools in Mogadishu to prepare the people for independence by offering classes in economics, law and social studies. Even in the first couple of years after independence, Italian remained an official language in Somalia.

Unfortunately, since becoming totally independent as the Somali Republic in 1960 the condition of Somalia has deteriorated rapidly. Within a decade a brutal communist dictatorship seized power, erecting the “Somali Democratic Republic” which held power until 1991 when it was toppled in the Somali Civil War. The Italian Republic dispatched troops to try to keep the peace but the effort was minimal and the country has all but fallen apart completely. No government or faction has held control over the whole of Somalia since 1991 and the country has fractured with warlords fighting each other for power and position while the people starve, are murdered or forced into rival tribal gangs. In more recent years Somalia has also become known as a nest of piracy and a place of complete anarchy and chaos. Attempts by the international community to intervene have met with little to no success and, after such a promising start at development and modernization during the colonial period, since independence Somalia has become the classic definition of an utterly failed state.

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