The Horn's Mayday

By Leigh Barrett, Executive Editor, Perspective Publications

Photos by Anthony Karen -
To see more photographs from this feature, please see the print or digital issues, available through CreateSpace eStore, Amazon, or on the Purchase page.

The ancient city of Mogadishu has a profoundly rich history.  The original hunter-gatherer tribes mingled with agrarian tribes and formed an Arab aristocracy that ruled between the 10th and 16th centuries.  An exceptionally important trading empire, Mogadishu, as a Sultanate and then as the country known today as Somalia,  dominated the gold trade at the time, minted its own coin, and left an architectural legacy that earned the nickname, White Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Somali traders established a colony in Mozambique to mine gold found there, and developed regional trade that made it a trading empire. In 1871, the Sultan of Zanzibar opened the door to the Italians by leasing them Mogadishu’s port. After that, it rapidly became one of Italy’s colonies.

Under Italian rule from 1889 – 1936, the Italians bought the port in 1905, and made it the capital city.

Mussolini considered ‘Somaliland’ the crown jewel in the Italian colonial empire, and saw the strategic importance of its location in launching into Africa and the Second Italo-Abyssinian War from 1935 – 36. That resulted in Italy occupying poorly equipped Ethiopia, a move considered the peak of Mussolini’s popularity.

By the time the Second World War erupted, Italian Somaliland accommodated over 50,000 Italians with 20,000 living in Mogadishu, comprising around 40% of the city’s population.

All men and boys able to carry a spear go to Addis Ababa. Every married man will bring his wife to cook and wash for him. Every unmarried man will bring any unmarried woman he can find to cook and wash for him. Women with babies, the blind, and those too aged and infirm to carry a spear are excused. Anyone found at home after receiving this order will be hanged. - Selassie’s Mobilization Order

A series of treaties passed Somalia between Italian, British and United Nations rule until 1960, when the British-controlled British Somaliland, united with Italian-controlled Somaliland, to form an independent Republic.

As the colonials left Somalis to govern themselves, the generations of conflict had left their mark and when President Abdirashad Ali Shermarke was assassinated in 1969, followed by a military coup the day after his funeral, things rapidly went from bad to devastating.

The revolutionary army suspended the constitution, banned political parties, dissolved Parliament, and started a nationalization program to try and restore Somalia’s importance in the Arab world, while their paranoia grew into oppressive actions which saw the execution of many opponents to the regime. As the government became more unpopular and discontent grew, various resistance movements sprang up, and civil war was inevitable.

The United Nations stepped in to try and stabilize the situation, placing peacekeepers in the country in 1992 and forming UNOSOM to secure humanitarian efforts. The UN involvement was seen as a slight to the government’s independence, and various violent battles between government forces and UN peacekeepers ensued, including the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which resulted in peacekeepers being withdrawn completely.

From 2000 to 2004, the internationally recognized government of Somalia was the Transitional National Government, which in 2004 was replaced by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG re-established Somalia’s military, and in 2006, after Sharia Law was instituted by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) a group that had taken control of most of the southern part of the country, drove the fundamentalists out of Mogadishu

This pivotal move meant the federal government controlled the capital and most of the country for the first time since 1991.

The ICU, splintering into various smaller groups of varying strength, dissolved, but the most radical element, Al-Shabaab continued the fight, with bloody battles forcing the Ethiopians and UNto leave, and only the ill-equipped African Union troops remaining to protect the Somalis.

A conference in 2008 saw the beginning of the long journey to peace, brokered by the UN. Parliament expanded to accommodate some of the rebel groups, and a new offensive to take control of the southern half of the country was launched with the assistance of the African Union. But, while the splinter groups from the ICU were happy to join the government, Al-Shabaab resisted all efforts and continue to deploy traditional terrorism tactics (“hit-and-run”) to keep pecking away at the young peace of the country.  Mogadishu now has a plan to reconstruct itself, creating new housing and infrastructure and stabilizing the country economically, despite Al-Shabaab’s best efforts to disrupt their chances.


Mid-August saw Somali forces, assisted by US-led advisers, attacked an Al-Shabaab group in southern Somalia killing several members. Al-Shabaab raise funds by operating checkpoints where they “tax” residents and merchants moving through the area.

In March 2016, a group of males, ranging in age from 13 years to old men, were captured by government forces. The youngest boys explained that they had been promised an education if they fought for the militants.

Faced with grinding poverty, groups like Al-Shabaab prey on children as young as 10, using their desperation to create a better life for themselves and their families as a recruitment tool. Militants also force parents to give up their children, and many families live in fear once their sons reach fighting age. The very places families send their children to be educated – schools at local mosques – have become target-rich recruitment zones for Al-Shabaab.  Under Somali law, as well as international laws and conventions, enlisting child soldiers is a war crime.