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Colonialism & Characteristics of the Southern Resistance

The Anglo-Italian agreements of 1891 gave Italy the triangle of land known as the Horn of Africa as her ‘sphere of influence’. Afterwards, Italy proceeded to construct shaky colonial edifice of her own in this part of Africa. Until the outbreak of the First World War, Italy was unable to consolidate her control over these territories. All attempts, both military and political, were in vain due to active resistance from the inter-riverine people of southern Somalia. It is out of the scope of this article to discuss the details of this resistance; however, a brief sketch will be helpful. In the late 19th century, the inter-riverine region was the centre of religious ferment and economic resistance against European colonization. The so-called Gosha Revolt (1890-1907), led by Nassib Buunto, emerged from the struggle against slavery. Nassib Buunto recruited the bulk of his fighters from the freed slaves who deserted their Italian landlords and Somali ‘Abans’ (overseers). He established a centre named after him in the Gosha region. The centre offered the escaped slaves not only refuge and freedom, but also a better way of life by developing communal ways of farming and cattle herding, training in new handicraft skills, new techniques for building houses and for manufacturing tools and weapons. It was the free men of this centre who fought against the Italians, delaying their penetration into the fertile hinterlands of the inter-riverine region for decades.

Another focal point of resistance was the Banadir. The Banadirians of the interior were concerned that the occupation of the port by foreigners would mean the diversion of the external trade from their control. The Banadir ports played a significant role in the region’s external and internal trade. They supplied the hinterland with imported commodities as well as providing markets for livestock and major local products. Moreover, it was in these coastal towns that cottage industries like weaving and knitting the Banadiri cloth, the manufacture of utensils and tools flourished, and trader communities were established. It was essential to defend such economic resources, and the Banadir revolt (1888-1910), though religious in origin, was motivated by economic factors. The Banadirians blockaded the Italians on the coast for more than two decades, from 1888-1910.

In October 1923, De Vecchi di Val Cismon became the first fascist Governor of Somalia marking a change in Italian strategy in the Horn of Africa. De Vecchi set out to exterminate all who opposed his government’s desire for total control over what fascist propaganda called ‘La Grande Somalia’. However, the Somalis were heavily armed and led by men who had been given advanced training during the preparation for the First World War. An estimated 16,000 rifles were in Somali hands. The Governor’s first task, therefore, was to order the confiscation of arms and ammunition from the Somalis, particularly from the clans in the inter-riverine region.

The Barsane revolt

In March 1924, Sheikh Hassan Barsane, of the Gugundhabe and a leader of the Shabelle valley movement known as the Barsane Revolt, convoked a Shir (meeting of elders) where the participants, inflamed with millenarian zeal, denounced the Governor’s order. On behalf of the Shir, Barsane wrote the following to the Governor:

In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful … I have received your letter and understood its contents, but must advise that we cannot obey your orders and join with you in a covenant . . . Your government has its laws, and we have ours. We accept no law other than ours. Our law is the law of Allah and his Prophet . . . We are not like other people, none of us has ever enrolled in the Zaptie (colonial forces), never! … and if you come to our land to fight against us, we will fight you with all possible means … The world is very close to its end, only 58 years remain. We don’t want to stay in this world. It is better to die while defending our laws.

After some initial success, the Somali resistance crumbled when Barsane was captured by the Italians on 4 April.

De Vecchi’s problems were not over. Further resistance emerged from the Jama’oyin religious settlements which had sprung up in the 19th century in the same region. In 1923, Sufi Baraki united several Jama’a settlements: Buulo Mareerto, Golwiing, Muki Dumis and others scattered in the Lower Shabelle region, and set up his headquarters in Barawa, the birthplace of Sheikh Aways Qadir, the founder of the movement. The major goal of this movement was to propagate the teaching of its founder. The tours of Sufi Baraki to the villages, where he often made provocative speeches, aroused Italian suspicion, and the fascist authorities warned him several times to give up what they called ‘these unhealthy activities’. Sufi Baraki was forced to leave Barawa for the extreme north of the Upper Jubba region, where a strong religious movement had emerged led by Sharif Alyow al-Sarmani. Sufi Baraki learned many things there, which he later taught to the Lower Shabelle militants. These included plans to fight against tribalism; to bring harmony among the Ikhwan (Muslim) brotherhood; to fight salaried tribal chiefs who were considered agents of the colonial administration; to establish settlements for the protection of the Ikhwan from Italian raids, and to promote learning and training.

Sufi Baraki returned to the Lower Shabelle and established a village called ‘Dai Dai’, later known as ‘Jama’a Dai Dai’, located in the heart of the Jidu territory. Eventually, the movement gained the support of Sharif Alyow al-Sarmani, who established his own village at Qorile, later known as Buulo Ashraf, not far from Dai Dai. A partial merging of the two groups occurred, making the Lower Shabelle movement more powerful. Delegations were despatched across the inter-riverine region to obtain support. They contacted Sheikh Murjan, a prominent Qadiri holy man in the Lower Jubba. The Italian authorities felt endangered, and as a preemptive measure, the Governor ordered the Barawa District Commissioner to negotiate with the leaders of the movement in a peaceful way. This was not fruitful, and a Zaptie commando was sent against Sufi Baraki and his allies. On 20 October 1924, Zaptie forces besieged Dai Dai Camp; the Ikhwan defended their village and forced the Zaptie to retreat to Barawa leaving behind some of their dead and injured. Sufi Baraki considered the event a miracle, and proclaimed a Jihad against the fascist administration. Early in November 1924, the Italians sent well-armed detachments to attack the strongholds of the movement; many centres were attacked, and the Ikhwan fought bravely with arrows and swords.

Characteristics of the Southern Resistance

In dealing with Somali resistance to colonialism, much scholarly attention has been given to the northern Somalia, particularly the rebellion led by Ina ‘Abdulle Hassan, known as ‘the Dervish Movement’.  Southern Somali resistance is not often discussed in Somali scholarship.

Somalia’s historiography became obsessed with a mythic monolithic culture, diverting scholars from examining other important themes of Somalia’s past. Current scholarship is pointing out the significance of anti-colonial resistance in the inter-riverine region. The list of scholars includes Lee Cassanelli, Virginia Luling, Bernhard Helander, Herbert Lewis and those who contributed to All Jimale’s recently edited volume, The Invention of Somalia.

Inter-riverine society was more diversified than its northern counterpart. At the advent of colonialism, it was divided not only along clan lines, but also on the basis of Sufi order affiliation. Moreover, the region had absorbed people from neighbouring regions; Arabs, Oromos and Bantu among them. One wonders how such a complex society could raise serious resistance against colonialism. Nevertheless, the region produced movements that transcended particular clan interests and fought for the protection of broader regional political and economic interests.

The struggle continued throughout the years. Rebellions against the Italian colonialists erupted, depending on the evolution of Somalia as a nation. In the mid-19th century, Cheif Hassan Gedii Abtow, heading the three Mataan Abdulle of the Abgaal tribe, was asked to take a census on his tribe and later to report the results to the Italian ruler in Mogadishu. When the time came for him to report, Chief Hassan brought with him three bags (about 50kg each) of Wambo seeds and told the Italian governor; “this is the census of the Mataan tribe as i asked each and every one of them to put one Wambo seed into the sack”. This was an act of resistance to the Italian occupation. There were many examples of resistance to the domination of the riverine and inter-riverine region such as those of Nasiib Buunde, Abdullahi Isse, and others. Women were also part of this resistance. Several of the most notable were; Hassanai Owbakar (Hassanay Bandiiro), Gura Bilaal, Fay Jeelle and Timiro Ukaash (Cuqaash).

Because the regional economy was integrated, threats to any one sector affected the others. The early Italian blockade of the Banadir ports was a threat not only to particular clans or traders, but threatened to damage the sophisticated network linking the hinterland with the coast.  The caravan routes started to fade, and the value of goods dropped sharply. The oral tradition of the time records the inflation caused by the blockade. Indeed, inflation triggered the resistance that involved numerous clans of the coast, such as the Biyamals, the Tunnis, the Gheledis, the Wa’dans, the Abgals, the Shikhals and others. A coalition of these clans prevented the Italian penetration to the hinterland of the inter-riverine region for over two decades (1886-1908).

The Ethiopians

Even before the Italians began to take steps to assert control over their new possessions, another well-armed power was threatening Somali society from the west. Ethiopian King Menilek, having consolidated his power in the Shewa highlands, began to seek out livestock and manpower in the lowlands to the southeast. When Egyptian forces abandoned the Islamic city of Harar in 1885, Menilek moved in. In January 1887, he personally led an army against the forces of the Harari emir Abdullahi and defeated them on the plains outside the walled town. Thus even before Menilek was crowned emperor of Ethiopia (in 1889), Harar had become a symbol of Ethiopian expansion into the Somali Peninsula.

Using Harar as a base, expeditions of armed Ethiopian warriors on horseback set out to exact tribute from the Oromo and Somali populations to the south. By the mid-1890s, these raids were reaching the Shabeelle basin and beyond. In 1896, Ethiopian forces reached the outskirts of Luuq on the upper Jubba River.

Earlier such military forays had been disruptive to trade; in an age of colonial expansion, they assumed even more menacing proportions.

As far away as the Benaadir Coast, Somalis were aware of the Ethiopian threat. In a report which followed the assassination in 1897 of an Italian official in Marka, one of the reasons given for Somali discontent was “a general uneasiness caused by rumors of an Amharic invasion.”

Such rumors proved well founded; in the spring of 1905, an Ethiopian force estimated at several thousand well-armed horsemen pushed down the Shabeelle Valley to the environs of Balcad, about a day’s march from Muqdisho.

A Somali poet in the Afgooye area recorded the episode in the following verses.

When I was still a young man Into the world I loved the Amhara came They came from Jigjiga and the confines of Awdal Crossing the Ogaadeen, they killed many from the Karanle They used guns against the people of Imaan Cumar They killed many from the Jidle and Jajeele. [Then] they arrived at Jiiciyow and at the banks of the Webi.

When they reached Jibbirrow they were attacked; The Muslims confronted them and fighting began; In the country near Yaaqle The Mobilayn stood firm and fought with them, The magic of the Gobroon defeated them. [But] when the Amhara left the infidels appeared, Coming from every corner of the world. . .

The poem indicates that the threat of Ethiopian expansion was felt even by those living in the Benaadir hinterland, and that some Somali clans actually engaged in combat with the invading forces. It also suggests that the Ethiopians were initially perceived to be a greater danger than the Italians, who at that time were still confined to their enclaves along the coast. It soon became clear, however, that the Italians had imperial designs on the country as well, and that their presence was far more permanent than that of the Ethiopian raiders. It appeared that any resistance struggle the Somalis would have to wage would be on two fronts.

The Fascist Italians

From 1893 to 1905, when the Italian government assumed direct administration of the southern portion of the inter-riverine region, two companies—the Filonardi Company 1893-1896, and the Benadir Company 1896-1905 — introduced customs and tariff regulations which were anathema to the people of the region. Most early protests were provoked by these measures. Italian colonial records indicate a great deal of Somali discontent. With the introduction of forced labour in the interior, and the toleration of slavery in the newly-established plantations, popular resistance acquired a new dimension. The Nassib Buunto movement is a good example of resistance against slavery and forced labour. Bitter memories of the period are found in the oral tradition of the inter-riverine people. Terms like ‘Cologno’ (corvee labour) and ‘Teen’ (shift labour) are reminders of a tragic period in the history of the region, when its people were forced to work on plantations, roads, canals and other construction projects. Workers in the plantations were treated harshly, and many died of over-exertion and disease.

The faith of Islam includes a metaphysics, a cosmology, a moral and political theory. It is not surprising that colonial oppression and the moral disruption of inter-riverine society should lead to the emergence of movements to defend that faith. The Jama’a movement played a leading role in raising the political consciousness of its followers. The sheikhs who led them were the educated elite in a mass of illiterate people. Most of the Jama’a centres were located in the agricultural part of the region where the colonial plantations also developed, and they posed a threat to colonial activities. These centres became safe havens for runaway slaves and outcasts, giving them a fresh start and helping them to integrate into the religious and economic life of the region.  The centres also enabled destitute people to acquire land and earn a living while also practicing their faith. Jama’a centres were actually a means by which the Somalis could evade the colonial forced-labour regime. In brief, these communities played a tremendous social and economic role and led most the southern resistance at the time.

As we have seen, the Jama’a were scattered throughout the inter-riverine region, and the colonial authority failed to suppress their activities decisively. Italian frustration is clearly manifested in the reports sent to Rome. Governor Riveri (1920-1923) noted in 1921 that the multiplication and extension of Jama’a communities might be a cause for concern since they were acquiring more land and more adherents along the Shabelle valley. ‘By substituting the universal ties of religion for strictly ethnic ones’, Riveri added, the Jama’a ‘could constitute, sometime in the future, a real danger to the political tranquillity of the colony’. As the examples cited above of Sufi Baraki and Sharif Alyow reveal, Riveri’s warning was prophetic. Although by 1926 the most powerful Jama’a resistance had been defeated and the leadership either killed or detained, the fascist administration still confronted sporadic disturbances and sabotage from the Ikhwan followers of martyred Sheikhs.

It is also evident that millenarianism strongly motivated these movements both in opposition to the colonialists and to rally their own followers. Barsane’s letter to the fascist Governor cited above, and his foretelling the end of the world within 58 years, is a clear illustration. The statement that ‘we are living in a time of unparalleled woes’ is a familiar one in nineteenth and twentieth century African anti-colonial movements. The followers of Sheikh Aways al-Qadiri believe he would be murdered by the Dervishes of the north, and that would be the end of the world. Sheikh Abdulle Issaq from Bardhere, another millenarian, predicted that ‘when we are close to the end of the world, Captains and Commissioners will conquer our country’. Similar movements inspired by messianic and millenarian doctrines appeared all over Africa during the colonial era; such as Kimbangui in the Congo, who believed the world would end on 21 October 1921 and Adamawa in Northern Cameroon, who believed the Mahdi (Messiah) era had already passed, and it was now the epoch of the Dajjal (anti-Christ). The believers, Muslim and Christian alike, had nothing to lose in this just struggle: if they die for the cause, they become martyrs; and if they win, they are heroes. Nassib Buunto, the leader of the Somali anti-slavery movement was hanged in 1907. Sheikh Aways al-Qadiri was murdered in 1909. Sheikh Hassan Barsane was sentenced to death in 1924, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment and died in prison in 1929. Sufi Baraki was killed in 1925.

The Italian conquest of Webbi Shabelli

Extracted from Ex-Italian Somaliland, pages 85-89…

On February 13, 1908, Tittoni explained to the chamber of deputies his plans for the conquest. He led up to the question of taking possession of the fertile land gradually, being solicitous not to present so bitter a subject in a manner which would give too much handle to opposition propaganda, or provoke public anxiety and humanitarian reproaches. He bgan by emphasising the insecurity of the caravan routes from the coast to the interior, especially to Lugh, which was an important centre for the imports and exports to southern Ethiopia. “Only few, very bad , very narrow caravn routes” existed; goos were carried on camel back under extremely difficult conditions. Morever, whilst the Italians had established themselves at some points on the Juba, had not yet any foothall at all on the Webbi Shebeli, a not less vital route for Ethiopian trade. To be absent from that river meant losing a substantial source of gain. It was prejudicial to Italian interests not to be there, for the wholesale exchange of goods took place along the rier; the prices were fixed there; the coast had to submit to what was arranged on the river. Therefore the river must be occupied by Italy.

Moreover, the Bimal and Wadan tribes must be conquered and forced to submit to Italian authority. This might be done “gradually, profiting by any favourable conditions which might present themselves,” or “suddenly by a rapid movement, breaking down all resistance,” as General Baldissera had reccomended. Titonno preffered the gradual method.

Gilib, on the coast, had already been occupied by Italian forces, he told the chamber; possession would next be taken of Danane and the wells to which the Bimals resorted with their cattle in the dry season. Siezure of the water would give the government the whip hand, above all in a country of that type. Kaitoy, on the Webbi Shebeli, would then be sized, and afterwards Afgoy and Gheledi, opposite Mogadishu.

To accomplish these military opertions the force of Askaris, which at the time numbered 2,442 with 30 Italian officers, must be increased to 3,400 with 46 Italian officers. Thereby it would be possible to strengthen the garrisons, and to establish a moving column, which could proceed rapidly wherever needed. The occupation of the area from Merka to the Webbi Shebeli would be easy, for the distance was only 20 kilometres, and no thick forests intervened, but from Mogadishu to the same river the distance was double, and the region covered with dense woods, “which lend themselves to ambuscades..”

“Bloody conflicts” but no “heavy expenditure”

The minister warned the deputies that they must not be squeamish about the results of the military measures required for these conquestes;-

“It is not impossible that, in spite of the gradual and pacific character of the occupation, there may be some bloody conflicts. Well, if this should happen, we must be ready to receive the news of it with equanimity, because we are not going in for an action which can lead us into unexpected adventures, or entail heavy expenditure.”

It would not be wise, Tittoni argued, to delay military action, for that would give time for the tribes along the river to obtain arms for their defense, and to come to an understanding with the Mullah, whose future remained for Italy “a dark point.” Rather than wait, and possibly have to deal at the same time with the Bimals and the Mullah, despite the agreemen with him, which was known to be untenable, it would be better to begin by solving the much easier question of the subjection of the Bimal tribe.

The quality of the Askaris, who would be used for the fighting, had been greatly improved, he declared, since the days of the Benadir company. “The company recruited them everywhere, among Somalis, Eritreans, Swahilis and Arabs.” Today 95% were “recruited in Arabia, in Yemen, and in Hadramaut.”

Having begun by suggesting a peaceful operation in which nevertheless, “some bloody conflists” might take place, the minister in order to eulogise the “intrepidity in battle” of the soldiers recruited in Aeabia, revealed that stern warfare was in progress. He read the following extract of a report from Commander cerrina of “the Denane encounter”;-

“The troops in their turn, so well directed, behaved always splendidly, be it for individual courage, collective discipline, calm precision of range. This has been obtained through the assiduous work of all the officers in command of the companies. Those same elements who, at the time of th company’s administration, had inspired in all quarters so little confidence, have been transformed into very good soldiers”…

Soldiers’ low pay under Italy; effort to induce other governments to come down to Italy’s low level

These “very good soldiers” were paid seven Maria Theresa Thalers a month, in British currency 14s., about 204 lire per annum. This was no mere pocket money; they had received only from 144 to 180 lire. Despite the somewhat higher scale;

“We must admit,” he added, “that even the actual pay is very small; it constitues one of the essential difficulties in recruiting.

“Certainly it will not be possible to maintain the present conditions, which clash with those of the adjourning colonies where the colonial troops are better paid. I propose to study the opportunity of a colonial understanding among the states which have possessions adjoining ours to establish a common medium scale of pay.”

It will be recalled that the minister had explained, in denouncing the chartered company, that the Askaris were so miserably remunerated that they could not exist on the pittance paid them, and that they were compelled to resort to trade as a means of obtaining a living. Titonni’s proposal to induce Britain and France to reduce the pay of their colonial soldiers was ingenious, rather than generous!

The hoped for colonial understanding to keep the pay of all colonial soldiers down to a level Italy could afford to reach was not realised. On june 25 the following year Titonni announced that recruiting in the Yemen had proved difficult. Like the chartered company, he also resorted to Eritrea, and even to Somaliland itself to recruit Askaris. He had condemned the company for this practise, stating that the Eritreans were a source of discord in Somaliland, and that the Somalis had “shown little courage”. In fact they had absconded when expected to fight their own people.

Now that the government had become the paymaster the matter was regarded from another aspect. By recruiting in Italy’s own colonies, the government avoided the competition of richer governments, which had to be faced in Arabia. They could pay what they chose in their position of authority. The practise of raising troops in one colony to coerce the people of another colony soon became fully established. To popularise this policy the minister eulogised highly the “resistance, discipline, and dash of Eritreans,” and declared that “the young Askaris out of the Benadir.” who were being tried, had “proved themselves worthy”.

An active military campaign was indicated by declaring a “fame” had been won in combats at Gilib, Egalla, Danane, Dongad and Mellet. Days had been spent in “marching and fighting” for 10, 12 and 13 hours at a stretch. There had been 230 police, and irregular forces in addition. The tribes, who had been promised “protection,” freindship and trade, were taken by unaware and by superior arms and were overcome, district by district. Niether the Hague rules, nor any other international convention designed to mitigate the barbarism of war was applied in their case. Defense of their homes and farms was punished as rebellion to a government in regard to those whose advent they had not been consulted. The term “protectorate” has been used in Africa to cover the most ruthless types of warfare, and the most arbitrary forms of government.

As the tribes were conquered, they were forced to the arduous labour of clearing roads through the jungle and bush.

Tittoni recorded the work already accomplished and the programme immediately projected;

“I believe it will interest the chamber to know what has been done. The labour of clearing has been imposed as a punishmen upon the rebellious tribes which have been subjugated. At the middle of last march the clearing had been executed along the paths which adjoin the following localities;-

“[1] Mogadishu-Afgoy, with the understanding that the passafe already be widened in as a brief a space of time as possible, which is already being done on the Afgoy side, the work being executed by the Wadan tribe.

“[2] Afgoy-Barire, a clearing of sufficient width, executed by the people of Merere, and of unquestionable utility for communications and for the rapid concentration of the two garrisons on the river.

“[3] Barire-Danane, a clearing also of sufficient width (in some placed of about 50 metres).

“[4] Merka, front of Kaitoy, recently begun and carried on with alacrity under the vigilant care of our resident at Merka.

“The following clearing are decided upon and will be shortly carried out;-

“[a] Mogadishu-Darerta-Ghet-Faki-Balad

“[b] Jesira-Derdif-Adadle-Afgoy

“[c] Kaitoy-Mallable

“[d] Brava-Havai (for a certain distance).”

There was infinite tragedy in this colonial war to obtain the markets and the fertile land which had been occupied by industrious cultivators for centuries. The cheerful farms and villages, which had given so much pleasures to the first explorers, were now devastated, the crops trampled, the humble dwellings reduced to smoking ashes. In place of the freindly, light-hearted, folk, who had welcomed the missionaries and travellers, were the dead and the dying, whilst the unfortunate survivors were driven in forced labour gangs under compulsion of whip and gun to the stupendous, unpaid work of jungle clearing. So Italian colonisation proceeded.

Only the Italians have written the story of their conquest of Somaliland. The agonies suffered by the conquered people in defense of the fertile lands they had cultivated from generation to generation, have not been chronicled; their dead and their exiled are unrecorded.


De Vecchi di Val Cismon (1935), Orizzonti d’impero: Cinque Anni in Somalia

Cassanelli, Lee V (1982), The Shaping of Somali Society, Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900

Sylvia Pankhurst (1952),  Ex-Italian Somaliland


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