Explorations in History and Society

Exploring and Collecting the History of the Somali clan of Hawiye.

Colonialism & Characteristics of the Southern Resistance

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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 Facist 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.


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

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