LOCATED IN THE HORN OF AFRICA, adjacent to the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia is steeped in thousands of years of history. The ancient Egyptians spoke of it as "God's Land" (the Land of Punt). Chinese merchants frequented the Somali coast in the tenth and fourteenth centuries and, according to tradition, returned home with giraffes, leopards, and tortoises to add color and variety to the imperial menagerie. Greek merchant ships and medieval Arab dhows plied the Somali coast; for them it formed the eastern fringe of Bilad as Sudan, "the Land of the Blacks." More specifically, medieval Arabs referred to the Somalis, along with related peoples, as the Berberi.
By the eighteenth century, the Somalis essentially had developed their present way of life, which is based on pastoral nomadism and the Islamic faith. During the colonial period (approximately 1891 to 1960), the Somalis were separated into five mini-Somalilands: British Somaliland (north central); French Somaliland (east and southeast); Italian Somaliland (south); Ethiopian Somaliland (the Ogaden); and, what came to be called the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya. In 1960 Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland were merged into a single independent state, the Somali Republic. In its first nine years the Somali state, although plagued by territorial disputes with Ethiopia and Kenya, and by difficulties in integrating the dual legacy of Italian and British administrations, remained a model of democratic governance in Africa; governments were regularly voted into and out of office. Taking advantage of the widespread public bitterness and cynicism attendant upon the rigged elections of early 1969, Major General Mahammad Siad Barre seized power on October 21, 1969, in a bloodless coup. Over the next twenty-one years Siad Barre established a military dictatorship that divided and oppressed the Somalis. Siad Barre maintained control of the social system by playing off clan against clan until the country became riven with interclan strife and bloodshed. Siad Barre's regime came to a disastrous end in early 1991 with the collapse of the Somali state. In the regime's place emerged armed clan militias fighting one another for political power. Siad Barre fled the capital on January 27, 1991, into the safety of his Mareehaan clan's territory in southern Somalia.
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