ALREADY SERIOUSLY WEAKENED by a devastating civil war, the Somali economy was further undermined by the fall of President Mahammad Siad Barre's government in late January 1991 and the subsequent absence of political consensus. Economic statistics from the early post-Siad Barre period were not available in early 1992; however, one can gain some understanding of Somalia's economic situation during that period by looking at the country's prior economic history.
Generally, interventions in the Somali economy, whether by Italian fascists, Somali Marxists, or International Monetary Fund ( IMF) economists, have had minimal impact on economic development. Yet the shrewd Somalis have been able to survive and even prosper in their harsh desert homeland.
Pastoralism and Commerce in Historical Perspective
The Somalis raise cattle, sheep, and goats, but the camel plays the central role as an indicator of wealth and success. Camels can survive in an environment where water and grazing areas are scarce and widely scattered. They provide meat, milk, and transportation for Somali pastoralists, and serve as their principal medium of exchange. Camels are provided as compensation for homicides and are a standard component of the dowry package.
For centuries, nomads have relied on their livestock for subsistence and luxuries. They have sold cows, goats, and older camels to international traders and butchers in the coastal cities, and in the urban markets have bought tea, coffee beans, and salt. In the nineteenth century, northern Somalis were quick to take advantage of the market for goats with middlemen representing the British, who needed meat for their enclave in Aden, a coaling station for ships traveling through the Suez Canal. By the turn of the century, about 1,000 cattle and 80,000 sheep and goats were being exported annually from Berbera to Aden.
Starting in the fifteenth century, the ports of Saylac and Berbera were well integrated into the international Arab economy, with weapons, slaves, hides, skins, gums, ghee (a type of butter), ostrich feathers, and ivory being traded. On the Banaadir coast, especially in Mogadishu but also in Merca and Baraawe, a lively trade with China, India, and Arabia existed as early as the fourteenth century. Finally, starting with the Somalis who for centuries have joined the crews of oceangoing ships, the exportation of labor has long been a crucial element in Somalia's ability to sustain itself.
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