A History of Governance: The Resistance

Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire



The northeast region of Somalia has, since August 1st, 1998, been referred to as Puntland State of Somalia. The territory is characterized by vast semi-arid range lands on which nomadic pastoralists raise herds of camels, goats and sheep. There are also a number of small towns and small coastal settlements where people practice rudimentary fishing.

The economy is primarily dependent on pastoralism, the livestock trade, and the import and export of goods at the port of Bosaaso on the northeast coast. Stretching from the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to the north and east, to south Mudug region in central Somalia and bordering Ethiopia and Somaliland in the west, the area encompasses the traditional territory of the Harti clan group of the Darood clan-family and a number of other Darood clans and is considered one of the most homogeneous Somali regions.

Although pre-colonial Somali society did not have a national government with modern structures and clearly defined international borders, the northeast region had traditional structures of government dating from the 18th century. These traditional structures of government included:

  • The Sultanate of Migiurtinia (mid 18th century – 1927)
  • The Sultanate of Obbia (1878–1925)
  • The Warsangeli Sultanate of Sanaag (1896–1925)
  • The Dervish State (1899 -1920)

These Sultanates had administrative and military structures, which safeguarded security, social welfare and political stability until they were disrupted by colonial powers (the Italians in the first two Sultanates and the British in the last two).

As Prof. Said Samatar of Rutgers University put it:

In precolonial times the only states worthy of the name in the Somali peninsula had been the Migiurtinia Sultanate of Boqor, or king, Cismaan Mohamuud and the kingdom of Obbia (Hobyo) belonging to Cismaan’s nephew, the dour Yuusuf Ali Keenadiid. These were both highly centralized states with all the organs and accoutrements of an integrated modern state – a hereditary nobility, titled aristocrats, a functioning bureaucracy, a flag, an army and a significant network of foreign relations with embassies abroad.
Nowhere else in Somalia did anything even remotely comparable ever arise, except perhaps the Ujuuraan on the Shabeelle valley and Adal on the northwestern coast, both states having reached the apogee of power in the sixteenth century. In modern times the Migiurtin stand alone, absolutely alone, in having created a centralized state.

The Warsangeli Sultanate was noted for its robust tax-based centralized administration and trade and commercial relations existed between the Sultanates, the Indian sub-continent and Arabian Gulf states. For instance, ad valorem taxation systems, export of livestock, animal and agro-forestry products and import of consumer goods thrived in the Sultanate of Migiurtinia during the second half of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th century.

In Puntland, “Isim” (singular) or “Isimo” (plural), the traditional titled leaders or paramount chiefs, are usually crowned in a traditional ceremony known as “Aano-Shub” (meaning crowning with milk, pouring milk on the head) or “Aleemo-Saar” (meaning showering with green leaves). The highest traditional position for the Darood clan is the Boqor (king), with other positions denoted as Ugaas, Garaad, Islan, Beeldaaje, Sultan, Qud, Caaqil (chief), Nabaddon, Samadoon and Oday.

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From left to right: Sultan Shire, Sultan Ali Kenadid, and Boqor Osman.
The Resistance

The traditional life of the northeast regions was disrupted from 1900-1920 by the turmoil of battles waged by Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan against European and Ethiopian colonization of Somali territories, and subsequently from 1923-1927 by the resistance of the Sultanates of Obbia and Miguirtina to Italian direct rule.

In the beginning of 1920, the British struck the Dervish settlements with a well-coordinated air and land attack and inflicted a stunning defeat. The forts of Hassan were damaged and his army suffered great losses. The British Royal Air Force’s (R.A.F.) bombing Jidali Fort was the first aerial bombardment of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Soon after Hassan’s defeat, the British, dreading the prospect of another several decades of costly and difficult battles with yet another Somali potentate, set about attempting to neutralize Sultan Shire’s influence. Shire was secretly invited to a conference in Yemen, ostensibly to discuss possible ways of settling differences. After a short session before the meeting was scheduled to begin, he was taken into custody by the British authorities. Sultan Shire was later tried without proper representation in a kangaroo court.

In 1925, Omar Samatar, one of the military chiefs of Sultan Ali Yusuf of The Sultanate of Obbia, led a rebellion against the Italians that culminated in the recapturing of El-Buur on November 9, 1925. Soon the rebellion expanded to the local population and the region went into revolt as El-Dheere also came under the control of Omar Samatar. The Italian forces tried to recapture El-Buur but they were repulsed.

On November 15,1925 the Italians retreated to Bud Bud and on the way they were ambushed and suffered heavy casualties. As a consequence of the death of the commander of the operations and the effect of two failed operations intended to overcome the El-Buur mutiny, the spirit of Italian troops began to wane. Meanwhile, the rebellion was gaining sympathy across the country and as far a field as Western Somaliland.

The fascist government was surprised by the setback in Obbia (Hobyo). The whole policy of conquest was collapsing under their nose. The El-Buur episode drastically changed the strategy of Italy as it revived memories of the Adwa fiasco when Italy had been defeated by Abyssinia. Governor De Vecchi took the situation seriously, and to prevent any more failure he requested two battalions from Eritrea to reinforce his troops, and assumed lead of the operations. Rome instructed De Vecchi that he was to receive the reinforcement from Eritrea, but that the commander of the two battalions was to temporarily assume the military command of the operations and De Vecchi was to stay in Muqdisho and confine himself to other colonial matters. Fascist Italy was poised to re-conquer the Sultanate by any means necessary. To undermine the resistance, and before the Eritrean reinforcement could arrive, De Vecchi began to instil distrust among the local people by buying the loyalty of some of them. In fact, these tactics had better results than the military campaign, and the resistance began to gradually wear down. Given the anarchy which would follow, the new policy was a success.

On the military front, on December, 26, 1925 Italian troops finally overran El-Buur, and the forces of Omar Samatar were compelled to retreat to Western Somaliland. Samatar led some followers across the border into Ethiopia and campaigned against Italians in the Ogaden at frontier posts.

By neutralizing the Sultanate of Obbia, the fascists could concentrate on Migiurtinia. In early October 1924, E. Coronaro, the new Alula commissioner, presented Boqor Osman Boqor Mohamud with an ultimatum to disarm and surrender. Meanwhile, Italian troops began to pour into the sultanate in anticipation of this operation. While landing at Hafun and Alula, the sultanate’s troops opened fire on them. Fierce fighting ensued and to avoid escalating the conflict and to press the fascist government to revoke their policy, Boqor Osman tried to open a dialogue. However, he failed, and again fighting broke out between the two parties. Following this disturbance, on 7 October the Governor instructed Coronaro to order the Boqor to surrender; to intimidate the people he ordered the seizure of all merchant boats in the Alula area. At Hafun, the Italians bombarded and destroyed all the boats in the area.


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The bombing and destruction of Hafun.

On 13 October, Coronaro was to meet Boqor Osman at Baargaal to press for his surrender. Under siege already, Boqor Osman was playing for time. However, on 23 October,  Boqor Osman sent an angry response to the Governor defying his order. Following this a full scale attack was ordered in November. Baargaal was bombarded and destroyed to the ground.

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The bombardment of Baargaal and the aftermath.

The attempt of the colonizers to suppress the region erupted into an explosive confrontation. The Italians were meeting fierce resistance on many fronts.

October 30, 1925. Eritrean Ascari’s following the fall of Bargal to Italian forces. The Ascari’s landed on the beach of Bargal on Oct 28, 1925 but were attacked by rebel forces and forced to find safety inside in a mosque. The battle would last for 22 hour.

In December 1925, led by the charismatic leader Hersi Boqor, son of Boqor Osman, the sultanate forces drove the Italians out of Hurdiyo and Hafun, two strategic coastal towns. Another contingent attacked and destroyed an Italian communications center at Cape Guardafui, at the tip of the Horn. In retaliation, and to demoralize the resistance, Italian warships were ordered to target and bombard the sultanate’s coastal towns and villages. In the interior the Italian troops confiscated livestock.

After a violent confrontation Italian forces captured Eyl, which until then had remained in the hands of Hersi Boqor. In response to the unyielding situation, Italy called for reinforcements from their other colonies, notably Eritrea.

Eritrean Ascari Ibrahim Mohamed Farag

Eritrean Ascari Ibrahim Mohamed Farag. For his heroics in the region, Farag was awarded the Gold Medal for Military Valor and promoted to Muntar Ascari Corps of the Royal Navy.

With their arrival at the closing of 1926, the Italians began to move into the interior where they had not been able to venture since their first seizure of the coastal towns. Their attempt to capture the Dharoor Valley was resisted, and ended in failure.

De Vecchi had to reassess his plans as he was being humiliated on many fronts. After one year of exerting full force he could not yet manage to gain total control over the sultanate. In spite of the fact that the Italian navy sealed the sultanate’s main coastal entrance, they could not succeed in stopping them from receiving arms and ammunition through it. It was only early 1927 when they finally succeeded in shutting the northern coast of the sultanate, thus cutting arms and ammunition supplies for Migiurtinia. By this time, the balance had tilted to the Italians’ side, and in January 1927 they began to attack with massive force, capturing Iskushuban, at the heart of Migiurtinia. Hersi Boqor unsuccessfully attacked and challenged the Italians at Iskushuban.  By the end of the 1927, the Italians had nearly taken control of the sultanate. Hersi Boqor and his troops retreated to Ethiopia in order to rebuild their forces, but were unable to retake their territories, effectively ending the Campaign of the Sultanates. Migiurtinia was the last region to fall to the Italian colonists.

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