Ethnic Groups in Somalia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Somalia has gotten a fair amount of international attention over the last several years, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson we'll explore the ethnic diversity of Somalia, and see how this has (or hasn't) impacted their recent events.


I live in a semi-agricultural city on the plains of Northern Colorado. That's what I call home. In the early 2000s, I don't think that more than a small handful of people here could have told you where Somalia was. Then, a series of brutal wars halfway across the world left people homeless and starving, and our town became a center for Somali refugee relocation. Many of us realized, rather abashedly, that we actually knew very little about these people who were coming to live in our town. Now, most of us can much more easily locate Somalia on a map. Based on the peninsula where the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean all meet, Somalia has been an important international trade center for millennia. So, who lives there? Well, there is more to Somalia than the refugees who settled in my hometown. Let's take a look at some of their ethnic diversity and see what it means for Somalia.


The Somali

In a nation called Somalia, it may be unsurprising to learn that the main ethnic group are called the Somali. The Somali make up about 85% of the total population, so this is a substantial ethnic group. The ancestors of the Somali have lived on the peninsula for millennia, and appear throughout historical records as merchants and traders facilitating the ever-important Indian Ocean trade routes that connected Saudi Arabia to China. Nowadays, most Somalis live in small villages, speak the Somali language (one of the official languages of the nation), and practice Sunni Islam.

Somali children

Somali societies are defined by clans, with each clan representing a major contributor to Somali politics and culture. People tend to identify with their clans more than with any sense of Somali unity, and the relationships between clans has defined the history of Somalia. Sometimes, clans work together, exchange marriages, and create trade alliances. Other times, they fight for control. Most clans are dominated by powerful warlords, and violent conflicts between these warlords have been a nearly constant feature of the nation. In 2000, several clan leaders signed a peace treaty and formed the political party called the Transitional National Government. However, it is opposed by a great number of regional warlords who refuse to give up control over their territories, and Somalia remains torn. So, a great amount of the violence within Somalia is actually contained within the Somali ethnicity, and is not a matter of ethnic group vs. ethnic group.

Warfare between Somali groups has been a problem

Minority Ethnic Groups

The other 15% of people in Somalia are generally categorized as simply 'non-Somali', since no single group maintains a strong presence. Considering Somalia's location at the intersection of the Middle East, West Africa, and India, it's not surprising that these groups come from all over. There are notable Pakistani and Indian populations in Somalia, as well as Ethiopians and several African groups loosely belonging to the Bantu language family.

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