By Jean-Marc Mojon
Nairobi, February 20, 2010 –When Virginio Bresolin passed away recently
in Merka, a coastal Somali city run by Al Qaeda-inspired rebels, so did
the last of a generation of Italians who emigrated under Mussolini.
He worked as a blacksmith, spoke fluent Somali and rusty Italian, and
few people noticed when he died.
Fifty years after independence, indifference characterizes how most feel
about the former colonial ruler of Somalia, a country where 60 percent
of the population is under 18 and 80 percent has known nothing but
Abdullahi Halane Mohamoud, a 62-year-old Merka resident, hardly takes
issue with the Italians invading in the first place but only seems to
regret that there wasn't more in it for Somalis.
"Italian colonization only used people as servants and never provided
proper education opportunities. Most people who lived during that time
were left illiterate," he said.
Somalia's independence started comparatively well and in 1967 even
produced the first post-colonial African leader to step down gracefully.
Adan Abdulle Osman accepted his electoral defeat, transferred power to
Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke and retired to his farm near Merka, where he
died in 2007, aged 99.
The handover ceremony took place in the garden of Villa Somalia, the
former residence of Italian colonial governors and now the fortified
redoubt from which the country's Islamist president is battling even
more Islamist rebels.
Somalia has been mired in violence for three decades and is now best
known to the outside world for being the place that inspired the
Hollywood war movie "Black Hawk Down" and the reason the term "failed
state" had to be coined.
Like any colonization, Italy's left scars in Somalia too.
One instance of colonial oppression vividly remembered by many older
Somalis is the construction of a canal still known as Asayle -- a Somali
world for a mourning veil -- in reference to the men decimated by forced
"My uncle worked there and has told me harrowing tales. He used to say
that officers would trample on their backs when crossing the water
channel to avoid the mud," said Mohamed Abdi Elmi, 56.
But Somalia's case was very different from most others on the continent,
as evidenced notably by the nation's "three independences".
In November 1949, Somalia was granted independence by the United Nations
but placed under an Italian-led trusteeship.
On 26 June 1960, the northern protectorate of Somaliland acquired
independence from Britain. Five days later, Italian Somalia became fully
independent and merged with Somaliland.
But the lack of a founding liberation struggle left the country without
an experienced political class.
President Sharmarke -- whose son is the current prime minister -- was
assassinated in 1969, then Mohamed Siyad Barre seized power and thrust
his country into the cold war, choosing to side with the Soviet Union.
More than a by-product of colonial times, the deadly chaos that erupted
with Barre's ouster two decades ago is often blamed on a double vacuum.
The cold war ended and with it a system that had propped up Barre's
regime. Simultaneously, Italy's political order was turned upside down
by the Tangentopoli crisis, a nationwide police probe into political
"The country best equipped to steer Somalia at the time was not able do
so. The Italian political class was floundering," one observer
Italy couldn't make its voice heard when the world's new American
masters -- puffed up with their doctrine of humanitarian imperialism --
led the 1992 UN invasion of Somalia.
The disastrous cycle of violence that ensued was interspersed with
numerous peace talks, in which Italy's expertise was overshadowed by US
The 2004 transitional federal charter still lists Italian as an official
second language but ties between Somalia and its former colonial rulers
are withering away silently.
In contrast with the way the British administered their colonies,
Italians accounted for half of Mogadishu's population after World War
Conversely, unlike its European neighbors bursting with immigration from
the former colonies, Italy is now home to a mere 6,000 Somalis.