Conditions in Somalia are nearing those of a failed state. Over the last several decades, no other country has struggled so profoundly to institute basic structures of governance. Somalia’s profound instability stems in part from conflicts between the state structures imposed during the colonial era and the clan structures that traditionally play a heavy role in the pastoral lives of Somalis. The 1991 overthrow of President Siad Barre ushered in a new era of conflict and anarchy from which the region has never fully recovered. In the absence of a central government, warlords and armed factions have violently vied for political and economic dominance. Somalia has also frequently served as a proxy battleground for international actors and ideologies, stretching from Cold War American and Soviet realpolitik to current concerns about Islamic extremism.
The aftermath of colonialism
The Somali Republic was created in 1960 by merging the protectorate of British Somaliland with the colony of Italian Somaliland. Despite these colonial boundaries, ethnic Somalis--whose livelihoods are largely pastoral--have also lived for centuries throughout Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Somalia's neighbors have repeatedly used the presence of these ethnic Somali populations to justify irredentist claims to Somalia's territory.
In 1969, Siad Barre took control of Somalia via military coup and declared it a socialist state. However, when President Barre used Soviet military assistance to invade the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977, the Soviet Union backed the Marxist regime in Ethiopia, and Somalia was forced to turn to the United State for support. The influx of U.S. aid propped up Barre’s corrupt regime but also increased resentment from other Somali clans. Uprisings became common and, in 1991, clans opposed to the government overthrew Barre and seized Mogadishu.
Lawlessness and failed international intervention
Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991. After the clan-based militias overthrew Barre, they descended into infighting and lawlessness, sparking famine and massive refugee flows into neighboring countries. In December 1992, this situation captured international attention and the United States--in cooperation with the United Nations--began implementing programs to protect food aid from looting. However, this humanitarian mission quickly became entangled in Somalia’s civil conflict. When the U.S. attempted to oust leading warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed in October 1993, Somali militias responded by shooting down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters over Mogadishu. 18 American servicemen were killed and more than 1,000 Somalis lost their lives in the ensuing battle. By the end of 1993, the U.S. withdrew from Somalia; the U.N. followed suite in early 1995.
Northwest Somalia, which declared itself the independent Republic of Somaliland in 1991, has remained largely stable since the early 1990s but has never been recognized internationally.
Attempts at a political transition
Repeated attempts at peace talks failed during the 1990s and early 2000s, and a low-level conflict between warlords and other militia groups simmered throughout this period. However, in 2004 peace talks resulted in the successful formation of a Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Although intended to be a government of national unity that would preside over a political transition, the TFG actually represented only a narrow set of clan interests and lacked legitimacy in the eyes of many Somalis.
In 2006, a loose alliance of Somali businessmen and local Islamic courts emerged as a counterweight to the TFG. By June 2006, this entity, the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU, had defeated a collection of U.S.-backed secular militias and taken control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia. Although the ICU established a degree of security in Somalia unknown since 1991, it also aroused significant concern on the part of Ethiopia and the United States. Ethiopia feared rival Eritrea’s support for the ICU and the ICU’s support for Ethiopian insurgent groups. The United States suspected the ICU of harboring several al-Qaeda operatives linked to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and worried about the rise of Islamic extremism in the region.
In December 2006, Ethiopian forces launched a cross-border intervention into Somalia, routing the forces of the ICU and propping up the TFG in Mogadishu. The United States provided intelligence and military support and launched air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda targets.
Emerging insurgency and humanitarian crisis
A small African Union peacekeeping mission was established in early 2007 to support the TFG, but the mission did little to curtail the emergence of a complex insurgency composed of both Islamic and secular militias hostile to the TFG. The heavy-handed and often indiscriminate counterinsurgency tactics of the TFG and Ethiopian forces further compounded the crisis, and more than 400,000 people were driven from their homes in Mogadishu during 2007.
By late 2007, open splits occurred inside both the TFG and the opposition party. The appointment of Hassan Hussein Nur Adde as Prime Minister signaled the emergence of a moderate wing of the TFG, which seemed open to negotiations. Likewise, the emergence of moderate leaders of the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, or ARS, presented the possibility of a centrist coalition. In June 2008, a UN-brokered peace accord was reached between these elements in Djibouti. Although this inspired new hope for peace in Somalia, it would not last. Sadly, the moderates on both sides hold little sway over the more extreme armed groups like the TFG militias and the Shabaab insurgents.
By April 2008, fighting in Mogadishu was worse than it had been in a decade. Meanwhile, the country faced a severe humanitarian food crisis with 1.1 million people displaced from their homes and at risk of starvation. By May 2009, the U.N. warned that, with 3.2 million people in need of food assistance, the country was on the brink of famine. The rise in piracy along the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 momentarily placed the country back in the international spotlight, but the situation in Somalia remains dire. The TFG has imploded and controls minimal territory; hard-line Shabaab militants are on the rise; famine looms. Given the severity of security and humanitarian crises in Somalia, and the extraordinary failures of international efforts to-date, a major reevaluation of U.S. policy there is both urgent and essential.
Learn more: Civil War Years, 1990s-Present (2012)
2011 Humanitarian Crisis
A famine is currently raging in Somalia, and before the end of 2011 tens of thousands of people —possibly hundreds of thousands—are going to die.
The main culprit is al-Shabaab, a hyper-violent ultra-extremist Somali jihadist group made up of mostly forced conscripts. Al-Shabaab refuses to allow food and humanitarian aid to starving Somalis, despite condemnations by the UN, western governments, the Somali Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, and Somali civic groups.
In June 2011, tens of thousands of Somali refugees flooded camps in Ethiopia and Kenya - at a rate of more than 3,000 new arrivals per day (source).
Three-quarters of a million people are at immediate risk of famine; another 750,000 are refugees in neighboring countries, and 4 million – half the total population – is in need of emergency aid. It is a calamity that could join the ranks of the Rwanda genocide and the Darfur crisis in terms of scale and human suffering.
As the crisis unfolds, the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government, or TGF — now in its seventh year of what was supposed to be a five-year transitional process — has spent the year focusing on power-sharing accords and implementation of transitional tasks, instead of prioritizing the unfolding crisis and gaining control over its predatory security forces and corrupt politicians so that food aid can reach the hundreds of thousands of displaced famine victims.
Download the Roots of the Crisis (PDF, 100 KB)