While for many years it has commonly been seen as the world’s most failed and dangerous state, Somalia is also a country with a strong drive for resurrection throughout the coming years
0:00 minutes – Introduction
3:20 minutes – Lecture begins
6:30 minutes – An introduction to Somalia and its history
12:05 minutes – Somalia’s modern geopolitical history
22:45 minutes – The rise of Al Shabaab
34:05 minutes – The current war
41:30 minutes – Famine and piracy
54:20 minutes – Present day Somalia
View the Lecture here (Feb 2015)
Somalia in the ‘horn of western Africa has had an unsettled recent history. While the region, with its long coastline facing the Indian Ocean, has enjoyed strong trade links with Asia at least as early as the sixth century, since the ‘Scramble for Africa’ when the continent was politically carved up by European powers, the country has had more mixed fortunes. French colonisers separated the country of Djibouti from the main body of Somalia in 1894 and the country became independent from France in 1977. Somalia was first declared a British protectorate but the land held little interest for the colonisers other than for its coastal ports which eased trade through the region. After the British left, large areas of Somalia was quickly taken by Italy in 1923 and became one of its largest colonies. The previous government was destroyed and the country reinvented with agricultural settlements formed growing cotton and sugar as well as huge numbers of banana plantations.
During the Second World War the fascist Italian army present in Italian Somalia, under the leadership of Mussolini, sought control of neighbouring Ethiopia. British forced overturned these efforts, liberating Ethiopia and removing Mussolini from power across the region. This placed Somalia in the hands of the UN for ten years before it gained its independence in 1960.
Until this point, Somalia had typically been seen a nation with five distinct geographical, and to some extent ideological groups of clans. With independence came a hope that Somalia would become more unified, something represented by the five pointed star on the country’s flag. However independence instead signalled a vying for power between the different groups and in 1969 Mohamed Siad Barre became dictator by military coup and establishing the Somali Democratic Republic. Despite its name, Barre ran Somalia according to a Scientific Socialist model, much like that in China at the time. Key to this style of his dictatorial rule was the prohibition of clannism, emphasising instead a loyalty to the state.
This era represented one of enlightenment for much of the country, with modern education, health care and public communication networks put in place as well as a new monetary system and language. However, following the Ogaden war in 1977-78 in which Barre unsuccessfully tried to unify the richly agricultural Ogaden region in Ethiopia into the Somali nation, increased domestic resistance to his reign started to be felt. Critics pointed towards the overrepresentation of Barre’s own clan in his inner circle, and the war had left many people disillusioned with his style of military dictatorship. Increased strength of resistance movements culminated in a revolution in 1988 and Barre was overthrown in 1991 marking for some the start of the Somali Civil War which continues today.
The following twenty years represented a very dark era for Somalia. Inter-clan street warfare dominated the capital of Mogadishu and no real governance was able to bring the country into a state of peace and stability. In a nation of over ten million people, at least one million are known to having died during the war and two million migrated overseas, including many to the UK. In 1999 the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control over central and southern Somalia and re-established schools, health clinics and a police system.
Despite the ICU showing moderate conservatism in their religious views, the Al Qaeda terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2002 made the USA grow suspicious of state’s that held Islam as a central principle of their governance. When Ethiopia invaded ICU held Somalia in 2006 the Americans backed Ethiopia and were successful in driving ICU out of Somalia. Troops were withdrawn in 2009 but the area has remained a conflict zone.
An African Union soldier defends the frontline in Mogadishu. (Flickr Source: United Nations Photo)
The removal of ICU as well as previous years of hostilities created a leadership void in which extremist religious groups grew in strength and number, exerting control over other regions. One such faction was Al Shabaab, a Muslim organisation that approaches the religion’s ideology in the same extremist manner as its Middle Eastern cousins, Al Qaeda. Al Shabaab has been highly effective on the African continent. Meaning ‘The Youth’ in Arabic, it has recruited and kidnapped hundreds of children, mostly boys, to serve as foot soldiers, with the average age of a member of the organisation thought to be fifteen years. Most of their recruits are highly vulnerable orphans with limited education and knowledge of the role they are playing within Somalia’s history. Their naivety is such that the guaranteed food, shelter and status that Al Shabaab promise is often enough to persuade them to join the ranks of the so-called ‘liberation group’. The group seeks to wage a jihad (interpreted in their case as a ‘holy war’) against people who opposes their form of extreme Islamic understanding, and have been involved in numerous violent clashes with security forces as well as high profile attacks on aid workers during the 2010-2012 drought and famine.
Subsequent uncertainty as Somalia went through political reform, infighting between politicians and an arms embargo has made it difficult for Federal Government of Somalia to tackle the threat from Al Shabaab with home grown forces. In 2007 Uganda deployed armed personnel to the country, twenty two thousand of whom still remain in Somalia and they were joined by troops from the African Union in 2009, inciting a form of trench warfare across the country. In 2011 Al Shabaab began to abandon their positions and have been on the retreat within Somalia ever since, though at the same time extending their territory in northern Kenya, Yemen and the DR Congo. The country they leave behind however has been devastated by war and the years of conflict continue to produce secondary impacts on the geography of the country.
In 2010 the worst famine for sixty years began in Somalia and continued well into 2012; its effects exacerbated due to the mismanagement of aid, itself caused in part by the ongoing political instability. The initial famine was caused by a prolonged period of drought in the country: an unusually strong and extended La Niña period left the whole of East Africa suffering from failed rains and in some cases over a third less precipitation fell than would be expected during a normal rainy season (UNOCHA, 2011). The drought primarily affected farmers in the south of the country which at the time was held by Al Shabaab. Cereal prices rose to record high levels as crops failed on a large scale – in some areas only forty percent of a normal harvest was sellable (FEWSNET, 2011).
Aid distribution at a famine refugee camp. (Flickr Source: United Nations Photo)
An estimated 260,000 Somali people died in the famine, half of whom were under five years old (FEWSNET and FAO, 2013). The southern conflict zone had been without effective communication networks for some time and, possibly without full knowledge of their impacts, road blocks were set up by Al Shabaab along almost all major routes, preventing people from leaving the worst affected areas, concentrating the effects of the drought and arguably speeding the country towards famine more quickly. Fighting in the south of Somalia also disrupted the distribution of aid to the most needy areas and road based deliveries were often stopped and rerouted to Al Shabaab strong-holds. Al Shabaab also reportedly did not believe the full extent of the drought and subsequent famine was possible with some militants believing the famine was nothing more than western propaganda designed to undermine their authority in the region.
Years of conflict in Somalia has produced thousands of refugees who have spread all over north-eastern Africa as well as Western Europe. There are large Somali communities in London, New York, Stockholm, and Rotterdam as well as smaller groups in Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki. It is estimated that of the eight million Somalis in the world, a quarter of these do not live in Somalia. An estimated 103,000 Somalis now live in the UK (ONS, 2014) and with the highest number of asylum applications being granted in 2000, many of this number are likely to be second generation migrants (Home Office, 2013). However once granted asylum, these refugees face further problems: a disproportionate number of Somalis live in social housing (eighty percent) compared to other migrants (IPPR, 2007) and this is largely thought to be due to the challenges they face regarding language. Many refugees enter the UK at short notice and with a limited knowledge of English. Only eight percent of Somalis have a degree of English fluency as they arrive in the UK (Cebulla et al, 2010) and therefore find securing employment more challenging: Somali-born migrants have the lowest employment rate among all immigrants to the UK (Change Institute, 2009). This precludes them from being able to initially find private tenure accommodation and affords them arguably a lower social standing than both other migrants and members of the UK born population.
Mo Farah, a Somali-born Briton came to the UK in 1991 speaking no English. (Flickr Source: Jon Connell)
Many can see Somalia moving towards better times. In 2012 Somalia elected its first elected president, Hassan Sheik Mohammed. For many Somalis this signals a new start for the country and there is a renewed sense of optimism amongst many former migrants. Younger generations of Somalis living overseas are starting to return to the country and the price of property in some areas is rising as demand for new housing increases. Remittances from the diaspora have started to flow into the country more easily as new banks open and economic security is improving.
While Al Shabaab are still present in Somalia and in some parts are thought to be forging links with the Islamic State terrorist group, the country is seen by many as being on a path to recovery and while for many years it has commonly been seen as the world’s most failed and dangerous state, Somalia is also a country with a strong drive for resurrection throughout the coming years.
Cebulla, A. Daniel, M. and Zurawan, A. (2010) Research Report 37: Spotlight on refugee integration: findings from the Survey of New Refugees in the United Kingdom, Home Office
Change Institute (2009) The Somali Muslim Community in England, Communities and Local Government Report
FEWSNET (2011) Famine thresholds surpassed in three new areas of Southern Somalia, Famine Early Warning Systems Network
FEWSNET and FAO (2013) Mortality among populations of southern and central Somalia affected by severe food insecurity and famine during 2010-2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation
Home Office (2013) Immigration Statistics Historical Data: Asylum Volume 2
Institute for Public Policy Research (2007) Britain’s Immigrants: An economic profile
Office for National Statistics (2014) Population by Country of Birth and Nationality Report, ONS
UNOCHA (2011) EA: Regional Humanitarian Snapshot June 2011, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Unless otherwise stated, all data in the above piece relates to figures taken from James’ lecture.
Someone who has fled their country of origin and is making a claim for citizenship as they cannot return home.
A political system that prioritises the power and status of clans.
A scattered or dispersed population.
A period of time over which an area of land experiences a much reduced water supply.
A period of time over which an area of land experiences a much reduced food supply.
A state whereby a country and its inhabitants are able to self-govern.
A migrant who has moved in order to escape real or feared persecution based on their race, religion, nationality or political
Money paid by migrants to their families and friends who remain in their home country.
Scramble for Africa
The period between 1880-1900 characterised by the rapid invasion, occupation and colonisation of the African continent by European powers.
Students can draw a flow diagram which, on the topic of geopolitics, tries to explain in stages how Somalia has got to a demarcation such as ‘the world’s most failed state’. Students can then highlight a single stage within the story where the UK could have acted differently to have produced a better outcome – something which can be opened up into a discussion.
Students can research the life of Somali blogger Ugaaso Abukar Boocow (ugaasadda) on Instagram: Is her interpretation of modern day Mogadishu what they were expecting? Why do you think she return to Somalia in 2014?
Students can think about other conflict zones, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and see if there are parallels between the Somali conflict and these. From this students can hold a debate as to whether the main causes of conflict are economic, social or environmental.
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