Somalia: Conflict profile

Gaining independence from the UK in 1960, Somalia enjoyed almost a decade of stability before the assassination of President Shermarke in 1969 led to a military coup, which installed Colonel Siad Barre as president.

Initially, Barre’s government pursued a strong development strategy and introduced policies that discouraged clannism, in an attempt to forge a Somali identity that could transcend often contentious clan relations. However, the 1977 Ogaden War with Ethiopia - fought in pursuit of the unification of ethnic Somali lands ruled by Ethiopia - led to the formation of several groups opposed to the Barre regime. The government’s security apparatus became increasingly oppressive as Barre responded with a violent crackdown on his opponents and their clans.

When Barre’s government fell in early 1991, the power vacuum in Mogadishu was filled with competing clan-based warlords and their militias. Although a cease-fire was agreed in the summer of 1991, fighting had re-emerged by September. Ongoing conflict resulted in the widespread destruction of agriculture, leading to a massive food shortage and famine in which approximately 300,000 people died.

While militias fought for control in the south, the leaders of another opposition group, the Somali National Movement (SNM), brought together traditional clan elders called the Guurti in the north. They united in a grass-roots effort to establish the secessionist state of Somaliland in 1991. Through a series of reconciliation conferences between 1991 and 1993, Somaliland's leaders consolidated power under a hybrid system of government which combined elements of Western-style democracy with traditional Somali social structures. Similarly, in 1998, clan leaders in the north-east region of Somalia formed the semi-autonomous state of Puntland through negotiation and consensus.

RESTORE HOPEPROVIDE RELIEF UN transport in Somali neighbour Kenya. The UN has been present in Somalia for many years (Image credit: expertinfantry)

Somali-led statebuilding

Somaliland and Puntland have experienced relative calm. However, disputes remain concerning the border regions of Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn. Issues of inclusion and power-sharing are also unresolved, with some sub-clans and minority groups feeling marginalised by the current system of representation. In November 2014, elections in Somaliland erupted in violence. In addition, the international community has failed to recognise Somaliland’s independence from Somalia, affecting the external assistance available to it

In the years following these events, different warlords continued to fight for control of political and economic interests, in Mogadishu and much of the south and centre of the country. In August 2000, a Transitional National Government (TNG) was formed in Djibouti but lacked credibility with most Somalis and faced widespread opposition. In 2004, it was replaced by the Transitional Federal Government, which initially ruled from Kenya until it moved to Baidoa in 2007.

In July 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group of Sharia courts, defeated the US-backed and secular Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. The ICU took control of Mogadishu and large parts of the southern region. The ICU enforced its rule quickly, confiscating warlords’ weapons, integrating their militias, combating piracy along Somalia’s southern coast, and imposing a strict interpretation of Islam.

In December 2006, the TFG, with Ethiopian and African Union support, seized Mogadishu and other key southern cities formerly held by the ICU, and established itself in Mogadishu. Following the military defeat of the ICU, the group’s hard-line militant youth movement, Al Shabaab, re-emerged to continue the fight against what its members viewed as foreign invaders. While subsequent peace talks with some of the ICU factions led to a peace agreement and a coalition government in 2009, that peace was short-lived. Continuing conflict against Al Shabaab led to the loss of much of the territory the government had controlled, including large parts of Mogadishu and Baidoa.

Somalia pic 2 An international conference on Somalia was held in London in 2013 (Image credit: FCO)

Humanitarian challenges

A serious drought in 2011 led to a food shortage and humanitarian crisis in which an estimated 260,000 Somalis died and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Al Shabaab unexpectedly withdrew from Mogadishu at the height of the famine, and the TFG and AMISOM forces were able to consolidate their control of the capital. Subsequent AMISOM and TFG military operations to regain control of key southern towns were successful, but resulted in the further displacement of Somalis. As of July 2014, the UN Refugee Agency reported 1.1 million internally displaced persons in the country, and over a million refugees in the region and elsewhere.

In August 2012, the TFG handed over the reins to the Somali Federal Government (SFG), the first elected and internationally-recognised central government that Somalia had seen in 22 years. The establishment of the SFG and the military defeat of Al Shabaab in 2014 are positive steps in building a stable Somalia, Al Shabaab and other opposition groups continue to pose a threat through indiscriminate attacks, including a suicide attack on a Mogadishu hotel on 20 February 2015. The group maintains control of large parts of southern and central Somalia.

Al Shabaab's declaration of allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012, and the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi demonstrated the impact of Somalian instabiliy on the region as a whole. The country continues to deal with food shortages and droughts, with the UN announcing that more than 350,000 were in need of food aid in 2014. Disagreements between the federal and state governments over who can make oil and natural gas concessions with Western companies also have the potential to undermine peace and stability.

Hope for the future

However, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Renewed negotiations between the federal governments in Mogadishu and Somaliland have given rise to hope that an agreement over Somaliland’s independence can be reached, even though talks subsequenetly broke down. Somalis have remained resilient in the face of decades of conflict and major humanitarian crises. Private enterprise has driven the economy in the larger cities and technological innovations have allowed Somalis to develop a vibrant telecoms system and an advanced mobile banking system. Additionally, deep family support networks and social structures, including clan elders, remain. The Somali Diaspora community is also very involved in the peace and development processes. Many from the younger generation who grew up outside the country want to return to help rebuild the country. These Somali-led efforts offer a great opportunity for the country to move from conflict to peace.

Last updated: January 2014