Chaos in Somalia: the secrets of a multifactorial widespread crisis

Translated by Marine El Hajji, proofread by Marie Peltomaki

The Federal Republic of Somalia, an internationally recognized proto-state: between territorial partition and ‘pan-Somalism’, a nation’s irresolution

Has a nation in the Horn of Africa ever really existed? This question seems quite difficult to answer in the affirmative. From the Gulf of Aden to the far reaches of the desert it shares with Kenya lie Somalia’s internationally recognized and inviolable borders.

The Somali decolonization: as a sharing of powers ends, the question of identity arises

The history of Somalia has unfolded on the coasts of the East African tip, a triangle that the country controls almost exclusively, except for the Republic of Djibouti, the last French colony which gained independence in 1977, and Ogaden, a Muslim country in orthodox Ethiopia. The islamization of the Horn happened in the 7th century, via Arab and Persian trading posts. Trade routes were gradually established along the ‘Swahili’ coast – Swahili being the main regional dialect.

Despite these intrusions, the region remained mainly nomadic until the end of the 19th century, which is when the English colonial settlement took place in Somalia. This irruption led to the gradual departure of Egyptian people, as well as that of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Berlin in 1885 established the division of the territories. A British protectorate of ‘Somaliland’, a vast region in the North-West, was established in 1887. At that time, Paris owned Djibouti, and Rome settled in present-day Eritrea. Many territorial adjustments were made, especially regarding Italian East Africa, which was present in Ethiopia. Italy’s requests for compensation were dismissed by the Allies in 1915. The same happened after the failed Italian offensive on Ethiopia, that was defeated by the British troops from Somaliland in 1941. Rome obtained a post-war mandate on central Somalia, to prepare its independence.

In 1960, the British and the Italians left the area of Somaliland and Italian southern Somalia, and the two previously independent entities merged, thus creating the Republic of Somalia. This irredentism was part of the project ‘Greater Somalia’ which had already been theorized by the British Labour Party in the 1930s. This project was supposed to include Djibouti, Ogaden in Ethiopia, and the North-Eastern province of Kenya with its Somali Islamic majority. This ‘pan-Somalism’ made it supposedly possible to overcome clan conflicts in Somalia, as tensions existed between the nomads, the fishermen and the agro-pastoralists.

A representation of the territories mainly populated by the Somali ethnic group, of Islamic faith, within the Horn of Africa.
A projection of the ‘Greater Somalia’ which had already been theorized by the British Foreign Office in the 1930s.
‘Regional Geography of the World: Globalization, People, and Places,’ East Africa section.

The Somali expansionary failure: the instant setback after failing to consider Somalia’s multi-ethnicity

There was already a climate of latent chaos in 1962, as these territories were politically disputed. Kenya rejected the idea of a referendum on self-determination. The diaspora minorities in these areas were strongly galvanized after a coup d’état in 1969. A democratic republic started under the impetus of the general Siad Barre, a native of the region of Ogaden. This socialist who was close to the USSR had Moscow deliver hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to him, in order to balance out the American friendship with Ethiopia and Kenya. Barre peppered his speech with a Greater Somali imperialism, while the ‘Western Somali’ Liberation Front (WSLF) appeared in 1974, pleading for Ogaden, but also for the Oromo territories, one of Ethiopia’s main ethnic groups, to join Somalia.

The Somali invasion of Ogaden began in 1977. The annexation of this Ethiopian region forced Moscow to break its alliance with Mogadishu. For the USSR, the Marxist-Leninist Ethiopia represented a more stable system, which is why they reassigned their weapons and military advisers in the country’s favour. The Oromo militias remained loyal to Ethiopian nationalism, thus successfully pushing back the Somali army. As he had no support, Siad Barre gave up on his ideal of a ‘Greater Somalia’. As for Ethiopia, it joined the Eastern Bloc and then reconquered a part of Eritrea. National unity was strengthened in the country, contrary to Somalia which proved unable to convince the Oromos, and thus ended up turning towards the West – something that did not prevent Ethiopia from retaliating against Mogadishu. Ethiopia succeeded in founding the ‘Somali National Movement’ opposed to the Siad Barre regime, and seized Somaliland in 1988.

After this failure, Somalia started to fragment. In 1991, another anti-Barre faction called the ‘United Somali Congress’ seized the capital and had the dictator removed from office. The movement unilaterally declared Somaliland’s independence. Relatively stable, Somaliland was governed by clan law and had a bicameral government, which was not internationally recognized. Then the new head of state, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, caused a split with the clan fringe of the movement, the Somali National Alliance. He was condemned in the South in favour of Barre, which led to clashes as early as 1991. Then another region, in the North-East, ‘Puntland’ seceded, and Somalia was reduced to its capital.

Fighters of the Ethiopian anti-communist and Somali factions of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, as well as of the Western Somali Liberation Front, the 1980s. ‘Ethiopia targets natural gas production in the Somali region,’ Diplomat News Network, 15 September 2015.

The emergence of a combatant Islamism, a factor in the regionalization of the Somali crisis in the light of separatism and military intervention

This state of anarchy forced the UN to create an American task force at the end of 1992 to preserve peace. This operation, ‘Restore Hope’, did not manage to break the military siege of Somalia. Many clan and/or separatist movements began to argue over the boundaries of their respective regions. The United States were unable to neutralize the SNA headquarters, and because of that, decided to overstep the UN mandate by redeploying troops. In 1993, the contributing countries withdrew after the battle of Mogadishu and the infamous massacre of American soldiers – a battle that is even adapted to the big screan with the movie Black Hawk Down.

Since the US defeat, the extreme intensity of clan fighting drove Mogadishu to establish the Somalia National Peace Conference in 2000. It led to the establishment of the Transitional National Government, which was internationally recognized. Somalia was then able to regain its seat at the United Nations and proclaim a federal state in 2003, which explains the attempts at separatism within the country.

In 2006, a coalition of religious courts, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) wanted to take advantage of the instability of the country to overthrow the government. The movement was defeated by a swift Ethiopian intervention at the end of 2006. The ICU split into two branches, a moderate one, under President Sharif Ahmed, and a radical one, Al Shebab, the Somali branch of Al-Qaeda. Its activists wanted to implement the Sharia law in Somalia, as well as in Ethiopia and Kenya. The Shebab managed to take over the outskirts of Mogadishu and southern Somalia. They were only driven out in 2011, this time by the Kenyan army, which left the country the following year. Nairobi is trying to protect its porous borders from the Islamists.

Furthermore, the organization still controls large parts of the country and remains very active. But it is suffering from both the irruption of the Islamic State since 2016, particularly in Puntland, and the US drone strike campaign intensified by President Trump.

Al Shebab fighters in the South of the country, after the group’s declaration of war on the local Islamic state, December 2018. ‘Somalia’s Islamist rebels Al Shabaab declare war on the Islamic State, I24news, 22 December 2018.

The forced dismantling of the Somali state: an increased interdependence of the tensions between jihadist guerrillas, local particularities and intervening powers

Puntland, now autonomous, has been contesting parts of Somaliland for more than 20 years. Tension between the two entities has increased since 2018. The former, which also has its own administration, threatened on June 28th to intervene militarily to take possession of the territory of the latter, which happens to be much more prosperous and has more qualified armed forces. This crisis happened at a time when Somalia and the Somaliland region had initiated historic discussions in Djibouti for reconciliation – a reconciliation derived from a desire to reintegrate the North, on the one hand, and the desire for self-determination, on the other hand.

These separatist countries concentrate port interfaces and are supported by Djibouti, as well as by Ethiopia which is taking advantage of Somalia’s fragmented state. Taiwan even decided to open a diplomatic representation in the North, due to the lack of embassies. The rest of Somalia, in the centre of the country, is much poorer and has few significant resources, as the shortfall caused by these rebel regions is considerable.

Another very important region is Jubaland, the centre of the Shebab insurgency. This semi-autonomous region renounced any tendency toward independence at the end of the 1990s and is the subject to regular offensives by the Kenyan army. Its president was recognized by Mogadishu, while its troops, supported by Kenya, clashed in March with the Somali army.

A representation of the federated states of the Somali state. From top to bottom: self-proclaimed independent Somaliland – autonomous Puntland – semi-autonomous Galmudug – Koonfur-Galbeed, attached to the Mogadishu governorate – autonomous Jubaland. ‘Somalia waxay u qeybsantay maamul goboleedyo aan Muqdisho ka amar qaadan,’ Asad Mataan for Caasimada, 28 June 2019.

Somalia accuses Nairobi of interfering – while Nairobi believes that the integrity of Jubaland has been violated. Despite the effectiveness of the Ethiopian, and later the Kenyan, troops on-site who made the Shebab lose most of the urban areas they had gained after the fall of the ICU, the latter have the logistical means to continue their guerrilla warfare. Mogadishu is still suffering from major attacks. Last December, for example, a Turkish humanitarian convoy was attacked, which resulted in dozens of victims. The Shebab are said to have 5,000 to 9,000 fighters. All these factors have led to the current situation in Somalia, which is constantly deteriorating.

A personal mapping of the conflict in Somalia. Yellow: the central government and the AMISOM. Blue: Puntland.
Green: Somaliland, fighting for the Khatumo entity (purple). Red: the IS. Grey: Al Shebab. The hatched zone refers to the armed takeover of the area by the belligerent concerned. Jules Palleschi, June 2020.

The current situation in Somalia: from disillusionment to intervention, between failures and international interests

500,000 casualties. 30 years of deteriorating economy and public infrastructure. That is the heavy toll of the Somali conflict. There is also the Salafist Jihadist, clan-based, and sometimes even local fights. Even though it has just celebrated 60 years of independence, the puppet Republic of Somalia still seems destined to be torn apart.

Forces involved: peacekeeping missions and geostrategic Issues

This chronic instability, varying between paramilitary proselytization, criminal traffic and terrorist incursions, cannot be the only explanation for Somalia’s transformation into a grey area. The inability to establish authority on the long term and the armed privatization of scattered areas are not solely the fault of local actors. The internal jihad of the Shebab, as well as the various degrees of the territorial partition have, since Washington’s failure, curbed any assumption of military responsibility by the major powers. This is why we can speak of covert intervention, with the intention to use the federal states in secession to exploit the geostrategic interests of the Horn of Africa.

As far as peacekeeping missions goes, the AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) has been on-site since 2007. It mainly aims at protecting the federal institutions and securing important territories and infrastructure[1]. This coalition includes military personnel from Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, and Sierra Leone. Alongside the AMISOM, there is also the Operation Atalanta, which is chaperoned by the European Union (EU) and mostly aim at ensuring maritime safety in the vicinity of Somalia.

Foreign presence in the Horn of Africa region. Source: ‘Gulf state rivalries in the Horn of Africa: Time for a Red Sea policy,’
Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), May 2019.

A new bone of contention between the Gulf’s petro-monarchies

While the country hosts several peacekeeping missions, it remains a highly strategic crossroads. Indeed, the Somali conflict crystallizes already existing tensions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Both petro-monarchies are at odds in Somalia against the backdrop of a war for influence. Qatar has been involved in Somali affairs for several years, as the country had already been diplomatically involved since 2006. The Qatari emir Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani tried to establish a dialogue between the different factions of the ICU[2].

Doha then sought to mediate in the peace negotiations. This attempt failed, but the diplomatic relations between the two countries remain close. Officials of both countries meet regularly, for example. Furthermore, Somalia rejected the maritime agreement signed between Somaliland and the Emirati company DP World[3]. This rejection did not please the Emiratis but strengthened the diplomatic ties with Qatar. The good understanding between Somalia and the UAE mostly fell apart after the interception by the Somali authorities of a large sum of money from Abu Dhabi. The UAE claimed that the money was intended for the Somali army, but the Somali federal government refused to believe this version of the events and therefore, suspended the bilateral military agreement signed with the UAE in 2014.

The Emirati monarchy also preferred to bet on the self-proclaimed region of Somaliland. For example, they invested militarily through the creation of a military base in Berbera, a highly strategic port city because it is ideally located between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Gulf. In the same vein, the monarchy signed a similar agreement with Puntland regarding the port of Bossaso. Somalia is but an additional battleground for the two petro-monarchies that are constantly fighting over territories and resources against a background of war for influence.

The main ports in the Horn of Africa, including Berbera and Bossaso, which attract a lot of attention in Somalia.
Source: ‘Le port de Berbera fait du Somaliland un acteur incontournable en mer Rouge,’ La Croix. Credits: AFP.

A textbook case of the humanitarian Turkish foreign policy

But there is another key player in Somalia who offers its fraternal support to the population: Turkey. Ankara has never hidden its will to establish close ties with the countries of Africa, and to establish itself on-site long-term. In 2011, as famine decimated the Somali population, Recep Tayipp Erdoğan visited the country and Turkish humanitarian agencies were quick to provide support to the population after the presidential visit. The Turkish government also called on the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to address the Somali issue. Many Turkish Muslim NGOs are present in Somalia and food supplies are regularly sent.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey sent medical supplies to Somalia on two occasions, which strengthens its status of sister and protective nation. Moreover, Ankara takes pride on its humanitarian presence in Africa where no less than nine offices of TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) are based. This humanitarian policy is largely rooted in the Turkish foreign policy. Very recently, Ankara offered support to many countries in the fight against Covid-19. An altruistic policy, sometimes accused of neo-Ottomanism, that the Turkish government prefers to call humanitarian policy – and that has been widely condemned in Syria, for instance. Often acting as a mediator, Turkey is part of many international organizations, and thus has a non-negligible status and diplomatic weight.

The website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also states that Turkey is the world’s largest humanitarian donor and the country hosting the most displaced individuals according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Moreover, Ankara is, like all UN member states, a signatory to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This legal norm aims at protecting populations from war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is linked to the concept of a right to intervene – a concept often used as an argument by countries intervening in the internal affairs of a third state.

Duty or the right to humanitarian intervention: the pitfalls of humanitarian policies

In the light of the many forces present in Somalia, issues of international law may arise. The notion of humanitarian intervention was created after the civil war in Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. At the time, few states had reacted to help with the famine that decimated the local population. At the time, most of them invoked the principles of neutrality and non-intervention. In response to these tragic events, the notion of a duty to intervene was widely popularized in France in 1970. It means that a state has a moral obligation to intervene in another state if the latter proves to be failing in the event of a crisis or a war. Which is a paradox, considering that international law advocates the sovereignty of states.

Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and a strong advocate for the humanitarian duty of intervention, played a role in the rise of this principle. He said that ‘the suffering is not bound by national borders’. According to him, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to the tragedies that take place outside of our borders. The moral duty had to become a right, to obtain a legal status. Many steps have been taken in this direction by the UN Security Council since 1988, before it was codified in 2005 and 2009. For instance, the International Criminal Tribunal was created to condemn war crimes or crimes against humanity. It can also lead to the condemnation by the international community of States refusing humanitarian aid, or the application of military or non-military sanctions against failing states.

UN member states that are signatories to R2P.
Source: Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, ‘UN General Assembly and R2P’.

So, the UN member states have had to defend the populations of other countries since 2005 and the R2P. But this right to intervene is also sometimes used to justify armed interventions whose goals are more imperialist than humanitarian. To put it in a nutshell, the right of humanitarian intervention depends on the good faith of the country using it and is subject to debate: is it necessarily a moral act? Or is it strategic rather than humanitarian?

Somalia is a typical example of the successes of this right to intervene, but above all of its failures, as the country is still mired in civil war, fragmented, and still lacking any kind of sovereign authority over the whole territory. Many countries are present, both in the military and humanitarian sense. Yet, peace seems difficult to achieve, and the political stability is relative. Somalia is but another piece in the complex political game that is Africa, a territory with multiple stakes. It also represents an additional challenge for the international community and stirs up the lust as much as it inflames tensions.

[1] To know more about the AMISOM, visit the official website of the mission:
[2] Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani held the title of emir of Qatar from 1995 to 2013. The current emir of Qatar is Tamim ben Hamad Al Thani.
[3] Port operator, subsidiary of Dubai World, a company owned by the UAE government.

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