• The Pendulum

Why Somalia Failed and How It Can Change


Aditya Aswani


More than 900 women were sexually assaulted last month in Somalia. The recent famine led to not only mass starvation but also spikes in gender-based violence as women need to travel long, dangerous distances to feed their families. This is merely one of the many tragic consequences of state failure, as only stable institutions can form the foundations of prosperous societies. Somalia lacks such institutions. Its federal — or perhaps “confederal” — government is defenseless and corrupt.

The Somali National Army (SNA) lacks substantial presence. Its soldiers pledge stronger allegiance to their clan leaders than they do to their army generals. Recruits will disobey generals at the behest of clan leaders because of not only clan rivalries but also because of salary delays of over a year. Further confounding the issues is corruption: Transparency International ranks Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world. Between 2009 and 2010, $130 million “went missing” in suspected bribery. With its decentralized army, the corrupt government not only flounders to control its territories, but it also struggles to combat al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization. Without the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM)—a joint United Nations and African Union military force—the militant extremists would have overrun Somalia long ago.

Somalia’s future looks bleak. Despite recent lowering piracy rates and some progress in increasing governmental stability, the country’s future and their foreign aid still walk a tightrope. As a result of famine and violence, two million of the country’s twelve million people were displaced. Meanwhile, foreign support dwindles as both the EU and regional allies consider withdrawing support soon. The EU concerns itself more with its refugee crisis and prefers to direct resources to the Mediterranean, while a slew of internal issues motivates members of the AU to withdraw their military forces from Somalia. Observers fear that if international forces withdraw before Somalia becomes self-sufficient, then all state-building of the past decades will be wasted.

Economics and clan rivalries brought Somalia to its current quandary. After gaining independence from the British and Italians in 1960 and forming the Somali Republic, life in Somalia improved until 1969, when the Supreme Revolutionary Council under Major General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power. A large part of the problems that Somalia faces today originate from his rule from 1969 to his overthrow in 1991—which marked the beginning of the Somali Civil War. Barre made two major mistakes: nationalizing the economy, and sowing distrust between Somalia’s clans. The former crippled the nation’s industries, leading to much of the economic insecurity that the country faces today. The latter is a more complicated topic. Although Somalia has much ethnic and religious homogeneity, it also contains various clans and subclans. Since most Somalis are pastoralist, and because Somalia has an arid climate, historians understand that these clans/subclans appeared over centuries as a form of social security. During Barre’s rule, not only did the dictator give preference to his clan and those of his relatives, but he also violently repressed the others. In a particularly nefarious strategy, he fueled violence between clans when he wanted to divert attention away from his unpopular administration.



The US and the Soviet Union played a role in this violence, as they backed the Barre regime not only to counter one another, but also to acquire strategically located bases. Although both countries cannot be held entirely responsible for the human rights violations and the resulting inter-clan hatred, they are not entirely innocent either since the hundreds of millions of dollars that both countries gave to Barre helped fund his incendiary policies. These two factors drove the Somali Civil War. As Somalia neared the end of 1990, Barre’s government collapsed when militias from various different clans attacked. However, his overthrow did not end the fighting. Since the seeds of distrust had been sown between clans, they began to fight one another for dominance within the country. This war then led to the never-ending cycle of economic decay and inter-clan hatred, and consequently, three to five hundred thousand people died since the fighting began in 1986.

Although little hope seemingly remains for Somalia, the international community can take concrete steps to ensure that it stays on the path toward stability. The UN, and especially the US, should focus on more diplomatic than military solutions. Nevertheless, the US should also improve the SNA’s military capabilities through advising and training, as it is the cornerstone of Somali national security. Ending clan factionalism should be another focus of the UN since it hinders progress towards a united Somalia. Diplomacy can effectively combat terrorism. Al-Shabaab effectively recruits youth in Somalia not only because of the dearth of economic opportunity, but also due to the inefficiency and corruptness of the federal government. The terrorist organization points out these problems and claims they could govern more effectively. With this in mind, a strong counter-terrorism strategy should focus more strengthening Somalia’s institutions and less on weakening al-Shabaab’s ranks. Furthermore, institutional development should focus not only on the federal level but also the state level. Since Somalia is a confederation, aiding each of its states individually will also help stabilize the nation. If AMISOM were to leave before the SNA becomes effective, then al-Shabaab will most likely regain territory. It is imperative for Somalia’s future that the SNA be strengthened and that AMISOM remain present and well-funded. Lastly, a more stable Somalia means that the international community must encourage greater dialogue and cooperation between Somalia’s clans. Other than improving relationships between clan leaders, international aid disbursements should be conditional on the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination policies on both the federal and state levels. If the international community can pursue these steps, then Somalia’s gruesome statistics may one day be a thing of the past.

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