Somalia: The World’s Third Longest Conflict

Somalia’s reputation has preceded it for decades due its history of instability, famine and civil unrest. Most recently it has returned to the international headlines for housing Al-Shabaab, the group that has claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack in Kenya. Before any opinions should be formed on Somalias future however, it is important to examine its history.

During the colonial era modern-day Somalia was divided between the UK and Italy. During this time the UK and Italy had very different ideas of governance with Italy investing in infrastructure and the UK, which controlled current Somaliland, encouraging selfgovernance. This resulted in both sections of the country having very different economic and political standards when Somalia gained independence from both nations in 1960.

After independence Somalia was internationally lauded for being a stable African democracy until the second President, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, was assassinated in 1969 and a bloodless coup ensued. The coup placed Major General Mohamed Siad Barre as President, where he pushed his ideas of scientific socialism – which was his own brand of Marxism imbued with Somali nationalism and Islamic education. It was shortly after this that Somalia began receiving military aid from the USSR.

In July 1977 Somalia invaded Ethiopia over a territorial dispute which resulted in a switch of military aid from the USSR to the USA. In March 1978 Somalia withdrew from Ethiopia with its military in tatters. It was during the 1980s that internal strife within Somalia began to increase which culminated in Barre’s overthrow in 1991. What ensued was 21 years of failed statehood with more than 14 attempts to establish a functioning government with Somaliland declaring independence in 1991 and Puntland declaring autonomy in 1998. It was during this period that many will recall the headlines concerning famine, piracy and the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident which culminated in the US withdrawal.

Whilst famine erupted in 1991, continued conflict saw several groups, most notably Mohamed Farah Aideeds and Ali Mahdi Mohameds clans, fight for supremacy in the capital of Mogadishu. To combat this the U.N. Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) deployed in April 1992 with a mission “to monitor the ceasefire in Mogadishu and escort deliveries of humanitarian supplies.” In December the US led the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), deployed alongside UNOSOM to make sure that the civilian aid was being received. This culminated in the immortalised ‘Black Hawk Down’ fiasco in October 1993 which left 18 US and an estimated 1000 Somalis dead. In March 1994 the US withdrew and shortly afterwards in March 1995 the UN followed suit.

Throughout this period of lawlessness Somalias neighbours and various international actors supported different factions, which in August 2004 banded together to become the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with military control over Mogadishu. The TFGs lack of military might became quickly apparent and by mid-2006 the moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU), of which Al-Shabaab is an extreme military offshoot, controlled Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia.

Fearing further destabilisation, Ethiopia backed by US air power, invaded Somalia in July and managed to captured the capital and re-established the TFG. Then, in order “to support a national reconciliation congress” AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) was created on 19th January 2007. In 2009 Ethiopia began to withdraw and the TFG elected a new parliament and extended its mandate for 2 years.

In May of the same year Al-Shabaab returned in force and quickly regained control of Mogadishu. Soon after in 2011 Al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu in a “change of tactics” in order to focus on Somalias border regions. AMISOM was quick to fill the void and managed to secure the capital which allowed the TFG to return once again.

In October Kenya invaded to secure its Somali borders and combat Al-Shabaab. After initial successes Kenyan forces were soon integrated into AMISOM bringing the total AU troops in Somalia to nearly 18000. All the while the US had visibly increased its armed drone program in Somalia, particularly after Al-Shabaab announced its merger with Al-Qaeda in February 2012. By September 2012 the TFG had voted on a constitution, elected a government, with Assan Sheikh Mohamudas as President, resulting in international recognition by the U.S. in January 2013.

Meanwhile in September Kismayo, the last major Al-Shabaab city was captured by Kenyan forces and in June 2013 the Al-Shabaab leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, was taken into custody after being ousted by Ahmed Abdi Godane. Since then Al-Shabaab has upped the ante once again by attacking the UN compound and the Presidential palace in Mogadishu whilst claiming responsibility for the Westgate shopping centre attack in Kenya. With all of this happening the ‘New Deal for Somalia’ conference was held in Brussels on 16th September to endorse a “three-year plan to establish Somalia as a functioning state”. The 3 year plan involved an additional €650 million, which brings the total EU aid to over €1.8 billion.

The point of this brief sketch of Somali modern history is to indicate how complex the situation is . It is not a situation that can be solved with a limited amount of international will regardless of the AU support and nearly €2 billion in aid. The assumption by some international powers that Somalia is a situation which can be solved in under a decade is vastly flawed and ignores Somali history. The international community has ignored the complexities of Somali tribal culture and the ongoing root causes of the conflict. Too little attention has been given to the political and ecological factors that persistent famines have produced in the country. Additionally, nowhere near enough attention been focused on the autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland which remain unrecognised internationally but effectively independent.

Somalia is a nation that has undergone violent upheaval for more than 30 years. A failed state for 21 years, it has experienced 3 serious famines in the past 2 decades. It requires decades of military, financial, economic and political aid alongside continued international goodwill. So far Somalia has been granted pennies, rifles and rhetoric. Yes, Al-Shabaab has lost most of its important cities. Yes, piracy has been reduced and yes, foreign aid is helping the nation. However the government remains corrupt and militarily weak without AU assistance, with little effective reach outside of Mogadishu without the help of international aid. Most importantly of all, the nation is no where near stable which has been immortalised by the Westgate attack, proving that Al-Shabaab is still a threat to be reckoned with, particularly as they still control vast swathes of the nation.