“”You can’t imagine the feeling of being reclassified from a failed state to a normal country. To be classified as a normal country is a blessing for us.
|—Abdirahman Duale Beileh, Somali Finance Minister, upon signing a debt-forgiveness deal with the African Development Bank in 2020.|
The Federal Republic of Somalia is a highly dysfunctional state located in the Horn of Africa. Its capital is Mogadishu, which was the site of the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident in 1993. With assistance from the African Union, it is currently fighting a devastating civil war against the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab. As of 2013, about 99.8% of the country's population adheres to Islam.
From antiquity to the Middle Ages, Somalia was a vital commercial center for trade up and down the African coast. It was a collection of prosperous city-states which gradually converted to Islam after being introduced to the religion by Muslim merchants. Eventually, however, the region's wealth and power declined due to increasing dominance by European powers in world trade.
During the Scramble for Africa, Somalia was targeted by the German Empire. The Germans gave up on the region, and Somalia was then split between Italy and the British Empire. The Dervish movement, led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, managed to resist colonization until 1920. In 1941, Italian colonial rule over southern Somalia ended for obvious reasons, and the country's two halves were theoretically unified under the British. In 1960, Somalia became an independent state. Welcome to the rest of the story.
The Supreme Revolutionary Council, a communist military force led by Jaalle Mohamed Siad Barre, seized power in 1969 and established the Somali Democratic Republic with Barre as dictator. This regime limped along until 1991, when it abruptly collapsed like most other communist states worldwide. Thus began the Somali Civil War, as many warlord groups, pirate cartels, and Islamic fundamentalist groups immediately started burning the country down to see who would be the next leader. It was basically anarchy, or perhaps the perfect libertarian paradise. The United States launched Operation Gothic Serpent in 1993, hoping to capture one of the worst warlords. Unfortunately, Somali militants shot down some of the American Black Hawk helicopters, and the surviving Americans then got into a bloody shootout to survive and be rescued. 18 US soldiers died, and some of them subsequently had their corpses dragged through the streets by jeering crowds. Yankee went home.
Between 1993 and about 2012, the state of Somalia was nonexistent. Various parts of the country decided to make a break for the door, first Somaliland in 1991, then Puntland in 1998, and finally Jubaland in 2011. Collectively, these disputed states make up most of Somalia's territory, so the rest of Somalia wasn't too keen on letting them get away with secession. Somalia also became a notorious pirate haven.
Things have started to look up a bit for Somalia, however. A peace process and transitional government started up in 2012, and a good chunk of Somalia went along with it. Somali leaders ratified a new constitution in the same year, reforming the country into a (theoretically) democratic republic. Piracy started dropping significantly in 2013, and Somalia lost its crown as "World's Worst Pirate Hotspot" to the Strait of Malacca. Somalia has since set about trying to rebuild its international relations. The civil war is still ongoing against several active terrorist groups.
The US State Department maintains a Level 4 Travel Advisory against Somalia due to its ongoing civil war, high crime levels, and serious public health risks.
Somalia was home to civilization very early in its history, and archaeological evidence shows that the Somalians had extensive trade with Ancient Egypt and Mycenaean Greece since the second millennium BCE. Historically, the Egyptians recorded that they had a significant trading partner to their south called the "Land of Punt". Many modern historians now believe that the Egyptians referred to people in Somalia. Somali trade networks weathered the subsequent centuries and grew to encompass trade with the Roman Empire and India.
Islam and the Middle Ages
Somalia was introduced to Islam very early, as some of the Prophet Muhammad's followers fled there to avoid persecution in Mecca. These Muslims and the people they converted went on to build Africa's first mosque.
City-states in Somalia, most notably Mogadishu and Kismayo, were also part of the lucrative Swahili Coast trade network. Merchants traded in ivory and gold from the African interior, frankincense and myrrh from Arabia, and goods from as far as India and Imperial China. Muslim merchants from further north in Africa also helped spread the Islamic religion throughout Somalia. Sadly, Somalia also formed part of East Africa's slave trade.
Despite its poor reputation today, Mogadishu was one of the places to be in the Middle Ages. Mogadishu formed a Carthage-style naval empire and dominated the gold trade, leaving a great wealth of architectural ruins across Somalia.
Later on, Somalia became home to several large states which dominated the region. First was the Ajuran Sultanate, which had an efficient centralized government and a powerful military, which helped it greatly when Portugal came knocking. With help from the Ottoman Empire, the Somalis managed to force the Portuguese out of their territory. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the last Somalia would see of Europeans. Next came the Adal Sultanate, which rose in 1415 and prospered due to its good relations with the Ottoman Empire. Adal fought many costly imperialist wars against Ethiopia, leading to the state's eventual collapse.
It's important to note that Somalia, at this point, was about as wealthy and powerful as any other notable region in during this time. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who passed by Mogadishu in the 15th century, noted that it was a large city with houses several stories high and large palaces in its center, in addition to many mosques with cylindrical minarets. Jewish merchants considered Mogadishu a great place to conduct business, especially when selling goods they had purchased in India. Even places like Malacca and the Ming dynasty moved goods through Somalia.
In other words, Somalia was not always a backward hellhole. The idea that Europeans brought civilization to a desolate African and Asian world? Complete bullshit.
Somalia's golden age ended due to the increasing power of Portugal. The Portuguese wanted to seize control of these great trading networks, and they weren't interested in paying for the privilege. From 1503, Portuguese warships bombarded and ransacked many of the great Swahili Coast trading cities, like Zanzibar, Mombasa, and Kilwa. When the trade networks moved north into Somalia, Portugal teamed up with Oman to blockade most of Somalia's cities to starve them of trade and resources.
As a result of these hostile actions, Somalia's wealth and power rapidly declined. Somalian states were weak and eventually proved powerless against incursions by Europeans and Oman. This process culminated during the Scramble for Africa. The northern part of Somalia, what is now Somaliland, became vital after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as that region had access to the Red Sea's southern choke point. The British Empire thus quickly gobbled up Yemen across the water and then declared a protectorate over Somaliland in 1884. They did this largely to fend off claims from the French colonial empire, German Empire, and Italy. The Italians thus had to settle for the less strategically valuable southern part of Somalia.
The Somali Dervish movement arose to organize armed resistance in response to colonial encroachments. It was led by Somali religious and nationalist leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, and the Dervish fought a twenty-year war of resistance against the colonial powers. Hassan gave speeches saying that the British "have destroyed our religion and made our children their children" and that the Christian Ethiopians in league with the British were bent upon destroying the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation.
The Dervish movement successfully created an unrecognized state in Somalia, especially after the colonial powers became distracted by World War I. However, the resistance ended in 1920 after the British launched extensive aerial attacks against Dervish forts and populations. Both the British and Italian colonies in Somalia were involved against each other during World War II.
After World War II, the formerly Italian part of Somalia was placed under a United Nations trusteeship program designed to prepare it for eventual independence and merger with British Somaliland. This goal was realized in 1960, and the two halves of Somalia united into a republic.
During those first nine years of independence, Somalia was genuinely democratic... if you were a man. Citizens had free speech, and men from all walks of life participated in democratic institutions.
There were still problems, however. The British and Italians had left behind a deeply divided Somalia, as they had created two separate administrative and educational infrastructures. As a result, Somaliland and Somalia proper were almost too divided to be properly unified. For their part, the southern part of the country thought it appropriate to take full control of everyone's affairs, as they had been the ones to benefit from the United Nations trusteeship. The northern, formerly British, part of the country predictably responded to that idea with the middle finger.
Worst of all, the ideology of Pan-Somalism was starting to take hold. This was the irredentist idea that all ethnic Somalis should be unified under one "Greater Somalia", a goal that necessitated wars against Kenya and Ethiopia at the bare minimum. To that end, Somalia armed terrorists and sent them into Kenya and then fought a border war against Ethiopia in 1964. This naturally convinced Kenya and Ethiopia to sign a mutual defense pact.
In 1969, the president of Somalia was assassinated by his own bodyguard. A faction of army leaders called the Supreme Revolutionary Council took advantage of the situation to seize control of Mogadishu and install themselves as a provisional government. After (presumably) a lot of internal knife-fighting, army commander Major General Mahammad Siad Barre assumed leadership of the new government. The new regime banned political parties, abolished the National Assembly, suspended the constitution, and declared its official support for "Greater Somalia." The country was renamed the Somali Democratic Republic.
Somali Democratic Republic
The Cold War was in full swing at this point, and Siad Barre's government decided to throw in on the side of the Eastern Bloc, retroactively defining itself as a Marxist dictatorship. That kind of thing tended to happen in post-colonial Africa for reasons we're sure you can figure out yourself. Additionally, it also helped things that Ethiopia had joined the Western team.
In terms of ideology, the Somali Democratic Republic (SDR) tried to weirdly combine the writings of Marx with the Quran. It became a typical thugocracy, with politically unreliable civil servants purged and privileges handed out according to clan affiliation. The military took over most civilian administrative roles and then replaced the judiciary. Barre's government also established a censorship authority because.
Neither the government nor the public was genuinely socialist. The first problem was that Somalia had basically no history of classical Marxist class conflict, so Barre decided that his regime existed to combat "tribalism". Even that was an empty promise, as Barre focused on tearing apart the clans he and his supporters did not belong to. Barre was pleased to identify with his own clan heritage.
However, as Somalia became more and more economically dependent on the Soviet Union (a red flag for later events), Barre claimed to be a socialist and arrested anyone in Somalia who tried to say differently. The Soviets, for their part, were happy enough to play along for the sake of Cold War interests.
In 1977, Barre decided to give that whole "Pan-Somalism" thing another go, and to that end, he declared war against Ethiopia. The war began with a largely successful invasion of eastern Ethiopia, but the Soviets disapproved of the violence.
This wasn't the same Ethiopia that Somalia had tangled with a decade earlier. In 1975, Ethiopia's monarchy was overthrown by a military coup and replaced with another one-party communist dictatorship. Thus, Somalia had just declared war against a country that the Soviets considered a useful ally. This was a major, major diplomatic fuckup.
The Soviets decided that Ethiopia was the bigger catch, so they dumped Barre and got together with Ethiopia. Volunteers arrived in Ethiopia from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany. This foreign assistance proved decisive, and Somalia had to back down in 1978. The war effort included about 11,000 Cuban troops and 1,000 Soviet military advisers.
Somalia's defeat was a disaster. The military was shredded, the populace was disgruntled, and Barre's aura of invincibility was utterly shattered.
Friendship ended with the USSR; friendship started with the US
“”Based on the totality of evidence collected in Somaliland and elsewhere both during and after his mission, the consultant firmly believes that the crime of genocide was conceived, planned and perpetrated by the Somali Government against the Isaaq people of northern Somalia between 1987 and 1989.
|—Chris Mburu, UN investigator, describes the actions of US ally Siad Barre.|
Naturally, the United States was quite content to side with Barre's murderous warmongering regime now that he was an enemy of the Soviet Union. Why? Because it was the Cold War. Duh. The Somali port of Berbera was and is also a vital trade hub for oil, so now you've got a twofer.
Somalia went from being economically dependent on the Soviet Union to being economically dependent on the United States. This was a double red flag for later events. Despite Western pressure, Barre only made symbolic moves to liberalize his country. In every way that mattered, Somalia remained a dictatorship. In fact, during the 1980s, Barre got even worse.
In 1982, Ethiopia decided to mess with Somalia by arming exiled Somali dissidents and sending them out to invade Somalia's middle section. Barre asked his American friends for help, and he received a nice shipment full of guns. Barre promptly used those guns to murder his domestic political opponents. Faced with shrinking popularity and an armed and organized domestic resistance, Siad Barre unleashed a reign of terror against anyone who dared oppose him. When Barre was injured in a car crash, disgruntled elements from inside his own army tried to launch a coup of their own, resulting in the beginning of an open civil war. Barre's fearsome Red Berets murdered the shit out of many people while the now extremely paranoid old man purged his officer corps and looted Somalia's treasury. Subsequent UN investigations found that Barre's persecutions of various clans during this period constituted a genocide. This was gonna end well.
Somalia finally fell apart in 1991, when an alliance of wannabe warlords launched a successful coup against Barre, forcing the ailing dictator into exile in Nigeria. After the coup, nobody could really agree on who should be in charge. As a result, almost every ambitious person in Somalia immediately put together a band of armed wackjobs and started trying to murder everyone else.
While Somalia descended into the most literal definition of anarchy, Somaliland decided "fuck it" and declared independence. Nobody really gave a shit at the time.
Meanwhile, the UN decided that this ongoing humanitarian disaster could not be allowed to continue. United Nations Security Council Resolution 794 authorized a coalition force of peacekeepers to Somalia to ensure that food aid could reach civilians. The resulting foreign aid is estimated by the UN to have saved about 250,000 lives. That's not, however, what people remember.
Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid immediately started sending his militias to kidnap or kill UN aid workers. The US naturally decided that it was time to make the bastard cut that shit out. In October 1993, US forces set out on a snatch-and-grab mission to arrest two of Aidid's lieutenants. The operation went haywire when Aidid's militiamen managed to shoot down two US Black Hawk helicopters, and the resulting rescue operation and battle for survival lasted 18 hours and killed hundreds of Somalis. Somali mobs dragged American corpses through the streets, and President Bill Clinton called off the entire operation. US forces left Somalia in 1994. The UN withdrew in 1995, having suffered significant casualties and failed to make any difference.
Things got worse from there. Somalia remained lawless, wealthy and educated Somalis fled the country, and desperate fishermen out of work turned to piracy. All sides frequently ordered their forces to murder civilians. In 1998, one of the more powerful Somali warlords seized control of the southernmost part of Somalia, south of the Juba River, establishing an unrecognized state called Jubaland.
Somalia did, however, make a significant step forward in the year 2000, when a peace conference in Djibouti led to the founding of the Transitional National Government. Its authority was extremely limited due to the nature of the conflict, and it didn't even manage to extend its authority over Mogadishu itself. The body then went bankrupt in 2003.
Rise of Al-Shabaab
In 2006, a far more powerful faction arose to seek the unification of Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was an alliance of Islamic judicial systems which used an army of loyal Islamic fundamentalists to enforce order over most of Somalia. They even stomped into Jubaland and conquered Mogadishu.
Although far from ideal, the ICU was Somalia's first real chance at ending its prolonged period of anarchy and civil war.
The problem, of course, was that all of this went down not five years after 9/11. Thus, the US and President George W. Bush feared that the ICU would turn Somalia into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. The ICU, for its part, repeatedly denied this. Ethiopia wasn't a fan of having an Islamic fundamentalist group on the verge of unifying a country on its border. After gaining US approval, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and launched airstrikes to destroy the ICU.
This military operation worked. Somewhat unfortunately. The Islamic Courts Union fell apart, but Somalia was again left in anarchy, with no hope in sight. Meanwhile, more radical elements in the ICU's army decided to carry on the fight against the hated Ethiopians. Hence the birth of Al-Shabaab, which means "The Youth". Al-Shabaab fled southwards to carry out bombings and assassinations against Ethiopian forces. According to Rob Wise, a counterterrorism expert, the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia was responsible for "transforming the group from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country".
Radicals flocked to Al-Shabaab's banner, and the group then forged an alliance with Al-Qaeda, which you'll note was the outcome Ethiopia's invasion was meant to prevent. The US declared Al-Shabaab to be a terrorist organization in 2008. In 2012, the group swore loyalty to Al-Qaeda. In areas it controls, al-Shabab enforces its own harsh interpretation of sharia, prohibiting various types of entertainment, such as movies and music, smoking, and the shaving of beards. The group enforces its laws by lopping people's limbs off or stoning them to death. The terrorists also forbid cooperation with international organizations, and they routinely block food aid to civilians. Al-Shabaab funds itself through the means you would expect, like piracy, kidnapping, and smuggling.
Putting things back together
In 2007, the Al-Shabaab situation prompted a response from Africa as a whole. With approval from the United Nations, the African Union dispatched a large peacekeeping force to help the transitional government. By 2011, 9,800 peacekeepers were fighting in Somalia, mainly from Uganda and Burundi. The military intervention was successful, pushing Al-Shabaab out of Somalia's cities. The terrorist group did, however, execute a large attack in Mogadishu, proving that it wasn't and isn't done yet. Al-Shabaab then experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2016 as Ethiopia pulled its troops out of Somalia.
With the provisional government in control of much of Somalia, it was finally time to start reestablishing actual governance in the country. In the parking lot of Mogadishu's airport and under armed guard from the African Union, 250 MPs were inaugurated as Somalia's first legislative body since 1991. In 2014, Somalia lost its long-held position at the top of the "Fragile States Index," losing out to South Sudan.
Of course, the job isn't done yet. Al-Shabaab is still extremely powerful, in control of large swathes of territory, and capable of committing elaborate attacks. The African Union peacekeepers are running into funding problems, and the Ethiopians, who were the most effective counterterrorists, forces, are no longer interested in fighting in Somalia. In 2017, Al-Shabaab pulled off one of its largest attacks, killing 512 people with truck bombs in Mogadishu. It continues to launch attacks, such as a 2022 hotel siege in Mogadishu which led to the death of 21 people.
Donald Trump pulled troops out of Somalia to Djibouti and Kenya in December of 2020. This is amidst growing tension between Kenya and Somalia over the oil-bearing region of Jubaland, which is an autonomous principality in the south of Somalia. Al-Shabaab is also going strong, despite years of countermeasures against the terrorist group. This has led many observers to call Trump's withdrawal at best "poorly timed."
In 2022, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud returned to the presidency, having previously led Somalia in 2012-17. He has links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Union of Islamist Courts, and is generally seen as a moderate Islamist and a campaigner for peace.
Other current problems
Somalia had a lot of pirates in 2010. This was caused mainly by Somalia's collapse of state authority. After Somalia's government stopped being a government, people from other countries started fishing illegally and dumping toxic waste in Somalia's territorial waters, thus depleting natural resources and driving Somalia's fishermen into destitution.
Pissed off, Somalis took matters into their own hands. The Somali pirates act as an improvised coast guard from a local perspective, fending off illegal fishermen and providing for their families at home. Amidst economic collapse and high youth unemployment, piracy became the only viable way to make a living in Somalia. It was also a convenient way for warlords and terrorists to make money, ensuring steady support and sponsorship for the pirates.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, in 2010, Somali pirates hijacked 49 ships and took over 1,000 hostages. 
While the West and China were quick to stamp out the pirates, they have done nothing to help enforce the flagrantly broken laws that forced many of these men into piracy in the first place. This has led to the creation of the world's largest pirate prison, which may be a good seed for future action-adventure movies.
Disputed and autonomous regions
As far as its people are concerned, Somaliland is an independent nation. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, it's just an unruly province in Somalia. Alongside the war consuming Somalia, Somaliland mainly split from the rest of the country because of its separate colonial history, having been ruled by the British rather than the Italians. This led to cultural alienation.
Unlike its parent country, Somaliland actually has working institutions and law enforcement and never really went through the anarchic period that Somalia did. Unfortunately, that stability doesn't imply democracy. Media is censored, and much of it is meant to inflame tensions with neighboring autonomous region Puntland over the border.
Somaliland continually rejects to join peace talks aimed at reunifying Somalia, claiming that it has no need to since it's independent.
Puntland is also relatively stable, and it was previously touted by the West as a success in incrementally reestablishing order in Somalia. The state occupies the northernmost portion of Somalia's eastern coast, and it borders Somaliland to the west. Puntland never declared independence, unlike its western neighbor, even though it de facto has it.
Unfortunately, Puntland has its own problems. It has a heated border dispute with Somaliland, which escalated into open violence most recently in 2018. While Somaliland claims its border is based on old European claims, Puntland wants to unite the regions of its clans. It's also been slowly falling into instability of its own due to tribal divisions, corruption, and piracy.
Puntland takes its name from the ancient Land of Punt, which the Egyptians describe as having been an important trade partner.
Jubaland, as mentioned above, is an autonomous region in Somalia that is currently the site of a dispute between Kenya and the Somali government. It started over an electoral dispute of all things. The Somali federal government accuses the Kenyan government of pressuring Jubaland to reject an electoral deal allowing for formal but indirect elections in Jubaland. Since then, Somalia has accused Kenya of attempting to turn Jubaland into a buffer state.
Jubaland is at the southern end of Somalia, and its western side flanks the Northeastern Province of Kenya, which was carved out of it during the colonial period. Most of Jubaland was taken by the Islamists in 2006. However, with the help of the African Union and Ethiopia, the Somali government managed to retake it in 2007, driving the rival Islamists out.
Of all the autonomous regions, Jubaland might be the most strategically important to Mogadishu because it contains Kismayo, Somalia's second-largest city and a major port. Just off the shore of Jubaland are major potential oil and natural gas deposits, making the region even more critical. It was the site of numerous warlord battles during the most active phases of the civil war, and it is currently the source of a decades-long dispute between Somalia and Kenya.
“”Somalia has 1,900 miles of coastline, a government that knows its place, and all the guns and wives you can afford to buy. Why have I never heard of this paradise before?
|—Pierce Hawthorne, Community|
One very stupid consequence of Somalia's decades-long crisis is that some of the West's dumber libertarians actually decided from the safety of the Internet that Somalia's breakdown was a good thing for the country. Oh, dear.
For example, Benjamin Powell, director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University and notable adherent to the Austrian school of economics, actually had the nerve to argue in 2006 that the Somalis were better off without a government and that the West should abandon the transitional authorities. Right-wing economist Alex Tabarrok argued that Somalia was "a unique test of the theory of anarchy" because its people were "unburdened by any regulation".
Libertarian "think tank" the Mises Institute also repeatedly praised Somalia's statelessness and criticized the West for supporting any attempts to help Somalia reestablish its government. When the BBC sensibly noted that entrepreneurship in Somalia was hampered by Somalia's lack of organized authority and actual security, the Mises Institute lamented that this "mainstream" outlet would be so dismissive and then blamed the West for all of Somalia's ongoing internal problems.
In 2021, the World Bank put Somalia in the last place in their Ease of Doing Business rankings. Somalia scored especially low on the "Protecting minority investors" and, ironically, the "paying taxes" criteria, but curiously scored better than some stable countries like Italy at the "enforcing contracts" criterion.
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- The Somalian government's high-tech official website
- Better-quality Web portal under Somalia's .so ccTLD, which (unsurprisingly) seems to have bad connectivity
- Somali Law
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- Ease of Doing Business rankings