Somalia: Chaos in the Horn of Africa


Recently, an Al-Shabaab attack in Mogadishu left 276 dead, the worst aggression in Somali history [1].  This country on the Horn of Africa has been summed in chaos for more than 25 years. Over the last years, Somalia has been ranked the first or second place on the Fragile State Index of Fund for Peace – only recently surpassed by Syria [2], and has been ranked as the most corrupt country for 11 years running by Transparency International [3]. Somalia represents the worst of modern war. However, at the same time, it is a country with great geographic importance, being a bridge between Africa and the Middle East, and has the longest coastline of Africa mainland. Billions of dollars’ worth of goods travel via its waterways from Asia and the Middle East to Europe. What are the impediments to overcome this situation that makes it unable to stabilize and flourish?


Since the overthrowal of tyrant Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has not had a government that lived up to this name. The capital’s officials cannot visit the countryside safely, not to mention the government. War, hunger and terrorism have caused thousands of Somalis to migrate. Approximately ⅙ of the Somali population, 2 million,  now live abroad [4]. In 2017 1 billion people were newly displaced, bringing the total internally displaced persons (IDPs) population to 2.1 million. Many face not only dire living conditions but also a range of abuses, from indiscriminate killings, to forced evictions and sexual violence [5].

The Somali National Army (SNA) is supposed to protect civilians and keep the country unified. However, independent observers and UN officials have stated that the SNA “doesn’t actually exist” – at least as the cohesive actor it is supposed to be. [6] SNA officials don’t know who their soldiers are, and where they are going. There are troops, but they frequently desert the army – and generally are loyal not to SNA, let alone Mogadishu,  but to their respective clan leaders [7].

When examining any state, it is essential to first examine what kind of state is at hand. Somalia, in the horn of Africa, is the epitome of a failed state: facing extreme poverty, no central operational government, no de facto control over its borders or territories, facing an increment of terrorist groups, and with a serious deficiency of vital commodities to the civilians.  What factors have caused this severe and apparently continuous situation? Two main reasons play a crucial role: warlords and terrorism.

Clans and Warlords

Leaving aside Rwanda and Burundi, Somalia is the only other culturally homogeneous nation in Africa, and most of its population practises the same branch of Islam (Shafi I Rite, of the Sunni faction). However, there is a great social fragmentation following clan lines. The country has been fragmented into “autonomous fiefdoms” ever since the fall of Siyad Barre’s regime. At the same time, clans do protect and provide services to the population under their influence, such as security, local services, etc.

Through the creation of the Somali warlords’  self-defining power and identity, they were capable to establish themselves as the owners of Somalia after the presidential overthrowal. This led to the fall of the government, leaving Somalia in a situation of anarchy still persistent today, making the state weak and vulnerable. As expected, warlords and clan leaders took the initiative for the control of Somalia – which led to increased internal tensions. They have, indeed, created a somewhat “para-statal” order in many parts of the territory, using their customary system and laws to govern, settle disputes and boost investment. Similar to most tribal societies, they use their traditional laws (xeer) to rule their communities—and possess large influence [8]. Clan members constitute the multiple groups in conflict, from Al-Shaabab to the Government, as well as the National Security Agency. They extend their areas of influence in all those branches to secure the interests of the clan, which are principally wealth and political power [9].

Post-1991, Mogadishu fell under the control of clan-leader’ warlords. The battle between diverse clans that tried to gain control and legitimacy over the whole failed-state intensified, and regions like North Puntland, declared their autonomy and de-linked from an already non-in-charge central government. This situation deteriorated to an unending instability – and made the “restoration” of Somalia an unattainable goal, that became more and more distant as the time went on.  27 years have passed since then [10].

The internal downfall and conflict of separation of land between clans caused that the once rich and abundant in natural resources Somalia now faces widespread famine, disrupting farming and livestock production.  [11]. Government-less and divided, Somalia’s situation has only worsened. Approximately ½ of the population is food insecure and that statistic has been only worsened by the droughts West Africa faces periodically [12]. However, compared to neighbouring regions, Somalia has it worse – since there are no central authorities able to provide fundamental human needs to society to alleviate the harsh effects of the draught [13].

The Rise of Terrorism

When a new transitional government was tried to be established in 2004, with the support of the West,  the menace of the Al-Shabaab insurgency appeared. Immediately, Al Shabaab rapidly turned violent, and started recruiting clan members that were opposed to the aforementioned Western-backed government. And since Somalia does not have an operational army, to combat the jihadist threat Western governments financed the AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia), which encompasses about 22.000 troops based in Somalia under a joint mandate between the UN and the African Union. US intervention in Somalia only served to exacerbate tensions and has been utilised by Al-Shabaab as a propaganda tool – saying that the wanna-be central government is a “Washington- puppet”, that want to control the country. Imposing a strict version of the Sharia law in the areas they control, Al-Shabaab gains support promising something people lack: security [14].

However, the north of the country is not dominated by Al-Shabaab, but by ISIS. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria managed their way across the mountainous region of Puntland. The emergence of ISIS factions in Somalia threaten the jihadist unity in the country [15]  – and consequently, Al-Shabaab is trying to eradicate the group. With this added conflict between terrorist groups and the territory, the tensions rise – and have ultimately hindered the Somali government in building a sense of security and cohesion. These same tensions are the ones causing thousands of Somalis to flee their country, unprotected by any official power and exposed to not only terrorist groups, but clan violence, famines, etc [16]. Recent figures by UNHCR indicate around 2 million Somalis displaced, with an estimate of 1,5 million people internally displaced, and approximately 900,000 refugees in the near region  [17].


Somalia has been in a permanent state of collapse for the longest time, leading several international rankings like the Corruption Index of Transparency International, and the Fragile State Index of Fund for Peace – only recently surpassed by Syria.  Clan warlordism and terrorism make Somalia a unique and intricate conflict. As mentioned, the prolonged strife in Somalia shows no sign of a resolution anytime soon. The pace of youth alienation and radicalisation has grown frighteningly in the last years: terrorism acts are intensifying both in occurrence and force, and the country is becoming a hatchery for the dangerous “martyrdom culture” and jihadism.

A consequence of this crisis is the radicalization of the Somali diaspora – which can lead to animosity between the more than a million Somalis abroad and their host countries. As mentioned, power battles between clans make Somalia weak for Al-Shabaab recruiting jihadists and perpetuate the insecurity of the country [18]. The government should start a reconciliation-between-clans solution to end domestic power struggles. Recently, the Somali authorities have developed a security transition plan via an inclusive process, outlining key guidelines that would facilitate a more detailed planning for the following years. This plan has been approved by the Council of Ministers, and has the endorsement of the African Union and the UN Security Council – marking a milestone in the country’s progress to assume full responsibility of its own stability [19]. This conflict must be overcome politically – the Somali government must develop a dependable Islamist constituency of its own, winning over most of the political and financial backers of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).

In conclusion, Somalia’s challenges are very much intertwined. In the end, a great part comes down to the limited ability of the state to provide basic public services, and goods to the citizens, including security, health, education, and even territorial integrity. As such, solutions can only be at the nexus between security, state capacity, domestic resource mobilization, and accountability [20].

Júlia Codina SARIOLS


[1] Somalia: al menos 276 muertos deja “el peor ataque en la historia” de Mogadiscio. BBC (2018). Retrieved from

[2] Fragile States Index | The Fund for Peace. (2018). Retrieved from

[3] Transparency International (2018) Transparency International. – Somalia Report. Retrieved from  

[4] Most-failed state – Twenty-five years of chaos in the Horn of Africa. The Economist (2016). Retrieved from

[5] World Report 2018: Rights Trends in Somalia.  Human Rights Watch (2018). Retrieved from

[6] Sperber, A. (2018). Somalia Is a Country Without an Army. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

[7] Ibid [4]

[8] Clans in Somalia- Report on a Lecture by Joakim Gundel, COI Workshop Vienna,
(Revised Edition) (2009). Austrian Red Cross ACCORD. Retrieved from

[9] Magone, C., Neuman, M., & Weissman, F. (2012). Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. London: Hurst.

[10]  Ibid [9]

[11] Somalia, beyond the famine. (2013). IRIN News. Retrieved from

[12] Ohanesian, A. (2017). Fighting to survive hunger in Somalia. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from

[13] Somalia: Polio Outbreak – Aug 2018. (2018). Relief Web. Retrieved from

[14] Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab?. (2017). BBC.  Retrieved from  

[15] Yusuf, Z., & Khalif, A. (2016). The Islamic State Threat in Somalia’s Puntland State. Crisis Group. Retrieved from

[16] Ibid [15]

[17]  UNHCR (2017) Somalia Situation – Supplementary Appeal.: January-December.  Retrieved from

[18] Livingston, I. (2018). Somalia, facing severe challenges, also shows signs of hope. Brookings. Retrieved from

[19] Trotta, T. (2017). Somalia, el eterno círculo de guerra y hambre. El País. Retrieved from

[20] de Waal, A. (2017). Can Somalia Ever Win Against al-Shabab? Foreign Policy.  Retrieved from


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