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Primer on Somalia by John Ford

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By John Ford


This is the third in a series of guest posts by John Ford.  John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army.  He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore.  The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy.  You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.


If Yemen has little reason to be a modern nation state then Somalia has every reason not to be one.  Had it not been for European colonialism it is unlikely that Somalia would have ever tried to become a modern nation state.  Somalia is a patchwork of six major clans with dozens of sub-clans.  The intricate web of clan networks is mind boggling to casual observers and explains why the most widely read general history of Somalia was written by an anthropologist and not an historian.  Clans vary dramatically in size with the large clans having millions of members and the smaller sub-clans sometimes no larger than an extended family.  The clan is the dominant feature of Somali social life as well as the main impediment to forming a functioning state.  Because an individual’s loyalty is to his clan and not any national authority it has been difficult to build a central government that commands the loyalty of the people.


The Somali people are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture.  Somalis make up 90% of the population of Somalia.  They also constitute the majority of neighboring Djibouti, the majority of the people of the Ogaden Province of Eastern Ethiopia, and a substantial part of the population of northern Kenya.  The fact that the Somali people are not united in Somalia and that the glue that bound the Somali state together after independence was weak combined to cause serious problems.


In 1969, Somalia came under the rule of a military dictator named Siad Barre, a member of the Marehan sub-clan of the large Darood clan.  Barre tried to square the circle of Somali statehood through an ideology he called pan-Somalism.  Barre’s idea was to advocate uniting all Somali peoples under the young Somali nation state.  His attempt was to create a new nationalism strong enough to overcome clan divisions.


But Barre’s idea of uniting all Somalis would require conquering majority Somali regions of other countries.  This is where things fell apart.  Barre tried to begin this process of uniting all Somalis in 1977 when he launched the Ogaden War.  The people of the Ogaden were ethnically Somali but ruled by Somalia’s much larger neighbor, Ethiopia.  The aim of the war was to “liberate” the Ogadeni Somalis from Ethiopia.  The war ended in disaster for Barre.  At the time, both Somalia and Ethiopia were Soviet client states.  Because of the war the Soviets were forced to choose between their allies.  They stunned the Somalis by choosing Ethiopia.  Ethiopia was much larger than Somalia (Its 32 million people dwarfed Somalia’s 4 million people) and had much greater potential use to the Soviets as an ally than Somalia had.  When aid was cut off to Somalia and increased to Ethiopia the die was cast and Somalia’s war effort was doomed.


After the war, Barre faced a coup d’etat by senior military men.  Barre survived the coup but his public support was collapsing.  He responded with violent crackdowns against his opponents which only caused further erosion of support from the other clans.  Barre’s government was in a death spiral and he was taking the Somali state down with him.  In 1991, he fled to Kenya by driving across the border in a tank. A humanitarian disaster ensued that prompted the UN to intervene in 1992.  When they arrived, they found a country that had descended into violent warlordism.  This intervention is now infamous for the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu in 1993.  Its goal was to deliver humanitarian relief supplies and to broker a cease fire between warlords.  Their efforts were, of course, unsuccessful.  The last UN contingent left the country in 1995.  A new phrase entered the American foreign policy lexicon: Failed state.


After 9/11, the United States became concerned about the possibility of Al Qaeda taking advantage of the chaos in Somalia to establish a base of operations there.  The American concerns turned out to be justified.  Al Qaeda always struggled to navigate Somalia’s complex clan structure and never was able to take hold there but native Somali fundamentalists did grow in strength during the 2000s.  They could navigate clan politics because they were raised in it.


By 2006 most of the local fundamentalists groups had joined forces to create the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).  That year, they took the capital, Mogadishu, and held most of the southern part of the country.  This was of great concern to the west which did not want Islamic fundamentalists dominating Somalia.  It was of concern to Ethiopia as well because the ICU had begun engaging in loose talk about “liberating” the Ogaden.


The idea was patently absurd given that the ICU had not even consolidated control over Somalia itself and had no ability to conquer Ethiopian territory.  But the Ethiopians took no chances.  Ethiopia’s concerns about the Ogaden and America’s fears of Al Qaeda finding protection in an Islamist Somalia led to an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia backed by the US.  The ICU was driven from Mogadishu but stability did not follow.


Ethiopia tried to install a group called the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu as the new national government.  The TFG was an incompetent and corrupt government-in-exile that had no meaningful support inside Somalia.  Most of its members were former warlords who were now on the Ethiopian payroll.  They were put in charge of Mogadishu in 2007 after the fall of the ICU but have never been able to extend their control beyond the boundaries of the capital.


The ICU broke into factions after losing Mogadishu.  In 2009, some members of the ICU made peace with the TFG.  One of these was Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.  Ahmed was the commander of the ICU military forces before the Ethiopian intervention.  He joined the TFG and became President of Somalia in name only.  In reality, he was no more than Mayor of Mogadishu.


Not all factions of the ICU were interested in peace.  The most powerful and most extreme faction created a militia known as al-Shabaab.  Soon after forming al-Shabaab, the fundamentalists who had created the group declared their allegiance to al-Qaeda.  Al-Shabaab today controls most of southern Somalia and is a major worry for the west.


Al Qaeda is not the only security threat emanating from Somalia.  Somalia has become infamous in recent years for its pirates.  Piracy started as naval resistance to illegal fishing by foreigners in Somali waters.  With no central government capable of protecting Somali waters private “coast guards” began to pop up.  Predictably, the coast guards got out of control almost immediately.  Now, the activities of the pirates bear no relationship to the supposed original purpose of the volunteer “coast guards”.  The pirates raid shipping deep in international waters placing shipping from Muscat to Zanzibar under threat.


The piracy is tolerated by the warlords because the pirates are a good source of income.  Warlords who allow pirates to operate from ports they control receive a share of the profits from ransomed ships.  Al Shabaab has also allowed pirates to operate from ports they control meaning that revenue from piracy ends up directly lining the pockets of Islamic fundamentalist militants.


Central government was never re-established in Somalia after the collapse of the Barre regime.  In place of central government the major clans have carved out their own autonomous regions that govern themselves independent of any central authority.


In the north, the Isaac clan now has their own de-facto independent state called Somaliland.  Somaliland is very poor but its government is stable and relatively democratic.  Now that they are an independent country in all but name the leaders of Somaliland are trying to achieve international recognition as an independent state.


The Darood have come to dominate the central part of the country creating an autonomous region called Puntland.  Puntland does not seek independence but is a self-governing part of Somalia.  It is a den of pirates and is the source of most of Somalia’s piracy problems.

Then there is the south.  The south is dominated by al Shabaab with the TFG holding only Mogadishu.  Since the power sharing arrangement that brought former ICU leaders into the TFG public support for the TFG has increased.  But the TFG remains weak, perhaps too weak to have any real hope of bringing order to the country.


The best outcome for the US would be for the TFG to defeat al Shabaab and bring order out of chaos.  But given Somalia’s record of instability it may simply be the case that Somalia’s clan structure makes a strong central government impossible.  It is not an accident that autonomous areas like Somaliland and Puntland break down along clan lines.  Governance in Somalia is organically devolving to the clan level in in the absence of a central government.


Al Qaeda’s war is, in a very real sense, a war against the nation state.  Al Qaeda’s stated long term goal is to replace the nation states of the Islamic world with a Caliphate.  Where nation states are strong al Qaeda tends to be weak.  Where governance is weak al Qaeda can become strong.  The structural instability in Somali politics is to the advantage of al Shabaab and their al Qaeda allies and is the greatest obstacle to America’s pursuit of stability in East Africa.  Unfortunately, it is not a problem the US has the choice to ignore.


For further reading:

“A Modern History of the Somali” by I.M. Lewis

“The Pirates of Somalia” by Jay Bahadur

“The Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia” by James Ferguson


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