Map:  The Horn of Africa [pdf]

It will take a number of columns to offer my skeletal overview of how Somalia came to be what it is today.

For 18 years, Somalia has writhed in agony. The government collapsed in 1991.  A third of the country broke away and declared itself independent (though no other country has yet accepted Somaliland’s sovereignty), central authority evaporated, taking with it all public services… schools, clinics, police, courts, etc.  Armed men ruled the countryside and the streets, loyal to different masters – clan leaders, gang leaders,  Islamist leaders, those with money.  A curious entrepreneurialism also flourished briefly in a few cities and towns – cell phone companies sprang up, money transfer offices opened to handle remittances from relatives abroad, exports of livestock and bananas to the Arabian Peninsula continued.

The US – a lukewarm supporter of the regime before it fell – now paid even less attention to Somalia.  When a horrific drought and famine struck around the same time the world eventually responded, but not before hundreds of thousands had already died.  Relief supplies were regularly stolen and relief workers threatened.  When foreign troops arrived to provide protection, 24 Pakistani UN blue helmets were killed in an ambush in mid 1993, followed a few months later by deaths of 18 US troops killed in the notorious ‘Blackhawk Down’ incident.  Bodies of Americans were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.  Four Reuters journalists were also killed.   The response was a complete withdrawal by the US in 1994 and the UN in 1995.  The world was shocked by Somali ferocity and wanted no part of it.

For several years the US,  Europe, the UN all averted their eyes as the gangsters divided up the country.  Islamists trained in Sudan moved in, thinking they could set up shop in a safe haven.  Neighboring Ethiopia was their immediate target (more about that later).  But it seems that even terrorists need a minimum of order and predictability and they failed to turn Somalia into a regional base.

They did manage a few big successes, however.  In 1998 they bombed  the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing over 200 Kenyans and Tanzanians and 12 Americans.  Somalia was used as a staging area. That got US attention but little more.  In 2002, 11 people died when an Israeli-owned resort hotel near Mombasa was bombed, though two missiles fired at an Israeli tourist flight with 271 aboard missed their target.

All along, the Somalis themselves suffered the most.  They still do.

Why did everything go so wrong in Somalia?  No new African nation has had an easy time managing institutions designed by strangers for use in other cultures.   Inherited colonial borders haphazardly split or combined ethnic groups for colonial reasons, not African ones.  But the outcome in Somalia is not merely painful and troubled.  It has been catastrophic.

Who is responsible?  Should we round up the usual suspects?  US imperialism?  Western capitalism?  Islamic fundamentalism? A colonial time bomb?  The Cold War?

There is no single, or simple, explanation, but I believe that colonialism combined with the particular history of the Somali people – the societal DNA – are at the root of the tragedy.

On paper, Somalia was a better candidate than most for a smooth transition to independence.  Possibly unique among new African nations, (almost) the entire population is ethnic Somali, Muslim, and speaks the same language. Others have dozens of languages, ethnic groups and several major religions.  Yet,  nation building here began to fail almost immediately.

The Somalis were relative latecomers to the Horn of Africa. They took over the entire coast of the Horn not much more than a thousand years ago after a thousand-year migration, first moving southward into northern Kenya from their original homeland in the mountains of southeastern Ethiopia, then migrating slowly up the coast.  By the 9th and 10th centuries they were trading with Arab and Persian merchants and becoming enthusiastic Muslims.  This was apparently a crucial period in the evolution of Somali culture.  Clans formed around heroic — perhaps legendary — figures.   And they began their slow, implacable conquest of the interior of the Horn.  That took another thousand years and lasted into the 20th century.  Most of the few non Somalis farmed the two river valleys.  As they penetrated the interior, the clans evolved into sub-clans, sub-sub-clans, etc., but remained fiercely loyal to the clans from which they emerged.

The Somalis were nomadic herders, following the cyclical rains through a harsh environment. When the rains failed – as they too often did – they fought for survival with anyone who stood between them and the waterholes and temporary pastures that sprang up, if they sprang up.  Rivalries with sub-clans of their own clan were common, and continue.  They lived — and continue to live –  on the edge of calamity, one failed rainy season from disaster.  At times, famine has killed tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. (The famine that brought the UN, and the US, to Somalia in 1992 took  close to one million lives.)

To be continued….

Note:  For more background, see I. M. Lewis, Modern History of the Somali:  Revised/Fourth Edition, 2003.