Somalia’s Withering Sovereignty


Written by Nama Nasser Al-Aboodi

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” This quote by Albert Einstein adequately describes the behavior of the international community of nation states. For example, the theory behind the Responsibility to Protect is that states must respond to the needs of people who are exposed to atrocities such as ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

In other words, countries have a responsibility towards each other to intervene in the name of humanity when their governments have failed to protect them. Somalia is a classic example where the international community has failed to intervene to protect civilians. Somalia has been politically unstable since 1986 when Mohammed Siad Barre tightened his grip on power by unleashing a reign of terror. Its civil war is considered to start in 1991 when his dictatorship collapsed. By using humanitarian protection as rhetoric, the United States along with Belgium, France, and Italy sent their militaries to Somalia in 1992 and sought to carry out “Operation Restore Hope.” But when the situation looked like it would take more than the three months President Bush expected, and due to their unwillingness to accept casualties, the allies withdrew. Somalia is not only an example of a conflicted state as a result of colonization, but is also an example of how factional politics and clan-based rivalries are undermining the structure of the state as we know it in international relations. The solution to Somalia’s economic, political, and social instability does not rest with one actor. International and regional forces should provide the environment in which Somalia’s warlords and political factions can engage in dialogue. Moreover, Somali political divisions themselves must be willing to compromise with one another for their country to reach stability.

The roots of the conflict in Somalia can be dated to its colonial period. In the 1880s, during the climax of the scramble for Africa under the Berlin Conference, Somalia was divided into five colonial territories: French Somaliland, British Somaliland, the Northern Frontier District which belonged to the British, Italian Somaliland, and Ogaden which was controlled by Ethiopia. Somalia gained its independence in July 1960 and an elected government that was “underdeveloped in terms of both sociopolitical and economic infrastructure” replaced colonial rule (Fatah, p.1, 2002). In 1969, Mohammed Siad Barre led a military coup, destroyed Somalia’s cultural heritage, and set up a dictatorship that was alien to the people. Siad Barre was successful in turning clans against each other and making them dependent on the regime. One cannot discuss Somalia’s political atmosphere during Siad Barre’s dictatorship without mentioning the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union were competing to expand their empires. Considered to be a communist dictatorship by the Soviet Union, Barre enjoyed Soviet support and military assistance. Nevertheless, Soviet support halted when Ethiopia in 1977 underwent a military coup that brought Mengistu Haile Mariam to power. The Soviets rushed to Ethiopia, and naturally, Somalia turned toward the United States for assistance. In 1991 Siad Barre’s military dictatorship collapsed and the accumulating tension gave rise to armed hostilities between clans and political movements.

Somalia is not only a victim of the Cold War and a victim of colonization, but also suffers from the effects of colonization. Before colonization, clans and ethnic minorities in the Horn of Africa were autonomous and abided by their customary law, known as the xeer system. Decolonization, however, resulted in arbitrary borders that did not consider the population’s interests but the interests of the colonizers. The effects that colonization had can be seen after Siad Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991. Rivalry between different interest groups escalated starting with the warlords Mohamed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohamed competing for control over Mogadishu. Since then, different clans and political factions have clashed in different parts of Somalia for territorial control. The different political groups and Islamic political parties are complex due to the divisions within themselves. The Somali Democratic Salvation Front supported mainly by the Majerteen clan and the Somali National Front supported by the Isaaq clan rose in opposition to Barre’s regime and fought to control parts of Somalia after Barre’s collapsed. The Western Somali Liberation Front supported by the Ogaden has another agenda: self-determination of the Ogaden region in southeast Ethiopia. On the other hand, Islamic political groups such as Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiyya (AIAI) became prominent after 1978 when Somalia fought Ethiopia for control over the Ogaden region. AIAI provided a solid political agenda: to overcome clannish politics, to form an Islamic Somali Republic as they saw Islam as the only unifying force, and to use military force to pursue its goals. AIAI also played a part in organizing Islamic courts, but not all the courts were within their control. Unlike other political movements, the Islamic Courts Unions provided a source of stability for communities. Led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, they were formed to bring back the rule of law and were accepted by several communities because they were pragmatic and provided much needed security. Somalia, however, is still in a state of anarchy. If one looks at the situation from a counterfactual perspective, Somalia’s civil war can be said to date back to colonization when arbitrary borders were formed by colonizers.

With numerous political rivalries and hostility toward foreign intervention, the Somali crisis cannot be easily resolved. I will try to highlight some of the possible solutions. Many scholars argue that instead of trying to unify the country through the Transitional Federal Government that was set up in 2004 and supported by the United Nations and the United States, external actors in Somalia should try and develop “building blocks.” “Building blocks allow for the creation of at least five or six political units” and creates a kind of federation (Gilkes, 1999, p.571). Instead of unifying all the parties under one central government, sovereign republics would unify under a weak central government. This would seem effective since Somalia is already divided into Somaliland in the north, Puntland in the east, and Somalia in the south. But the concept of building blocks as a resolution does not consider how the country would deal with transnational issues of globalization and regional issues such as Somalia’s borders and neighbors. If Somalia’s political units were to be autonomous republics, they would not be unified in matters of transnational issues such as climate change, globalization, and trafficking which are essential for stability. In addition to “building blocks,” external influences are concerned with Somalia’s political future. The United States would like to see Somalia run by a pro-Western government and not by Islamic politics. From their point of view, if Somalia were to be run by fundamentalists, it could be the base for Al-Qaeda and other “terrorist” operations. Moreover, Islamic politics is a threat to the United States, other Western governments, and Ethiopia because of Somalia’s proximity to Yemen and the trading route in the Gulf of Aden. They fear that because Yemen is already a base for terrorist activities, Somalia will become an arena for similar activities. Nevertheless, Islam is an important part of Somali ethnic identity and if it were to resort to Islamic politics, it should be viewed in a positive light. What is crucial is that Islamic states should not isolate themselves and should not wage war on non-Muslims. The Muslim Brotherhood’s recent victory in Egypt has shown that secularism is not the only way. The Egyptian public is in favor of a state that integrates, to an extent, religion into its politics. Egypt offers hope that Western governments will accept Islamic politics rather than fight to prevent its emergence.

Another view point is that since clans are the only functioning institutions in Somalia, Somalia should return to its traditional xeer system. The “building block” concept and the idea that Somalia should return to its traditional political system raises questions about the nation state. Somalia has proved that the state with its power in the centre is not the only functioning political system. When people are led down by the structure of the state, they shift their allegiance to their tribes where they can “regain autonomy through anarchy” (Simons, 1994, p.821). For this reason, the traditional definition of the state must be revised in order to accommodate challenges to the structure of the state. Somalia’s withering sovereignty already undermines the essence of the state. Through dialogue and commitment, Somalia needs to reach political stability in order to develop its capacity to provide security for its citizens, engage in political decision-making, integrate into the world economy, and deal with the challenges facing the country. Commitment and cooperation are needed from all angles to save Somalia’s sovereignty.


Fatah, A. A. (2002). Somalia’s Traditional Clan-Based System Holds Key to the Country’s Future Stability. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from

Gilkes, P. (1999). Briefing: Somalia. African Affairs 98(393), 571-577. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from Jstor database.

Simons, A. (1994). Somalia and the Dissolution of the Nation-State. American Anthropologist Association 96(4), 818-824. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from Jstor database.