The Story of Somalia: From “Most Strategic Nation” to “Failed State”

Since Somalia was labeled a failed state by George W. Bush to determine the prism of US foreign policy and the war on terror, the nation has continued to struggle with what some have termed as a ‟self-fulfilling prophecy.” With a continuous cycle of conflict, famine, piracy and terrorist attacks, it appears Somalia has lived up to the status cast on it through careless oration. 

However, even psychology teaches that for every behavioral and abnormal pattern there is a cause.  In many cases, the cause is often rooted in childhood experiences, trauma, genetics, etc. Hence, the categorization of Somalia as a ‛failed state’ cannot be assessed in a vacuum without looking at certain key factors that have led to its current condition or further reinforced it.   

Once referred to as the Switzerland of Africa, Somalia is one of the richest countries in the world. It has considerable oil and gas reserves. It also has other natural resources, including the longest coastline in Africa (3000km) which gives it access to vast marine resources. According to the World Bank, it has 1,100,000 hectares of cultivable land and its reservoir of black gold is known to be the second-largest in Africa. 

In addition to this, one thing has made Somalia one of, if not the most valuable nation in the world- its geographical location. Situated right in the horn of Africa, Somalia has direct access to the Gulf of Aden located between Asia and Africa. Its water flows into the Red Sea through a strait called Bab-el-Mandeb, which means ‟Gate of Tears” in Arabic. According to an old legend, it was named this because of the grief expressed for drowned souls who perished during the earthquake that tore Asia from Africa.  The Gulf of Aden is the only outlet that gives the West direct access to Persian Gulf Oil. It is also the world’s busiest shipping lane and is situated close to the Suez Canal which is the only means by which European Maritime Trade companies can exchange goods with their biggest trade partners in the East – i.e. China, India, and South-East Asia. Thus making Somalia the main link between the East and the West or in other words, the most pivotal region that virtually determines a huge percentage of global trade.  

How does such a strategic state become a failed state?

Somalia,  like many African nations, has had a long and peculiar history of colonial influence and foreign intervention.  Strong colonial competition began as early as 1839 between countries like Britain, Italy, and France. Firstly, Britain took interest in Aden on the South Coast of Arabia as a coaling station for its ships en route to India. Also, Britain’s garrison in the region required meat, and the Somali coast was the only local and the easiest source. Similarly, Italy and France shifted their focus to Somalia due to their need for coaling facilities for their ships. As a result, they established stations in the Northern regions of Somalia. 

 After brief confrontation between the French and British in 1888 they agreed to a demarcation line which enabled France to acquire Cote Française des Somalis (present-day Djibouti). Britain, through this transaction, managed to solidify its influence in two important areas along the coast i.e. Berbera and Zeila. Through signed treaties in the 1880s, promising protection to rulers of several Somali clans, the region became a British Protectorate (present-day Somaliland). Though a reasonable stretch of coastline was under British and French rule the remaining and largest part of Somalia was disputed for between Ethiopia and Italy. Italy succeeded in establishing protectorates along the East Coast beyond British Somaliland. Britain and Italy later agreed to create a border between the two regions, establishing Italian Somalia and British Somaliland. Ethiopia on the other hand, through an agreement with the Italians, secured the Ogaden region. Even then, a major part of Somalia rested under Italian rule until 1960 when both the British and Italian colonies gained independence. Djibouti later gained independence from France in 1977. In 1960 after independence, Somalia held free and fair elections which led to democratic rule till 1969. The first president, Abdullah Osman succeeded in uniting the former British and Italian territories. He stayed in power for 7 years and was succeeded peacefully by Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. 

Somalia’s democracy was short-lived when Sharmarke was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. Mukhtar Husseini the vice president at the time, took over but his term in office was cut short by a military coup led by General Siad Barre. The 9-year-old Somali Republic’s democratic government was plagued with clan-based disagreements, the inability to agree on how to develop the nation and the alphabet to use for a written Somali language. 

Despite the faults of Barre’s government, his 22-year rule successfully created modern Somalia. To note some of his triumphs, he effectively built one of Africa’s strongest armies and significantly improved the literacy of the Somali population. Unfortunately, events spiraled out of control when Barre embarked on a quest to take back former Somali territory (Ogaden) from Ethiopia. 

The Ogaden war led to strong opposition from the international community and even the Soviet Union that had once backed Barre’s government. The snowball effect was the rebellion of former British Somalia to form an independent state- Somaliland. Tribal tensions eventually arose between the north and south which led to a long-lasting civil war marred by frequent foreign intervention with a myriad competing factions e.g. Al Shabaab. This led to a national outcry for the removal of Barre’s government but the attempt to get rid of an unwanted president led to one of the worst catastrophes the world had ever witnessed- the destruction of Somalia.  

Notwithstanding the many disheartening events that have taken place in this nation, several other factors have profited from Somalia’s fragile state and prevented it from breaking free from the bondage of poverty and strife. 

One of the most alarming issues has been illegal fishing by large foreign vessels in Somali waters to the sum of billions of dollars a year. Some of the vessels have been identified as Chinese, Italian, and US ships. These illicit activities have led to a rise of piracy in the region and contrary to common belief, most of the ‛Somali pirates’ have been the only means to secure Somali waters from illegal fishing in the absence of regulations and a stable government. 

Another typical example of factors that have benefitted from Somalia’s fragile state is when in 2012, the UK entered into talks with certain Somali officials for the exploitation of oil in north-east Somalia. This occurred right after James Cameron pledged to give more aid to the country at an international conference held in Mogadishu. Many criticized this deal as an exploitation of a nation torn by war as once again aid was being used as a camouflage to pursue a selfish economic interest. 

It has been evident over time the Somalia is not in need of aid but rather a viable and efficient government to manage its affairs. In the 1990s and 2000s, the food sent into the country through UN aid led to the collapse of Somali agriculture and reduced multiple farmers to poverty. 

Currently, the US has its first and only military base in Africa situated in Somalia. Turkey recently followed suit and opened its first base on the continent in the Somali capital Mogadishu, expressing the intent of training soldiers to combat terrorism. China also opened its first base in neighboring Djibouti with a similar goal of helping to ensure security in the region. Still, none have expressed interest in resolving the most pertinent issue: helping to establish a stable government.  Although Somalia is a member of the Arab league and countless donations in millions of dollars have been given to help the nation, such help is once again misguided for it leaves the question of the lack of a government unaddressed. The AU through AMISOM (joint military force) has attempted to alleviate the crisis but the force, heavily funded by the EU and US and has failed to help address the main problem. Looking at this backdrop, one can conclude that Somalia is not a failed state but rather an exposed gold mine in need of protection. And despite all these setbacks, there is still hope. 

Somalis around the globe are working hard and from a distance contributing to the betterment of their country. According to William Hague, the former UK foreign secretary in his Chatham House speech, “Somalis worldwide provide more than $1bn in remittances back to Somalia each year, more than the international community provides in aid.” The other good news is that livestock and farming which accounted for around 50% of the GDP before the collapse of the Somali state has gradually been revitalized. Livestock exports have doubled in comparison to the levels in 1990. Most importantly, the country is very rich in marine and natural resources. 

To help put an end to Somalia’s suffering, the unethical label of a ‛failed state’ which has dissuaded the international community from venturing into relevant dealings with the country must be removed. Such notions have kept Somalia in a state of isolation and left it at the mercy of certain states that use the pretext of aid and combatting terrorism to further exploit it. To that end,  The African Union and Somalis around the world must unite to ensure the establishment of a viable government that will support and secure the interest of the nation as a whole. It must be guided by the philosophy that a weak Somalia (the horn of Africa) represents a compromise of Africa’s strength and dignity. After the terrorist attack in Mogadishu which claimed over 300 lives, it is evident that Africa’s horn is under the threat of being destroyed completely. It is for this reason that a better Somalia is synonymous to a better Africa. May we protect this vulnerable yet valuable jewel because it is where our strength lies as a continent. 

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