Learning from Within: The End of Somalia's Regional Conflicts

By Bhat, Kiran | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Learning from Within: The End of Somalia's Regional Conflicts


Bhat, Kiran, Harvard International Review


The horn of Africa has been a historically prosperous locale. When Muslim traders penetrated the tribal region that is now Somalia around 1000 C.E., bringing religion, wealth, and infrastructure, they brought what seemed to be the final pieces for the construction of a fruitful society. There are modern advantages as well: 3,000 kilometers of coastline en route from Europe to the growing economies of Asia, largely untapped commodity reserves, and a general lack of involvement in the conflicts of the surrounding region. But despite these advantages, Somalia has long since plunged into hardship. In the past 15 years, Somalia has become synonymous with war, anarchy, and misery. While the situation does not seem to be improving for the nation's almost nine million inhabitants, the current transitional government has a unique opportunity to build on Somalia's traditions and create a stable government for posterity.

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Fifteen Years of Chaos

Somalis have been misruled by a series of increasingly incompetent groups since the 1991 ousting of the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre after his two decades in power. First came a loosely allied group of warlords who split the country amongst themselves following Barre's overthrow. But when the rebel alliance failed, Mogadishu became a battleground of warlords and their personal militias. The devastating effects of war in Mogadishu destabilized the nation to the point of anarchy.

While the warlords bickered amongst themselves, another political group began to gain prominence. Following Barre's dismissal, the Muslim nation, which at the time lacked any legitimate government, adopted Shari'ah law as a de facto judicial system. In time, Islamic courts became increasingly united and even started offering otherwise nonexistent social services. In 2000, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was formed under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Fearing marginalization, many of the warlords around Mogadishu formed a makeshift allegiance of their own, the ironically named Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). As the United States supplied arms money to former enemies in the ARPCT to protect against a purported al-Qaeda presence in the ICU, the conflict between the ARPCT and the ICU escalated. Battles between the two groups replaced battles between warlords around late 2005. Gunfights in the capital and outlying towns and villages killed hundreds of Somali fighters and civilians during 2005 and 2006. By early December 2006, the ICU had driven the ARPCT out of the country, had taken Mogadishu, and was shelling Baidoa, the inland seat of the powerless Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Somalia's internationally recognized government-in-exile.

As it assaulted Baidoa, the ICU declared that the entire country would be subject to Islamic law and drew up an impromptu Islamic constitution. All of this worried Somalia's western neighbor Ethiopia, a regional military power which maintained a discrete military presence in Somalia to ensure that the ever-present conflicts did not spill over Somalia's western border. Ethiopia was especially concerned with declarations from the ICU that a jihad had been declared on Ethiopians inside and outside of Somalia. When the ICU captured Baidoa, Ethiopia sent troops, tanks, and the air force to augment returning ARPCT and small TFG forces, which then collectively advanced on Mogadishu, sweeping through southern Somalia. By the end of December, less than a month after gaining control of the country, the ICU had retreated back to a single stronghold, the port town of Kismayo. They abandoned the country entirely in January.

As Ethiopian troops patrolled Mogadishu in early January, TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, appointed in 2004 and for many months exiled in Kenya, stepped into his capital city for the first time. Former warlords, who soon realized they could no longer run Mogadishu, came with him. …

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