Somalia is a basket case in the Horn of Africa. On Thursday June 22, Somalia's president and the Islamist leaders who have taken control of the capital Mogadishu agreed to recognise each other after a meeting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. That possibly means they'll just shake hands next time they meet.
Somalia is a de jure state. De jure is Latin for in principle. It means Somalia has no recognized central authority or government nor any other feature associated with an established independent state. De facto authority is spread across various warlords as well as at least two unrecognised countries in Somaliland and Puntland.
Over a thousand years ago, Muslim Arabs and Persians established trading posts along Somalia's coast. Mogadishu was established as a trading station. It was a significant spot on the gap between the Red and the Arabian seas. Egypt dominated the area until the 1870s until the British based in Aden parted the Red Sea and turned Somalia into a colonial protectorate. The Italians held their bit of Somalia called unimaginative Italian Somaliland. They also held Ethiopia in a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. In 1940 Mussolini’s troops invaded British Somaliland across the border from Ethiopia. The invasion force was 175,000 strong and easily overwhelmed the defence force. Churchill, worried that the territory had been abandoned without a fight, criticized General Wavell head of Middle East Command, for the rapid defeat of the Commonwealth forces. Wavell countered that this was a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers and said to Churchill, “A bloody butcher’s bill is not the sign of a good tactician.” It was the only campaign the Italians won unaided in World War II.
Their glory didn’t last long. Barely a year later, a South African led amphibious invasion took next door Italian Somaliland. They took Eritrea a month later before British Somaliland fell after a seaborne assault staged from Aden. The force moved on to take Ethiopia. Under pressure from the US, the British signed an agreement with Haile Selassie acknowledging Ethiopian sovereignty in January 1942.
Somaliland remained British territory. It finally gained independence as the State of Somaliland on 26 June 1960. Within a few days it united with Italian Somaliland to form a new Somali Republic on 1 July 1960. The new united nation was renamed Somalia.
On the same day representatives of the two territories elected Dr Aden Abdullah Osman, ex Italian Somali president), to be the first President of the new combined Republic. In the 1960s the government was confronted with a poorly developed economy and a nationalist movement that wanted to see a “Greater Somalia” of Issa people encompassing the Somali-dominated areas of Kenya, French Somaliland (now Djibouti), and Ethiopia. The nomadic existence of many Somali herders and the ill-defined frontiers worsened the problem. Somalia and Ethiopia went to war in 1964, and Kenya became involved as conflict dragged on to 1967. French Somaliland voted to continue their association with France. In 1969, President Abd-i-rashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated. The new ruler was Major General Mohammed Siad Barre. The major general set up a one party state with strong ties to the Arab League and the Soviet bloc.
The Soviets, however backed the other horse Ethiopia in a border squabble with Somalia. The war was fought in a desert called Ogaden. Although Ethiopia repulsed a Somalian invasion, the war dragged on until a peace accord in 1988. Ogaden remains a Somali populated area of Ethiopia. The effects of the war combined with drought has caused massive famine.
Warfare among rival factions within Somalia intensified. The regime of Siad Barre was ousted in January 1991; turmoil, factional fighting, and anarchy have followed in the years after the major general. That same year northern clans declared an independent Republic of Somaliland (believing themselves the inheritors of British Somaliland). Although not recognized by any government, it has maintained a stable existence, aided by a secure ruling clan and economic infrastructure left behind by overseas military assistance. The British are unsurprisingly favourable to this entity as an ex-colony. In 2004, the British Minister for African Affairs, Chris Mullin, on a visit there, told BBC Somali Service that "the Republic of Somaliland fulfils all the criteria for recognising states".
In Mogadishu, Mohammed Ali Mahdi was proclaimed president by one group and Mohammed Farah Aidid by another, as fighting between rival factions continued. Civil war and the worst African drought of the century created a devastating famine in 1992, resulting in a loss of some 300,000 lives. The UN brokered a ceasefire. In 1992, a mostly American military force attempted to restore political stability and establish free and open food-aid routes by protecting ports, airports, and roads in a high media profile action. A Somali ambush killed 23 Pakistani peacekeepers. In retaliation, US forces tried and failure to capture Aidid and 18 US troops and several thousand Somalies were killed in what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu.
As a result, the UN withdrew its forces in 1995. Matters were complicated further in 1998 when a north eastern region declared itself an autonomous state under the name of Puntland. Unlike Somaliland, it does not seek outright independence from Somalia.
Southwestern Somalia has also broken away in a similar fashion but again has not asked for complete independence.
Back in what was left of Somalia, clan elders and other senior figures appointed Abdulkassim Salat Hassan president at a 2000 conference in Djibouti. A transitional government was set up but could not unite the country. In 2004 after the mandate of the previous government expired, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a former leader of Puntland, was chosen by Somalia's interim parliament as the country's new president. The new government is the 14th attempt since 1991 but has no civil service or government buildings. Their task is made harder now that Islamists control much of the south including Mogadishu after their militias kicked out warlords who had ruled for 15 years.
Arab League diplomats are now trying to reconcile Somalia's transitional government with the Islamicists in Mogadishu. They met representatives from both sides this week. However, discussions between the two parties were yet to take place. The world waits for Somalia to get its collective act together. However suspicion of Somali links with global terrorism further complicates the picture.
If a new national government takes power in Somalia, it would be much easier to arrest and deport terror suspects. The current situation hasn't stopped Mogadishu from getting first class telecommunicates systems. Somalia is unique in that it constitutes the sole existing case in which a country has continued to exist in spite of 15 years of continuous statelessness. Another major issue is the status of Somaliland. Puntland and the others in the Somali split don't want full statehood; Somaliland is the only one who does. The issue of their recognition is crucial to stability in the tinderbox region. British support may be a crucial factor.
But in the meantime until the world decides the country is ready, clan rules apply in a billion dollar economy.