The failure of the Somali state

The abandonment of the leadership by its President would not usually cause a whole state to collapse. However, given the great political and environmental challenges Somalis had faced building a centralised state, more than a decade of conflict had left it in a highly precarious position. To make matters worse, before his escape, Siyad ensured the destruction of most of Mogadishu’s infrastructure and ordered his troops to slaughter livestock, destroy crops and massacre local cultivators.


Already afflicted by famine, the devastation caused starvation throughout southern Somalia and inflicted a profound psychological blow on a militarised population already seething with clan-based hatred. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis died, including 75 per cent of children under five. 



Destruction of Mogadishu, c.1993

With no centralised Somali government to speak for the people, no African or international leaders came to the assistance of the non-profit relief agencies struggling to feed the population. Eventually the UN mobilised a well-documented humanitarian intervention with the backing of the United States army. They did manage to secure the food supply (despite the worst of the famine being over already) but then made a catastrophic strategic error: attempting to rebuild the Somali state.


The most prominent event during this period is known as Black Hawk Down, after an account by Mark Bowden. It would have lasting consequences for international humanitarian intervention. The forces of General Muhammad Farah Aideed, the strongest of the former Barrè regime leaders fighting for power, shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 American Army Rangers. This event sparked the beginning of the UN’s withdrawal from Somalia. The UN would not return in any substantial way for over 15 years. 


After the Somali state collapsed

Almost immediately after Siyad Barre's departure, the Somalis began organising governmental structures along clan lines. The international community viewed these local state-building attempts as a ‘building-block’ approach to reinstating a federal state of Somalia based in Mogadishu. This assumption disregarded the fact that Siyad had required superpower levels of financial and military resources to maintain control and unity over the clans of Somalia. Even this control had lasted barely a decade before beginning to erode. The international community’s idea that diplomacy alone could overcome entrenched clan divisions and grievances proved naive at best and at worst, actively contributed to ongoing war and conflict. By 2004, the international community had made more than twenty attempts to rebuild a centralised Somali state that often culminated in disastrously unsuccessful deals with various warlords of the day.


Despite the harsh reality of post-state life, the Somali experience of the violent and oppressive state under Siyad Barrè created high levels of uncertainty and risk aversion to rebuilding attempts. Moreover, the strong business community propagated fears of the effect of state institutions like taxation, regulation and even nationalisation; while criminal interests combined with clan loyalty to create private (and trusted) security.


Throughout the 2000s no form of a Somali-led centralised state emerged from Mogadishu. Yet the Somalis re-established a flourishing cross-border livestock market, Mogadishu’s trade entrepôt, banana commerce, telecommunications, and money transfer services that demonstrated solid economic progression. Somalis suffered from a lack of education and adequate healthcare compared to other East African countries but were not exceptionally poor. After all, Somalis had much greater trust in direct remittances from overseas workers than in the banking system, so when it collapsed it took only the state’s fortunes with it. 

By the beginning of the Somali piracy epidemic in 2008, two prominent but internationally unrecognised Somali-led state-like structures had emerged: the Isaaq-dominated Somaliland centred on the boundaries established by British Somaliland, and Puntland. Puntland would soon become internationally notorious as the home of the Somali pirates.