Pep Bonet / Panos Pictures

Somalia is the ultimate in ‘imagined communities’, the failed state whose fissiparous character is unique even in today’s splintered world. Situated in the dusty Horn of Africa, this is a country whose Transitional Federal Government (TFG) exists only courtesy of the UN and other African powers, and whose cabinet and 275-member Parliament are not able to take up residence in their capital, Mogadishu. Competing warlords keep the city in a state of suspended mayhem, as they do most of the country. Except for their up-to-date weaponry, they operate as in the days when a ‘Somali nation’ did not exist and elders managed all affairs from the domestic hearth upwards.

Somalia fell apart in 1991 after a spate of clan-based rebellions against the genocidal, 22-year dictatorship of President Mohammed Siad Barre.

The terrible famine of 1993 in the south was entirely induced by civil war. A US- and UN-led humanitarian intervention failed to understand Somali complexities, was humiliated, and when it left in 1995 had fed more flames than it had doused. By then, the destruction of the infrastructure in the south and centre, including schools, clinics and buildings of any significance, was virtually complete.

Other African powers, and the international system generally, abhor a national vacuum. They therefore insist that ‘Somalia’ be reunified under a joint administration. Accordingly, President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, leader of the relatively peaceful and homogeneous northeastern enclave of Puntland and a candidate just about acceptable to other warlords, took power, or its illusion, in October 2004. This was the result of a long drawn-out, internationally mediated negotiation and election process in Nairobi, Kenya. There the TFG remains, squabbling at international expense over the nationality of possible peacekeepers to help them go home.

Somaliland, which has been an independently functioning political and administrative entity since 1993, refused to participate in this ‘peace’ process and maintains a tireless quest for separate recognition.

In its governance-free condition, central and southern Somalia is being run by local armed potentates in a dizzyingly complex and fluid state of allegiance and feud. Crossing the shifting boundaries between their terrains is risky, depending on a person’s clan lineage and the local militia’s mood. However, people manage. There has even been a renaissance of colleges, hospitals and other facilities in Mogadishu, thanks to inward investment from the Somali diaspora. The extremely free trade environment suits speculators and entrepreneurs of a particular stamp, particularly those in the qat trade: chewing this narcotic leaf is epidemic among men. As long as a person is not attractive as a ransom prospect and has not excited an irrational gunman’s ire, normal life goes on.

Civilians, especially women and young people, express exasperation at the credibility given to warlords by external powers. If they could be starved of finance, guns and glory at the negotiating table, peaceful co-operation on the ground would become more practicable. Civilian bodies and local authorities, with support from the diaspora and external agencies, provide the only basic services. Businesses or privateers keep roads driveable, vehicles running, phones ringing and lighthouses beaming. The very few resident international UN and NGO staff are mostly African; offices, locally staffed, operate under armed guard, directed from Kenya. A number of NGOs, run for the most part by courageous Somali women, function despite the risks. These, the local people and UNICEF provide most of the resources for health programmes and schools.