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Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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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.

Fact file

Leader President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed; Prime Minister of the transitio
Economy GNI per capita estimated at $130 but this is highly speculative (Ethiopia $90, Britain $28,350).
Monetary unit Somali shilling.
Main exports livestock (camels, sheep, goats); bananas, hides, fish, charcoal, scrap metal. Gulf states have banned livestock imports from the Horn since outbreaks of Rift Valley Fever in 1998, decimating livestock earnings. The small industrial sector has been entirely looted for scrap; services however flourish and mobile phone rates are the cheapest on the continent; money exchange services handle up to $500 million yearly in remittances from abroad.
People 8.3 million; there are around 500,000 refugees (neighbouring countries only) and internally displaced (estimates include Somaliland).
Health 132 per 1,000 live births (Ethiopia 112, Britain 5).
Environment Apart from the fertile southern areas surrounding the Shebelle and Juba Rivers, the terrain is desert scrub and, north of Mogadishu, increasingly harsh.
Culture Somalis have a rich oral culture, with songs and poems deriving from the heroic warrior past. The extreme hardship of the terrain meant that wells and pasture were bitterly contested; the settlement of disputes was often temporary and clan warfare constantly on the boil. From this past comes the violent present; the common language and ancestry of the Somali people (there are some non-Somali minorities, regarded as inferior) offers only an illusion of potential unity.
Religion Islam; women are semi-secluded.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution There has always been a Somali élite, many now in the diaspora. But the fierce allegiance to clan makes for mutual support and an egalitarian attitude.
Literacy Very low (17%), even less than the 24% in 1985-90 because schools were destroyed. Under the circumstances, the re-establishment of schooling by many communities with UNICEF support is an extraordinary achievement.
Life expectancy 48 years (Ethiopia 46, Britain 78).
Freedom The kind of absolute freedom pertaining in Somalia is unusual; it includes impunity, except from blood feuds. Shari’a is supposed to apply, but is often ignored.
Position of women Women’s status derives only from their fathers, sons and husbands – in that order. 95% of girls still have their clitoris and labia sewn together to discourage penetration.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and is punishable by three years’ imprisonment, though it is unclear whether this applies to women.
Previously reviewed 1986
New Internationalist assessment There is no regular political life outside the constant shifting of clan-based power. Most clan leaders command power by use of the gun, and their interest in providing their people with administration, justice, civilian jobs and services is negligible. They accept aid for these purposes because they profit from providing vehicles and armed guards. Obscure civilian Somalis function as leaders in a different way and provide an alternative political example.

New Internationalist issue 380 magazine cover This article is from the July 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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