Country Profile: Somalia


President Hassan talks to the press over a bench loaded with swordfish at the opening of a new fish-processing factory. © Photos: Petterik Wiggers

Somalia today is more like a political marketplace than a modern nation-state. The everyday mayhem and hustle of the capital city, Mogadishu, where political positions and private contracts are traded publicly – with armed convoys transporting government officials and briefcases full of money – demonstrate the ease of life for those that can afford it. But the high cost of security precludes access to political and economic life for the large majority. With few opportunities locally, the preferred option for many young Somalis is still tahrib, or illegal migration, especially as democratic and economic progress remain painfully slow. 

In 2012, an internationally sanctioned federal government replaced the succession of transitional regimes attempting to end a civil war that began with the complete collapse of the state in 1991. Yet, pushed forward in haste, federalism – which was supposed to accommodate the decentralized political and clan fabric of Somali society – has, in the interim, increased political instability.

The first federal parliamentary and presidential elections in November 2016 and January 2017 advanced things very little. Instead, the nepotistic politics created during Siad Barre’s neo-marxist military regime from 1969 to 1991 still hold sway, and such cronyism continues to benefit the most well-established Islamist groups and politicians.

With the strength of the government curtailed by clan politicking, militant groups retain their power. Despite successive offensives against Al Shabaab since 2011, the group retains key strongholds across the south, as well as the capacity to ambush bases of the AMISOM peacekeeping forces of the African Union. Even in Mogadishu, despite its military defeat in 2012, Al Shabaab operates like a cartel, through targeted assassinations, extortion and high-level infiltration. Without a national army, the Somali federal government remains highly dependent on the international community and AMISOM forces for its security and legitimacy.

On the other hand, Somaliland, which does have a national army and formal system of governance, remains exceptional, wilfully independent (since 1991) and steadfast in its quest for international recognition (the NI profiled it as a separate entity in this section in 2003).

The international scramble for Somalia has intensified post-2012. Ethiopia, the UAE, Turkey and Qatar pursue distinct security as well as strategic and economic interests (including in port development and regional military offensives). This has done little to instil popular trust in centralized governance, and has raised the stakes for elites to secure and retain political power, not least by paying parliamentarians to dismiss impeachment motions or to push forward particular agendas. It all reinforces the notion that the government is a foreign entity, detached from the people, and feeds the distrust and sense of grievance that prompt radicalization. Growing income inequality, high rates of unemployment and diminished opportunities add to the feeling of disenfranchisement.

In the midst of this crisis, however, the economy – in particular the trade, finance and telecommunications sectors – is showing some signs of resilience. The current president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has been credited with overseeing a gradual return to formal economic growth, despite accusations of corruption and cronyism. There is increasing investment in the homeland from the Somali diaspora, as well as from foreign investors.

But the infrastructure remains chronically weak: civilian bodies and local authorities provide only the most basic services, including maintenance of roads and wells. Health programmes and schools are still largely operated by the UN and by NGOs, though the threat to foreign aid workers’ safety remains high. On its long journey out of conflict and chaos, Somalia still has a way to travel.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled 2005

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

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