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Country Profile: Somalia


Country ratings

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

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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

Leader President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Economy Economy GNI per capita was estimated at $284 in 2012 but this is highly speculative – there are no official UN figures (Ethiopia $550, Italy $34,270). The World Bank projects the economy to grow at a rate of 5-7% over 2016-18, with aggregate demand fuelled by remittances, lower oil prices and an improved security environment. Mobile phone rates are the cheapest on the continent; money exchange services handle up to $1.3 billion yearly in remittances from abroad.
Monetary unit Somali shilling (although most business is conducted in dollars).
Main exports Livestock (camels, sheep, goats); bananas, hides, fish, charcoal, scrap metal. The Gulf States lifted a ban on livestock imports from the Horn in 2009, rejuvenating the market.
People Population 11.1 million; there are around 1.2 refugees (in neighbouring regions only) and 1.1 million internally displaced persons (estimates include Somaliland). Annual population growth 1990-2015: 2.1%. People per square kilometre 18.
Health Health Infant mortality 85 per 1,000 live births (Ethiopia 41, Italy 3). Lifetime risk of maternal death: 1 in 22 (Italy 1 in 19,700). HIV prevalence rate: 0.5%.
Environment Apart from the fertile southern areas surrounding the Shebelle and Juba rivers, the terrain is desert scrub and, north of Mogadishu, increasingly harsh. Most settled agriculture takes place in the south; elsewhere camel and livestock herding is the norm, and some fishing. Over 60% of the population are pastoralists or farmers.
Culture Despite their common language and ancestry, Somalis identify largely by clan or region.
Religion Sunni Islam; women are semi-secluded.
Language Somali (official), Arabic (official), Italian and English.
Human Development Index No data

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution While the fierce allegiance to clan supports an egalitarian attitude and distribution, many estimate that inequality is increasing.
Literacy Still low at 39%: male literacy is 50% but female only 26%.
Life expectancy 56 years (Ethiopia 65, Italy 83 ).
Freedom Protection under law and order is minimal; journalists are increasingly vulnerable to arrest and media houses to police crackdowns.
Position of women While women’s representation in government has increased from 14 to 30% in 2016, Somali women still suffer high rates of gender-based violence and inequity in the work force and opportunities. FGM is almost universal, affecting 98%.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and is punishable by three years’ imprisonment, though in some southern regions Islamic courts have imposed sharia law and the death penalty.
New Internationalist assessment Political life revolves around shifting clan-based power and fluid alliances with regional players and Islamist organizations. A strong diaspora and burgeoning civil society is pushing for greater transparency and accountability. But growing cleavages between traditional and modern systems of government have left conflict management in a vacuum as well as local administration, justice, civilian jobs and services. International aid is exploited to serve the interests of both parties and individuals.

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