Since 1991, clan warfare has besieged Somalia. The United Nations has called the current situation in Somalia the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” At the end of January 2009, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected President of Somalia with the hope that his administration will bring stability to Somalia and implement the Djibouti Peace Process of 2000. However, violence has continued unabated. At the end of 2009, nearly 700,000 Somalis were under the responsibility of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, constituting the third largest refugee group in the world after war-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
The Republic of Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa. It shares a border with Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya, and touches the Gulf of Aden to the North, and the Indian Ocean to the East. Mogadishu, the capital city, is in the southeastern part of the country, along the coast of the Indian Ocean.
In 1991, after the collapse of the Siyad Barre regime, northern clans declared an independent Republic of Somaliland in the northwestern area of Somalia. Although not recognized by any government, Somaliland has remained stable, and leaders continue to try to establish a constitutional democracy.
Puntland is a self-declared, self-governing autonomous state in the northeastern area of Somalia. There have been efforts to create a legitimate, representative government, but this has not been without civil strife. There are border disputes between Puntland and neighboring Somaliland.
In 1991, the Somali government was overthrown by opposing clans. The clans failed to agree on a replacement for the national leader and Somalia plunged into turmoil, clan warfare, and lawlessness. Power struggles between clan warlords displaced, wounded, and killed thousands of civilians.
In August 2000, clan elders and other lead figures appointed Abdulkassim Salat Hassan president and set up a transitional government at a conference in Djibouti. The goal was to reconcile warring militias, but, as its mandate drew to a close, the Somali administration had made little progress.
A two-year peace process, led by the Government of Kenya, ended in October 2004. During the talks, the main warlords and politicians signed an agreement to set up a new parliament. They elected Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, and formed an interim government, known as the Somalia Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs). The TFIs were created based on the Transitional Federal Charter (TFC), which suggests the government follow a five-year mandate leading to the establishment of a new Somali constitution and a transition to a representative government following national elections. The new administration was Somalia’s fourteenth attempt to establish a central government since 1991.
The transitional government’s authority was further compromised in 2006 by the rise of militias loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts. These militias gained control of much of the south, including Mogadishu, after they kicked out the clan warlords that had ruled for the past fifteen years.
In September of 2006, the transitional government and the Union of Islamic Courts began peace talks in Khartoum, Sudan.
With the backing of Ethiopian troops, forces loyal to the interim administration seized control of Mogadishu from the Islamists at the end of 2006. Islamists abandoned their last stronghold in January 2007, and President Abdullahi Yusuf was able to enter Mogadishu for the first time since taking office in 2004.
In February-March of 2007, Islamist insurgents fought back against the government and Ethiopian forces, regaining control of most of southern Somalia by late 2008.
Ethiopia withdrew all of its troops by January 2009. As this happened, fighters from the Islamist radical militia group Al-Shabab took control of the town of Baidoa, formerly a key stronghold of the transitional government.
In late January 2009, Somalia’s parliament met in Djibouti to swear in 149 new members from the main opposition movement, Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. The Parliament elected a moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, president, and extended the transitional government’s mandate until 2011. While not completely in control, the government continues to help build capacity to work toward national elections. In February, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke became prime minister. A former diplomat, he is seen as a bridge between Islamists within the Somali government and the international community.
In May 2009, the government was set back again when Islamist insurgents launched an attack on Mogadishu. President Ahmed declared a state of emergency and appealed for help from abroad. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Ethiopia would intervene in Somalia if the situation starts to impose a national security threat to his country, and troops are present, with arms and support provided by the United States.
On October 21st, 2010, the African Union appealed to the United Nations for an air and naval blockade of Somalia. The AU Commissioner for Peace and Security insisted that such an action was necessary to curb the flow of weapons to Islamist militants in the region, and also called for a total of 20,000 AU peacekeepers to be deployed to Somalia, up from the current deployment of 8,000 peacekeepers.
Somali insurgents, the transitional government’s armed forces, and intervening Ethiopian troops have destroyed the lives of tens of thousands civilians throughout the country, particularly in Mogadishu, with bombings and crimes against humanity. These violations include indiscriminate attacks, killings, rape, use of civilians as human shields, and looting. More than 1 million people have been displaced, and aid agencies report that some 4 million people in Somalia – or about one-third of the population – need food aid. Increasing attacks on aid workers in the past year have severely limited relief operations and contributed to an emerging humanitarian crisis.
In 1992, U.S. Marines landed near Mogadishu ahead of a U.N. peacekeeping force sent to restore order and safeguard relief supplies. Somali militias shot down two U.S. helicopters. Eighteen U.S. Army Rangers were killed, beheaded, and paraded through the streets. The battle that ensued between U.S. forces and Somali militias killed hundreds of Somalis. This tragedy, known in the US as ‘Blackhawk Down,’ refers to the name of the helicopters used by the Marines. The loss of the U.S. soldiers resulted in then-President Clinton being exhorted to refrain from subsequent involvement in African affairs. To a large extent, Blackhawk Down’s legacy influenced the US to refrain from intervention of any sort during the genocide in Rwanda two years later.
Following the arrival of the U.S. Marines, a two-year U.N. humanitarian effort attempted to relieve famine conditions in the country. The U.N. mission withdrew shortly thereafter, having suffered significant casualties.
In December 2006, a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsed African peacekeepers. Islamist leaders reacted by saying that they would view foreign forces as invaders. The African Union and Arab League urged Ethiopia to pull out its troops, but failed, and a joint Ethiopian and Somali government force captured Mogadishu.
Beginning in February 2007, the U.N. Security Council authorized a six-month African Union peacekeeping mission for Somalia. The previous U.N. force had withdrawn in 2005.
In October 2007, Ethiopian forces fired on demonstrators in Mogadishu protesting at the presence of what they called foreign invaders. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that he would keep troops inside Somalia until “jihadists” were defeated. In June 2008, the government signed a three-month ceasefire pact with opposition Alliance for Re-Liberation of Somalia. The deal, which said that Ethiopian troops would leave Somalia within 120 days, was rejected by Islamist leader Hassan Dahir Aweys, who said that the Union of Islamic Courts would not stop fighting until all foreign troops left the country. In December Ethiopia announced plans to withdraw all forces by end of 2008, which was completed by January 2009. However, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi claimed that Ethiopia will intervene in Somalia if the situation there poses a national security threat to his country.
The US carried out air strikes in southern Somalia in 2007, targeting suspected Al-Qaeda members. Though the strikes were supported and defended by President Yusuf, they ultimately ended up killing innocent civilians.
Overall, this conflict has involved a number of different international organizations, such as the UN, the AU, and the EU. Multiple countries have also taken part in the conflict itself or in seeking resolution including the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Italy, among others. Despite the attempts at resolution, however, the violence continues. With so many factions and interests involved, and such a long history of turmoil, finding a solution to the conflict remains a complex and complicated process.
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This page was created by Guled Ibrahim, J.D., World Without Genocide Associate.