Somalia (1960- ) is the country at the Horn of Africa. It has produced Iman, the supermodel, as well as pirates who make the evening news. In 1991 Siad Barre was overthrown and the country sank into an unending civil war that goes on even now, 18 years later.
The numbers: in a country of 9 million, 1 million have died in the war and its knock-on effects of famine and disease. Another million have fled their homes, some living in nearby countries, some living in utter poverty just outside the capital, the once beautiful city of Mogadishu. Three million depend on food aid from abroad. It is what is called a failed state.
As I write this on May 22nd 2009 the government is fighting for control of Wadnaha Road – in the capital! That is how weak it is.
In 2006, after years of fighting between warlords, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) gained control of much of the south and took over the capital. They wanted to rule the country through sharia or strict Muslim law.
It seemed like peace was at hand. But then the UIC threatened a holy war against Ethiopia. So Ethiopia sent in its troops and overthrew the UIC. Ethiopia’s dead soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu just like the Americans were in 1993. (The way the Americans pulled out shortly after that persuaded Osama bin Laden that they lacked courage, which in turn led to 9/11.)
Ethiopia as a foreign power could not put a strong government in place. As part of a United Nations peace deal, they pulled out in January 2009 and left behind Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as president. Ahmed used to belong to the UIC and as the new president of Somalia he even set up sharia law.
It sounded good but it did not satisfy everyone, in particular some of the extreme bits of the UIC which now do business as al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam. They saw Ahmed as a sell-out. They follow a Wahhabi form of Islam, which is far more extreme and Taliban-like than what most Somalis follow.
But, truth be told. al-Shabab is probably less concerned with fine points of religion and more concerned with being in power. They know the government is weak and are going in for the kill.
Because Somalia lacks a strong government it cannot control its long coastline, which is near one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. So no surprise that it has become a nest of pirates.
Somalia was formed in 1960 by joining the Italian colony of Somalia and the British protectorate of Somaliland in the north (now independent again in practice and doing well, unlike the south). Most people are Somalis and Sunni Muslims. Unlike many countries in Africa, Somalia is not divided by religion or language, but it is divided by clan.
In addition to the 9 million Somalis who live in Somalia itself, there are 5 million in Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia, 350,000 in Djibouti, nearly a million in Yemen and a half million in Kenya.