“The Very Definition of a Failed State”

Somalia embodies one of postcolonial Africa’s worst mismatches between conventional state structures and indigenous institutions. Although a shared ethnicity, culture, language, and religion might seem to offer an excellent basis for a cohesive polity, in reality, the Somali people are divided by clan affiliations, the single most important component of their identity. Traditional, customary methods of governance are ill-suited to the centralized bureaucratic governing structures that colonizers and Westernized elites have repeatedly attempted to impose on the country. Those attempts have brought only chaos and conflict, creating what the Council on Foreign Relations has characterized as “the very definition of a failed state.”1

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Anthropologists typically describe traditional Somali society as stateless, characterized by a wide dispersion of power among clans and subclans. Somalis’ long history as pastoral nomads has made them fiercely independent, but also well accustomed to a variety of democratic practices.

The Somali population (some 13 to 14 million people, including those now living in neighboring states) is divided into six major clans and a number of minority groups. Each of the clans consists of subclans that join or split in a fluid process of “constant decomposition and recomposition.”2 These “clan-states” typically work through a diffuse and decentralized decision-making process that culminates in a community meeting open to all adult males—a shir—at which major economic, political, and social policies are determined. These societal institutions and the customary law (xeer) that governs behavior within the community are deeply ingrained and function independently of modern state structures. Although Islam plays a major role in the lives of socially conservative people, it is subordinate or complementary to clannism in shaping their outlook.

Starting in the 1880s, European colonialists divided Somalis among the British Somaliland Protectorate (today’s Somaliland), Italian Somalia (the rest of Somalia), and French Somaliland (now Djibouti), as well as parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. This launched a process whereby outsiders and Westernized elites tried to create new, modern institutions that completely ignored traditional societal norms and relationships. In trying to marginalize long-established patterns, these modernizing efforts ended up permanently disconnecting the state, such as it was, from the society that should have been its foundation.

Somalia came into being on 1 July 1960, when the British Somaliland Protectorate, having gained its formal independence on June 26 of that year, joined with what had been its southern neighbor, Italian Somalia. Initial euphoria rapidly soured as signs of state dysfunction mounted. Corruption worsened, electoral politics became increasingly chaotic, and state programs delivered little public benefit. Clannism infected politics and administrative organs as each group sought to maximize the spoils that it could loot from the system.

This high level of disenchantment led many to welcome Mohamed Siyad Barre’s armed coup in 1969. Siyad Barre’s socialist regime made some popular reforms in the areas of education, health, and the status of women, but suffered a humiliating defeat by Ethiopia in the Ogaden War of 1977–78, and encountered growing dissatisfaction with one-party rule. Siyad Barre fell back on members of the Daarood subclans linked to him by birth or marriage; all other groups were pushed out. He eventually came to depend on repression and foreign aid (development assistance peaked at a stunning 57 percent of annual GNP) to prop up his highly centralized and socially isolated state.3 Siyad Barre’s fall in 1991 left Somalia in the hands of warlords and militias whose grip was challenged but not broken by the ill-fated UN- and then U.S.-led military intervention that culminated in the October 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu.

In the 1990s, disaffected clans began to carve up the country. The Harti grouping (a subset of the Daarood) created a semi-autonomous region in the east called Puntland, while in the northwest the Isaaq clan led the effort to build Somaliland.

The international community has launched at least fourteen peace initiatives since Siyad Barre’s dictatorship collapsed, yet Somalia remains divided and without a functioning central government—the longest-running example of state failure in the postcolonial period. If anything, the authority and cash that outsiders have repeatedly tried to give some central body have distorted the traditional relationships that undergirded a robust society for centuries, while helping to entrench warlords and their private armies. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG)—a reed-thin affair produced by a 2002 regional initiative and based mainly on a clique from the Daarood clan—had never controlled more than a small area around one city near the Ethiopian border before Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion. The TFG, nonetheless, receives recognition from the international community as Somalia’s legitimate government.

The ICU, which won armed control of large areas of southern Somalia in 2006, naturally also had strong clan ties. The Hawiye group, never fond of the Daarood-dominated TFG, is a close ICU supporter. The Islamists were able to expand so rapidly both because of their ability to supply a measure of order—something prized by residents weary of years of chaos and strife—and because they coopted various subclans by giving them significant stakes in local administrations. Even though scattered in the wake of Ethiopia’s assault, the ICU and its Islamist leaders have vowed to fight on via an Iraq-style guerrilla campaign. Ethiopian forces have faced suicide attacks and remotely detonated bombs, making Mogadishu dangerous enough to deter foreign states from sending peacekeepers. The current anarchy resembles the one out of which the ICU first grew, suggesting that the group’s prospects can by no means be called bleak.

Ordinary Somalis have paid the highest price for these repeated failures at state formation. They are among the world’s poorest and hungriest people, with an average life expectancy of only about 42 years and a mortality rate for children under five that exceeds 25 percent. The adult literacy rate may be lower than 20 percent in some parts of the state.4

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