Civil War: Somalia (1988-1991 and 1992-Present)

Kyle Wilson. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Somalia, a country synonymous with civil war, failed state syndrome, and anarchy, suffers from chronic clan warfare stimulated by Cold War rivalries and failed humanitarian intervention. Since independence, the people of Somalia have suffered regular civil and international conflict. This history defines Somalia, and its future will be a function of this history. More than a decade after the fall of Siad Barre, the country remains without an effective central government. The civil war affected all of Somalia’s neighbors, as each one was the subject of irredentist claims on its territory. Somalia claimed Kenya’s Northern Frontier district, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and Djibouti. These irredentist claims complicated regional dynamics and led to a lack of political support for settlement of the disputes involved in the civil war. Not until the regional and international powers realized that a civil war in Somalia affected them all did they support peace in Somalia.

Country Background

The peoples now known as Somalis come from an ancient people called Berberi. Evidence suggests they have lived in the region since 100 AD. Somalis, a derivation of Samaal, are pastoral nomads and followers of Islam. Six major clans compose the Somali ethnic group. The Dir, the Daarood, the Isaaq, and the Hawiye follow pastoral lifestyles; the Digil and the Rahanwayn follow an agricultural life. Islam, introduced in the eighth century, has strongly influenced the legal and cultural identities of the Somali people. Initially, the Somali people created outposts on the coasts in the ancient cities of Seylac, Berbera, Merca, and Mogadishu to trade with other cultures. The Somali people possess a strong identity and show a fierce independence. A central part of Somali life and central to their identity are their clan affiliations (Metz 1992, xxi).

Present-day Somalia began as two different entities, one administered by Italy and the other by the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom controlled the northern area to maintain a strategic supply area for its important colonies in Yemen and India. This area of Somalia contained substantial animal resources to feed the United Kingdom’s people across the Red Sea. Southern Somalia became part of Italy and allowed Italians to resettle in the region to relieve population pressures in Italy. An important historical aspect of the two entities rests with the differences in the colonial administration of the two zones. As Italians migrated to Somalia to make a new life, southern Somalia benefited from additional educated administrators who improved education, commerce, infrastructure, and sanitation systems in the region. In the north, the United Kingdom used the region to extract resources and did little to empower its inhabitants.

Somalia was formed by the merger of British and Italian Somaliland, whereas French Somaliland became Djibouti, and the Somalis in Kenya and Ethiopia remained part of those countries. Although the Somali identity forms the majority of these areas, Somalis also live outside these areas in other neighboring countries throughout the region. After independence, Somalia followed a policy of nonalignment and chose to receive support from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Mohamed Siad Barre came to power in a coup d’état on October 21, 1969, after the death of President Shermaarke. He garnered the support of the military and the police and proclaimed a new Somali Democratic Republic. This new entity proclaimed its goal as the unification of all Somali peoples and the end of all clannism in Somalia. Although Somalia initially maintained a nonaligned foreign policy, when Siad Barre came to power, he shifted Somalia’s allegiance to the Soviet sphere of influence. In exchange, the Soviet Union sent small arms and light weapons, tanks, aircraft, and advisors to train the Somali National Army (SNA).

As a believer of “scientific socialism,” Siad Barre made efforts to bring development to his people. Unfortunately, his irredentist claims on his neighbors’ Somali populations created turmoil throughout the region. The idea of a greater Somalia that joined Somalis from Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya consumed the government of Siad Barre. This led to the unsuccessful invasion of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and both tacit and direct support of Somali rebel groups in the surrounding countries.

Somalia’s military buildup during the 1970s allowed the government to field one of the largest and best-trained militaries in Africa. With the assistance of Soviet advisors, equipment, and material, Somalia began to consider means of achieving its stated intention of uniting all Somalis into a Greater Somalia. Historically, Somalia’s irredentist claim on the Ogaden of Ethiopia emanated from Ethiopia’s seizure of the area after the defeat of Italy in World War II. The Ogaden contained a large population of Somalis under foreign domination and became the focus of Somalia’s military buildup. In 1977, Somalia sent its forces into Ethiopia and initially made substantial gains. As Somalia succeeded in capturing territory in the Ogaden, the Soviet Union pulled its support from Somalia and began reinforcing Ethiopia. This transition led to a reversal of Somalia’s gains and forced Somalia to withdraw in defeat. (See also Lewis 2002.)

Conflict Background

Somalia’s unsuccessful war against Ethiopia over the contested Ogaden region initiated a long period of rebellion against the leadership of Siad Barre. After Somalia’s loss in the Ogaden, several groups challenged his leadership and formed in opposition to his rule. This sparked a coup attempt in April 1978 by military members of the Majerteyn clan. Barre and his supporters prevailed and unleashed a vicious campaign against military and civilian members of the Majerteyn clan. This reprisal began a cycle of violence against those groups that challenged his leadership. An insurgency began with this coup attempt. Although the initial coup failed, it put in motion a chain of events that led to his overthrow. After Barre realized that members of the Majerteyn clan were responsible for the coup attempt, he began a campaign against the entire clan. Later, as more clans realized that his tactics included manipulating clan differences, the rebellion grew to include the Isaaq clans of the north. Both groups experienced the wrath of Siad Barre as his secret police massacred their people (Lyons and Samatar 1995, 17).

Because of Barre’s campaign of violence against the Majerteyn clan, thousands of people fled to the relative safety of Ethiopia. While in Ethiopia, Colonel Abdullahi Yusef formed the Somali Democratic Salvation Front (SSDF) with material and tacit support from the government of Ethiopia. Although the SSDF initially received support from Somalis, it eventually lost support because of its ties with the Ethiopian government (Adam 1995, 76; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 17).

The goal of the Ogaden war was to unite the Somali people. Ogadeni Somalis lost their independence when Ethiopia seized the region during the colonial period. After Somalia’s loss to Ethiopia, many of the Ogadeni Somalis fled Ethiopia, fearing reprisal from the Ethiopian government. As they fled, Siad Barre offered sanctuary in Somalia; however, this gesture came at the expense of the northern Isaaq clan displaced by these arriving Ogadenis. This calculated move by Siad Barre drew the scorn of the Isaaq clan and sparked the creation of the Somali National Movement (SNM), a movement primarily focused on the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime (Adam 1995, 76; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 18).

The SNM operated out of Ethiopia, just like the SSDF, until the governments of Ethiopia and Somalia agreed that it was in their mutual interest to end support of each other’s rebel movements. Ethiopia found itself in the midst of the civil war against Eritrean separatists, while Somalia increasingly found itself embattled by various clan-based Somali groups. The treaty of nonaggression and noninterference obliged Ethiopia to end support of all Somali groups; accordingly, the SNM and other groups changed strategies with the loss of their bases in Ethiopia. The peace accord between Ethiopia and Somalia triggered the decline of Somalia. With the loss of its bases in Ethiopia, the SNM began a military campaign against the Siad Barre regime. The SNM captured Burao and Hargeisa in May 1989. Barre sent a full contingent of soldiers and equipment, including the air force. The air force began an indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Hargeisa and destroyed more than 50 percent of the city. The bombardment spared no one and became another crime against humanity, recognized but practictly ignored by the international community (Adam 1995, 76; Lewis 2002, 262; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 18).

With instability mounting throughout north and central Somalia, Siad Barre’s government began to unravel, continuing its descent into the status of a failed state. Other groups that were upset about the policies and practices of the Barre regime sensed the weakness of the central government and began to organize against the regime. Disaffected Ogadenis formed the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) and began attacks on the government at Afmadu in March 1989. Rebel groups now covered the majority of the country from the north, throughout the central region, and into the south, including parts of Juba and Benadir (Lyons and Samatar 1995, 18).

At this point, the Majerteyn, Ogadeni, and Isaaq clans now openly rejected the leadership of Siad Barre, and the Hawiye clan joined in the open struggle against the government to protect its interests. Members of the SNM had created the United Somali Congress (USC) in 1987 in Rome. Although they shared a common distrust and hatred of the Barre regime, they realized his wrath when Hawiye clan members in the Somali Army mutinied in Galkayu, triggering a murderous response from the military. Despite the shared resolve against the government, factions within the USC differed on how to cooperate with other groups, including the SNM. These factions included General Mohammed Farah Aideed, who believed the USC should cooperate with the SNM (Adam 1995, 77; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 19).

The trend of clan-based rebel movements weakened the fabric of Somali society, and people began to turn to the clans for protection and welfare. As Barre retaliated against the various clans, the Marehan clan dominated the military because it was the only clan loyal to Barre. This accelerated the perception of the other clan groups that regime change was the only way to end the reprisals by the Barre regime and bring stability back to Somalia. Although all the clan groups agreed that the Barre regime should be overthrown, cooperation between the clan groups remained limited and difficult (Lyons and Samatar 1995, 19).

In January 1991, Siad Barre fled Mogadishu after the combined forces of the USC (jointly led by Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi) entered the capital. After the fall of Mogadishu, neither Aideed nor Mahdi could agree on how to share power. Aideed, who was of the Habar Gidr subclan, and Mahdi, who was of the Abgal subclan, each received support from their clans to lead the country. Aideed’s clan enjoyed the support of the SNM in the north. Mahdi’s clan were the original inhabitants of the Mogadishu area, whereas Aideed’s clan settled in the area later. While Aideed pursued Barre south of Mogadishu, Mahdi declared himself the head of the new government of Somalia. Aideed did not recognize the proclamation, and this led to a division of Mogadishu between the Habar Gidr and the Abgal subclans. After fleeing the capital, Barre made one last attempt to reclaim power. He gathered his forces south of the capital and made one last push to take the city back from the USC. His attempt failed, and Barre fled into exile. This led to further bloodshed, a failed UN intervention, and additional years of suffering for the people of Somalia (Lewis 2002, 264).

Before meetings to discuss a cease-fire, Aideed (representing the United Somali Congress), Ahmed Omar Jess (representing the Somali Patriotic Movement), Mohamed Nur Aliyow (representing the Somali Democratic Movemement [SDM]), and Abdi Warsame (representing the Southern Somali National Movement [SSNM]) came together to formulate a common strategy for the discussions. The parties signed the cease-fire agreement on March 3, 1992, in which all parties agreed to end hostilities and maintain the status quo (Clarke and Herbst 1997, 7).

As the world witnessed the human tragedy of the famine in Somalia, pressure mounted on the international community to intervene to halt the fighting and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The end of the Cold War opened the way for the United Nations to take a stronger role in dealing with international peace and security as envisioned in its charter. With the support of the United Nations, the United States launched an invasion of Somalia with the primary purpose of bringing about the conditions necessary to deliver humanitarian assistance to those areas in the south most devastated by famine (Lewis 2002, 267-75; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 29-35)

After Somalia descended into violence, the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) all discussed the situation in Somalia. The United Nations actively participated in Somalia after the collapse of the Barre regime but could not fully operate in the lawless environment. Due to the violence, the United Nations removed its personnel from the country on several occasions. On January 23, 1992, the United Nations began its official involvement by passing Security Council Resolution 733. The resolution urged all the parties to cease hostilities, created an arms embargo, and requested humanitarian assistance.

During the early 1990s, at the height of the post-Cold War euphoria for United Nations involvement, Somalia became the testing grounds for UN and member state humanitarian intervention. On April 24, 1992, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 751, creating the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) to monitor a cease-fire between the Somali factions headed by Ali Mahdi and Mohammed Farah Aideed. Gradually, the mission grew from fifty members to more than 4,000 as the mission transitioned between a peacekeeping mission and a humanitarian mission to provide food to those suffering from a famine. Cooperation between the United Nations and its specialized agencies escalated to mitigate the suffering of the Somali people. Unfortunately, the Somali factions decided to continue the civil conflict, which led to a considerable escalation in international involvement.

Because of the deteriorating security situation, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force in its Resolution 794. The Unified Task Force (UNITAF), led by the United States, was deployed to Mogadishu on December 9, 1992, in response to Security Council Resolution 794. UNITAF’s primary responsibility was to secure the capital and provide a safe environment for the distribution of humanitarian assistance. Upon the realization of these mandates, the United Nations began the transition between UNITAF and UNOSOM II (as embodied in Security Council Resolution 814).

UNOSOM II attempted to continue the successes realized by UNITAF by maintaining security and continuing the humanitarian work started earlier. However, General Aideed escalated the violence by directly attacking UNOSOM II forces. In June 1993, Aideed’s forces attacked Pakistani soldiers, and in October 1993, U.S. soldiers supporting UNOSOM II died in a protracted battle with Aideed’s forces. The attack on the U.S. soldiers started the gradual withdrawal of peacekeeping forces, and UNOSOM II completely withdrew in March 1995 (Howe 1996; United Nations Operation in Somalia, n.d.).

The Insurgents

This section discusses the clan-based groups and attempts to provide insight into their creation, leadership, composition, and goals. The three core rebel groups are the United Somali Congress, the Somali National Movement, and the Somali Salvation Democratic Front. These groups played a crucial role in the overthrow of Siad Barre. They also competed for leadership within Somalia after the fall of his government.

The United Somali Congress, composed of members of the Hawiye clan, initially formed from two conferences, one held in Rome (1987) and one in Ethiopia (1989). The USC formed at a time when the state had ceased to function properly. Since its inception, USC suffered from internal divisions, and when Jiumale died in mid-1990, a bitter conflict ensued between the USC’s military wing leader, General Aidid (of the Habir Gedir subclan) and its Manifesto representative, Ali Mahdi (of the Abgal subclan). The USC seized control of Mogadishu in 1991 and expelled Barre. Once Barre had left Mogadishu, conflict between the two leaders for control of the USC and national leadership led to internecine wars, in June and September 1991 and March 1992, between the two subclans. The competing groups destroyed large parts of the capital city. Mohamed Farah Aideed (also allied with the SNM) maintained control over southern Mogadishu and some regions in central Somalia, whereas self-proclaimed interim president Ali Mahdi Mohamed maintained control of northern Mogadishu. The inability of any one group or person to fill the leadership vacuum paved the way for creeping warlordism in southern Somalia. A third faction of the USC continued to exist in Mogadishu—a nonviolent opposition called the Manifesto Group. The weakening military power of the Barre regime had allowed a loyal opposition to issue a manifesto during his last year. However, the rapid success of the USC, facilitated by the success of the Manifesto Group, left the USC without a developed, politically mature party program and organization. To maximize support, Aideed’s group created the Somali National Alliance (SNA), which included the USC, the SPM, the SDM, and the SSNM (Adam 1995, 77; Ahmed 1999, 242; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 79; Woodward 2003, 71).

The Somali National Movement, composed of a group of businesspersons, religious leaders, intellectuals, and former army officers drawn from of the Isaaq clan, led the opposition of Siad Barre in the late 1980s. The SNM formed in 1981 with support from Ethiopia during much of the 1980s. In 1988, the SNM occupied much of northern Somalia and suffered brutal reprisal attacks from Siad Barre. The SNM won control of the north (former British Somaliland) in 1991 and declared the territory the independent (but as yet unrecognized) Republic of Somaliland. Drawing support primarily from the Isaaq clans of the Togdher region, the SNM was launched in London (political) and Ethiopia (military) and had announced it would coordinate efforts with the SSDF. The SNM expressed several Isaaq grievances, which included inadequate political representation, neglect in development, and economic controls that adversely affected trade with the Gulf states. Following the formation of the SNM, the Barre government intensified its repressive policies against the Isaaq. To create animosity between clans, Barre posted senior military officers in the Somali army from Isaaq clans in Majerteyn regions as the government waged war against the Isaaq people (Ahmed 1999, 242; Lewis 2002, 252; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 78; Woodward 2003, 69).

Sources: Institute for Security Studies (n.d.); Metz 1992, 134; Polity IV Project 2003; United States Committee for Refugees 1997.
War: Rebel alliance (SNM-USC-SPM) vs. government
Dates: 1988-1991 and 1992-present
Casualties: 500,000
Regime type prior to war: -7 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Collapse of central authority (Interregnum -77)
GDP per capita year war began: US $170 (1989; GNP)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $500 (2003)
Insurgents: SNM, USC, SPM, and others
Issue: Ideological struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Neighboring countries, Soviet Union, United States
Role of geography: Rebels destroyed agricultural sector, causing famine.
Role of resources: Land played a significant role in clan politics.
Immediate outcome: Overthrow of government, failed humanitarian intervention, ongoing
Outcome after 5 years: Anarchy, no central government
Role of UN: Facilitated humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping mission
Role of regional organization: IGADD, OAU involved in peace talks
Refugees: 800,000 refugees, 2 million IDPs
Prospects for peace: Unlikely in the near future
Table 1: Civil War in Somalia

The Somali Salvation Democratic Front, mainly composed of members of the Majerteyn subclan of Darod clan, was led by General Mohamed Abshir Musse, and its regional stronghold was in northeastern Somalia. The SSDF was formed in 1979 by Colonel Yusuf Abdullahi, following Siad Barre’s attacks on the Majerteyn in retaliation for the coup attempt, and was supported by Ethiopia in the 1980s. Tensions with Aideed led the SSDF generally to side with the Ali

Mahdi’s Somali Salvation Alliance (SSA). A smaller SSDF group is based in Kismayu, among the Hert subclan, and is found there with the SPM faction under Colonel Jess. Those mainly Mudugh-based Majerteyn clansmen associated with the unsuccessful attempted coup of 1978 had by late 1981 formed the SSDF, a guerrilla organization that transferred its operational headquarters to Ethiopia and set up a powerful radio transmitter in the following year to spread propaganda. In June of that year, with military support, SSDF forces pushed across the Ethiopian border and seized control of a small area inside Somalia. The government’s reaction to the coup attempt, the formation of the SSDF, and other incursions into government-held territory was repression and vicious reprisals against the Majerteyn clan (Ahmed 1999, 242; Lewis 2002, 251-52; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 78; Woodward 2003, 69).

Several smaller groups also participated in the Somali civil war. Many of the following groups participated in the various peace conferences. The Somali Patriotic Movement, a grouping of Ogadeni subclans (of the Darod clan), attempted to lay claim to the region around the southern port of Kismayu, thereby triggering conflict with other Ogadeni subclans. Ahmed Omar Jess led one faction, which was allied with Aideed’s SNA. Adan Abdullahi Nur (Gabiyo) led another faction, allied with Ali Mahdi’s SSA and with General Mohamed Siad Hersi (Morgan). A group of Ogaden clan soldiers and officers defected from Siyad’s army in 1989 and formed the SPM. A splinter SPM faction headed by Umar Jess and based in the Kismayu area allied with the Aideed faction of the USC. The Ogadeni-led SPM also worked with the SNM, formed in 1989 following the arrest of General Nur (Gabiyo), then minister of defense and the highest-ranking Ogadeni in government (Adam 1995, 77; Ahmed 1999, 242; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 78; Woodward 2003, 71).

The Somali Democratic Movement is an organization based among the Rahanwein people (the agriculturalists of Somalia, who suffered some of the worse consequences of the famine), active around the town of Baidoa; the organization split and reformed a number of times in the period 1992-1994. At different times, various factions have been associated with the SSA and the SNA. The Southern Somali National Movement is a Dir clan movement based among the Bimaal subclan in southern coastal Somalia. The movement split into factions, one allied with Aideed’s SNA and the other with Ali Mahdi’s SSA. The Somali African Muki Organization (SAMO) represents minority populations (mainly farmers) of Bantu origin in the southern riverine regions, the most vulnerable victims of the war and famine. These farmers operated outside the clan system. One faction allied with the Somali Salvation Alliance, and another allied with the Somali National Alliance. The Somali Democratic Alliance (SDA) is a Gadabursi (Dir clan) organization from the northern Somaliland region around Boroma. Originally formed in 1989, it initially opposed the SNM’s policy of independence and participated in the Addis Ababa talks. The SDA allied with the Somali Salvation Alliance and now controls Somaliland with the United Somali Front (USF) and the SNM (Adam 1995, 77; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 77-78; Institute for Security Studies n.d.).

The Somali National Democratic Union (SNDU) is a Darod Faction allied with the SSA. General Omar Haji Mohamed Siad Hersi (Morgan) led the Somali National Front (SNF), which is composed of Marehan (part of the Darod and Siad Barre’s clan) and allied with the SSA. The Somali National Union (SNU) is a Reer-Hamar group supported by many coastal, urban Somalis (outside the clan system). Historically these urbanized groups have weak clan links to the rest of Somalia but strong trading links to the Indian Ocean. As a relatively wealthy minority, they suffered greatly during the civil war and from banditry. Different factions of the SNU allied with the SSA and SNA. The United Somali Front is an Issa group (Dir Clan) based in the far northwest (Somaliland). The Issa broke with the SNM in 1991 and has had close relations with the government of Djibouti. The United Somali Party is a Dolbahante-Warsangali subclan (of the Darod clan) movement. This subclan straddles the border between northern Somaliland and southern Somalia, and the USP has been in conflict with the SNM. The party allied with the SSA (Adam 1995, 77; Lyons and Samatar 1995, 77-79).


Somalia is located in eastern Africa, also known as the Horn of Africa. Somalia borders the approach to the Bab el Mandeb, the strategic area near the opening to the route through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. Due to its strategic importance, the United States and its allies maintain a naval presence in the region. This presence is predicated on the fact that Somalia has a weak central government and no organized naval contingent to protect the approach. In light of increased terrorist threats and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, it is clear that the areas off the coast of Somalia have become a haven for terrorists. Continued concern that Somalia and its territorial waters are a risk to international peace and security has made it necessary for international monitoring of the region.

Somalia has a population of about 8.6 million, a July 2005 estimate derived from an official census taken in 1975 by the Somali government. Due to the lack of a fully functioning central government, the presence of nomads, and the movement of refugees owing to famine and clan warfare, population numbers are only estimates. Although the majority of the Somali population identifies themselves as Somalis, clan-based designations caused many of the conflicts within Somalia. Clan-based rivalries escalated throughout the conflict and continue to the present day.

The climate and geography of Somalia affect the distribution of economic resources, which contributed to the civil conflict. In the northern part of the country, the people relied on animal husbandry for their survival. They would raise cattle, camels, and other animals and export them to regional markets, including those in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In the south, especially between the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers, the people relied on agriculture to support their economy. The war devastated both economies. In the south, Barre’s supporters destroyed the crops during their retreat from Mogadishu, creating a famine. In the north, the livestock industry suffered from low commodity prices after Saudi Arabia barred Somali animals from its territory because a disease was found among its stocks. Low livestock prices and increasing conflict after the signing of the nonaggression treaty with Ethiopia contributed to the escalation of the conflict.

Somalia possesses many natural resources: uranium and largely unexploited reserves of iron ore, tin, gypsum, bauxite, copper, salt, natural gas, and probably oil reserves. Somalia also contends with recurring droughts, frequent dust storms over the eastern plains in summer, and floods during the rainy season. The natural resources and environmental hazards in Somalia contributed to the vulnerability of the regimes in Somalia. Droughts limited the amount of food the country could produce. The regime’s destruction of crops as they fled the capital magnified the natural hazards. Although Somalia is a large country with natural resources, it had not been able to benefit from these resources because of lack of capital and other problems related to lack of development.


Tactics in the civil war ranged from conventional warfare to guerrilla warfare. The rebels initially received support from Ethiopia; however, when Siad Barre made peace with Haile Mengistu Miriam, the rebels lost their patron. Without the support of Ethiopia, the rebels began an all-out attack on the Barre regime. To maintain their momentum, they used confiscated and abandoned military equipment. Due to the patronage of the United States and the Soviet Union and its war with Ethiopia, Somalia possessed a large quantity of military hardware. Also, the rapid demobilization of the Ethiopian military after its war with Somalia provided a large, inexpensive supply of weapons for rebel forces. Rebel groups relied on the availability of second-hand weapons, as well as weapons smuggled into the country in violation of the United Nations weapons embargo.

All sides in the conflict used tactics to terrorize the civilian population. Clan-based rivalries fueled murder, torture, rape, and destruction throughout Somalia. These tactics forced clan groups to organize militia and other military-style organizations to defend their interests. Without these protections, their people suffered the murderous rage of the various ethnic groups. Somalia’s system of compensation for crimes committed against other Somalis complicated the civil war. When a Somali of one clan dies by the hand of another, Somali heritage requires monetary compensation or retribution by the same crime. The civil war stretched this system to the limit because a shortage of blood money increased the cycle of violence, leading to system collapse.

The regions (Somaliland and Puntland) achieved peace because they put aside this cycle of violence through concerted efforts at reconciliation among the inhabitants. Conciliation efforts, such as using a council of elders to settle disputes, led to a more stable situation, in which state institutions reappeared to run services that the central government had operated in the past.

Causes of the War

First, the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union provided Somalia with ample foreign aid and weapons to conduct inter- and intrastate conflict. Initially, Somalia received foreign and military aid from the Soviet Union. During its war with Ethiopia, Somalia severed its ties with the Soviet Union because the latter would not provide the assistance Somalia requested to defeat Ethiopia and unite the Ogaden Somalis with their homeland. The United States filled the vacuum created by the Soviet Union’s departure. Although the United States did not provide foreign and military aid at the same level as the Soviet Union had, Somalia was still able to purchase the military equipment it needed to destabilize the region.

Second, ethnic and clan cleavages contributed to the civil war in Somalia. Although Somalia is the most homogeneous state in Africa, the Somali people subdivide into several clans, subclans, and clan groups. These divisions exist down to the family level. The unification of British and Italian Somaliland forced the various clans to work together to create a common Somali identity; however, clan rivalries require all disputes to be settled with blood, if necessary. Therefore, when one clan achieves superiority over another or all others, it is possible to manipulate clan sensitivities. Siad Barre chose to manipulate the fragile peace between the clans to benefit his own. What ensued was a deadly civil war that pitted Somali against Somali for superiority and leadership.

Third, artificial borders contributed to the civil war in Somalia. At independence, Somalis lived in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. An ethnic boundary across sovereign boundaries, especially in Africa, where the sanctity of colonial boundaries was part of the Organization of African Unity charter, creates temptations to preserve unity. Africa decided during the creation of the Organization of African Unity that colonial borders are inviolable, despite their limitations; otherwise, interstate war would continually exist. Therefore, states acceding to the charter agreed to a higher prevalence of internal conflict rather than interstate conflict. Somalia, one of the worst cases of internal strife, maintained its continuity partially because of its ethnic homogeneity and partially because of its desire to realize pan-Somali unity. Although the people of Somalia did not create this idea, the leaders of the country never forgot their Somali brethren in neighboring Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Somalia’s irredentist claims caused the death of millions and threatened the stability of the entire region. The Congress of Berlin, which partitioned Africa, clearly did not take into consideration the delicacies of African lineage. Their lack of insight led to catastrophic consequences not only in Somalia, but in all of Africa.

Fourth, despotic rule contributed to the civil war in Somalia. After Somalia’s devastating loss to Ethiopia in the Ogaden war, Siad Barre chose to maintain his control over the country by using tactics that discriminated against other clans. His brutality in dealing with the Isaaq and the Majerteyn clans led to animosity among the clans and destroyed the concept of Somali unity. Because of his manipulation of clan and subclan identity, the country descended into anarchy.

Fifth, external intervention by the United States and the Soviet Union contributed to the civil war in Somalia. Both countries provided substantial military and financial assistance. During the years following independence, the Soviet Union provided millions of dollars in military assistance. Not only did the Soviet Union train the Somali military, it also provided substantial equipment and material. With this infusion of military resources, Somalia began to realize that pan-Somali union might be possible through the use of force. Rather than negotiating autonomy for its Somali brethren in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, Somalia possessed the military resources to annex these regions militarily. In 1977, Somalia began a campaign to annex the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the largest concentration of Somalis outside Somalia. This action was counterproductive to Soviet interests because the Soviets also supported Ethiopia; therefore, the Soviets began to limit the ability of Somalia to continue to build its military. Siad Barre was infuriated that the Soviet Union would limit its military support at the very moment Somalia needed it the most. Thus strained, the relationship between Somalia and the Soviet Union ended. To fill the void left by the termination of the Somali-Soviet relationship, Somalia sought out the assistance of the United States. The United States gladly accepted a patron-client relationship with Somalia; however, it did not provide the same level of military assistance, choosing to focus on humanitarian and development-related assistance instead. The United States would not become a party to Somalia’s war with Ethiopia, even though Ethiopia was part of the Soviet sphere of influence in Africa. The Cold War rivalry facilitated the conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, a conflict that led to the civil war in Somalia (Lyons and Samatar 1995, 26).

Finally, decolonization from the United Kingdom and Italy occurred rapidly and did not allow for adequate transfers of sovereignty. The indigenous population did not possess the skills to maintain the bureaucracy that the colonial powers had created. Throughout the period of decolonization in Africa, colonial powers notoriously refused to adequately prepare their subjects for independence. The main colonial powers in Africa were the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, and Italy. Throughout the colonial period, the colonial powers subjugated the indigenous peoples to treatment as second-class citizens who could not rise above a certain level in their own countries. Citizens from the metropolis, educated at home, ran the civil service, the economy, and the military. Indigenous peoples participated in these institutions but did not run them, nor did they receive training to run them. Many colonial powers believed that they would have ample time to make the transition from subjugation to autonomy and eventually to independence. However, the indigenous peoples determined the timeline for independence with their resolve, and the colonial powers left without providing a means of efficient self-rule. Somalia suffered the same fate to which many of its fellow African nations succumbed. During the period of decolonization, Italy, France and the United Kingdom tried to determine how best to deal with independence. Italy and the United Kingdom agreed that Italian and British Somaliland might fare better as one independent state. Before this could be arranged, both entities declared independence and shortly thereafter agreed to form a union of their two polities. This rapid transition left no time for training the military, the civil service, or the health care and education sectors. The lack of training and the rapid transfer of sovereignty contributed to the weak nature of the Somali state and allowed a despotic rule to rise to power, eventually committing the country to a war that would begin the slow collapse of the Somali state (Ahmed 1999, 239).


Conflict Status

Since October 8, 2004, and the release of the UN secretary-general’s report S/2004/804, the situation in Somalia continues to transform as the Transitional Federal Government attempts to relocate in Mogadishu. Despite attempts to relocate the government from Kenya to Somalia, the security situation in the former capital remains insecure. Because of the danger, several members of the government recommended relocation to a safer city such as Hargeisa or Kismayu. This option received little support, for the majority agree that Mogadishu must be the capital of Somalia to ensure legitimacy in the eyes of all Somalis.

The Somali National Reconciliation Conference concluded on October 14, 2004. Colonel Abdullahi Yusef Ahmed won the vote for president. He chose as prime minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, who proceeded to create the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. The prime minister formed a cabinet, but the members of conference who chose the leadership rebelled against his choice, believing that he had not followed the formula devised for fairly representing all clans and subclans. The prime minister capitulated and submitted a larger cabinet that included additional members to meet the requirements of fair distribution of personnel.

Due to the deteriorating security situation in Mogadishu, the TFG’s relocation plan to move from Nairobi to Mogadishu initially failed. The TFG proceeded to petition the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for military support in reclaiming Mogadishu from the warlords. IGAD was actively involved in the peace process through the IGAD Facilitation Committee. With the realization of peace, the TFG believe IGAD could bring about the realization of a Somalian central government seated in Mogadishu. The “troika” of IGAD, the United Nations, and the IGAD Partners Forum began the process of planning a support mission to create the conditions necessary for the TFG to relocate to Mogadishu. On October 14, IGAD held a Special Summit on Somalia where the Facilitation Committee became the Coordination and Monitoring Committee for Somalia to spearhead the peace support mission to Somalia. On October 25, 2004, the president asked the African Union Peace and Security Council to also commit troops to a peace support mission to relocate the TFG to Mogadishu. On February 7, 2005, the African Union authorized IGAD to deploy a peace and support mission to Somalia. To this point, the political will has not materialized, as many donor countries will not fully commit their forces until the TFG has an agreement with the warlords who do not support a peaceful transition. As evidence, an armed group has been operating inside Somalia with the goal of assassinating all leaders in the country who support the TFG. In 2005, General Mohammed Abdi Mohamed, Colonel Mahamond Batar, and Muhammed Hassan Tako, supporters of the TFG, were assassinated (United Nations Security Council 2005a, 2005b).

Also complicating issues in Somalia was the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004. Although most of the world’s attention was focused on Southeast Asia, the area of Somalia called Puntland declared a state of emergency in response to the disaster. More than 150 lives were lost, 18,000 households affected, and 54,000 people displaced. Because it was the peak fishing season, many families’ only livelihood was destroyed when their boats were lost. In addition, many fishermen never returned. To assist relief efforts and to help realize the TFG, the United Nations supports the country through its focal point for activities in Somalia, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) (United Nations Security Council 2005a, 2005b).

The TFG is attempting to normalize the situation in Somalia by taking on the more traditional roles of the state. To accomplish what experts thought impossible, the TFG returned to Somalia, to the city of Jowhar, because the leaders of the government believed Mogadishu lacked adequate security. In addition, the TFG began recruiting a security force, prepared to negotiate natural resource contracts, and signed a trade pact with Kenya. These activities provide a glimmer of hope for the future of Somalia (Reuters 2005a, 2005b, 2005c; CNN 2005).

The year 2006 brought additional challenges to the fragile peace in Somalia. Famine returned to the southern regions, creating another humanitarian disaster. The UN estimates that 2.1 million Somalis depend totally on international aid; without a functioning central government, the people of Somalia remain vulnerable to human and natural disasters. Additional UN estimates reveal that as many as 250,000 internally displaced persons reside in and around Mogadishu, and 370,000-400,000 internally displaced persons reside in Somalia as a whole. With these challenges facing the people of Somalia, security, no matter who provides it, becomes a valuable commodity. In the face of theses challenges, the Islamic Court Union (ICU) provided security to the people of Somalia. By providing a functioning legal system and security based on Shari’a law, the ICU gained many supporters. However, many outsiders question the means by which security has been provided. The ICU maintains a well-armed militia supplied by those who abrogate the UN arms embargo on Somalia that has been in place since the initial conflict. These militias police the jurisdictions of the eleven courts forming the ICU and are known for their brutality in enforcing Shari’a law. Stories of killings, amputations, and other violent sentences remind observers of the root causes of the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Despite significant progress in forming a transitional government, Somalia again reverted to violence in early 2006. In some of the most intense fighting since the beginning of the civil war, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPCT), a grouping of secular clans of Somalia, many of whom participated in the earlier fighting, clashed with the Islamic militias of the Islamic Court Union, who provided stability within Mogadishu and the surrounding areas through the provision of Shari’a law in eleven jurisdictions. The Islamic Court Union provides basic services to the impoverished slums of Mogadishu, bringing security through the provision of Shari’a law and by the creation of Islamic Court militias. This provision of services threatened the position of the ARPCT, as the people of Mogadishu saw the Islamic Court Union militias as providing the security that the ARPCT could not. The poor of Mogadishu traded their secular leaders for religious groups who brought stability through the provision of services and Shari’a law. The ARPCT, which initially formed in February 2006 in an attempt to destroy terrorism, could not provide the same level of security. Despite unsubstantiated reports of support from the United States, ostensibly to capture al-Qaeda terrorists wanted for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the suicide bombings of an Israeli hotel in Kenya, the ARPCT has lost several bloody battles with the Islamic Court Union militias. Making the situation worse in Somalia is yet another famine in southern Somalia. Years of war have made the southern parts of Somalia particularly vulnerable to famine. The ongoing violence in the capital makes it difficult to deliver needed humanitarian aid to the peoples in the south. The continuing suffering of the people of Somalia serve no one’s interests as Somalia slips farther away from the prospects for peace.

On May 31, 2006, the United Nations Security Council demanded a cessation to hostilities in Mogadishu for the second time in a month. The council urged the parties to the dispute to reach a negotiated settlement to the dispute within the framework of the Transitional Federal Charter. To achieve this, the disputants must finalize the national security and stabilization plan. Before the violence, the disputants had made progress toward reconciliation. For example, they had agreed on a transitional charter, and parliament was functioning in an attempt to draft a constitution. These were the first signs of a functioning centralized government in the more than fifteen years since the civil conflict began. With the active participation of IGAD and the AU, the region and world were optimistic that peace was forming in Somalia. The arms embargo on Somalia since 1992 remains in force despite its inability to stop the flow of arms across the border. Despite calls by the Security Council for member states to cease the flow of arms, the embargo continues to be violated. Somalia again finds itself at a critical moment in its history, in which the parties to the dispute must address their differences in order to realize peace, prosperity and sustainable development. Without peace, the future of Somalia remains uncertain, and the continuation of conflict threatens the progress toward peace gained over the past fifteen-plus years (United Nations Operation in Somalia n.d.).

Duration Tactics

Throughout the conflict in Somalia, the clans used animosity between themselves to fuel rivalry and prolong the conflict. Despite multiple efforts to manage the conflict, violence continues. Those clans that do not find peace to be in their interests stifle peace efforts through fear and intimidation. These clans contribute to the existence of a stateless society. Lack of cooperation and continued violence prevent the realization of peace throughout Somalia. The autonomous regions, Puntland and Somaliland, maintain peace and security and enjoy moderate economic growth because of organic peace initiatives formed from traditional methods of reconciliation. Somali culture respects the role of elders, as does much of sub-Saharan Africa, so it is no surprise that those clans who wanted peace would turn to their elders to realize it.

After fourteen attempts at peace, the current TFG represents the transition between warlord-based politics and business-related politics. The years during which warlords controlled Somalia did not provide business interests with the security necessary to operate efficiently. Although business interests enjoyed the nonexistent regulatory environment, to realize larger gains these interests require minimal government services. The availability of electricity, roads, and security only improve the business climate, as long as the government does not begin regulating business activities. In the post-civil war era, peace did not provide motivation to end conflict, as the parties to the dispute would not benefit from peace. Warlords and business interests both benefited from the status quo. As business interests evolved, they realized that the warlords did not provide the environment necessary for them to realize the full potential of their business activities. As this realization grew, the warlords’ tactics of promoting anarchy no longer benefited the business sector. These events changed the duration tactics within Somalia and led to increased support for peace and the installation of a new government (Lortan 2000, 1-3).

External Military Intervention

The United States and the United Nations intervened in Somalia to address conditions caused by the civil war, including famine, disease, and desertification. Although the mandate of the U.S.-led United Nations intervention defined the delivery of humanitarian assistance as the primary concern of the mission, those involved understood that the humanitarian disaster stemmed from human causes, not natural ones. Although the United Nations and the United States intervened in Somalia for noble reasons, the intervention plunged the country deeper into chaos. After the international community withdrew from country, official external military intervention stopped. During the period following the failed humanitarian intervention, warring clans continued fighting, with no clear successor to the Barre regime.

Although Somalia’s neighbors did not officially intervene in the conflict, the collapse of the Somali state prevented an accurate accounting of the actions of its neighbors. Each neighbor suffered from Barre’s irredentist claims on its territory and did not initially respond to assist its neighbor. During the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, the two sides not only fought over territory but also fought a proxy war between rival Somali factions. This extension of their war complicated the situation in Somalia and led to the deaths of hundreds of Somalis. As time elapsed, Somalia’s neighbors realized that the collapse of the Somali state affected their security. Somalia’s neighbors, along with the international community, became concerned that the lawless nature of Somalia created a security vacuum in the region. Nonstate actors often shift their operations to collapsed states because of the lack of a central authority to police their activities. The United States and its allies began to patrol the coast off the Horn of Africa in response to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the increase of terrorist operations globally. Djibouti houses U.S. and allied troops in response to the increased terrorist operations in the region (Lortan 2000, 1-3).

Ethiopia is the central actor in external intervention in Somalia despite its involvement in reconciliation efforts. Ethiopia supports a weak decentralized government in Somalia that cannot threaten Ethiopia’s security. Ethiopia intervened in Somalia by capturing three districts in the Gedo region. Egypt is interested in a strong centralized government in Somalia to distract Ethiopia from developing its Nile River assets. The development of these resources would impact the downstream resources Egypt relies on for its economic survival. The war in Ethiopia-Eritrea led to proxy battles in Somalia. Eritrea supported anti-Ethiopia groups, whereas Libya and Sudan supported anti-U.S. groups. Yemen has strong commercial ties with various factions (Farah, Hussein, and Lind 2002, 327).

Conflict Management Efforts

Organizations at the international, regional, and subregional levels attempted to manage the conflict in Somalia. Despite active participation by the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a peaceful settlement to the dispute did not materialize.

The United Nations sponsored national reconciliation talks between the warring parties in 1991. Fifteen factions attended these conferences in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in January and March 1991. These conferences produced the Addis Ababa accords, which the parties never implemented, owing to distrust between the warlords who controlled Somalia. Complicating matters was Somaliland’s declaration of independence and Puntland’s autonomy from Southern Somalia (Farah, Hussein, and Lind 2002, 328).

As the parties to the dispute failed to implement the first Addis Ababa accords, they decided to hold another reconciliation conference, Addis Ababa II. The conference occurred in March 1993 (Lyons and Samatar 1995, 49-53).

The United Nations began its involvement with Security Council Resolution 733, which provided for a general embargo on Somalia to help bring about conditions necessary to the peaceful settlement of the dispute. Later, Security Council Resolution 751 created UNITAF, led by the United States. The UN Security Council designed the mission to bring peace to Somalia and stem the famine affecting all of Somalia. This mission led to UNOSOM I and UNOSOM II (Farah, Hussein, and Lind 2002, 328; Lewis 2002, 267-75).

Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda constitute the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. The IGAD replaced the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development in 1996. The organization formed in 1986 to determine a united approach to the problems of Eastern Africa (IGAD website). The IGAD plays a central role in the reestablishment of a recognized, central government in Somalia. Djibouti hosted the conference where Somalis negotiated the creation of the Transitional Government. The IGAD plans to send in a stabilization force to bring peace to the capital. Uganda and Sudan plan to lead this aspect of the mission.

The heads of state and government of the Organization of African Unity proclaimed on September 9, 1999, their intention to create an African Union (AU) as outlined in the Sirte Declaration (AU website). During the active phase of the civil conflict in Somalia, the OAU played an important role in the implementation of Security Council resolutions. Today, the AU actively supports the efforts of the IGAD in Somalia. At the regional level, these two African organizations facilitated the peace effort at every step. The African Union agreed to provide a peacekeeping force upon the successful deployment of an IGAD force. Continued violence and the inability of IGAD to deploy its forces delay plans to deploy these troops. Also, the front line states, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia, offered to contribute the bulk of the AU force. This composition created substantial debate among the TFG, for many do not trust these states to deploy their forces throughout Somalia.


Somalia’s ethnic homogeneity initially created strong bonds between the clans of Somalia; however, when Siad Barre decided to exploit the differences between the clans through the use of retribution and murder, the identity of Somalis crumbled under the weight of hatred and animosity. Many predicted that ethnic homogeneity meant that Somalia was destined for stability and economic prosperity, but for a variety of reasons the state collapsed and spiraled into obscurity. Despite good intentions, the international community failed to address the root causes of the conflict, and anarchy continues to define Somalia. With the creation of a new government, a new chapter of Somali history begins. The future of Somalia remains bleak; however, the success or failure of the new government will determine whether prospects for peace will improve.

After decades of civil war, the people of Somalia see new hope on the horizon. Through the efforts of countless diplomats, civil servants, academics, politicians, soldiers, elders, and regular civil servants, a new government exists. Although it will be difficult to maintain momentum (the first attempt failed), this new government will strive to create a presence in Mogadishu, to reach out to its people, including Somaliland and Puntland, and to bring civility back to Somalia. This grand achievement will be for naught without the strong political, economic, and, if necessary, military support of the entire international community.