Somalia is notable for being one of the few states in Africa with a relatively homogenous population, yet ironically also as a nation suffering from one of the longest internecine battles of the modern world. Effectively considered a failed state since 1991 when its military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown, Somalia is today fragmented into three distinct regions, which have taken divergent paths since the worst of the civil war. Puntland, a north-eastern region of the country declared itself an autonomous state in 1998; Somaliland, independent, on its own terms since the fall of Siad Barre, is yet to be recognised by any other country as a state. The country’s protracted Civil War, which had its roots in inter-clan conflict within Somalia’s elaborate social clan system, the failure of Barre’s irredentist policies and the internal backlash and retribution that provoked in the form of a military coup and its suppression – is not officially at an end, however, a transitional government came into force in 2004. A caretaker government succeeded the transitional government in 2012, and included Somaliland for the first time.
The north of the country, principally, Somaliland has been relatively stable in comparison to the south of the country, and Mogadishu, the capital – which has been the scene of fierce fighting since the begging of the civil war. The North’s economy which is relatively stable is a possible model for the reconstituted Somali state; supported by remittances from its diaspora, and bolstered by duties from the port of Berbera. That said, piracy has become rife on the coast, and has brought the region international attention and notoriety including the launch of a multi-national naval task force to protect international shipping lanes.
In 2006, fighting broke out between warlords, some allegedly funded by the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 Islamist, and the Islamic Courts Union, a group of sharia courts who formed a rival power centre to the transitional national government and controlled much of southern Somalia. Following fierce fighting, which involved Ethiopian; the ICU lost most of its hold on southern Somalia. A hard-line group within the ICU broke away to form the militant Islamist group, Al-Shabaab. The militant group which has allied itself with Al-Qaeda, has been beaten back in many areas but remains a threat to Somalia’s newly-instituted national government. Nevertheless, following over 20 years of war, relative peace has returned to many of the towns and cities of Somalia, including the former capital, Mogadishu. The influence and money of the widespread Somali diaspora, both in neighbouring Kenya, where a district of the capital, Nairobi is known as ‘Little Mogadishu’, and elsewhere is growing – and may help develop the reconstituted country’s economy. The recent election of former academic, activist and entrepreneur, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud by the caretaker government’s parliament has boosted hope in the region’s transition to peace.
Somali culture and history has been defined both by influences from Arabia and north-eastern Africa, as well as indigenous developments; until modern times, the Somalis were a primarily nomadic people, and the animals of this existence, camels, goats and cows continue to occupy a dominant part in Somali cultural imagination. The Somalis are world renowned for the beauty of and long tradition of poetry as well as their Sufi Islamic faith, and use of khat – a stimulant which is chewed in leaf form and has an effect comparable to that of strong coffee and nicotine.
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