Map of northern Africa with Somalia circled

Somalia’s location has led to it becoming a battleground in the fight for regional influence.

Somalia has suffered decades of horrific conflict. Dictator Siad Barre’s fall from power in 1991 was a major turning point, and instability has reigned ever since. The country’s major humanitarian crisis has seen the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. In 2019, for example, Somalia produced the second highest number of refugees in Africa.

One key, ongoing element behind Somalia’s suffering has been global and regional powers trying to use the country as a strategic tool to further their own interests.

***Key points***

    • British and Italian colonial rule and partition.
    • Post-independence nationalist-‘Marxist’ dictatorship.
    • Strategic ally for US during late Cold War.
    • Humanitarian and refugee crisis.
    • US-led intervention fuels al-Shabaab terrorism.


A colonial past of artificial division

The British empire took control of the northwestern part of Somalia in 1884. As the UN country profile on Somalia says, the region was of strategic importance because “the Red Sea was seen as a crucial shipping lane to British colonies in India”. This territory – ‘British Somaliland’ – became independent in 1960 [pdf, p29].

The other parts of present-day Somalia were under Italian colonial control from 1889. After the Second World War, Britain also ‘administered‘ this ‘Italian Somaliland’ [pdf, p21]. Then, when this territory became independent in 1960, it merged with British Somaliland [pdf, p29].

Hussein Bulhan, from the Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development, told the BBC in 2001 that inequality between the north and south “began from the very start”. The capital city was in the south, for example, and key politicians were southerners.

In 2015, journalist Jamal Osman wrote about the ill-conceived creation of “artificial boundaries” under colonialism, saying:

Decisions made by the British colonial rulers affect Somalis to this day. Somali territories were given away to Ethiopia and Kenya.

Advocacy organisation CAGE, meanwhile, argued in 2016 that such partition “seems to be the root cause of current issues”.

An authoritarian proxy to “get communism out of Ethiopia”

Al-Jazeera reported in 2017 that:

Somalia, given its strategic port cities, was a key pawn in the games of Cold War rivalry in Africa.

Post-independence division, corruption, and general discontent paved the way for army commander Siad Barre’s 1969 coup. And while this initially sparked some progressive reforms in terms of education, healthcare, women’s rights, and employment, the nationalist regime lost the backing of the Soviet Union when it attacked Ethiopia (another Soviet ally) in 1977 in an attempt to control an ethnically-Somali region of the country (‘the Ogaden‘). It was at this point that the US government began to forge an alliance with Barre’s regime.

US ally Saudi Arabia had also played a role during this period, reportedly offering Barre $200m to tempt him away from peace talks with Ethiopia. One 1978 CIA cable quoted a Saudi politician telling the US:

We do not care about Somalia… We will do anything you can convince us makes sense to get communism out of Ethiopia.

US allies like the Saudi regime then backed Somali forces during this conflict. And Barre relied on these countries’ support until he lost power.

African media site OPride stressed:

Not only did the war cause widespread death and destruction, it actually backfired terribly on Somalia as it became catalyst for the rebellions that overthrew Siad Barre in 1991 and caused the turmoil and lawlessness that have plagued Somalia ever since.

It also explained:

The Saudis appeared primarily concerned with consolidating their grip on the Red Sea and surrounding areas. Ethiopia (prior to Eritrea’s unofficial independence in 1991) was a Red Sea state and it was opposed to Saudi Arabia both politically and ideologically… the U.S. decided to capitalize on the opportunity to gain a foothold in the region —by arming Somalia.

The price of US regional power

In terms of US interest in Somalia, Prof Ken Menkhaus from Davidson College wrote:

the fall of the shah of Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan… enhanced Somalia’s strategic importance as a potential component of an evolving American Rapid Deployment Force for the Persian Gulf…

U.S. military and economic aid to Somalia from 1978 to 1989 formed part of a semi-coordinated, multilateral effort between the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.

The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, highlighted that:

In exchange for access to the Berbera base…, the U.S. directed more than $850 million in military, economic and food aid to Somalia during the 1980s…

Symbolizing the American stake, the U.S. in late 1989 completed a lavish $50 million embassy in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, complete with three swimming pools and a staff of 430, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Menkhaus outlined how “generous financial assistance from Saudi Arabia” made it possible for Barre to buy weapons worth $580m between 1979 and 1983. And he asserted that:

high levels of foreign assistance helped to create an entirely unsustainable, corrupt and repressive state.

According to author Steve Weissman:

The result of U.S. policy was really to encourage the breakup of Somalia

Barre’s fall and Somaliland’s struggle for independence

The Independent writes that Barre’s rule got even more nepotistic and corrupt after Ethiopia’s victory in the war. He sought to further his own tribe’s interests at the expense of others’ interests. The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) also explains this clan cronyism. By elevating clan allies to prominent positions, it says, he marginalised other clans. Some of those who resisted this the most were the Isaaq clan in the north-west region which was once ‘British Somaliland’. And Isaaq emigrants outside Somalia soon created a nationalist movement to fight back.

When nationalist insurgents in the north-west launched attacks in 1988, Barre’s response was merciless. Using US weapons and officials with US training, his forces reportedly killed more than 100,000 people (though there is some debate over the figures). This offensive also created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Rival clans got rid of Barre in 1991. But in the power struggle that followed – along with a massive humanitarian crisis – hundreds of thousands of people died.

Following 1991’s civil war and the descent into chaos in the south, the north-west declared its independence as the “Republic of Somaliland”. And according to the CJA, the region managed a “relatively peaceful transition” and has maintained “relative stability” ever since. However, the international community has never recognised its independence.

‘Restoring hope’ with more military intervention

The US military entered Somalia in 1992, calling the mission ‘Operation Restore Hope‘. According to Common Dreams in 2019:

Special Operations forces are still on the ground there and U.S. air strikes against a Somali militant Islamic group, al-Shabaab, have actually been on the rise in the Trump era.

With US allies still competing for influence in Somalia, Donald Trump increased the number of airstrikes in the country. The key point, however, as the Independent stressed, was that al-Shabaab “exists in large part because of blowback from US foreign policy”, along with the fact that its:

unifying idea is opposition to Somalia’s Western-backed government — so no amount of bombing by the US is going to stop the pipeline that created them. It’s exactly that which empowers them.

Trump’s escalating efforts in Somalia, however, reportedly received little congressional or media scrutiny.

The US has faced consistent accusations of murdering Somali civilians.

Former colonial power Britain, meanwhile, has also been getting involved. CAGE, for example, wrote in 2016 about “Britain’s undeclared war in Somalia”. This involvement hadn’t only contributed to “war, rape, killing, detention, rendition and torture” in the region, it said, but also helped “to destabilise the region further and perpetuated the cycle of violence, putting the security of Britain at risk”. Journalist Ben Quinn further helped to reveal 21st-century UK government support for controversial Ethiopian suppression of Somali resistance in the Ogaden.

Humanitarian crisis

As of 2020, the UN Refugee Agency reported:

Today over 750,000 Somali refugees remain in neighboring countries and over 2.6 million Somalis are internally displaced in Somalia.

Before the 2011 regime change efforts in Libya, many Africans fleeing their countries travelled there. But hundreds of thousands of these people became targets for abuse in the new Libya. And there have been numerous stories in recent years about Somali refugees suffering in the country. Abusers, for example, have reportedly held people captive and tortured them in countless ways.

***More information***

    • You can read more about Somalia’s brutal civil war here.
    • You can find more UN information about the lives of Somali refugees here, and Refugees International provides updates here.
    • The International Rescue Committee also reports on the ongoing situation for Somali refugees here.

Somali music

Check out our Somalia playlist below:

Note: The opinions expressed in the lyrics of the songs above do not necessarily represent the principles of Phoenix Media Co-operative.

Also see this video explainer from OkayAfrica.

Lead contributor Ed Sykes

Main article image via Ktrinko