Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy describe the changing nature of the Somali crisis over the past 20 years: from Cold War to civil war (1988-91); state collapse, clan war and famine (1991-92); and international humanitarian intervention in the 1990s. They outline how some Somali communities have drawn on traditional institutions to promote reconciliation and develop local systems of governance. The article reviews international and regional reconciliation efforts in Somalia, and the impact of these on peace, conflict and governance.
An important feature of the past two decades has been the emergence of a variety of Islamist movements seeking to establish an Islamic state in Somalia. These range from traditionalist suﬁ orders, to progressive Islamist movements, inspired groups like Al Itihad Al Islamiya pursuing a regional or global agenda.
Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy
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A brief history
Over the past two decades the nature of the Somali crisis and the international context within which it is occurring have been constantly changing. It has mutated from a civil war in the 1980s, through state collapse, clan factionalism and warlordism in the 1990s, to a globalised ideological conflict in the first decade of the new millennium.
From Cold War to civil war 1988-91
The collapse of the Somali state was the consequence of a combination of internal and external factors. Externally there were the legacies of European colonialism that divided the Somali people into five states, the impact of Cold War politics in shoring up a predatory state, and the cumulative effect of wars with neighbouring states, most damagingly the 1977-78 Ogaden war with Ethiopia. Internally, there were contradictions between a centralised state authority, and a fractious kinship system and the Somali pastoral culture in which power is diffused.
State collapse, clan war and famine 1991-92
Somalis use the word burbur (‘catastrophe’) to describe the period from December 1991 to March 1992, when the country was torn apart by clan-based warfare and factions plundered the remnants of the state and fought for control of rural and urban assets. Four months of fighting in Mogadishu alone in 1991 and 1992 killed an estimated 25,000 people, 1.5 million people fled the country, and at least 2 million were internally displaced.
The Somali civil war erupted at a time of profound change in the international order, as global institutions, with the US at their helm, shaped up to managing an era of ‘new wars’ and ‘failing states’. Somalia was to become a laboratory for a new form of engagement when the international community responded with a humanitarian and military intervention on an unprecedented scale.
Governance without government
UNOSOM’s humiliating departure from Somalia was followed by international disengagement and a decline in foreign aid. Its departure in March 1995 did not lead to a revival of the civil war, however. Local political processes that had been ‘frozen’ by the intervention resumed and clans and factions consolidated the gains they had made during the war.
Building blocks and regional initiatives
The disengagement from Somalia of Western governments resulted in the diplomatic initiative passing regional states and in particular Ethiopia. Addis Ababa’s engagement was driven as much by geo-political, security and economic interests as by concern to end Somalia’s political turmoil.
The return of government
International diplomatic efforts were re-energised in 2000 when the Djibouti government hosted the Somalia National Peace Conference in the town of Arta. The ‘Arta process’ achieved an important political breakthrough in August 2000 by producing a Transitional National Government (TNG) that commanded some national and international support.
Box 1: The Republic of Somaliland
On 18 May 1991, at the ‘Grand Conference of Northern Clans’ in the northern city of Burco, the SNM announced that the northern regions were withdrawing from the union with the south and reasserting their sovereign independence as the Republic of Somaliland.
Box 2: Puntland State of Somalia
In 1998 political leaders in northeast Somalia, frustrated at the lack of progress from internationally-mediated talks in Ethiopia and Egypt, decided to wait no longer for a national government to emerge.