Somalia, a country of 16 million people in the Horn of Africa, has been engulfed in a bloody civil war for the past three decades. Since the outset of the war in 1991, over 500,000 lives have been lost directly to conflict in the country. A speedy conclusion to the war is unlikely to be on the near horizon due to the complicated nature of the conflict: there are at least four different factions in the war, each with its own goals. In the north sits the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which broke away in 1991 and today has a relatively functional democracy and government. To the east of Somaliland is the autonomous region of Puntland, which is relatively stable compared to the south, where Islamic extremists such as al-Shabaab are mainly in control. The federal government of Somalia, formed in 2012, controls the majority of the centre of the country. 

There is no single clear-cut trigger that sparked the war. Ethnic tensions, which have their roots in the country’s tribal system, and Somalia’s colonial and post-colonial history are all contributing factors to the war. In order to finally end this decades-long conflict, work must be done to address the underlying causes.

Brief Overview of Somali History – What Led Us Here?

Originally governed by various Islamic sultanates, the Horn of Africa was colonized by various European nations in the late 19th century due to its strategic position on the trade route to India after the building of the Suez Canal. In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland both gained independence and united into the Republic of Somalia shortly after. The new nation was initially prosperous and democratic. However, Somalia soon experienced a communist coup which saw an autocratic regime, led by Mohamed Siad Barre, take power. Under Siad Barre, Somalia launched an invasion into neighbouring Ethiopia in order to take over ethnic Somali lands (the Ogaden region) in Ethiopia, in a conflict today known as the Ogaden War. As a communist state, Somalia initially had Soviet military support, but Moscow soon pulled its aid in favour of Ethiopia. Without Soviet help, Somalia quickly lost the war. 

Siad Barre – Responsible for the War?

Reeling from the military defeat and needing a way to consolidate his power, Siad Barre ordered the execution of many Somali army officials. In response, members of the military launched a coup against Barre, which ultimately failed. In the aftermath of this coup, Siad Barre became increasingly tyrannical and began cracking down on what he saw as political dissidents, including individual ethnic groups. This turned many of Siad Barre’s most loyal supporters into opponents, who eventually broke out into rebellion in 1986. Meanwhile, the Ogaden War had caused an influx of refugees into Somalia, which caused food insecurities in the country. Combined with the rebellion, Somalia entered a state of progressive decline throughout the late 1980s, eventually leading to a complete breakdown of law and order after Siad Barre’s ousting in 1991. 

At this point, it would be easy to conclude that Siad Barre caused the Somali Civil War through his authoritarian and rash policies, as the Ogaden War and the subsequent fallout was the beginning of Somalia’s decline into anarchy. However, some scholars have argued that Siad Barre’s policies were merely part of the melting pot of issues that led to the war.

Clan System and Ethnic Differences – The Fuel Triggered by the Fuse?

Somalia has historically had a clan system, one that has persisted to this day. Under this system, many Somalis, especially those living in rural areas, belong to local, familial clans that often have their own tribal territory, customs, and laws. Although many (but not all) of these clans used to peacefully coexist, differences between clans were artificially inflated during the Siad Barre administration for political gain. This artificial division remained even after Siad Barre was ousted. From the Somali Rebellion up until the early stages of the Somali Civil War, clans dominated the fighting, particularly in southern Somalia. 

The clan system also entrenches ethnic differences in Somalia. Somalia is, on paper, dominated by one ethnic group –the Somalis – however, there are many subgroups (such as the Isaaq, Darood, and Hawiye) within the Somali peoples, each with its own practices and clans. These differences have caused tensions within Somalia. 

Colonial Impacts as a Source of Tension

Somalia’s modern borders were originally drawn by the colonial powers and had the effect of separating ethnic Somalis that had been living around the Horn of Africa for centuries before. These borders were the main cause of the Ogaden War: they split the traditional homeland of the Somali people into two different countries, Ethiopia and Somalia, and thus ethnic Somalis living in Ethiopia fought to be reunified. The Ogaden War was also not the only war fought between Ethiopia and Somalia – two more wars were fought between the two nations throughout the 20th century, largely over the Ogaden.

In addition, British-administered Somaliland and Italian-administered Somaliland have had tensions between them from the dawn of the Somali Republic. In the 1961 unification referendum, a majority of northern Somalis actually voted against uniting with Italian Somaliland. The self-declared nation of Somaliland, which seceded from Somalia in 1991, also claims the exact borders of British Somaliland. As the Italian and British-administered parts of Somalia had different developmental paths socially and economically, perceived differences between northern and southern Somalia gradually grew throughout the colonial period and continued into the present day. This is just one example of many of how colonialism continues to shape an independent Somalia. 

Are There Solutions?

The Somali Civil War was caused and is being fueled by a plethora of reasons, including Somalia’s history, the clan system, and ethnic tensions. Many of these are deep, entrenched, and systemic problems that do not have an easy solution. Furthermore, colonial borders that were drawn over a century ago continue to affect the modern country of Somalia and its politics, as well as the rest of Africa in general.

While international help has come in the form of aid, there has been no substantial, large-scale involvement from the international community, with only small-scale antiterrorism missions from the US military. Targeted, small-scale diplomatic interventions instead of big military invasions may perhaps be the best solution going forward. As seen in the examples of Libya, which has been enveloped in a civil war in the ten years since the US operation in the country, and Afghanistan, which fell back to the Taliban after twenty additional years of a brutal civil war, large-scale outside intervention rarely achieves long-lasting peace. Many have felt that previous peace talks did not have adequate representation of all of Somalia’s ethnic groups; thus, outside-mediated talks that represent the voices of all sides may be the best option, especially when taking into consideration the ethnic diversity of Somalia. 

Edited by Kristen Belsher

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is currently a first-year student in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about...