Defining a failed state

Devasted by war and poverty for more than two decades, Somalia is facing an acute humanitarian crisis with up to half of its population
Somali children rummage through garbage looking for food in Mogadishu, Somalia. The United Nations is warning that mounting insecurity, food price inflation and drought are putting nearly of the country's population at risk of malnutrition and starvation. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press)
Somalia has no functioning central government, no judicial system and last year, an estimated 700,000 of its people became refugees.

There are daily gun battles involving a bewildering array of rag tag militias, smugglers, Ethiopian troops and clan warlords.

Around 8,000 people — mostly civilians — died in 2007 alone.

Most chillingly, the United Nations says more than three million Somalis, just under half of the population, require regular food aid just to survive.

The respected U.S. magazine, Foreign Policy, gives Somalia top ranking on a list of "failed states."

A report by the UN's Food Security Analysis Unit says drought, violence and inflation are worsening, and making it impossible to provide assistance.

"Somalia is now facing the worst security situation in the past 17 years, with increased armed conflict and fighting, targeting of humanitarian aid workers, military build up, increased sea piracy and political tension," the UN report says.

What passes for middle and upper middle classes are among the hardest hit, according to the UN.

In short, Somalia is a mess and its people face the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa — a state of affairs that they're all too grimly familiar with.

The collapse of a country

In the late 1980s, the 22-year dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre was beginning to collapse and the general-turned-president focused his wrath on rebellious factions in northern Somalia, his own home area.

A civil war took 50,000 lives and led to the partition of Somalia into two separate entities. 

A 40-year-old man stands guard on a beach in Somalia as UN food aid is carried ashore. Pirates and criminals often steal the food, making the country's humanitarian crisis even more acute. (Khaled Kazziha/Associated Press)
Barre was toppled in 1991 but his departure from power in the capital, Mogadishu, led to even more violence.

Tens of thousands were killed by fighting and the effects of a humanitarian crisis that blocked food supplies and devastated public health and education.

Pushed to intervene by media reports of starvation and brutality, the United States led a UN military mission that was supposed to impose peace but clan militias resisted, fighting each other and international forces by turns.

U.S. troops paid a steep price. On a single day in October 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed during intense combat in events later immortalized by the book and film, Black Hawk Down.

Bloodied, the U.S. withdrew from Somalia in ignominy barely three months later.

UN 'blue berets' from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries continued to take casualties and the United Nations pulled out in 1995, shutting down aid and assistance and putting even more lives at risk.

Clan loyalties predominate

Throughout the 1990s, clan battles continued and Somalia grew more destitute, lawless and primitive.

What had been a poor but partially functional state was a battleground, a hodgepodge of clan fiefdoms and warring slivers of territory.

Somaliland, a British protectorate in colonial times, broke away from the southern half of the country, around Mogadishu.

Increasingly, the country became a no-go area for foreigners with clan fighters targeting outsiders whether they were journalists or brave aid workers.

An economy almost entirely reliant on smuggling, growing the mild narcotic plant khat, and extortion shrunk even further.

Already the paramount form of social organization, clans became Somalia's sole functioning institution with the collapse of government in the 1990s.

Ancient structures based on family and birthplace, clans dictate the loyalties of Somali men.

They also limit internal migration by members of warring clans, even when faced with catastrophic droughts or crop failures.

Islamic law brings calm ... and invasion

Some see rejection of the clan system as being behind the rise of Islamic groups in Somalia in recent years. Muslim preachers called for a restoration of order through Sharia, Islamic law, and a system emerged that offered quick justice through courts that used the Qur'an as the basis of judgments and punishment.

This eventually became a movement calling itself the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and it won support from many business owners in Mogadishu who welcomed the relative restoration of order that the group's version of Sharia seemed to bring.

But the ICU also began to project itself as the legitimate government of Somalia, and that put it at odds with the country's internationally recognized transitional administration based in Kenya.

Washington viewed the ICU's rise with alarm and accused the group of links with al-Qaeda.

When troops from Ethiopia invaded Somalia to fight the ICU in 2006, the U.S. was firmly behind them. U.S. aircraft and missiles were also used to attack suspected ICU leaders.

Outnumbered and outgunned, ICU fighters fled, first to remote corners of the country, and then to Eritrea.

The UN arranged a peace deal between some leaders of the ICU and the transitional government in June 2008 but the Islamist group's armed wing, al-Shabaab, fought on and even took over the key port city of Kismayo in August 2008.

Chaos continues

Meanwhile, international human rights groups have accused the Ethiopian forces of summary justice and even massacres of civilians. In other words, Somalia remains as chaotic and wracked by bloodshed and hunger as ever.

No Western countries maintain embassies there. Aid agencies have pulled out all foreign personnel and their Somali colleagues are continually threatened and targeted by fighters.

Visiting foreign journalists need to pay huge sums for armed guards and must travel in convoys bristling with weapons. Local reporters face constant threats and attacks.

Offshore, pirates harass food deliveries and international shipping. A Canadian warship, HMCS Ville de Quebec, is part of international efforts to deter attacks on maritime traffic in the Horn of Africa.

The UN maintains political and humanitarian missions to stabilize Somalia but they're based in neighbouring Kenya because it's too dangerous to live in Mogadishu.

Plans to deploy foreign peacekeepers are making slow progress because few countries are willing to send troops into such a dangerous situation.

Signs of hope are rare on the ground in today's Somalia.