Somalia: Piracy and Anarchy



Somalia's history is a story of Colonialism yielding to authoritarianism dissolving into anarchy. Chaos has reigned since the early 1990's with rampant wars between rival clans, with no functional government in charge. Severe famine prompted the United Nations and the U.S. to intervene in the 1990's with decidedly mixed results. Lately, heavily armed Somali pirates in speedboats have been seizing passing cargo ships and oil tankers and holding the ships and crew for ransom. Join Active Minds as we examine Somalia’s troubled path and where it may be leading.

Key Lecture Points

  • The situation in Somalia is dire, as the country faces continued political turmoil and instability, a famine and growing refugee crisis, and the growing international concern over the piracy taking place off of the coast of Somalia. In December 2008, the UN supported international action against piracy. In addition, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it is seeking 92 million dollars to ease the plight of nearly 250,000 Somalis in one of the most congested refugee sites in Kenya amid growing fears of even more arrivals as the situation in Somalia deteriorates.
  • In January 2009, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf stepped down after failing to declare a new government, allowing the Somali Parliament (in exile in Djibouti because of violence) to name his successor, Sheikh Sharif Ahmad. President Ahmad, a moderate Islamist from the Abgaal Somali clan, takes over at a precarious moment. He shares power with Prime Minister Omar Ali Sharmarke whom he selected in February 2009.
  • Ethiopia-backed government forces which, at the behest of former President Ahmed, had been fighting Islamist insurgents for the last two years, pulled out in January 2009 - leaving only the 3,200-strong African Union peacekeeping force behind. This puts the onus on the new Yusuf government to maintain peace among factions who have not seen much peace in the past 20 years. Some say the exit of Ethiopia will remove a destabilizing force in the country. Others suggest it sets the stage for what could be a political and human-rights disaster, as one of the few stabilizing factors in the region prepares to leave.
  • These factors are all informed by a history of colonial dispute followed by wars between rival clans supported by differing regional states. The UN, with support from the U.S., has intervened in the past and failed. The history of the country suggests that, unless dramatic and successful international intervention occurs, instability will continue.

Exploration Questions

  • Why do you think Somalia has not been able to establish a central and stable government? What factors do you think might have changed that? What factors could change that in the future?
  • Do you feel colonialism helped or hurt Somalia’s path towards independence? Do you feel a return to colonial rule might help provide a blueprint for the country at a time when no clear path towards stability, much less democracy, seems evident?
  • What should the international community do about the current piracy crisis? Should the U.S. get more involved? Does this amount to an act of terror, and if so, does that necessitate U.S. involvement?

Reflective Questions

  • How do you feel about the current refugee crisis in Somalia? How does it compare to other current human rights crises in the world, such as Darfur and/or Rwanda?
  • What do you think the U.S. could or should do to change the situation in Somalia? Is the U.S. responsible to step in and help or should it be left to the international community?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Little, Peter D. Somalia: Economy Without State. Indiana University Press, 2003. 224 pages. In the wake of the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a "second" or "informal" economy based on trans-border trade and smuggling is thriving. While focusing primarily on pastoral and agricultural markets, Peter D. Little demonstrates that the Somalis are resilient and opportunistic and that they use their limited resources effectively.
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  • Rutherford, Kenneth. Humanitarianism Under Fire: The US and UN Intervention in Somalia. Kumarian, 2008. 217 pages. The international humanitarian intervention in Somalia was one of the most challenging operations ever conducted by US and UN military forces. Until Somalia, the UN had never run a Chapter VII exercise with large numbers of troops operating under a fighting mandate. It became a deadly test of the UN's ability carry out a peace operation using force against an adversary determined to sabotage the intervention. Evidence shows how Somalia became a turning point in the relationship between the UN and US and how policy and strategy decisions in military operations continue to refer back to this singular event, even today.
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