For Want of a Synthesized National Identity: Somalian Regime Collapse

History Sep 22, 2019

By Gilad Cohen


The Collapse of the Somali State may be accurately described as the national government’s ongoing inability to uphold regime sovereignty as of the 1990 Somali civil war. The multiple factors contributing to Somali state collapse provide a complex picture regarding the domestic and foreign institutional relationships which uphold a state’s sovereignty.  Throughout the political history of Somalia, a constant interplay of international influence has propped up the nation’s infrastructural base. Western nations, the former USSR, African and East Asian donors, investors, and military occupants have all contributed to some extent in attempting to uphold Somali sovereignty. Therefore, the complexities regarding Somalia’s inability to maintain regime sovereignty cannot be seen as the result of the foreign policies of one international donor, or group of donors.

Thus, this work must not be solely looked at within the context of political dependency theory which acknowledges international policies, as Crawford Young puts it, as “the consequential factors facing most African nations.” Rather, Somalia’s historical dependency on international donors must be seen as a manifestation of the wide-ranging inabilities of Somali institutions to uphold national sovereignty. Additionally, Somalia’s state collapse must not be explained exclusively within the context of ethnic grievances being poorly addressed by the Somali government. Scholar of African politics Michael Lofchie defines ethnic grievances as “at the forefront of political conflict.” However, Somalia is considered to be “one of the most homogenous countries in Africa,” with 85% of the nation being of Somalian origin. Despite the inability of plural society theory to explain Somali state collapse in an ethnic grievance model, utilizing Lofchie’s conception of grievances as a mode of identity construction may uncover the complexities of Somali state collapse. Somalia’s historical inability to address societal grievances and the identities which arise out of such grievances may therefore uncover the nations inability to uphold regime sovereignty. Therefore, an analytical approach must be utilized which places Somali state collapse within the context of international dependency, alongside the state’s inability to institutionalize a unified state representative of its national identities. This process will therefore be used to understand the potential causes regarding the failure of the Somali state.

In this article it will be argued that the Somali failed state has arisen out of an institutional inability to unify the state under a pluralistic identity which upholds national sovereignty. To further analyze this thesis, we will examine the political history of Somalia to grasp the multiple independent factors upholding this central claim, including the state’s inability to fuse its range of political interests into a national identity, its economic dependence on a list of inconsistent foreign donors, and Somalia’s lack of a sovereign unifying state security apparatus.

Somalia’s Political History: The Fragmentation of an International Client

Group Identity in Pre-Colonial Somalia and the Colonial Concretization of Clan Diplomacy

Prior to the colonization of Northern and Southern Somalia, the Somali ethnic group resided in modern day Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, living primarily under a political structure of statelessness. This stateless structure birthed many separate social identities that members of present-day Somalia still ascribe to. These separate identities demonstrate the multiple factions by which Somalia has politically mobilized its citizens.

The first category of identities to consider is the societal cleavage between nomadic and settled communities. The postcolonial Somali state has been inherited by nomadic descendants who have segregated the country’s historically settled population both politically and economically. The second identity within Somali society is that of Somali religious affiliation. Islam has markedly unified Somali society to oppose Christian colonial rule and caused societal rifts with the rise of certain extremist groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, who use Islamic identity to disrupt the growth of Somali social capital. The final precolonial identity group which has played an intrinsic role regarding Somali politics is that of clan membership. Despite Somalia’s ethnic homogeneity, clan ties based in regional identity served as a network of political factions during the region’s stateless period. These clans constructed independent political networks based on politically separate zones; however, each clan recognized the legitimacy of the other zones’ structures, and economic and political diplomacy flowed between them. Nevertheless, clan identities that brought about diplomatic relationships within the pre-colonial period have been mobilized against one another in the postcolonial context, following a lack of institutionalized unity.

During the colonial period, the northern region of modern Somalia was colonized by the British and was made a protectorate in 1887. The southern region of modern-day Somalia was colonized by Italy beginning in 1927 and merged with British Somalia in 1960, only days before Somalian independence was declared. Following Somali independence, the state faced a number of challenges. Following the fusion of a single national assembly, after nearly six decades of two separate Somali political units, clan ties and kinship ties grew to be a more pressing political issue. During the unification process, the Somali colonial governments constructed five separate political states/territories based on historical clan ties: The Galmudug State, the Hirshabelle State, the Jubbaland State, the Puntland State, and the Southwest State were thus constructed in federalist-like political factions based on clan affiliation. Therefore, the colonial structures which Somalia was forced to inherit were those of concretized clan-divisions, rather than the free-flowing diplomatic zones of Somalia’s stateless political past.

The Somali State’s Post-colonial Incapability of Synthesizing Somali National Unity

The clan groups that aligned with the pastoral nomads of pre-colonial society formed the Somali Youth League (SYL), the first political party in Somalia which played an influential role in realizing the nationalist goal of establishing Somali independence (Lewis166). This group of nomad descendants constructed the state’s first government within the Somali national assembly, formed its cabinet, and permeated civil society as the most politically influential identity group (166). However, this newly established national assembly was the only of its kind in representing its citizens both domestically and on the global stage. Therefore, Somali political action was centered around the interests of the most influential nomadic clan groupings, rather than the representative interests of its pluralistic identities.                                    

Somalia’s unitarily centralized national assembly, responsible for representing the state’s multiple dissenting voices, demonstrates the first major issue facing the Somali state building project. This issue is rooted in Somalia’s inability to maintain societal legitimacy through the creation of a national identity which could unite the multifaceted ideological concerns of Somali society. Rather than unifying government into a one-party system, which was utilized by several East African nations as a means of adapting to the inherited arbitrary state boundaries, Somalia’s political system fractured. Consequently, the SYL was tasked with upholding the legitimacy of a politically fractured nation, under an unrepresentative national assembly, with no cohesive national identity to build upon. In Somalia’s 1969 election, 1002 candidates competed in a 62 multi-party election. Rather than coalition building between clans, which could have potentially synthesized broader national identities, clan ties were mobilized against one another. This political process thus fundamentally contrasts the diplomatic practices seen within the Somali pre-colonial context. Rather than group differences being utilized for the political and economic gain of all parties involved, clan identities were politically mobilized against one another. This short-lived parliamentary regime, which only lasted 9 years, demonstrates the first historical flashpoint of Somalia’s inability to construct a national identity that upholds a pluralistic picture of state sovereignty.

Somalia’s International Support in an Era of Uni-Party Rule

Following the fragmented election of 1969, a Somali Major General named Siad Barre staged a military coup. This was the result of the Somali military’s institutional capability of using the capital it received from international donors to restructure Somalia’s political landscape. Following independence, Somalia contained neither mineral reserves, nor an industrial base to economically develop the nation-state it had inherited. Therefore, foreign investment was crucial to the construction of national infrastructure, including the military which benefited monetarily above any other institution following independence. The USSR granted the Somali military 30 million dollars to supply and train its military, while the US funded a 10-million-dollar contract to build the state’s police force.

Siad Barre’s dissolution of the former multiparty parliamentary system allowed for his sole political party to rule unopposed until the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. In order to maintain the levels of economic and infrastructural investment that the USSR had injected into the Somali military, Barre adopted a state ideology of scientific socialism to align itself with its primary donor. According to Herbert L. Osgoode, scientific socialism is the ideology that revolution, alongside a system of governance set out by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto and within Marx’s Das Capital, represent the ideal state structure. This state ideology is therefore rooted in a western-framed belief system, which contrasts state ideologies particular to the indigenous African contexts for which they were post-colonially constructed.                                                                                                                                                    

Various state ideologies adopted under the guise of African Socialism were utilized throughout the continent to serve the particularistic interests of community-specific cultural contexts. In the case of Tanzania, the state’s African socialist ideology under president Julius Nyerere went by the name of ujamaa, meaning ‘familyhood’ in Tanzania’s native language of Bantu Swahili. In defending the particular nature of ujamaa within the Tanzanian context, Nyerere stated, “Africa’s conditions are very different from those of the Europe in which Marx and Lenin wrote.” Nyerere’s socialism simultaneously built a Tanzanian national identity while avoiding civil war and regime change despite the region’s 120 separate ethnic groups. Ujamaa emphasizes the importance of Tanzanian indigenous state building: for example, the state provides local jobs for agricultural workers who provide their crops preliminarily for village communities, while surplus is sent to urban Tanzanians. Tanzanian success in constructing a national identity amongst an ethnically heterogenous population demonstrates a polar variation from Barre’s scientific socialism project.

Following Barre’s official recognition of Somalia as a scientifically socialist state, the USSR appropriated this ideological alignment for its own military concerns to counterbalance the American military presence in the neighboring regions of Eritrea and Ethiopia. By 1974, 2,500 members of the Soviet military occupied Somalia’s coastal harbour facilities. However, Barre’s dependence on Soviet infrastructural support was one of many international donors the nation relied upon to maintain its infrastructure. Between 1953 and 1975, the Somali government received US$152 million from the USSR, $133 million from China, $75 million from the United States, and $64 million from other western nations for infrastructure programs. Therefore, the most pressing issue regarding Somalia’s dependence on international infrastructure is displayed in its inconsistency in creating lasting political alliances. For example, in 1973 Barre appropriated China’s rivalry with the USSR to gain infrastructural support from both donors as its patrons were conducting proxy influence. As a result, the USSR decreased its infrastructural donations that same year, leaving China as Somalia’s primary donor. In 1977, the Somalian invasion of Ethiopia’s Oggaden region led the USSR to abandon its relationship with Somalia, moving instead to support Ethiopia, another scientific socialist nation in the region.

Somalia’s fluctuation between economic partners not only uncovers it (in Soviet eyes) as an inconsistent diplomatic partner but displays the disunity of its internal political mechanisms. Somalia’s police force during the 1960s-70’s was American trained while its military was Soviet trained; its roads were Chinese built and its ports were Soviet occupied. Therefore, Somali foreign policy effectively created its domestic political institutions. For the individuals living within Somali society, there was little visible evidence of a national identity upholding its regions sovereignty. Muslim identity in Somalia, about 99% of the population to date, was segregated from Somalia’s single party system based on Western thought and Western economic influence. Additionally, Barre’s uni-party rule abolished all clan parties from coalescing politically, crippling clan-ties that had historically upheld Somali economic and political alliances. Therefore, Barre’s socialist regime, which found its ideological and infrastructural support rooted in foreign construction, created a national regime absent of indigenous representation.

Somali Militancy in its Final Hour of Regime Stability, and Civil War Sparked by the State

Following Somalia’s loss of economic support from its largest international donor (the USSR), the nation relied heavily on economic support from international institutions, alongside Western powers interested in influencing the former Soviet stronghold. The United States, in an attempt to further its Cold War influence in the horn of Africa, invested US$100 million of aid annually throughout the 1980s. In addition to American aid, Somalia received loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during what is considered to be the decade of “structural adjustment programmes” (SAPs). This meant that loans given by the IMF contained conditionalities, in which the Somali government had to reform its economy in favour of market liberalization. According to political scientists Abdullah M. Mohamoud, these SAPs required Somalia “to reduce social spending, cut the employment in the public sector and to devaluate the Somali [currency] shilling.”

These programs, which were thrust upon a nation whose primary industries had historically been state-run, led to the proliferation of two separate markets. The informal economy, which served the economic motivations of the Somali populous, disconnected itself from state institutions through its illicit transactions. Alternatively, the “formal economy,” which was generated primarily from foreign investment, was utilized by a class of statesmen who began to form a Somali oligarchy. When analyzing the composition of the Somali state during this period, in terms of its state and civil society, a fracturing of these two aggregates can be seen to taking root, as the two spheres formed two separate economies. The state’s loss of economic legitimacy, alongside the creation of a state oligarchy, resulted in what is considered “a private property state” according to Mohamoud. This meant that the central state identity under Barre had become so removed from its society’s identities that individuals within the state apparatus who did not make up the oligarchy could begin to undermine the state’s legitimate use of power. As demonstrated by political scientist Ebo Hutchful in his analyses regarding state instruments of coercion, once the state loses a “legitimate monopoly over the control of coercion,” then other “informal entrepreneurs of violence begin to proliferate.”

Significantly, the military was the apparatus by which Barre was able to come into power, but also the institution by which Barre’s regime began to fall. Army officers who belonged to the Somali clan of the Majeerteen were the first group of dissidents to wage war against Barre’s regime. This process, reflecting the first coalition of what Hutchful considers the informal entrepreneurs of violence, uncovers the preliminary challengers to Somalia’s failing state. This armed group, led by Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, united under the name of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF).

The failed coup set the precedent for a pattern of armed insurgency groups vying for state power. The SSDF’s successor, going by the name of the Somali National Movement, was similarly a clan group (the Isaq) with a military background in the Somali National Armed Forces. With these two factions comprising of Somali’s security forces, the Somali state apparatus began to lose its legitimacy, not only within civil society but within its own security forces. By October 1989 four separate clan groups, all at least partially comprised of former military members, were vying for state power within what became a power vacuum. Mohamoud cites this period as “the final downfall of the Somali military regime,” with the military regime “cornered as its defence tactics even in the capital had collapsed.” Shortly thereafter, in 1991, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu fell at the hands of the clan militia called the USC (United Somali Congress: the fourth militia to coalesce). The American military presence which had been present in Somalia during Barre’s dwindling moments of regime stability was dispatched as Somalia began to face the prospect of a civil war. Without a foreign military presence capable of salvaging the nation’s sovereignty through force, Barre decided to arm sub-clan loyalists who may be of help in this project. Barre soon fled the nation, with no hope of the state’s sovereignty being rekindled in the near future.

By 1992 American troops and UN peacekeepers were redeployed to Somalia under the mission guidelines of “peace enforcement.” The mission was an attempt to preliminarily marginalize the USC and its leader Mohammed Farrah Aidid, whose questionably legitimate militia government played a quasi-role in upkeeping a resemblance of the state apparatus. This US peace enforcement mission proved to be a failure in foreign intervention, as US troops exited in 1994 following the collapse of the Somali state and the centralization of its government in Mogadishu. In 2006, the youth syndicate of an Islamist group called The Islamic Courts Union established territorial control of Mogadishu through its youth militia of 14,000 militants. This militia, called Al-Shabaab, represented another identity faction whose grievances could potentially be appropriated for purposes of state control. Al-Shabaab sought to address the grievances of Somali society regarding post-colonial influence, as well as the US supported-Ethiopian invasion of Mogadishu which sought to oust the ICU from territorial control.

The US has continuously deployed forces, payed militant contractors, and bombed Al-Shaabab targets throughout the 2000s and 2010s under its East African Counterterrorism Initiative. However, Al-Shabaab controls more territory today than it ever did during the ICU governance in 2006. Today, the Somali state remains fragmented under a new government propounding a federalist republican state ideology, with civil war continuously influencing Somalia’s political landscape.

Following Somalia’s loss of ties with the USSR in 1979, the state has undergone a gradual deterioration from within. Its military has fragmented along clan lines, demonstrating yet again a failure of Somali identity unification. Thus, the fragmentation of the Somali military apparatus demonstrates a fragile and disjointed institution which more capably defected against itself than creating a unified military ethos.


From the analysis provided regarding Somalia’s political history, a central problem facing Somalia’s process of national unification arises. This phenomenon, as argued throughout this article, is the institutional inability of Somalia to unify itself under a pluralistic national identity which upholds state sovereignty. This central issue facing the Somali state can be uncovered through Somalia’s inability to fuse its societal range of political interests into a national identity, its economic dependence on an ever-changing list of foreign donors, as well as Somalia’s lack of a unified state security apparatus. Though Somalia was historically divided into clans, fragmentation and disunity has never been more serious, and the national identity needed to fully account for the country’s pluralistic population has yet to arise.

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