Fractionalized, Armed and Lethal: Why Somalia Matters

February 3, 2010

For the last few years, Somalia has held strong onto the top spot in both the Index of Failed States and the Fragile States Index. And this country—if one can use that term—is likely to maintain its lead for the foreseeable future. But this is nothing to brag about.

By definition of a failed state, Somalia has no single legitimate governing authority and is divided among numerous constituent factions that are relatively strong and have control of some lucrative sources of revenue. These factions are well organized and function more or less as independent states. Yet no single faction has a monopoly on violence, which explains why Somalia has remained a failed state for so long. In essence, the various factions have no interest in a well organized sovereign state. As such, the failed state is in a precarious equilibrium, resulting in what may appear as paradoxically both a functional and stable, stateless society.

Probably because of its fragile nature and the fact that it is small and poor, the international community has grossly underestimated the capacity of this country to destabilize the region and to engage in extremely costly activities to the international community. At present, there are no well-coordinated international efforts to rebuild this state. Yet this country—or better, its various factions—possesses the potential to inflict major global damage and could be the next hotbed for international terrorism. Ignoring Somalia would be a huge political and humanitarian mistake. But the Somali state may also have degenerated beyond the stage where marginal interventions can be beneficial; thus the focus should shift to building a new state. As the events of the last two decades have shown, the Somali state was not consensual and focusing on reverting to the same structure is likely to be futile. 

Fractionalized Society

A number of factors make Somalia an increasingly volatile country. The first of course is the presence of numerous factions that lay claim to a specific territory or strong mass of supporters. Some factions have established control of a sizeable part of the country while others consist of small warring groups. Of these factions, many have a claim to illegal enterprises and have established themselves as legitimate tax collectors or traders. With the vacuum created by the absence of a state sovereign, each faction has established its own organized “government” and possesses substantial capacity to impart violence. The factions include the governments of Somaliland and Puntland, both of which have been able to control a significant section of the country and are able to maintain some degree of peace. Other notable factions are the warring groups in the central region, including the Federal Transitional Government, Al-Shabab, Hizbul-Islam and Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa. Then of course there are other groups like the Islamic courts that control most of South-Central Somalia, and the infamous pirates, whose sole interest is monetary gain (and which may support some of the other insurgent groups).

With all of these groups competing for control, it is not surprising that some of these factions have connections or are sympathetic with terrorist groups. Some Somali factions have accepted financial support from terror organizations in order to settle clan disputes.

The absence of a central authority combined with its general lawlessness makes Somalia an ideal haven for terrorists.

Illegal Arms Market

Not only is Somalia heavily fractioned, but these factions are well-armed. Although U.N. Security Council Resolution 751 placed an arms embargo on Somalia, reports indicate that the number and variety of small arms available in Somalia is greater than at any time since the early 1990s. Private businesses, nation states, arms dealers, Somalis in the Diaspora, and local clans/militia all contribute to the growing number of smuggled weapons in the country. In fact, small arms are so prolific in Somalia that they are a form of currency in most parts of the country.  

The Somali arms market, based in Mogadishu, is a key hub for arms trading in East Africa and weapons are constantly being transported along its porous border to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and the DRC. The Kenyan government estimates that thousands of small arms are smuggled across the border every year. In fact, the Kenyan government is finding it difficult to fight crime as a result of the large number of illegal arms smuggled from Somalia. The presence of such a high number of guns poses a threat to security in Northeast Africa and beyond.   

Drug Economy

Where there are guns, there are often drugs; and in Somalia the trade is in khat—a narcotic leaf that is traditionally consumed in parts of Africa and in Arab countries for its stimulating properties. Although khat is considered legal in many countries, it is an addictive drug. Khat is the most common drug in Somalia and it is estimated that approximately 75 percent of all males in Somalia use it. The khat trade is fairly lucrative, with a significant proportion of the drug originating from the Kenyan highlands and exported freely to Somalia. Kenya exports about $250 million of khat annually, beating out tea as one of the county’s most lucrative exports, with a majority bound for Somalia. The Kenya National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse estimates that Kenya exports about $300,000 worth of khat to Somalia daily. Despite the negative consequences of a stateless Somalia that Kenya is experiencing, there has not been any attempt by the Kenyan government to curtail this trade, because local interests benefit a great deal.

With no central government to regulate the trade, warlords in Somalia have extended their power and now collect taxes and customs duties on khat. Many clans and regional administrations rely on import tax from the drug as their main source of revenue. In 2003, the U.N. Panel of Experts on Somalia reported that many warlords now control the khat trade and use the proceeds to buy weapons needed to maintain control of their territory. This highly addictive substance even allows warlords to keep their troops loyal since otherwise troops suffer the consequences of withdrawal. Accordingly, khat is often included as part of troop salaries.

Diaspora Support of Factions

Evidence shows that civil wars are likely to last longer and be more intense in countries that have large populations outside of their own, due to support that members of the Diaspora provide to warring factions. Somalia is a case in point. Although the Diaspora can and has played a critical role in facilitating peace building and local reconciliation in some cases (especially in Somaliland and Puntland), in other cases the Diaspora has also provided financial support to warring clans facilitating conflict. Without financial support from the Somali Diaspora, many clans lack the resources to wage war against each other. Estimates show that at least 1 million Somalis—approximately 13 percent of the population—live abroad, mainly in Kenya, Yemen, the U.K., Canada, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the U.S. The UNDP estimates that annual remittances (or Hawala) from the Somali Diaspora are about $1 billion (about 18 percent of GDP). Although it is impossible to measure the exact amounts, the available data shows that the flow of remittances is substantial. On balance, the Diaspora is contributing to the further degeneration of the state.


In the past couple years, Somalia has been making headlines with its infamous piracy. Some Somali factions that have specialized in piracy appear to be gaining influence, evidenced by the increasing number of international incidents. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports that there were 111 reported piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden in 2008. This resulted in the seizing of 49 vessels by pirates and the kidnapping of more than 600 crew members for ransom. Preliminary estimates reveal that piracy rose at an even greater rate in 2009, with 217 pirate attacks off the Somali coast, which resulted in the seizing of 47 ships and the hostage of 867 crew members. It is estimated that pirate activities in Somalia brought in between $50 to $100 million in 2008, making it the most lucrative industry in Somalia. Piracy has proved to be a low-cost, high-profit industry for those seeking to control territory and maintain power in Somalia. In January 2010, over $5 million in ransom was paid to the Somali pirates.

Allowed to prosper, revenues from piracy fuel local economies and add to the chaos and fractionalization of Somali society. There are well established formulas for sharing the profits from the pirates involved in the hijacking with the ground militia who control the territory, the local community elders and officials, the financier/investor who supply weapons and equipment, and the sponsors. Evidence suggests that local businessmen sometimes even invest in hijackings in exchange for a share of the final ransom. With a coastline of about 1,880 miles, opportunities for piracy are great.

One way or another, piracy money is laundered and finds its way into other parts of Africa and the Middle East, increasing the possibility that funds will support terrorism. Piracy earnings are also impacting neighboring economies, such as the distortion of the real estate market in Kenya. There is even a high probability that Somali piracy will soon attract the attention of international crime syndicates. The fact that piracy is now considered a lucrative investment opportunity further demonstrates how the disintegration of the state can benefit so many.  

Reconstituting a New State

As the conflicts between factions continue unabated and human suffering increases exponentially, warlords thrive in their economic exploits, accumulating foreign assets and further investing in violence. For those who control the various aspects of the economy, statelessness is a highly-valued institutional asset. Combining economic and political interests has resulted in an equilibrium “state of statelessness” whereby factions have little interest in moving towards reconciliation. Why give up their power when they are profiting from the current situation?

In addition to the warlords and territorial factions that frustrate peace, a number of neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea also support some factions and in the process intensify the divisions. Furthermore, statelessness has benefited many in the international community—including some developed countries. There are credible claims that European firms have exploited the lack of governing authority and signed contracts to dump waste off the Somali coast. There are also vast international commercial interests that frustrate peace in Somalia. They include fishing, trade in military hardware (mainly former communist states), and market access to the Middle East. It is well documented that foreign trawlers owned by companies in Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Russia, Britain, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Yemen and Egypt have been illegally fishing in Somalia. All these interests are better served under a stateless Somalia.

After years of lawlessness and the current state of organized chaos, it is unrealistic to expect the factions to negotiate a settlement and revert to the previous unified Somali state. From the perspective of individual factions, there are no gains that would arise from an agreement that removes their capacity for violence and thus eliminates their control over economic rents. Yet, it is folly for the international community not to invest in an aggressive strategy to deal with the situation in Somalia. This strategy therefore must not focus on rebuilding the old state, but rather on building or constituting a new state or states. While the African Union (A.U.) must be involved in designing a way forward, the task calls for a broader international mandate.

The United States and other developed countries should lead an international effort aimed at the reconstitution of the Somali state. After the unsuccessful Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. literally withdrew from direct engagement, preferring to act through surrogate front-line states such as Kenya and Ethiopia, and giving token support to A.U. peace keepers. The humanitarian dimension was sub-contracted to civil society groups such as CARE and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), among others. These approaches have limited success and will not work because they only treat symptoms. Thus far, efforts by African nations including the African Union have not yielded fruit. In fact, hardly any militarily strong African country has contributed forces and equipment to support the peace mission.

In tandem with destroying terror networks, a prudent approach must focus on a long-term solution that not only leads to peaceful co-existence of the Somalis, but also improves the quality of life and creates opportunities to engage in productive activities. At the core of such a strategy must be the progressive weakening of the factions’ capacity to engage in violence and to undertake illicit activities. Achieving these objectives require a strong military presence for an extended period of time. Sources of illicit wealth must be curtailed, especially the trade in guns, drugs and piracy. In this respect, the United Nations must take an expanded role and should have the mandate to occupy the country until factions are sufficiently weakened and willing to negotiate peace. In essence, the monopoly on violence must be consolidated in an international body such as the U.N. probably together with the A.U. The outcome of negotiated peace is likely to be a new state, with different structures of governance. It is also conceivable that the outcome could be more than one state.

Finally, the strategy must involve a broad development agenda. As already noted, statelessness has many concentrated benefits, which motivates factions to invest heavily so as to retain the economic rents derived under statelessness. The military agenda must therefore be complemented with an internationally coordinated development agenda including investment in productive activities, building infrastructure and the provision of social services, especially investment in human capital-education and health. Today, investments in human capital are extremely low because alternative investment in illicit activities has much higher returns. 

Somalia is a small country. But like a tick that kills a big animal, this small country can destabilize an entire region and endanger the international community. Dealing with the crisis will involve substantial costs, but failure to act now raises future costs that the world will pay exponentially. And the future might not be that distant.