Civil War in Somalia

Written by Amna Shaukat 11:47 am International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

The Civil War in Somalia Explained

Somalia has been in a constant state of civil war since the 1980s. Today, almost 3 million people require assistance in Somalia. The influence and conflicting interests of Ethiopia, Al-Shabaab, and the state’s warlords have prevented the establishment of peace in the African state. As a result of this conflict, attacks against civilians, violence against women and girls, corruption, and unemployment have become increasingly prevalent. The author notes that with the current peace process impeded and a pandemic threatening the state, the situation in Somalia is likely to worsen, if not addressed timely.
why submit to us?
About the Author(s)
+ posts

Amna Shaukat is currently studying social sciences at National Defence University, Islamabad.


The civil war in Somalia dates back to the 1980s when the government was toppled by the people. This triggered violence around the country and caused a civil war. The people of Somalia have long been subjected to persecution and brutality at the hands of their fellow Somalis. They have lived under both democratic and military administrations, and in challenging and horrible situations. 

Today, Somalia is perhaps the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, with over three million people in need of assistance. This paper will analyze the underlying root causes, core problems, and effects of the Somalian civil war through a conflict analysis tool. It will then find the potent impediments and the loopholes of the current peace process. This research is deductive in nature as it examines the data which is qualitative and obtained from credible secondary sources.


Somalia is a country in southeastern Africa. The majority of Somalis are Muslims and divided into clans—Hawiye, Dir, Darod, Isaaq, and Rahanweyn. Somalia has never been very affluent, as its economy has remained primarily agrarian. Following the Cold War, many African countries, including Somalia, served as battlegrounds in the struggle between communism and democracy.

Eastern African countries were of interest to both powers due to their geographic orientation, providing the US access to the Middle East to hinder communism’s expansion while allowing the Soviet Union to accomplish the opposite. Somalia was caught in limbo between the US and the USSR, depending on which side was giving aid in the region at the time.

When the Cold War ended, interest in Somalia, like that of many other African governments, soon faded, and these states no longer had any value to the world powers. As a result, Somalia was left without the basic understanding of how to support and govern itself, leaving it vulnerable to famine and, eventually, civil war.

Somalia is a culturally homogenous nation, but there are numerous clans and sub-clans within Somalia. Siad Barre took over Somalia and established a military administration in 1969, during the height of the Cold War, and was able to concentrate authority temporarily. The military regime exacerbated the problem. Barre’s regime resorted to indiscriminate killing, village burning, and torture as tools of control.

Armed factions employed the same strategies. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis died as a result of the civil war in Somalia and its linked causes, and many more were internally and externally displaced. Violence first erupted in 1980, when clans established opposition groups against Barre’s authority, and the resistance was backed by Ethiopia. After the fall of the Barre regime in 1991, clans began competing for control of the government.

The central government crumbled in the absence of a successor, leaving Somalia in a state of anarchy. While the Somalian civil war began as a struggle for power, it gradually evolved into a struggle for wealth and material power, rather than control of the government. The extremist Islamic group Al-Shabaab, which joined Al-Qaeda in 2012 and is now legally recognized as a terrorist organization, is also a party to the civil war in Somalia (Khayre, 2016).

The US intervened in Somalia in1992 but failed to restore order. The Somalian civil war has received limited attention since the unsuccessful US-led UN intervention in the early 1990s. Following Ethiopia’s army invasion in late 2006, the situation altered rapidly. As the Somalian civil war escalated, the number of deaths, injuries, and displacements increased by the day. So far, over three million people require assistance in Somalia (Leeson, 2007).

 Actors and Nature of the Conflict

The key players in the civil war in Somalia are the Somali clans, Islamist groups like Al-Shabaab, the Somalian government, and foreign entities such as Ethiopia. Moving on to the nature of the conflict, it is clear that the civil war in Somalia has several distinguishing features. This conflict occurred within civil society and involved a wide range of actors, most of whom were organized along clan lines (“Political Actors,” n.d.).

 Dynamics of the Civil War in Somalia

Looking at both the past and present dynamics of the civil war in Somalia, the most persistent factor that has sustained the violence has been competition for resources and power. In today’s Somalia, clan politics, the central government, regional and international involvement, and the rebel groups like Al- Shabaab—a group that describes itself as waging jihad against “enemies of Islam,” and is fighting the Federal Government of Somalia and the African Union Mission in Somalia AMISOM—all have more weight (Nickels, 2015).

All of the actors involved are weak, and some have no long-term strategic intentions beyond the country’s current turmoil. Furthermore, the pandemic, beyond its immediate health impact, is causing drastic changes in Somalia which threaten the current peace process.

Also Read:  The Pashtuns: A Contested History

Research Questions

The paper seeks to address the following questions:

  • What are the root causes and key issues that have contributed to the current level of conflict escalation?
  • Which of these causes and core problems are major impediments to the country’s ongoing peace process?
  • What path can be adopted to revive the peace process?


To achieve this research’s major objectives, an interpretive approach has been used to address the root causes and key issues that have fuelled the conflict again and again, and the challenges to the recent peace process in Somalia. The research is deductive in nature as it examines the qualitative data obtained from credible secondary sources—official documents, academic studies, articles, and reports.

Theoretical Framework

The paper employs the conflict tree model to visualize the various causes of the conflict in Somalia, as well as their effects. By separating cause and effect cleanly, it links the two with the core problem or key issues.

Roots of the Conflict

In the conflict tree model, the roots of the tree represent the root causes of a conflict, which are not clearly visible on the surface. In the Somalian civil war, the root causes are:

Competition for Scarce Resources and Power

Competition for resources and power has been the most important and persistent cause of violence in Somalia. The most significant asset for Somalia is its grasslands, which cover the majority of the country. Somalia has limited mineral resources. Only tin, phosphate, gypsum, coal, iron ore, and uranium deposits can be found in the state.

The amount and quality of these resources are insufficient for mining to be profitable. As a result, possession of  Mogadishu, key ports, major checkpoints, resource-rich regions, currency, foreign aid, became hotly contested resources among militia groups and clans.

Repression by the Military Regime

The second important cause of the civil war in Somalia has been the repression of the state. Somalia was subjected to a brutal military regime for 21 years (1969–1991). To crush opposition, the military dictatorship of Siad Barre used extreme force and collective punishment. People had no way of voicing their dissatisfaction. The system did not allow the existence of opposition forces, let alone a voice in important issues (Elmi & Barise, 2006).

The Colonial Legacy

The colonial legacy was the third significant reason for the Somalian civil war. The European and regional powers—Britain, Italy, France, Egypt, and Ethiopia—divided what some refer to as greater Somalia into five pieces at the end of the 19th century. However, Egypt had to cease its colonial expansion when anti-Egyptian revolts broke out in Sudan in 1884.

This resulted in Britain occupying the territory abandoned by Egypt. Hence, Somalia was divided into British Somaliland, French Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, Ethiopian Somaliland (the Ogaden), and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya (Metz, 1992). The division of Somalia impacted the Somali people permanently. Somalia’s socio-economic system was damaged by the colonial powers. Furthermore, the majority of the resources of Somalia’s weak and ineffective administration were spent to reunify the Somali people. The impact of the division is still felt by the Somalis.

Core Problems of the Somalian Civil War

The tree’s trunk, according to the conflict tree model, reflects the core problem the conflict is directly linked to. This indicates that the existence of this core issue is visible on the conflict’s surface.


The rivalry between the clans has been at the core of the conflict. These clans have been fighting over power and resources for ages. The heads of the clans exploit the common people for their own agendas. The race among the clans for power has resulted in bloodshed and violence.

The Availability of Weapons

The presence of weaponry aggravated the Somalian civil war. The Somalis were well-armed and relied on two significant weapons sources. Because of Somalia’s strategic location, the two world powers, the former Soviet Union and the United States sought to arm the Somalian government. The Ethiopian regime, which was arming resistance organizations, was the second source. The availability of weaponry, together with the socio-economic and political issues, has left Somalia in a constant state of civil war and instability.


The enormous number of unemployed Somalis fuelled the Somalian civil war. In 2020, Somalia’s unemployment rate was estimated to be about 13.1%. The Somalian government was unable to provide work or a meaningful education. The private sector was also underdeveloped. As a result, many people found themselves in a terrible situation. The greed-driven elites who wanted to pursue their own interests, exploited these people to gain their own interests. Therefore, the elites took advantage of the situation and organized the young men in a fashion that appealed to them.


Apart from that, since the instability allows them to exploit the resources of the state, corruption has become rampant in Somalia, persisting in every sector, at every level of the society. The state has been ranked at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index since 2006. Since the police force is impacted by this corruption as well, the Somalis have to turn to either militia groups or arm themselves for protection. Furthermore, the absence of a tax administration has resulted allowed the warlords and rebel leaders to impose their own tax collection system, which collects taxes from businesses in their territory (“Somalia Corruption Report,” 2020).

Effects of the Civil War in Somalia

The branches of the tree, in the conflict tree model, symbolize the real-world consequences of the conflict. In the case of civil war in Somalia, they represent the following effects:

Also Read:  A Book Review of War Without Winners

Indiscriminate Attacks

The civil war in Somalia has resulted in indiscriminate attacks. As a result, many civilians have been killed in this blind war. The US declared the armed group “Al-Shabaab” as a terrorist organization in 2011. Since then it has been fighting Al-Shabaab. In the past two years, 53 airstrikes were carried out by the US military, using drones and aircrafts (“Somalia: Zero Accountability,” 2020). The airstrikes resulted in many civilian casualties as well.

Al-Shabaab has also continued to operate with impunity, carrying out frequent indiscriminate attacks against people and civilian infrastructure, like restaurants and hotels. It also carried out targeted assassinations of those it suspected of having ties to the government and others, including journalists.

Unlawful Killings

In April 2020, a police officer shot and killed two people outside their homes in Mogadishu because they were outside during the nighttime curfew imposed to restrict the spread of COVID-19 (“Somalia,” 2020). Authorities arrested a police officer in connection with the killings after protestors turned to the streets demanding justice for the victims. In July, a military court in Mogadishu sentenced him to death.

Violence Against Women and Girls

Sexual violence against women and girls in Somalia, an abhorrent crime that was less widespread in Somalia’s pre-civil war past, is becoming more common. Somalian culture has lived with its horrors for decades. In south-central Somalia, sexual violence against women and girls has become a regular occurrence. According to recent data, IDPs account for 76% of all recorded cases, while hosting communities account for 14%.

Attacks frequently went undetected as a result of the climate of impunity, as well as the stigma and dread connected with the crime, which has hindered many survivors from seeking justice. in 2014, Maryam, a 37-year-old single mother, living in Mogadishu’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp with her six children revealed that the first time she was raped, she was five months pregnant and sleeping in a makeshift shelter in the Wadajir neighborhood.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, she said, “the four men raped me one by one while one of them stood guard outside. I was wrestling with the last man when he stabbed me with the bayonet on his gun. I was shouting, and no one came out to help” (Human Rights Watch, 2014). The next day, as the news of the assault spread throughout the camp, the camp’s “gatekeeper” (manager) checked up on her and took her to the police station.

She informed the police that one of the rapists was dressed in a police uniform; she never returned to the police station to continue the investigation. She was terrified that the perpetrators would come after her and do something worse.

Unfortunately, there is no accountability, awareness programs, or rape and other sorts of sexual offense prevention training programs in Somalia. Women and girls lack proper understanding and information about how to report rape and preserve evidence in the case of rape or other sexual offenses. Because of these obstacles, many cases are unreported.

Internally Displaced People (IDPs)

The protracted conflict, droughts, floods, and locust invasion exacerbated the humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia. All of them contributed to the displacement of over 1.2 million people by November 2020, on top of the approximately 2.6 million already displaced in the country (“Somalia,” 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected internally displaced people (IDPs) and forced them to live in very overcrowded conditions. Many of these IDPs relied on the informal sector for their livelihoods, but COVID-19-related limitations prevented them from doing so and meeting their necessities such as water, food, and hygiene.

Current Peace Process

Although the adequacy and effectiveness of international efforts are debatable, the UN and the African Union (AU) have recently upped their efforts to try and reach a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. The AU established African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)—a peacekeeping mission—while the UN began a peace process that ended in the Djibouti Agreement in June 2008 and culminated in the establishment of AMISOM.

AMISOM and allied forces
AMISOM and allied forces enter Kismayo (2018)

The ongoing peace process in Somalia constitutes:

Peace Keeping Mission

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is an active regional peacekeeping mission run by the African Union with the United Nations Security Council’s permission. Its goal is to support transitional governmental structures, develop a national security plan, train Somalian security forces, and help create a secure environment for humanitarian aid delivery. AMISOM also assists the Federal Government of Somalia’s forces in their fight against Al-Shabaab militants as part of its mission.

Peacebuilding Agreement

The agreement for the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNCF) was signed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the presence of top officials from both sides. This framework is structured to address the structural reasons of continuous fragility and instability in Somalia, which have hindered inclusive and sustainable development for decades.

Obstacles to the Ongoing Peace Process

Considering the obstacles to peace, Ethiopia’s hostile policy, the lack of major power interest, COVID-19, and the warlords’ lack of desire for peace are the primary problems that continue to haunt the Somalian peace process today.


The majority of Somalia’s factions are led by warlords who benefit from the status quo. Some have committed horrific atrocities and are responsible for instigating clan-based warfare in 1992. As a result of these crimes, they are concerned about their futures as they will be held accountable for their crimes if a government is formed. 

Also Read:  Redefining Development in Pakistan

These warlords refused to support the Somalian government because they did not want their self-defined power and authority to be supplanted by a more broadly based government. Following the signing of peace treaties, these warlords have utilized violence and intimidation. Thus, internal instigators willing to use violence and coercion make reaching and enforcing an agreement very impossible (Hall, 2015).

Ethiopian Influence

Ethiopia’s interference is the most essential and consistent cause of the continuation of the Somalian civil war. All of the perpetrators (groups and individuals) have found refuge and armaments as a result of this meddling. It has jeopardized the two most major peace treaties. Ethiopia has repeatedly transferred weapons across the border and has controlled many towns in southern Somalia at times. Somalia has repeatedly made claims to the eastern region of Ethiopia. Thus stability in Somalia is a threat to the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. In other words, Ethiopia—a powerful and well-positioned state—is a hostile neighbor aimed at keeping Somalia weak and divided.

Lack of Interest of Major Powers

The United States of America had strategic interests in Somalia during the Cold War. While ignoring its human rights record, the United States actively supported the old military administration of Siad Barre that drove the country into this lengthy civil conflict. In early 1992, the US also launched an international operation—Operation Restore Hope—in Somalia.

Tens of thousands of people died as a result of the civil war in Somalia and drought. However, when eighteen American troops were killed and another hundred were injured, the United States chose to withdraw from Somalia. Since then the US position on Somalia has been unclear, as it took a “wait and see” approach. The level of American commitment to assisting in the establishment of a stable system in Somalia is insufficient.


As efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic are appropriately scaled up, Somalia risks falling into deeper conflict, undoing years of incremental but significant progress. Since January, 2020, Somalia has reported 17,399 confirmed cases of the virus and 969 deaths (WHO, 2021). Beyond its immediate health impact, the pandemic is creating drastic changes in Somalia, which threatens to derail progress towards a more stable Somalia.

A Way Forward

As analyzed through the conflict tree model, the root causes and core problems can add to the renewal of the conflict, if not addressed properly. Despite the major humanitarian crisis that has erupted in Somalia and the new peace attempts, the consequences of the country’s uncertain security environment on peacemaking and peacekeeping have not been thoroughly studied.

There is not enough research to inform policymakers and other interested parties. There has also been little if any, research into the process that led to AMISOM’s deployment and the composition of that force. It is critical to draw lessons from the country’s present peacemaking and peacekeeping operations.

The world has seen the dire consequences of peace enforcement in Afghanistan; hence, it is necessary to learn from past experiences and shift towards approaches that focus on peace through soft power. It is high time to recognize the importance of peace through negotiations and dialogue (Mugisha, 2011).

The negotiations must be inclusive of all the parties to the conflict; the peace process cannot be successful until the representatives of Al-Shabaab are included in the peace talks. How can one expect the success of a peace process when one party to the conflict is not included in the negotiations? If ignored, they can later trigger the conflict, thus such a peace process won’t bring long-term stability to the country.


The key issues in the case of Somalia need to be resolved promptly to put an end to the conflict. As efforts to establish peace in Somalia are in effect, the challenges to the current process, if not addressed timely, could risk the country sliding into a deeper conflict that would undo years of incremental peace efforts. One of the ways to end the civil war in Somalia is the inclusion of all parties involved—the Somalian government, Al-Shabaab, and Ethiopia—in the peace process. This could prevent negotiations from failing and increase the possibility of achieving durable peace in the state.


If you want to submit your articles and/or research papers, please check the Submissions page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

(Visited 2,029 times, 1 visits today)
Click to access the login or register cheese