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The end of last year saw an increase in unrest in central Somalia, as pro-government militias and Islamist rebels battled for control of the region. The fighting saw more than 150 people killed and thousands displaced, with some 3,000 Somalis registered as refugees in Ethiopia in December alone.


The violence was far from unusual in a country that has had no effective national government since the overthrow of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Located on the Horn of Africa, Somalia became independent in 1960 following the amalgamation of British and Italian Somaliland. Dominated by desert, the country covers an area of 637,657 square kilometres, and has a population estimated at around 9.8 million, 85 per cent of whom are Somali. Relations with its near neighbours Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya have often been marred by disputes over territorial boundaries and clan loyalties.

The country is dominated by an informal economy largely sustained by agriculture and remittance exchanges. The former is the most important sector (40 per cent of GDP), and exports include bananas, fish and livestock. With no formal banking sector, transfer/remittance services are important, and it's estimated that at least US$2billion a year in remittances pass through the country. Ransom money from piracy operations, which have becoming increasingly sophisticated in recent years, has netted at least US$80million, with the payments subsequently distributed among militias, local officials and offshore sponsors.

Instability and factional fighting have marred the country's post-colonial history. Following a coup in 1969, Siad Barre emerged as the country's leader and ushered in an era of socialism-inspired authoritarian government. His regime collapsed in 1991, in part due to the cessation of the Cold War, and the country's political structures quickly followed suit, resulting in an ill-fated UN intervention in 1993-95. Somalia then suffered internal division as northern clans in regions such as Awdal and Sool declared an independent Republic of Somaliland, while the northeastern region of Nugaal declared itself the autonomous state of Puntland.

In 2000, clan chiefs appointed Abdulkassim Salat Hassan president and sought to introduce a transition government; with the eventual aim of reconciling the feuding clans. In 2004, further impetus was added when Kenya helped to facilitate the election of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as president of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) and the formation of an interim parliamentary body called the Transitional Federal Assembly (TFA).

More recently, UN-sponsored talks have encouraged further dialogue between the TFG and the opposition grouping, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS). In January last year, Ethiopian military forces left Somalia following their intervention three years earlier in support of the TFG. Ethiopia's entry into the country was prompted by the rise of Islamist groupings, including the southern-based Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab, which is believed to be connected to al-Qaeda.

In February last year, with the support of the ARS, the TFA was expanded, and a new prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, was appointed. The UN-backed plan is for the TFG to remain in place at least until next year, and a raft of Somali and international stakeholders are working to build governance structures.

However, the al-Shabaab insurgents remain a major problem, and in May last year, Mogadishu was attacked. President Ahmed was forced to appeal for international assistance. The al-Shabaab grouping, which has its roots in an earlier movement called the Union of Islamic Court, wants Somalia to be an Islamic state with Sharia law strictly imposed.

At present, the remit of the TFG hardly extends into the south at all. In January, the UN World Food Programme pulled out of the south because of insurgent activity, with potentially dire implications for as many as a million people.

KLAUS DODDS is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and editor of the Geographical Journal
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Title Annotation:HOT spot
Author:Dodds, Klaus
Article Type:Country overview
Geographic Code:6SOMA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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