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The Misalignment between Policy Responses and the Drivers of Conflict in Somalia: Missing the Mark

By Cody Wilson, Northeastern University.

Photograph by y Hanna Morris, Unsplush.

Abstract Somalia is a country locked in a complex conflict which has dragged on for almost three decades, displacing millions and leaving hundreds of thousands dead. The causes of the conflict are numerous and interrelated. This makes resolving the conflict that much more complicated. The situation is made worse by policies aimed at addressing the conflict which are often unclear, uncoordinated, or contradictory. This misalignment between drivers and approaches has left the country trapped in a state of perpetual chaos. What follows is an examination of some of the major historical events that led to the modern day conflict in Somalia, analysis of the major policy responses, identification of where these responses have missed the mark, and a series of lessons that should be learned going forward. This case study aims to examine Somalia’s seemingly perpetual conflict with a focus toward both informing policymakers and highlighting a need to more critically evaluate policy goals and objectives in Somalia to ensure policies are actually addressing the problems they are intended to address.

Keywords: Somalia, East Africa, al-Shabaab, terrorism, civil war, communal violence.


Somalia has been in a state of perpetual conflict for almost three decades. Throughout this period, the country has been plagued by state collapse, civil war, terrorism, and famine. The subsequent chaos and violence has left countless dead and even more displaced. The purpose of this case study is to analyze why the Somali conflict persists, which approaches have worked, which have not, and to offer lessons learned for moving forward. To better understand the current conflict, the following pages will begin by addressing some of the major historical events that still influence Somali society today. Once an understanding of the historical context is established, it will be necessary to examine some of the main drivers of the current conflict. Next, the case study will examine the major policy responses aimed at addressing Somalia’s conflict. The study will conclude by offering lessons that should be learned for resolution of the conflict to become possible. What shall become apparent is that most approaches fail to address the full breadth of the drivers of the conflict. This misalignment stifles progress at best and actually exacerbates the conflict at worst.

Historical Context

In order to better analyze and understand the current conflict in Somalia, it is first necessary to consider the major historical events which led to today’s conflict and altered both the clan structure and the prominence of Islam in Somali society.

Colonial Origins of the Conflict Clan has been the most prominent feature of Somali identity dating back to the precolonial period. The Samaal have historically been the largest clan-group and sub-divide into the Dir, Daarood, Isaaq, and Hawiye clan-families. The Saab comprise the other major clan-group and sub-divide into the Digil and Rahanwayn clan-families. Both of these clan-groups trace their lineage all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe (UNESCO, 2014). Prior to the arrival of colonial powers, this clan structure was integral to giving order to society without the need of a formal state (Ingiriis, 2018). The arrival of colonial rule by the British and Italians ensured that clan became even more integral to Somali identity by eliminating other forms of identity and playing clan-families against one another to prevent a unified front against colonial occupation. This transformed the clan structure into a competition for survival (Kapteijns, 2012).

After the merger of Italian Somalia and British Somaliland into the independent Republic of Somalia in 1960, democracy brought along with it the façade of cosmopolitanism which earned Somalia the nickname of the “Switzerland of Africa.” In reality, however, colonial clan identities shaped the new political parties and created a system of political patronage whereby electoral victories for individuals became clan victories as well (Anderson & Rolandsen, 2014). In this way, clan continued to dominate political life in Somalia, albeit manifested in a much less obvious way than during the colonial period.

Mohamed Siad Barre’s Tyranny

Somalia’s time as the “Switzerland of Africa” came to an end in 1969 with Mohamed Siad Barre’s military coup. Barre, who was a rapidly promoted yet inexperienced military officer, continued the tactic of using clan identity as a tool of repression. Barre sometimes sought legitimacy by appealing to Islam or nationalistic ideals, but he primarily remained in power by sowing division and playing the clans against each other. He funded his corrupt regime through dual patronage from both the United States and Soviet Union and often used communal violence, such as punishing an entire clan for the disobedience of a regime official, to maintain control (Anderson & Rolandsen, 2014).

In an attempt to build ethno-nationalist sentiment, Barre ordered the invasion of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977. The war ended in embarrassment for Somalia once the Soviet Union intervened in favor of Ethiopia in 1978. The consequences of the war were widespread and led to failing school systems and budget shortfalls. As Cold War aid dollars dried up, the already weak economy collapsed, beginning the slow downfall of the Barre regime (Menkhaus, 2006).

By 1988, Barre used state violence to upend otherwise cosmopolitan cities, creating privileged clans that would eventually dominate these cities after the civil war. As the state began to collapse, political-military leaders within the Barre regime fractured into the opposing United Somali Congress and Somali National Movement. These officials soon rebranded themselves as clan leaders to mobilize the clans against their political opponents by creating false clan histories and hate narratives (Keating & Waldman, 2018).

Suggested Citation:

Wilson, Cody, Missing the Mark: The Misalignment between Policy Responses and the Drivers of Conflict in Somalia (December 9, 2019). Available at SSRN: or


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