The New Face of Somalia:


Political maps do not reflect the world as it really is but rather the cartographer’s idealized world. This is particularly evident when looking at a map of Somalia, nominally an independent state with static borders since 1960. In reality, Somalia does not exist as a singular political entity, and it has topped the failed state index annually since 2008. Violence and chaos in the country began in 1991, when several rebel groups ousted long-standing dictator Siad Barre. Since then, many large militant groups and countless smaller local militias with overlapping claims of power have administered what was once Somalia. Over the years, various militant groups and governments have attempted to restore unity. However, all of these administrations, Islamist and pro-Western alike, have failed. Today, Somalia isn’t a state; it’s a vacuum where a state used to be. But nature abhors a vacuum, and the new face of Somalia is slowly emerging. Generally speaking, the main battle today is between the internationally recognized but weak Somali Federal Government (SFG) and an African Union sponsored intervention force on one hand, and the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab on the other. But the fight is more complex than that. This new Somalia face will be composed of six distinct regions, each one closely intertwined with the actions of the others and of regional powers.

The Ethiopian Occupation

Ethiopia’s territory is an idea more than a specific set of borders. Because its highlands are too far inland to be easily dominated by coastal powers, Ethiopia has been able to maintain independence for almost a millennium. However, the threat of invasion from the coast still exists. Therefore, Ethiopia’s main strategic imperative is to acquire its own access to the sea and defend itself against any coastal power trying to expand inland towards its borders.

Somalia became Ethiopia’s main coastal threat after European decolonization. Therefore, it was perhaps a relief to Ethiopia when Somalia collapsed in 1991. In late 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia immediately after an Islamist government had come to power and consolidated control of most of southern Somalia. Ethiopia’s intervention was pure realpolitik, designed to break apart its potential challenger.

Today, Ethiopian forces remain in Somalia, fighting Al-Shabaab with an army of Ethiopian regulars, various allied tribal militias, and proxy militant groups. These forces occupy and administer large areas along the Somali-Ethiopian border. Ethiopia hopes to use this border territory to retain political leverage in the ruins of Somalia. Ethiopia does not want total chaos in Somalia; it merely wants a weak and disorganized neighbor. To this extent, Ethiopia cooperates with the SFG in fighting Al-Shabaab while retaining control over most of the southern Somali-Ethiopian border. Ethiopia has maintained very friendly relations with Somaliland since the latter’s independence in the 1990s because Somaliland may provide Ethiopia with a stable and reliable outlet to the Indian Ocean.


The northwestern province of Somaliland seceded from Somalia in 1991 following political repression and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Siad Barre. Twenty-three years later, this breakaway province is doing well, holding competitive elections and developing government institutions. The young state has been largely successful in subduing and integrating tribal militias and driving piracy out of its territory.

Still, Somaliland’s independence is not formally recognized by a single country. It does, however, have a foreign backer in Ethiopia. Somaliland and Ethiopia have formed a natural alliance from their shared opposition to Somalia. Additionally, sea trade through the growing Port of Berbera in Somaliland is key to this relationship. The two countries have begun massive infrastructure projects to turn Berbera into a major port and to better connect it to Ethiopia. Through Berbera, Somaliland gives Ethiopia access to the sea, while still ensuring a fragmented Somali coastline that will not be able to threaten the Ethiopian interior. Furthermore, Somaliland is an ally positioned between Somalia and Eritrea, Ethiopia’s enemies. In turn, Ethiopia has become a stronger protector state to Somaliland and provides Somaliland with major economic opportunities. In the future, Ethiopia will help Somaliland to further assert its independence and to secure international recognition.


The north-central province of Puntland declared its autonomy at a meeting of tribal leaders in 1998. However, the region was semi-anarchic until the late 2000s, when the regional government finally began to stabilize the area. In 2009, a new government passed a new constitution and began to disarm militias and criminal gangs. With the creation of a maritime security military unit, the Puntlander government drove the Somali pirates out of Puntland in 2011.

Puntlander Security Forces are currently fighting an Al-Shabaab enclave hiding in mountains in northern Puntland. Puntland is supposedly a loyal, autonomous part of Somalia. In reality, the SFG has very little leverage in Puntland, which functions largely as an independent state. In the future, Puntland will try to further consolidate control over its territory and may work with the SFG, provided that Mogadishu respect Puntland’s autonomy. Although Puntland has a disputed border with Somaliland, Puntland’s new government is capable of defending itself.

Jubaland: The Kenyan Buffer Zone

Somalia’s southern neighbor, Kenya, is deeply worried about the violence to its north, especially after Al-Shabaab’s deadly 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. Kenya has been a major contributor to the African Union intervention against Al-Shabaab since invading Al-Shabaab-controlled southern Somalia in 2011 under Operation Linda Nchi (“Protect the Country,” a telling name). By invading southern Somalia, Kenya hoped to create a buffer zone in order to keep out the chaos to its north. To this end, Kenya has encouraged the autonomy of the southern Jubaland region under the control of warlord Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe” and his militia, the Raskamboni Movement.

Although the exact borders of Jubaland are disputed and Madobe’s control is weak, Kenyan support makes him the strongest of the local warlords. Currently, Ethiopia and Kenya share influence over the region, resulting in some tension between them. But their goals in Jubaland are not mutually exclusive, and both countries will likely agree to a compromise government. Kenya has a worse relationship with the SFG, which has put pressure on Kenyan forces to leave Jubaland for fear that Madobe will become too powerful to control from Mogadishu. Madobe’s administration is acceptable to Kenya for now, but his loyalties are questionable and Kenya may replace him if a more trustworthy alternative appears. Even with international support, Madobe will face an upward struggle to consolidate control over Jubaland.

The Islamists’ Emirate

On the other side of the conflict lies Al-Shabaab. Not all of its members are radical Islamists; many joined out of tribal loyalties or to simply find a job. The group gets support from weaker clans that dislike the dominant Hawiye clan. Al-Shabaab capitalizes on disillusionment with the Somali Federal Government and presents itself as a legitimate, incorruptible government capable of uniting diverse clans. It is building infrastructure and doing charity work in areas it controls. The group is strongest in south-central Somalia, but it has influence throughout the entire country.

Al-Shabaab is currently fighting every other actor in Somalia, and the United States carries out drone strikes on Al-Shabaab leaders. Therefore, Al-Shabaab is currently on the decline, having lost large parts of its territory in the numerous offensives against it. Al-Shabaab is also hurt by internal leadership disputes. As the group weakens, Al-Shabaab’s enemies will discover that Somalia’s problems are caused by more than one angry militant group. Given the inability of the SFG to satisfy the Somali people, Islamism will likely continue as a political alternative in areas where the government is weak, regardless of how Al-Shabaab itself fares.

Greater Mogadishu and the Federal Government

Mogadishu itself is a treasure. Besides its symbolic value as the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu’s population is six times larger than the next largest city in southern Somalia. Intense fighting over the city occurred in the 1990s and later in the 2000s. While the SFG previously controlled only a small part of Mogadishu, now it controls the entire city. The city is dependent on the support of African Union peacekeepers to survive, as the discipline and loyalty of its own army are questionable. The SFG does have some authority, but it is only one of many actors in Somalia. Around half of former Somalia by both land area and by population is part of autonomous or secessionist regions. The federal government governs only a fraction of the remaining half, and its governance is often very weak and corrupt. The SFG in its current form will never have sovereignty over Somalia.

The Future of the Borders

The official borders of Somalia have not changed since 1960, despite the dynamic and fragmented situation on the ground. There is, however, some hope for a reunified Somalia in one form or another. Parts of Somalia are still largely anarchic, but the main six regions are expanding to encompass these areas, too. Somalia had a united government in the past, so it is not inconceivable that from the current feuding mini-states a new Somalia will one day emerge. If cartographers embrace their idealized vision of Somalia for long enough, it might one day prove right.

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