By at least some reckoning, Somalia should not be a failed state. In marked contrast to Ethiopia or Nigeria or Sudan [On Sudan and the Darfur Conflict, see this February 2009 Origins article], where conflict and state difficulties are explained in terms of differences of religion and language and physical type, virtually everyone in Somalia speaks some version of Somali—a Cushitic language related to Afar and Oromo. In addition, an overwhelming majority of the country's estimated 8 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.

Somalia's history goes a long way towards explaining the challenge that post-Cold War Somalia has confronted in state formation. As the anthropologist Ioan Lewis has noted, while Somalis have a strong sense of nationalism, external factors have repeatedly obstructed their efforts to build a stable state. [For more on the history of Somalia, see this 1993 Origins article]

A central theme in the regional history of the Horn is the conflict between Islam and Christianity, which fractured the region. Christianity took hold in the Ethiopian highlands in the 4th century AD; Islam followed in the desert littoral along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the 10th century.

The best ports such as Adulis, Zeila, and Mogadishu became thriving city states with distinctive architecture, funerary traditions, and Islamic schools. The Somali fishermen and Arab traders who lived in these villages participated in the maritime culture of the Indian Ocean. Over time—as they traded with and fought their highland neighbors—they developed a cultural identity distinct from that of the Ethiopian Christians.

One of the most famous incidents of Christian-Muslim conflict happened in the mid-sixteenth century, when the Orthodox Christian Ethiopian monarch called on the Catholic Portuguese Crown for help in evicting an invasion from the Afar Muslim champion, Ahmed Gurey, who lived in the southern walled city of Harar, at the edge of the Ogaden desert. The Portuguese succeeded in helping the Ethiopians remove Gurey, with the aid of their superior weapons, but they didn't last too long in the region and were expelled in 1604.

In the 1880s the Europeans returned to the Horn for a century-long competition for influence and territory that would tear apart the region, then dominated by many Somali clans: France in French Somaliland (which became the independent state of Djibouti in 1977); Italy in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (which became independent in 1960 as Somalia); and England in British Somaliland (where independence also came in 1960, and is now the Somaliland Republic) and in Kenya, the northeastern coast of which was ethnic Somali.

In addition, Ethiopia, because of its defeat of the Italians at Adwa in 1896, negotiated control of the Ogaden. In the 1920s, Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan (also known as the "Mad Mullah") led a movement to evict the colonizers and restore Greater Somaliland. But the colonial power structure—which had divided the Somali nation between states—could not be undone.

In 1960, the newly independent states of Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland joined together to form what is now recognized as Somalia. But the other Somali regions (the Ogaden, northern Kenya, and Djibouti) remained separate—part of the Greater Somali nation but not part of a unified state.

The current crisis—in which Somalia has had a staggering fourteen failed attempts at state restoration—started in 1991. For the previous 30 years the union of British and Italian Somaliland endured, primarily under the government of Mohamed Siyad Barre. But continued conflict with Ethiopia over the Ogaden and shifting alliances, first with the Soviet Union, then with the United States, undermined Somalia's government.

One legacy of the U.S. and Soviet Cold-War competition for influence in the Horn is an abundance of weapons. When the United Nations and the United States launched operation Restore Hope in 1992—sending 30,000 international peacekeepers into Somalia to bring some order and protect the civilian population—they met resistance from well-armed Somali gangs who killed scores of soldiers, most famously those of the U.S. helicopter crew whose story is told in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

In 1994 the United States unceremoniously left Somalia. The United Nations soon followed suit, packing their bags in 1995. While there have been subsequent efforts to restore peace, including a major Ethiopian effort from 2006-2008 that employed thousands of well-equipped soldiers, none have succeeded.

In the midst of this state chaos, Somalia has experienced a demographic explosion of remarkable intensity—and this may be the most important destabilizing phenomenon in recent decades that helps to explain the rise of piracy. From 1950 until 2000, Somalia was the only state in sub-Saharan Africa with an annual rate of population growth of 7%. Subsequently the rate slowed to 3% per annum, still extremely high.

The cumulative effect is that over the past 57 years Somalia's population has increased from some 2 million people to more than 8 million—including the exodus of more than two million Somalis to the Middle East, North America, and Europe. The result is a serious economic crisis that makes state formation even more difficult.

Finally, Somali culture (even without population pressures and the weapons glut) does not lend itself easily to state formation and civic engagement. Lewis put it this way: "In the harsh struggle for survival which is the nomad's lot, suspicion is the natural attitude towards those with whom one competes for access to scarce pasture and water. This defense mechanism is extended to all contexts of social interaction and hence becomes a national characteristic."

The Pirates of Puntland

Ironically, the most chaotic and dangerous place in Somalia—Mogadishu and the southern border region with Kenya—is not the nexus of the recent incidents of piracy. Neither is the Somaliland Republic, despite its coast bordering the Gulf of Aden, a most advantageous geographical position for piracy.

The homeland of most of the pirates is the autonomous region now known as Puntland—from Cape Guardafui on the tip of the Horn down from the Gulf of Aden along the Indian Ocean coast past the town of Eyl. Here, in the midst of a faltering and unstable economy, piracy has become an industry.

Reporters from Puntland note that the millions of ransom dollars have resulted in the creation of secondary businesses in the region. Negotiations require radio and cell phone communication and technology. Feeding hostages requires restaurants and shops with western foods. The pirates' consumer interests (fancy automobiles and speedboats) require salesmen and mechanics. Building beachfront mansions requires carpenters, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, and suppliers. Financing of pirate operations require venture capitalists—many of them local people.

Profiles of the pirates indicate that these young men do not fall into the mold of murderous Blackbeard or William Kidd or Barbarossa. They are males between the ages of 20 and 35 with few employment options. They are motivated by the profitability of pirate operations, particularly the ransom money.

They are often from the same clan or related clans and are remarkably organized: maritime knowledge and abilities are provided by fishermen; military expertise is the domain of former soldiers, often pastoral nomads; and the communications and financial expertise comes from international Somalis who have traveled overseas and in the process learned the language and the technologies of modern commerce.

Despite the obvious threat of violence that they employ to collect ransoms, they usually do not kill their hostages.

Some even see their work as nationalistic. One of the Pirates of Puntland, Mr. Sugule Ali, noted: "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits….We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard."


It will be impossible for the international community to protect all the 20,000 commercial ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden every year, given the millions of square miles of water and the fact that many of the fishing boats that sail these waters are in fact crewed by fishermen, not pirates in disguise.

Operation Atalanta is very limited and does not have strong domestic support in the European Union. Operation Task Force-150 deploys more ships but offers protection only to ships that do not venture off protected channels. The arrests of pirates will take a few men out of the business. But the problem of Somali piracy will not be solved by international military involvement.

The solutions must come from within. Arms control is an obvious solution, one that has been employed successfully in the independent Somaliland Republic.

Aid from the international community matters less, but one obvious step would be to move beyond the existing international prohibitions on recognizing the formation of new states. The international community should also stop its current advocacy for the establishment of a Greater Somalia.

The relative stability of Djibouti and the success of the Somaliland Republic suggest the merit of this multi-state approach. The Republic of Puntland might follow, providing the international community with new incentives for the Somalis to restrain their pirates. After that, perhaps even Mogadishu and southern Somalia may find a path to order.

Most controversially, the multiple Somali states need to confront the demographic explosion. Family planning is unpopular with the Somali peoples, and it has been a low-priority with American policy-makers in recent years. But given the strain population growth has put on Somali society, the economy and the environment, it would provide a longer term solution to imbalances in the physical and human environment. That, in turn, might help create the stability necessary to turn a failed state into a successful one.